Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


They embittered their lives with hard work… All the labors that they performed with them were with crushing hardness. (1:14)

The Talmud Pesachim 39a explains that Chazeres/ lettuce, which may be used for marror, bitter herbs, is representational of the type of crushing hard labor to which the Jewish People were subjected by their Egyptian taskmasters. Chazeres begins soft (at first, when one bites into it, it seems soft, almost sweet), becoming marror and bitter tasting overtime; likewise, the Egyptian initiated the Jewish slave labor with sweetness: either by offering them money in reimbursement for their time and toil; or by convincing them of the significance of their labor, etc.

Chazal's statement attributing the use of lettuce to its similarity with the manner in which the Egyptians initiated the Jewish slave labor is enigmatic. The primary purpose served by marror is to recall the bitterness that we experienced while we were slaves in Egypt. Marror is bitter; the slave labor was bitter! What more is there to say? How does the fact that the bitterness was at first sweet, that our slave experience began with a smooth tongue, add to the bitterness of the experience? How does the use of the word pehrach, a soft tongue, which is a homiletic rendering of perach, usually translated as crushing hardness; affect the bitterness which Klal Yisrael experienced??

Horav Yosef Tzvi Salant, zl, draws a distinction between one who experiences pain and troubles for which he is not responsible, and one who experiences pain and suffering for which he is responsible. The former is neither guilty of any infraction which would warrant his suffering, nor did he do anything to initiate it; the latter is himself the cause of his troubles, such as that he was convinced/fooled by others to do something for which he is presently paying bitterly. If the Jews would have suffered at the hands of the Egyptians for no reason other than that the Egyptians were an evil nation who subjected them to crushing labor out of their deep-rooted hatred for the Jews, we would have lived with it. Now, added to the pain of the bondage is the humiliation of our own involvement in our tragedy; it increases the nature of the pain of the slavery.

The Jews in Egypt experienced devastating pain as they slaved for their Egyptian taskmasters. In addition, Klal Yisrael realized that they had played a leading role in bringing this bondage upon themselves. Thus, as a remembrance of the folly and pain of their bondage, they established the custom of eating bitter lettuce, which is, at first, soft and, later, hard and bitter.

Rav Salant suggests that this might be another reason for dipping the bitter marror into the charoses, which is sweet: to recall the fact that the bitter labor had a sweet beginning. At first, the Egyptians acted as our best friends, who supposedly were looking out for our welfare and wanted us to earn some extra money. Later, we realized that it was all a ploy to convince us to work, so that we would fall under their domination.

Moshe grew up, and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens. (2:11)

"Moshe grew up". The Torah teaches us that the definition of "growing up" is assuming responsibility. It has nothing to do with age. Personally identifying with the plight of the Jews; viewing them as his brothers - despite the fact that he had been raised amid royalty and wealth - was a sign of Moshe's maturation. The next step in his growth process was actually leaving the royal palace and joining together with his brothers in their labor. Last, as the well-known Rashi expounds - Nosan eino v'libo liheyos meitzar aleihem; "He applied his eyes and heart to see their suffering and grieve with them." Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, explains that Moshe Rabbeinu did two things: he shared their burdens; he also felt their pain. The Rosh Yeshivah explains that helping someone in need is a great mitzvah: lending a hand, writing a check, sending over a meal, even being there whenever necessary to support, encourage, soothe, are all important. They are, however, only part of the mitzvah of nosei b'ol im chaveiro, carrying the yoke together with his friend, sharing in his burden. Intrinsic to this mitzvah is actually feeling his pain. Moshe did not work alongside his brothers; he suffered and grieved with them. He experienced what they were experiencing.

We are Rachamanim bnei Rachamanim, compassionate sons (and daughters) of compassionate sons (and daughters): we help; we are there; we give; we visit; we talk. At the end of the day, however, we go home to our families, our lives, our homes. We do not live their pain. It does not hurt us. Rav Aharon explains that Moshe did more than just help - he grieved; he felt their pain in such a manner that it grieved him. He was sickened by their plight.

When a Jew provides kindness with his hands, but his heart is indifferent to the plight of the subject of his kindness, he remains detached, unfeeling, and, eventually, he will become uncaring. Empathy is an inherent component of giving. To give and not feel the beneficiary's pain is lifeless giving. It is not Jewish giving. With this idea in mind, I think we can understand the following story, which I wrote a number of years ago.

In the slave labor camp of Plashuv, a Jewish prisoner was aroused one night to the sound of two kapos conversing with one another. These kapos were concentration camp police who were selected from among the Jewish prisoners themselves to carry out the orders of the Nazis in expediting the Final Solution. Their personal survival was contingent upon their being able to prove their fidelity to the Nazi beasts in carrying out heartless acts of cruelty against their own brethren. Not only did the Nazis kill the Jews, but they also used their victims' coreligionists to execute these orders. One would think that finding "volunteers" for this type of work would meet with difficulty. Sadly, this is the human condition; one will do anything to survive, to save members of his own family - even at the expense of descending to the nadir of depravity and becoming an enemy to his brethren. This was truly a sad page in our history. The following conversation ensued between the two kapos:

One of them was crying, to his comrade's astonishment. Cruelty was part of their lifestyle, and, whatever emotions they might have had, were long gone. Tears were not an expression endemic to a kapo.

"Why the tears? What happened?"

"Do not ask," the other kapo replied. "Something occurred that shook me up terribly."

"I do not understand. What could possibly shake you up? We are unmoved by the sufferings of our wretched brothers. After all, it is either us or them. I escorted my own father to his death, and you watched as your mother was shot to death. What could possibly bring you to tears?"

Amid broken-hearted sobs, the weeping kapo answered, "Today was different than anything I had ever experienced. I was taking an old chasid to be killed, when, suddenly, he stopped, looked me straight in the eyes and said, 'Yes, we deserve this horrible punishment. We are truly guilty and warrant this terrible fate. If one Jew is capable of leading another Jew to the slaughter, then something is very amiss with our nation, and we must answer for it - even if it means such a punishment!' Whenever I think of that old Jew's condemning words, I tremble with disgust and self-loathing."

This story and the old chasid's glaring words should evoke a feeling of introspection within all of us. Are we in some remote way guilty of the same form of indifference? Must one chas v'shalom, Heaven forbid, have to lead a fellow Jew to his death, or does a lack of empathy- or even a twinge of hatred for someone who does not maintain our beliefs - warrant Hashem's anger? Hopefully, we will never find out. Moshe Rabbeinu teaches us the level of empathy to which a Jew must go. It is not the gold standard - it is the minimum, because our gold standard is the minimum. Everything else is above and beyond the call of duty. Feeling the pain of the other is the Torah's definition of chesed.

Moshe was shepherding the sheep of Yisro, his father-in-law, the Priest of Midyan. (3:1)

The Torah is informing us that Moshe Rabbeinu's vocation prior to his being selected as the man who would lead the Jewish People from Egypt, and who would shepherd them throughout their desert journey, was a shepherd. The Torah does not waste words. If the Torah mentions Moshe's background, it is because it is vital to his resume as leader. Chazal explain that our quintessential leader was first given a "trial run" as Yisro's shepherd, in order to ascertain his leadership abilities. After seeing how Moshe performed as a shepherd, Hashem chose him to lead our ancestors. What did he do that was so special?

Moshe distinguished between the needs of the younger, weaker sheep and the older ones. Young sheep need to drink; they cannot chew tough grass; they tire much quicker than older ones. Moshe's sensitivity to the little things, his empathy for the "little guy," indicated that he possessed the qualities inherent in a great leader.

Horav Shlomo Freifeld, zl, expounds on the idea that an individual's sensitivity to caring about the little things, and the little people in life, determines his ability to be a manhig, leader. Chazal teach that Hashem is bochein, tests, a tzaddik, righteous person, concerning his sensitivity to the bedikah ketaneh, small things. What is so important about small things? The Rosh Yeshivah compares this to the (then) newly-discovered science of molecular biology, chemistry, science. Molecules are something which we cannot see, but are the primary force behind the objects which we do see. He explains that there is tremendous symmetry within the molecular structure, thus allowing it to generate its greatest power. It is not the actual size of a product; it is the harmony, the symmetry, the perfection of its molecular components. One may not ignore the "little" things, the molecules which comprise the things we see. Likewise, in the spiritual dimension, there is a concept of molecular ruchniyos, spiritual molecules. A leader who ignores the little things, who lacks sensitivity to the spiritual molecules within each person, who ignores the spiritual molecules within himself - is not fit to be a leader.

Let us delve a little deeper into this idea. Chazal (Pirkei Avos 2) teach that the world was created through the medium of Asarah Maamaros, Ten Divine Utterances. Why? Hashem could just as well have ordained the world into being with one utterance. The Mishnah says that Hashem used ten, so that now there is license to punish the wicked who destroy a world through ten utterances. Obviously, Chazal's statement leaves us in an even greater quandary. What is achieved/what message is conveyed through the lesson of Ten Utterances?

The Maharal explains that the purpose of the Ten Utterances is to demonstrate that there is order and hierarchy in the universe; there is a system. All aspects of the cosmos - both physical and spiritual - function in accordance with a precise system, a vast and beautiful symmetry in which even the tiniest molecule has its place and fits in perfectly. The symmetry of Creation is supported by tov, good, and it is disrupted by ra, evil. Thus, good equals symmetry, bad begets chaos and disorder. Chazal are teaching us a very important lesson in life. All that supports the symmetry of Creation is good, while all that disrupts it is evil. Good - order; evil - chaos. Chazal have provided us with a powerful principle by which to navigate life.

The rules of symmetry are not rigid. Symmetry is fluid. Thus, we treat people with kindness and consideration, because, to do otherwise, would be chaotic and create an imbalance in the order/harmony of Creation. Since symmetry is fluid, we understand that sometimes we must be kind, but, at other times, we need to be cruel. At times, we laugh and are filled with joy, but, at other times, we must weep and mourn because the situation warrants it. This is the meaning of fluid symmetry. It is flexible, moving and changing as it flows through time, through various situations. All it takes is seichel, common sense, and daas, intelligence, which are both the result of our connection with Torah scholars who teach and hone our ability to think. Daas is a derivative of learning Torah from a rebbe. We are taught how to think, how to live, when to cry and when to laugh. Thus, we become symmetrical human beings who support Creation.

Simple/little things provide symmetry. They distinguish between a symmetrical moment and a crude experience. A reverberating "Good morning," rendered with a smile, creates symmetry within a person, causing him to feel happy and put together. That "Good morning," however simple, makes his day. Rav Freifeld remembers approaching Horav Arye Levin, zl, the tzaddik of Yerushalayim, at a wedding and giving him shalom Aleichem - a simple greeting. The tzaddik looked at him, took his hand in both of his and smiled warmly. He conveyed a message: "I care about you. You are important to me."

Kindness is all-important, but, at times it is necessary to suspend our kind emotions, such as when dealing with cruel, perverted people. To be kind to them means to be cruel to others. This is not symmetrical. Parents have to manifest love and affection toward their children, but we all know that misplaced kindness can be as detrimental as misplaced discipline. One must employ seichel (if he has any; if not, he should ask advice and listen). Molding children is one of the most difficult and complex undertakings. One must use daas to know what to do and when to do it; otherwise, he will create a lack of symmetry.

The Rosh Yeshivah relates hearing of a young child that fell off a fence on Shabbos and landed on his head. A young man ran out of his shul, his peyos flying, threw off his tallis, picked up the child, and immediately flagged a taxi to take the child to the hospital. (This occurred before Hatzalah had become a household term.) His friend came running over to him, "Perhaps you should not be so rash. Wait. It does not look so bad. There is no reason to be mechallel, to desecrate the holy Shabbos." Once again, the significance of Shabbos observance is immeasurable, but the symmetry of Creation may call for the opposite.

The Alter, zl, m'Kelm, Horav Simcha Zissel Broide, was the standard bearer of the Kelm Talmud Torah and of the community which also reflected his character and demeanor. The yeshivah maintained the services of a shamash, an attendant, who performed menial jobs around the yeshivah. He was paid a small salary for his troubles. In addition, he received an additional compensation for all of his troubles: grazing rights for his goat on a grassy plot of land next to the yeshivah.

One day, Rav Simcha Zissel crossed this plot of land on the way to the yeshivah. The students noticed their revered Rebbe stop as he was about to enter the yeshivah. He bent over, raised his foot and inspected his shoes. He then extracted a few blades of grass that had stuck to the heel of his shoe. Seeing this, one of the talmidim asked, "Rebbe, why do you do this?" (This, too, was part of the learning process in Kelm. No action was wasted; no action went unnoticed.)

The Alter explained, "You know, of course, that the grass on that little patch belongs to the shamash. This is food for his goat. The grass was high, and I was afraid that when I crossed the patch I might have inadvertently taken some of the grass that did not belong to me. So I returned it to its proper place."

This might be a bit extreme for us, but it certainly bespeaks the level of symmetry achieved by the Alter m'Kelm. His life was a work of art, a harmonious image of brilliant and perfect symmetry. For someone of his caliber, a blade of grass that was not his had to be returned to its proper place. We now understand the extent to which Moshe Rabbeinu concerned himself with the needs of the young sheep - and why Hashem chose him to be our leader.

Many ascribe to achieve symmetry, but, without the complement of daas/seichel, it is difficult. Indeed, what they think is symmetry is, in fact, chaos. Furthermore, once one achieves an exalted position in life, it does not excuse him from striving to maintain symmetry in his life. Rav Freifeld relates that he was once in a hotel in Tel Aviv in which the huge dining hall overlooked the Mediterranean Sea. It was truly a breathtaking view. The Ponevezer Rav, zl, was also staying at that hotel. While Rav Freifeld was eating breakfast, Rebbetzin Kahaneman, his wife, entered the room and approached the head waiter. They seemed to be looking all over the room for something. The head waiter walked out and returned a few minutes later with a vase. The Rebbetzin then proceeded to put a flower into the vase and place it on the table which was designated for the Ponevezer Rav. No other table in the dining room had a flower on it. It is the small things that can make a difference. A single flower strategically placed can lift a person's spirit, enliven his days and bring light into his life. The Rebbetzin wanted it for her husband - symmetry.

And he (Aharon) went and encountered him (Moshe) at the mountain of G-d, and he kissed him. (4:27)

According to Rambam, Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen met at Har Sinai. What seems to be a simple meeting of two brothers is described by Chazal as an encounter of two individuals with complementary character traits. "This is what is written, Chesed v'emes nifgashu, tzedek v'shalom nashaku, 'Kindness and truth met, righteous and peace kissed'" (Tehillim 85:11). Kindness" refers to Aharon, and "truth" refers to Moshe. This is what is meant by "kindness" and "truth" met - "And he (Aharon) met him (Moshe) at the mountain of G-d." "Righteous" refers to Moshe and "peace" refers to Aharon. Thus, "kiss" corresponds to "and he kissed him" (The Midrash cites the corresponding pesukim which indicate that Moshe and Aharon were the exemplars of these individual middos, character traits.)

We must add that this does not mean that Moshe Rabbeinu represented only emes and tzedek, and Aharon HaKohen represented only chesed and shalom. Clearly, Moshe was also dedicated to kindness and peace, as Aharon was devoted to truth and righteousness; rather, the intent of the Midrash is to underscore the primary attributes emblematized by Moshe and Aharon.

Horav Aharon Soloveitchik, zl, observes that, when dealing with people, one must have recourse to the four middos represented by Moshe and Aharon. He distinguishes, however, between Jews and non-Jews with regard to the predominant attitude one must employ. When confronting Jews, the dominant attitude should be that of Aharon - a disposition of chesed and shalom, although, at times, emes and tzedek must be utilized. When confronting gentiles, the middos which best represented Moshe, emes and tzedek, should prevail.

Let us now view the pasuk in Sefer Tehillim to understand the Psalmist's specific choice of words: "Kindness and truth met; righteous and peace kissed." Why does David Hamelech choose these two disparate terms of reconciliation? The Rosh Yeshivah explains that the term "meeting," implies more than a simple coming together. It bespeaks an encounter which involves negotiations and even, at times, slight concessions. "Kissing," however, has a deeper meaning. It implies an alliance, a coming together of the minds in such a manner that total harmony reigns. Now we must see how these specific terms relate to chesed and emes, and tzedek and shalom, respectively.

In order to understand the distinction between these terms we must first see how the Torah views these terms and in what context. Emes mei eretz tazmach v'tzedek miShomayim nishkaf, "Truth will sprout from the ground and righteousness will look down from Heaven." What is the meaning of this pasuk? Does truth grow from the ground? Is righteousness a Heavenly attribute? Chazal (Midrash Rabbah, Bereishis 8:5) quote this pasuk to explain the well-known Aggadah which relates that, when Hashem was about to create Adam HaRishon, man, the middah, character trait, of emes protested. Man is prone to prevaricate. Why bring his lies into the new world? Hashem's response was to cast emes to the earth, from where it could grow.

Chazal are teaching us that, indeed, the cultivation of truth in others is a slow, often tedious, process. Similar to the cultivation of a tree which grows from the earth - it does not happen overnight. When teaching others, emes must be fostered gradually. This, the Rosh Yeshivah explains, is why there is no mitzvah of tochachah, rebuke, towards a person who will not heed the reproof. It is a waste, because if he does not possess the middah of emes as an inherent part of his psyche, it is all for naught. One must be truthful with himself in order to accept rebuke.

Tzedek, however, "will look down from Heaven." Righteousness and justice must be held as they appear in all their glory, in all their brilliance. These are terms that are Heaven-sent, their source determined by Heavenly rules and perfection. While emes refers to spreading a true idea to others, tzedek refers to one's personal rectitude. When it comes to just/righteous behavior, there is no room or time for development. One cannot excuse his unjust, unrighteous behavior by attributing it to development issues. "It takes time to develop a sense of justice" is a disingenuous excuse. One's personal ethical conduct must be inspired and guided by the lessons gleaned from - and implied by - the Divine idea of righteousness and justice. Veritably, one must be patient in imbuing others with moral values; one cannot hesitate (or neglect altogether) to demonstrate the principles of righteousness and justice in his own actions. An individual whose sense of right and wrong, justice and righteousness, have yet to be refined has no business inspiring others.

To recap: Between truth and kindness, which represent our dedication to the principles of truth and our devotion to dealing kindly with others, there can be a meeting, a sort of reconciliation, because truth is developed gradually. It cannot, however, develop into a solid alliance. Truth and kindness can meet, but not ally with one another. An alliance with a weakened - yet underdeveloped - truth is the same as compromising the truth, and we brook no compromise with regard to the truth. This means that, unequivocally, we do not concede the truth of the Torah just so that we may better relate to those who are not committed to the truth of the Torah. There can, likewise, be no spiritual alliance with those who deny the existence of Torah min haShomayim, the Authorship of the Torah. (This applies to both the Written and Oral Law). Meeting - yes; alliance - no, for alliance bespeaks compromise on our part. On the other hand, between shalom, true peace which is predicated upon justice and fairness - and tzedek, righteousness, there can certainly be a full alliance.

Va'ani Tefillah

Prior to commencing Shemoneh Esrai, we take three steps backward, so that we can take three steps forward. This is our final preparation before we begin our conversation with Hashem. The Baal Shem Tov, zl, explained this with an analogy. When a parent teaches his child to walk, he does so by calling the child to come towards him. As the child comes closer, the parent moves further away in order to encourage his child to walk a bit more. Likewise, we have moments in our lives when Hashem appears to be moving away from us. He seems to be concealing Himself, withdrawing Himself from our lives (in effect our minds), leaving us to fend for ourselves. This is not a sign of Divine rejection or even displeasure. On the contrary, Hashem often withdraws Himself from us, so that we will initiate a search for Him. If at first we do not "seem" to find Him, we intensify our search until we feel that we have made the connection that we are seeking. Hashem steps back (so to speak), so that we will step forward. He wants and encourages us to come to Him. As we prepare to rejuvenate our relationship with Hashem via the medium of the Shemoneh Esrai encounter, we symbolically re-enact this process. It is as if we are saying; "We are not discouraged when Hashem takes three steps back from us, because we understand that He is, thus, encouraging and empowering us to take three steps forward toward Him."

In memory of Mrs. Toby Salamon

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

The Fifteenth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel