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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


I implored Hashem. (3:23)

Rashi teaches us that the term va'eschanan is derived from chinam, which means free. Thus, this form of prayer is a reference to a matnas chinam, whereby the supplicant asks Hashem for an undeserved favor. This is the method through which the truly righteous and humble approach Hashem. They never feel they have a claim on Hashem's mercy. They view everything that they have received as an unwarranted gift. Why is this? What would be so wrong for one who has devoted his life to Hashem-- who has lived a life of piety, virtue and righteousness-- to ask for something in return? Why should he have to ask for a favor, if he is able to pay for it?

Toras Maharitz explains that the righteous ask for a matnas chinam, not for themselves, but because of those who, regrettably, do not have the necessary z'chusim, merits, to assist them in "paying" for Hashem's positive response. This lack of merit can catalyze an individual to become depressed and give up hope, and, as a result, not daven at all. After all, davening is for those who have something with which to come to the "table." We are not worthy, so why should we bother? Therefore, the righteous also ask for an undeserved favor, so that others who must ask for a favor will also rise to the occasion by praying to Hashem. They do not think of themselves, but of others. Is that not what we are all supposed to do?

I implored Hashem. (3:23)

The Daas Zekeinim notes seven names given to tefillah, prayer. They are: tefillah, prayer; techinah, entreaty; tzaakah, shout; zaakah, cry out; nefillah, collapse; pegiah, encounter; rinah, joy. From among all of them, Moshe Rabbeinu selected techinah as the form of prayer of choice, because when he had previously asked Hashem, "Make Your way known to me," (Shemos 33:13) Hashem had replied, "V'chanosi eis asher achon," "I shall show favor when I choose to show favor." (Shemos 33:19) This indicated to Moshe that Hashem applies the attribute of chanun, pure favor, in directing the world. Everything that Hashem does for us is a form of matnas chinam, a gift asking nothing in return. Therefore, Moshe used the form of techinah to entreat Hashem to grant him a special favor, allowing him to enter Eretz Yisrael. In an alternative exposition, the Daas Zekeinim applies the gematria, numerical equivalent, of va'eschanan, 515, to emphasize how many times Moshe supplicated Hashem to be allowed entry into Eretz Yisrael.

There is a powerful lesson to be derived from Moshe. He never gave up. Regardless of how often he was told no, he continued to pray as if it were the first time. He neither tired nor gave up hope. It was only after he was told to desist, that he stopped and accepted his fate. The mere fact that he was told to halt his prayers indicates that one more time would have rendered success. Horav Eliyahu Schlessinger, Shlita, feels that Moshe is teaching us a lesson in emunah, faith, in the Almighty, a lesson that is substantiated by Chazal. "Even when a sharp knife is resting on one's neck, he should not despair from Heavenly mercy." It is forbidden to give up hope. It goes against the grain of faith. If there is life - there is hope.

The Brisker Rav, zl, explained Chazal's statement with the following incident that occurred in Brisk during his tenure as Rav. One year, shortly before Rosh Hashanah, the sexton of the large shul decided to change the location in which the choir would stand when they accompanied the chazzan during the service. They had always stood on his side. Now, consistent with so many of the progressive synagogues, the sexton had them placed in the gallery. The Brisker Rav was not made aware of this change until after the fact. Otherwise, he would have summoned the gabbaim, sextons, and vetoed their suggestion. While there was nothing forbidden about this change, the mere fact that they were emulating the temple of the free thinkers was sufficient reason to prohibit it.

The Rav entered the shul, went upstairs to the gallery and instructed the choir to return to their previous position in the shul. As soon as they had returned to their original place, the gabbaim instructed them to ascend to the gallery. The Brisker Rav once again went up the stairs and told them to return. After they had returned, the gabbaim insolently instructed them to go back to the gallery. This scene repeated itself a number of times. It became increasingly difficult for the Rav to ascend the stairs to the balcony. Yet, he continued. As he was about to go up one last time, the windows of the women's section were flung open, and the women, including the wives of the gabbaim, began to yell down to the choir, "How dare you not listen to the Rav! What chutzpah!"

The Brisker Rav added, "That which I could not personally accomplish, the righteous women of my shul achieved for me." Looking at his listeners, he said, "Now you certainly would have given up hope for success. After all, what more is there to do? The people were not listening. I went up to the gallery a number of times. What would one more time accomplish? I did it because Chazal teach us never to despair, never to give up hope - even when the sword is on one's neck. As long as the final decree has not been carried out, as long as the execution has not been performed, one can and should hope for mercy. Assur l'hisyaeish! It is forbidden to despair! Salvation can come supernaturally. Hashem is not bound by nature. What I continued to do was not destined to succeed, but since I sensed an obligation to fulfill Chazal's dictum, I merited Divine assistance. One must continue to believe and do. Hashem will do the rest. We are not permitted to give up for Him."

Rav Schlessinger cites another incident that occurred concerning the Brisker Rav which supports this idea. During the first World War, one of the members of the Jewish community of Brisk was accused of spying. The Rav did everything to save him, hiring the best lawyers and personally interceding on his behalf. It was all to no avail. The man was found guilty, and a date was set for his execution. According to Polish law, the accused was not executed unless his spiritual leader, be it a priest or a rabbi, confessed with him. It was only a formality, but one that was adhered to strongly. When the Brisker Rav was asked by one of his members if he would agree to confess with the condemned man, the Rav replied, "I will never do anything that will even indirectly cause the death of a Jew." Those who heard this statement were surprised. After all, what difference did it make what he was willing to do or not? The government would take him forcibly and compel him to listen to the confession.

The execution was to take place on Rosh Hashanah, and the guards came to the shul shortly before Mussaf to "accompany" the Rav to the execution place. The Rav motioned with his fingers that at present he was in the middle of prayer and could not speak. This went on for quite some time, and the guards began to lose patience with the Rav and his ruse. The members of the shul were concerned for the Rav's welfare as well as for their own. They brought over an elderly Jew to the guards, claiming that he was the assistant rabbi, who could perform the confession. This man accompanied the guards, listened to the confession, and the accused man was promptly executed. He returned to the shul just as a messenger from the governor arrived, absolving the accused of any wrongdoing. Apparently, he had been framed, and the guilty party had confessed.

When the Brisker Rav would relate this story, he would add, "One may never give up hope - even if a sharp sword is positioned on his neck. Why? What more can he do? He has prayed and prayed. It is over! Give up? No! That is not the Torah way." Chazal say, "Ein l'hisyaeish!" One may never despair. In the end, the least expected solution may surface, as apparently occurred with this man. Only, because man interfered, it was too late. If one truly believes, and he is worthy, he will merit siyata d'Shmaya, Divine assistance.

I implored Hashem. (3:23)

The Midrash focuses on the word Va'eschanan, "And I implored." They cite a pasuk in Daniel 2:21, "V'Hu mehashnei idanaya v'zimnaya," "and He (Hashem) alters times and seasons." This is an analogy to a king who had a close confidante to whom he gave extraordinary powers for delegating positions in the government. One day, this confidante was noticed standing by the gate to the palace begging the gatekeeper to allow him to enter. People wondered at this sight, "Yesterday, he was appointing ministers. Today, he is begging by the gate. What happened?" They were told, "Yesterday, his window of opportunity was open. He was in power. Today, his reign is over."

Likewise with Moshe Rabbeinu. Earlier in the Chumash, we find him addressing Hashem authoritatively, using such phrases as "Arise, Hashem," "Return Hashem," and other terms that lend the impression that Moshe's power was permanent. Now, he was supplicating Hashem to enter Eretz Yisrael. What happened? His window of opportunity had closed. It does not remain open forever.

This Midrash teaches us a powerful lesson. One must seize the moment. When opportunity knocks - open the door and respond. Later might be too late. Life is filled with lost opportunities, marked by such phrases as, "I should have, would have, could have" - but, ultimately, "I did not respond" is the usual answer - always too late. Hashem sends us messages. Do we listen to them, or do we realize that they are messages after the fact? There are so many instances in each individual's life that even the slightest positive gesture would have made a world of difference. The individual, however, allowed the window of opportunity to close - and it did not reopen. The following story related by Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, was publicized over the years. For those who have not yet heard it, it is a classic that is worth repeating.

Rav Schwab once spent Shabbos with the saintly Chafetz Chaim, zl, in Radin. It was Friday morning, and, in the middle of a discussion concerning the function of Kohanim, the Chafetz Chaim turned to Rav Schwab and asked, "Are you a Kohen?"

"No," replied Rav Schwab.

"Perhaps you have heard that I am a Kohen," the Chafetz Chaim said.

"Yes, I have heard," Rav Schwab quietly responded.

"Perhaps you are a Levi?" the Chafetz Chaim asked.

"No, I am not," was Rav Schwab's reply.

"What a shame! Moshiach is coming, and the Bais Hamikdash will be rebuilt. If you are not a Kohen, you will not be able to perform the avodah, service, in the Sanctuary. Do you know why? Because 3,000 years ago, at the incident of the Golden Calf, dein Zayda, your grandfather, is nisht gelafen, did not run forward, when Moshe Rabbeinu called out, "Mi l'Hashem eilai!" "Whoever is with Hashem should come to me!" Now take heart and listen. When you hear the call, "Mi l'Hashem eilai!" come running!

This was the Chafetz Chaim's message. When the call from Hashem comes, we must respond immediately, because that window of opportunity will not stay open forever. The Leviim responded 3,000 year ago, and it transformed their lineage forever.

Not because you were more numerous than any nation did Hashem desire you and choose you, for you are the fewest of all the nations. Rather, because of the love of G-d for you. (7:7,8)

Rashi explains the words, "Not because you were too numerous," to mean "Because you do not aggrandize yourselves when I supply you with goodness. Therefore, He desired you." "For you are the fewest of all the nations" means, "You minimize yourselves like Avraham and like Moshe and Aharon." Our ability to minimize our good fortune to walk humbly before G-d is what earns us His favor and love. When we think about it, the fact that our size does not go to our collective heads is not really a virtue. After all, we are the smallest nation in size and number. What is there about our census that would catalyze haughtiness? Furthermore, the fact that we act with humility is consistent with who we are. We have been persecuted and put down for so long, it has become natural to us. When we see an individual who is humble, we are impressed. The idea has limits. It is virtuous and commendable, but let us not get carried away. Yet, the Torah presents our collective humility as the primary reason for our being worthy of Hashem's love. Why?

Horav Gershon Liebman, zl, Rosh Hayeshivah of Bais Yosef/Novardhok in France, derives from here that one's primary virtue is his ability to minimize himself to the extent that when he deprecates his achievements and derogates his worthiness and positive features, he actually elevates his character and posture before Hashem. Hachnaah, downplaying oneself, is the key to distinction. Underrating oneself is a true indication of one's status as an oved Hashem, servant of Hashem. In other words, a person's stature is determined not by how much kavod, honor, he receives from others, but rather, how he handles this prestige. One whose head is turned by adulation demonstrates his true weakness. He shows that he has no clue, no concept of the truth. A great man is not one who tolerates abuse, but rather, one who accepts tribute and recognition and does not allow it to go to his head.

Members of Klal Yisrael distinguish themselves in their ability to accept who and what they are and, with great humility, minimize themselves before Hashem. While maintaining a low profile is important, a low self-image can be destructive. One should seek to establish a sense of balance between a positive attitude, in which one feels able to perform better and stronger, and avoiding arrogance. Chazal teach us that, as Jews, we are to maintain an almost paradoxical stance. They cite the pasuk in Shir HaShirim 2:14, "My dove in the cleft of the rock." Hashem said, "I call Yisrael dove, as in the pasuk (Hoshea 7:11). 'Efraim is like a foolish dove without understanding.' To Me they are like a dove, but to the nations of the world they are like wild beasts." The Midrash in Shemos elaborates. Hashem said, "To Me they are a seduced dove, for everything which I decree upon them they accept and carry out. To the nations of the world, however, they are as tough as wild beasts…When the idolators ask them why they observe Shabbos, why do you observe Bris Milah, they respond with resolution and conviction," thus reflecting a parallel to tough beasts.

The Shem MiShmuel derives from Chazal that every member of KlalYisrael must possess two simultaneous self images, each dependent on circumstances. With regard to Hashem's infinite power and all encompassing wisdom, we are to be as doves- soft, gentle, bashful, aware of our very puny and limited capabilities. On the other hand, when we stand up for ourselves against the nations of the world, we must be resolute and outspoken. Veritably, there are forces out there in the world that would rather we did not exist. There are also those who maintain an implacable hatred for us and whose goal and purpose in life is our destruction. Our nationhood: our relationship with the Almighty-- our commitment to His mitzvos-- is a thorn in the eyes of many. We need great internal resolve to resist these forces, to focus on our mission-- regardless of the external and internal pressures. This is the meaning of being "tough as wild beasts." Successful Jewish life demands a synthesis of these two traits: pliability and bashfulness in our relationship with Hashem; and unswerving and uncompromising dedication to our stance within the outside world.

These two traits are characterized by the well known pasuk in Tehillim (34:15), "Sur meirah v'asei tov," "Turn from evil and do good." In turning away and shunning evil, one must display tremendous strength by being pugnacious and intractable. In one's quest to do good, however, a tender and humble heart will serve him well. The primary goal of a Torah lifestyle is, of course, the "do good" aspect, for it is that which enhances one's relationship with the Almighty. The Maharal teaches us that the mitzvos lo saasei, prohibitive mitzvos, are intended to ensure that we remain within the parameters of humanity - that we are mentchen. A breach in these mitzvos indicates that we have fallen below the standards of humanity. The positive mitzvos are intended to elevate us beyond this situation and guide us to develop into spiritually oriented and holy people. Thus, there is a reward for performing a positive mitzvah, while abstaining from the negative commands does not carry a reward. Hashem has chosen us for two reasons: first, because we abstain from evil; we are sur meirah; we preserve our essential dignity and human worth. This, however, does not establish a special relationship with Hashem. Second, in order to develop that relationship, we must perform positive mitzvos - we must be asei tov. Through the "do good" aspect of our service to the Almighty, by minimizing ourselves, we indicate that we appreciate everything that He grants us, despite the fact that we are unfit for, and undeserving of, His favor.

Va'ani Tefillah

Baruch gozeir u'mekayeim. Blessed is He Who makes decrees and upholds them.

The Skulener Rebbe, Horav Eliezer Zushe Portugal,zl, offers an alternative explanation for this blessing. First, I take the liberty of citing the background for this exposition. As a young man in Romania, the Rebbe began his life's work of encouraging Jews to draw closer to Hashem. He did everything possible to reach out to the unaffiliated in order to strengthen those who were committed. Word reached the Romanian authorities that the Rebbe was instructing the Jewish youth concerning how to avoid being drafted into the army. This, of course, did not sit well with the government, who had him immediately arrested and placed in solitary confinement in a dungeon. They seized his yarmulke, took away his glasses and left him to rot in a cold, dark, damp cell. Unable to contact the outside world, he just sat there and maintained his conviction that Hashem would provide for him. He wanted to daven, but he had no head covering. So, he pulled his jacket over his head and began to sing aloud those prayers which he had memorized.

The Rebbe was known for his avodah, prayer service. His Shacharis would, at times, take four hours, his Shema Yisrael during a weekday maariv up to forty-five minutes. Prison was no different. He had all the time in the world, and he concentrated on every word - every letter. When he came to the blessing, Baruch gozeir u'mekayeim, he stopped in puzzlement. This prayer seemed out of place in the context of the rest of the berachos. Gozeir usually is a reference to a harsh decree, one not welcomed by man. Yet, we seem to praise Hashem for fulfilling the decree! This is truly puzzling. The Rebbe was annoyed, because apparently this phrase had never bothered him before. Why? He was determined not to move from his place until he figured out why the phrase was there.

After awhile, the Rebbe came upon an explanation. The word kayeim, in addition to meaning fulfill, also means to exist, to endure, to prevail and persevere. Sometimes Hashem must make a difficult decree against man. For whatever reason, Hashem deems it necessary to make him suffer. At the same time, however, Hashem gives man the strength to prevail and endure, to enable him to withstand the pressure of the decree. This is the meaning of gozeir u'mekayeim. This explanation gave the Rebbe the fortitude to endure, to maintain a positive attitude, despite his harsh and depressive surroundings. Within a few days, he was released from prison. The Rebbe was so impressed by this incident and the encouraging meaning of this phrase that every year on the anniversary of his release, he would share this incident, explaining the new meaning that he had discovered in this phrase.

In loving memory
our dear Mother & Bubby

Mrs. Chana Silberberg

Zev & Miriam Solomon & Family

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