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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And Hashem said to her: "Two nations are in your womb; two regimes from your insides shall be separated." (25:23)

Was it really necessary to put Rivkah Imeinu through such travail? Indeed, why were Yaakov and Eisav born as twins? Could it not have been some other way? The Ritva in his commentary to the Haggadah on the pasuk "To Yitzchak I gave Yaakov and Eisav" (Yehoshua 24:4), gives a most compelling explanation. He posits that Eisav was Yaakov's twin to convey the message that Yaakov's righteousness is well-deserved and rightfully his. He did not achieve this pinnacle because of mazal, the astrological sign under which he was born, or because he inherited a unique DNA from his parents, nor because of any other intrinsic reason. He was born from the same womb as the wicked Eisav, his twin brother. Eisav went out l'tarbus raah, bad ways, while Yaakov chose the spiritually correct path of ascendancy in Torah, mitzvos and good deeds.

What a powerful statement! We no longer have any excuses for failure. Yaakov and Eisav were born as twins to remedy that and circumvent any excuse one might offer for spiritual failure. A Jew cannot use the pretext that he grew up in a non-observant home. So did Avraham. A Jew cannot claim extenuating circumstances; that he was under the influence of friends and neighbors who were distant from mitzvah observance. Yitzchak grew up with Yishmael and nonetheless, he reached the zenith of spirituality. A Jew cannot lay blame for his failure on being born under a "bad" astrological sign, spiritually deficient parents, or any other reason. Yaakov was born together with Eisav, yet, he rose to distinction, while Eisav plunged into iniquity. No, we have no excuses.

Yitzchak loved Eisav. (25:28)

We are very impressionable. Indeed, whatever impressions we form as small children seem to remain with us throughout life. Chazal refer to girsa d'yankesa, the material that one absorbs as a child, as being engraved upon a person's heart and mind even as he matures. Thus, if one has developed a certain mindset or impression as a young child in primary school, this impression will subtly affect any new opinions he will be exposed to throughout his life. As youngsters we were taught that Eisav was a rasha, wicked and evil person. Each and every one of us were given pictures of Eisav as a man who represented evil incarnate. The way he appeared to us was often up to the imagination of our individual teacher or whatever coloring books our school used. But, Eisav always appeared as some kind of devil, with a nasty smirk on his face, hairy and red, often carrying some type of weapon, which probably changed with time - and imagination. This unsavory portrait of Eisav remained imbedded in our minds throughout school and concomitantly - into adulthood. It was no one's fault. The rebbe/teacher taught the truth - Eisav was a rasha. So, he must be depicted as one. We knew no better, so, we accepted the ignoble picture of Eisav.

As intelligent adults, we would be ill-advised to follow this same script. Our minds have expanded as we research the various texts dealing with Eisav, and suddenly, lo and behold, a new, totally different picture of the evil Eisav emerges. Horav Yechezkel Sarna, zl, suggests that to continue studying Chumash based upon our youthful impressions is like studying the Written Law without the benefit of the commentary and interpretation of the Oral Law. It is incomprehensible. Therefore, in order to understand the narratives and personalities of the Torah, one must study Chazal, or else he is left with nothing more than his coloring book.

Let us now look at Eisav through the prism of Chazal. We are told that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says that his own kibud av, honoring of his father, did not come within one hundredth of Eisav's kibud av. He would wear everyday clothes when he served his father, while Eisav would don clothing fit for royalty when he approached his father. Now Rabbi Shimon was the distinguished Tanna who related about himself, that no person ever displayed respect to their parent in a manner even remotely comparable to him. In other words, in the area of kibud av, he had no peer. Yet, he also posits that he did not come close to Eisav. Bearing this appreciation of Eisav in mind, we can no longer view him as the evil highwayman, the baneful sociopath. A man that reached the zenith of kibud av was no ordinary thief, no simple murderer. A man that would have plummeted to such a nadir of depravity as Eisav was described to us long ago, could not have reached the spiritual apex necessary for fulfilling the mitzvah of kibud av as he did. Furthermore, Yitzchak, the Olah Temimah, perfect sacrifice, was prepared to transfer the blessings he received from his father Avraham Avinu to Eisav. If Eisav would have possessed the base character depicted to us in our youth, does one think for a moment that Yitzchak would have bequeathed to him this major spiritual treasure? Are we to believe that the great Patriarch Yitzchak, who was a Navi, prophet, would err so dreadfully? No. Yitzchak loved Eisav for a reason. He saw a totally different person in front of him than the one we have been led to envision.

Rav Sarna penetrates further Eisav's mindset and gives us a clearer picture of this man. Concerning the pasuk (27:41), where Eisav thinks, "May the days of mourning for my father draw near, then I will kill my brother Yaakov," Chazal say the following: Eisav conjectured, "If I kill him, then Shem and Eiver will judge me and ask, 'Why did you kill your brother?' I will rather go to Yishmael and incite him to argue with Yaakov about the birthright. Then, I will be the redeemer of my brother's blood and kill Yishmael. Thus, I will inherit both Yaakov's and Yishmael's inheritance." Hashem, of course, delves into a person's heart and mind and confronted Eisav, whose immediate response was, "I did nothing!" Hashem, however, understood the evil plans that Eisav was conjuring in his mind.

We see from this that Eisav is held in contempt not for doing, not even for planning, but, for thinking about what he might consider doing. No, Eisav did not look the part, nor did he act the part. Hashem, however, judges a person according to a different barometer. A man who grows up in a home where the Shechinah is present, as it certainly was in Yitzchak's home, has no excuse to even think evil. Eisav thought maliciously about Yaakov. This earned him an eternal place among history's most infamous. This is what the Baalei Mussar, Ethicists, refer to as omek haDin, the depth of Judgment. We have no idea how penetrating and scrutinizing Heavenly Judgment can be, and hopefully, we will not find out.

But his mother said to him, "Your curse be on me, my son." (27:13)

The Bircas Yitzchak, blessings that Yitzchak gave his sons, established for eternity their variant destinies. One wonders why, if Hashem wanted Yaakov to ultimately receive the blessings, that He caused it to come about in such a surreptitious manner. Rivkah went out of her way to guide Yaakov in deceiving Yitzchak. This was risky both for Rivkah, as well as for Yaakov. Yitzchak surely would not have accepted this deception lightly. Was it really necessary? The Derashos HaRan explains that this all occurred by design. Indeed, in order to maintain Klal Yisrael's commitment to Hashem, it is essential that there be some entity that serves as an antagonist to remind us of our Father in Heaven. Thus, the seeds of enmity that were present at birth had to be cultivated through this deception. Eisav must feel cheated and Yaakov may never forget that Eisav hates him. Yaakov must remember that as long as he maintains his distinctiveness and displays a willingness to sacrifice himself for his convictions, then Eisav's anger will be restrained. However, if Yaakov displays weakness, Eisav comes on strong.

Horav Avraham Pam, zl, in his Ateres Avraham, translated and anthologized by Rabbi Sholom Smith, gives an alternate explanation. Yaakov had a rough life. He went from challenge to challenge, from adversity to persecution. During the twenty-two years that he was away from his parents, Yaakov experienced considerable distress. First, Eisav's son, Eliphaz, attacked him and relieved him of his material possessions. Arriving at Lavan's home penniless, he now had to work for a man who redefined the meaning of deceit. Twenty years of being cheated by a father-in-law would have broken a lesser person. He finally leaves only to face the danger of a confrontation with Eisav, whose anger still raged within him. Then there were the internal problems on the home front. First, there was the abduction and violation of his daughter, Dinah. This was followed by his wife Rachel's death as she gave birth to Binyamin. The "crown" of Yaakov's tzaros, distress, came as he was finally about to settle down in tranquility. It was then that the anguish of Yosef's disappearance occurred.

No, Yaakov's life was not an easy one. How then was he able to maintain his spiritual stamina, his unaltered conviction, his unequivocal commitment? How was he able to overcome so much distress, any one of which would have destroyed a lesser person? The Midrash gives us a fascinating response. Chazal say that what sustained Yaakov throughout his constant travail was the knowledge that "If I give up, I will forfeit all the energies that my mother invested in me to help me obtain the brachos." Yaakov lived with the constant awareness that his mother had risked so much to ensure that he receive the brachos. She told him, "Your curse, be on me, my son." This notion accompanied Yaakov throughout his life's endeavor. It was a constant inspiration, an unfailing encouragement to withstand the pressure and pain. It gave him the resolution and fortitude to overcome the various crises that he faced. It gave him the hope to persevere when feelings of despair engulfed him and might have held him back. Despite everything, Yaakov Avinu became the greatest Patriarch, the father of the Twelve Tribes.

Yaakov's story is the story of life. Many of us face trial and vicissitude, some more, some less. The overwhelming problems often seem too much to bear. It is at such times that we should take note of this meaningful Midrash: Remember the great energy that your parents expended on your behalf. Think about your mother's tears, your father's support, your parents' belief in you. They wanted you to succeed. They prayed for your success. How can you let them down?

I experienced this phenomenon first-hand as I was growing up. My father's fortieth Yahrtzeit is coming up in two weeks. He was an individual who was born prior to World War I and was not able to receive a formal education in a yeshivah gedolah. He valued his cheder education and ability to learn Chumash and Rashi. The entire Sefer Tehillim which he recited daily, sustained him throughout the terrible Holocaust years and the various concentration camps that he survived. When my parents came to this country, they came with a hope to rebuild what they had lost. My father received his inspiration and spiritual succor from our rav, the saintly Veitzener Rav, Horav Tzvi Hirsch Meisels, zl. Together, they survived Auschwitz, and together they prepared to rebuild their lives and set the spiritual foundation for future generations.

My father was very devoted to his children and would do anything to see to it that our spiritual development was enhanced, regardless of the physical or financial strain it put upon him. There is one aspect of my youth that will always remain with me. In fact, whenever I have reached a sort of impasse in my Torah progress, my father's devotion and determination spur me on. My regular Day School Torah education was not sufficient for my father. He, therefore, saw to it that whatever free time I had available was spent with a tutor, to advance my Torah studies. Every Friday night, during the cold winter months, I would go to the tutor to study for one hour. It was a twenty-five minute walk - each way. My father, of course, accompanied me, since I was young and in "those days" children did not wander around alone at night. During the hour session, my father would walk up and down the street. Chicago in the winter is freezing cold and windy. So, every Friday night, after my father had put in a seventy-hour workweek, he would walk for two hours in the cold. He did this so that his son could have some extra learning. While this may not seem like the most intriguing example of a parent's dedication to their child's spiritual growth - it has inspired me throughout my career. It also teaches us that it is the "little things" that make a difference.

Rivkah then took her older son, Eisav's, clean garments… and clothed Yaakov, her young son. (27:15)

Throughout the Parsha we note that the Torah refers to Eisav as the gadol, older, son, and Yaakov, as the ben ha'katan, young son. Why is this? They were twins, a status which usually grants the two sons equal status. Is there some special lesson to be derived from the fact that Eisav is called the gadol and Yaakov is referred to as the katan? The Zevihler Rebbe, zl, responds with a practical analogy. A young boy was concerned about the physical condition of his grandfather. Unfortunately, his grandfather had fallen the day before. He was immediately rushed to the hospital where his status was classified as critical. The next day, the situation deteriorated even more as his grandfather became very weak and listless. On the third day, his condition worsened as he developed a fever indicating the presence of an infection. On the fourth day, his grandfather no longer was able to speak. His family surrounded his bed deeply concerned, praying for a miracle.

Observing all this, the young boy suddenly burst out in bitter weeping. His parents, understandingly perturbed, asked him, "What is wrong? Why are you crying?"

"Why should I not cry?" he countered. "I am afraid for my baby brother's life. The same things wrong with grandfather are happening to him. He also falls when he tries to walk. He also gets a fever when he is sick, and he also does not speak. These are signs that something is very seriously wrong with him."

When the parents heard this, they smiled. "My child," the father said, "A baby often falls as he learns to walk. Indeed, children develop a fever when they are sick, but it is not abnormal. And yes, he does not speak yet, but he will learn to as he matures. Your grandfather's situation is much different."

The same idea applies to Eisav the gadol and Yaakov the katan. Eisav is like an old man. When signs of illness appear, it is reason for concern, for there is little hope for recovery. When Eisav is affected by a spiritual malady, it will run its course and destroy him. Yaakov, on the other hand, is like a young child in that even when he is struck with illness, he can overcome it. The spiritual maladies such as sin and other deficiencies that challenge Yaakov will, in due time, as Yaakov "matures" be defeated, through teshuvah, repentance, and maasim tovim, good deeds.

Alternatively, we derive from here the overwhelming significance of time. Twins are born just minutes apart, yet, the first is the older one while the second is the younger one. How much younger? Five, seven, eight minutes? Does that make such a difference? Yes, because time is valuable. When they came before their father to receive the blessings, Eisav and Yaakov were both sixty-three years old. Yet, one is called the gadol and the other one is referred to as the katan. We see that we really have no idea the difference a few minutes can make.

In the Talmud Berachos 53a, Chazal relate that in the yeshivah of Rabban Gamliel, they would not say, "gezuntheit" when one sneezed. Why? It was bitul Torah; it wasted time from Torah study. How much time - half a minute? Yet, they would not respond, because even a half a minute is time!

Me'ein Ha'Shavua cites Tosfos in the Talmud Berachos 37a, which teaches us a cogent lesson regarding the meaning of time. Chazal state that if one were to soak bread in water until the water changes color because of the bread, the brachah of Borei Minei Mezonos is recited, rather than Ha'Motzi Lechem min Haaretz, the usual blessing made over bread, since the bread is no longer considered bread. Now, one can only imagine the taste of this bread. Having soaked in water so long, it probably has no taste whatsoever. Yet, Tosfos tells us that Rav David m'Meitz would soak bread overnight in water so that he could eat it for breakfast the next day and not be required to make either Ha'Motzi, or Bentch, say Grace after the meal. He did this because every minute counted as he prepared himself for his daily shiur, Torah lesson. If that is the case, why did he eat altogether? Tosfos explains that he needed the nourishment so that he could teach properly. Consider what we have just related. How long does it take to wash, make a Ha'Motzi and Bentch? Only a few minutes. Yet, this sage would rather eat the tasteless bread than spend the few extra moments - eating.

The venerable Rosh HaYeshivah of Baranovitz, Horav Elchanan Wasserman, zl, would wear shoes without laces because he did not want to waste time tying his shoes. Time is life and the value of life is inestimable. We now understand why being born a few moments earlier gives one the privilege of being referred to as the gadol.

Va'ani Tefillah

Korban Pesach - the Pesach-Offering.

The Korban Pesach teaches the Jew to view himself, his home and his people, all, as creatures of Hashem. Thus, it makes sense that all the blood is poured at one time on the base of the Mizbayach, symbolizing that the entire personality of the worshipper is rooted solely in the Torah. The Pesach-Offering is an intrinsic part of the Pesach Festival experience and as such may be eaten only during the night of the fourteenth of Nissan, the eve of the fifteenth, which is the time of the act of Divine Redemption. The Korban Pesach is eaten only l'menuyav, by assigned partakers, since it signifies the individual Jews who through the redemption have achieved independence and formed individual families and households. Their freedom and independence was an act of direct Divine intervention by Hashem, b'kvodo u'be'Atzmo, in His Glory, by Himself. There was no human intervention. Thus, in commemorating this act of Divine liberation, the Korban may not be eaten with any other maachol, food, nor prepared in any desired manner. It must be tzli eish, roasted directly over a fire, without the artificial supplementation of human hands.

In honor of
the forthcoming marriage
of our children

Shimshon Keller
Shira Schabes

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

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