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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And he [Yaakov] said, "Gather yourselves together and I will tell you that which will befall you in the end of the days (49:1)

Rashi tells us that Yaakov Avinu wanted to reveal to his children the time of the Final Redemption, but the Divine Spirit suddenly left him. Why did Hashem remove His spirit from Yaakov? While it may be true that Hashem had no desire that the time of the Geulah Ho'Asidah, Final Redemption, be revealed, this is no reason to remove His spirit from him. He could have simply not disclosed this date to Yaakov. Why did He remove his prophetic powers?

The Radomsker Rebbe, zl, gives a profound explanation for Rashi's statement. He says that actually Hashem did not revoke Yaakov's powers at all. On the contrary, Yaakov saw only too clearly what the future would bring. He saw both from a physical and spiritual vantage the events that would precede Redemption; the terrible ordeals that his descendants would endure; the cataclysmic destruction that they would sustain, the near decimation of European Jewry, and its ensuing tragedies. This prophetic vision saddened him to such an extent that Yaakov lost an essential prerequisite for receiving Nevuah, Divine Prophecy. He lost the attribute of simchah, joy. Chazal tell us in the Talmud Shabbos 32b that the Shechinah, Divine Presence, rests on a person only amidst joy. The absence of simchah negates Ruach HaKodesh, Divine Inspiration.

The message is clear: We must learn to triumph over adversity, or we may lose what Divine Inspiration is still within us. In a way, we have an advantage over Yaakov Avinu. We experienced what he viewed prophetically. We survived, endured and continued on. We searched for strength, groped for inspiration, found it, and kept going. We lost six million brethren, an entire Jewish culture and lifestyle, yeshivos, gedolei Yisrael and their Talmidim. Yet, we persevered and rebuilt. We had the advantage of learning from Yaakov our ancestor that, if we will permit adversity to crush us, we may lose whatever Divine Inspiration we possess, and without the Divine - the inspiration is worth very little.

Our strength lies in our obstinacy, in our refusal to capitulate and yield to those who would destroy us. It is this obstinacy that gives us the fortitude to maintain joy in our hearts and express it, even though it follows devastating losses. Yaakov Avinu taught us well.

Water - like impetuosity - you cannot be foremost. (49:4)

Yaakov Avinu addresses his bechor, firstborn, Reuven, as kochi v'reishis oni, "my strength and initial vigor," his hope, the one who should have been the leader of the brothers, but who lost it due to his impetuosity. He was the most precious gem in the family treasury, but he was not qualified for the leadership of the family. He was missing the ingredients which are requisite for a leader.

Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, notes that the word pachaz, which has been translated as impetuous, is found in Sefer Shoftim 9:4, Anashim reikim u'pochazim, a reference to men who possess a shortcoming in their character. What was Reuven's character deficiency? Yaakov compares him to water. Hardly any other substance displays such a wide variety of qualities. Yet, water has no internal stability; hence, it could mean that Reuven was as unstable as water. Water always flows downward to the lowest level; this implies that Reuven strives after lowness. Water is a liquid, flowing rapidly forward, denoting impetuosity.

All of these are character deficiencies. Rav Hirsch however, focuses upon the instability of water and the parallel implication that Reuven was too unstable for a leadership role. To achieve preeminence, one must have strong inner resolution, a firmness that is stable. He can neither be moved by flattery, nor succumb to pressure. He stands tall, erect, stable, withstanding any and every assault on his leadership. Reuven did not have it. Thus, he was demoted from the position of leadership.

Yet, Chazal compare Torah to water. It has become the symbol of everything that is positive about Torah. If water is unstable and flows downward to the lowest point, why is it seen in a positive light? We may suggest that a lack of internal is a constructive feature stability in regard to Torah. It can fit into all situations and reach out to all people, regardless of their background and ability. It molds itself around the individual, as it encompasses every aspect of his life. It is able to flow downward to the lowest dregs of society and elevate them with its refreshing spiritual therapy. Yes, Torah conforms itself around a person, so that all of him is enveloped by it. Torah is structured, but its water-like capabilities give it the flexibility to structure itself around those who accept it.

Yissachar is a strong-boned donkey. (49:14)

It is interesting how Yaakov Avinu compares his sons to various animals. Yehudah, the strong son, the leader who would one day be the monarch, is compared to a lion. Naftali is compared to a hind, because of his exceptional speed. This goes on in regard to all of the brothers. Yaakov took a specific character trait, which the individual tribe exemplified, and compared that to an animal in which the trait was also significant. What is difficult to grasp is Yissachar's comparison to a strong-boned donkey. This is the tribe that exemplified Torah study at its zenith. The donkey is among the lowliest in the animal world. What is the relationship between the two?

Speaking to a group of vacationing yeshivah students, Horav Tzvi Markowitz, Shlita, said the following: At one time, both the horse and the donkey served man as beasts of burden. Indeed, in every village one would notice how the horse and donkey would leave in the early morning on their way to the fields. When they returned at the end of the day, their masters gave them the opportunity to rest. There was, however, an apparent difference in the manner in which they rested. In order for the horse to rest, it was necessary for its owner to remove its load, unbuckle its saddlebags and remove whatever ropes were tying it in place. The horse would gallop and jump around, as its constraints were removed.

The donkey was different. It rested with its load still tied to its back and its saddlebags still in place, while whatever constraints it had remained fastened. The donkey needed only a quiet place where it could stand undisturbed, while the horse had to "let loose."

The vacation time, the days off, are what determine the essence of a ben Torah, one who serves Hashem unequivocally. If vacation means loosening of one's structure and morals, such that his spiritual commitments are relaxed, this is the vacation of a horse. If, however, he maintains his responsibilities, continues with structured observances of davening with a minyan, studying Torah and acting no different than if he would be in the bais hamedrash, he rests like the donkey. Yissachar, the tribe that was devoted to Torah study, reflected their commitment even during periods of rest, because they were acutely aware that there is no rest from Torah.

Horav Yaakov Beifus, Shlita, applies this idea to the entire year. Every time, everywhere, under all situations, Torah reigns paramount. There are those who act in the most proper and correct fashion when they are inside the walls of the bais hamedrash. Yet, they have a desire to have a "good time" outside the protective walls of the sanctuary. A good time, regrettably, consists of dropping some of the restrictions that one feels are intrinsic to the yeshivah. What he fails to realize is that the yoke is not relegated only to the four walls of the yeshivah. It applies everywhere.

The question that is posed by many young people is simple: Is it possible to live under the "duress" of Taryag mitzvos, all the time, without any time off for a little fun? Indeed, there are those who feel that we should "go easy" on young people: give them some space and breathing room; let them "hang their hair down," and other such statements which apply to contemporary culture. Rav Beifus explains that it is specifically one's meticulous observance and total commitment to Torah and mitzvos that creates inner peace and harmony. It is the only way that one senses a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Why? Because success, satisfaction, achievement are directly connected to the neshamah, soul. The soul receives satisfaction only if the individual dedicates himself to total observance.

This statement is profound. We are being told that inner peace, success and satisfaction are the 'foci' of the soul, which is the primary component in the amalgam of body and soul known to us as man. We may see the body, but his essence is his neshamah. All too often, we get carried away providing for our bodies and think nothing of our neshamos which cry out for equal time. Indeed, our primary goal in life should be to satisfy our neshamah. It is the neshamah's satisfaction that determines our satisfaction. It is the neshamah's success that determines our success. To provide the body and ignore the neshamah is tantamount to pouring liquid into a bottomless glass. It is a total waste.

Rav Beifus relates a powerful story which emphasizes the significance of the neshamah. There is a ger tzedek, righteous convert, living in Yerushalayim, a scholar of note, who recently related what it was that motivated him to convert to Judaism: "It was after World War II, and I was living in Holland. I felt a tremendous sense of guilt after realizing the terrible things that my countrymen had wrought against the Jews. I wanted to do something as a form of contrition to atone for what my people had done to your people. I left Holland and came to Israel to do whatever I could, to somehow, someway, pay for the sins of the gentiles. I was able to get a position in a home for children that were severely challenged both physically and mentally. I felt a deep sense of satisfaction in working with these children."

"I was dumbstruck by the mother of a little boy who came every day, early in the morning, traveling for one and one half hours each way by bus to spend the day with her son. The child was perhaps three years old, severely mentally retarded and physically unable to move his body. He could not hear or speak. He just lay there staring at the ceiling."

"Yet, his mother came every day and performed the same ritual. She would walk in and say, Boker Tov! 'Good Morning, my child.' She would pat his head and give him a kiss. Then she placed his yarmulke on his head and a small Tallis Katan on his body. Then, with tears streaming down her face, she would recite Krias Shema and Torah tzivah lanu Moshe, which all mothers recite with their pre-school children. Only this child heard nothing and understood nothing. She would continue telling him about the parsha of the week and stories about the Jewish People. Incredible!"

"This went on every day! I could not understand what she was doing. She appeared to me to be insane! She must have had a breakdown to do this daily for a child that had no clue concerning what she was saying. I finally gathered up enough courage to approach her and ask, "Giveret, ma'am, why are you doing this? Who are you talking to? Do you not realize that your child neither hears nor comprehends what you are saying to him?"

"She looked at me with piercing eyes and said, 'True, his physical body does not comprehend, but I am not talking to his body. I speak to his soul - and his soul understands and derives great satisfaction from the Tzitzis and the Krias Shema and from every pasuk of Torah that I recite to him.'

"When I heard these words," continued the ger, "I decided that a religion that develops a relationship between a person and the spiritual dimension of a child that does not function in any physical manner - I wanted to know more about it. So began my quest to join the Jewish people."

What a powerful message, one that opens up vistas of perspective on people. There is an element in a person that we often ignore - the neshamah. The soul within each of us is alive and well and not impaired in any way. Perhaps this is why so many have returned to Yiddishkeit

after years of assimilation: Their trapped neshamah is crying out, reaching out to be saved from extinction. Perhaps this is why some educators are better able to reach difficult students more so than others - they focus on the students' neshamah. Perhaps this is why some parents are more successful in raising their children more so than others: They never forget the neshamah component of their child. The "neshamah factor" plays a crucial role in every person's life. Every individual should remember this, knowing full-well that any negative action he takes will have an adverse effect on his neshamah. While an individual may not care about his body, he has no right to harm his neshamah.


And (you shall) do kindness and truth with me. (47:29)

Rashi explains that the kindness shown to the dead is the kindness of truth, for it is purely altruistic in the sense that the beneficiary will never be able to return the favor. Baal HaTurim notes that the word emes - aleph, mem, taf - is an acronym for: Aron (coffin) Mitah (bed upon which the deceased is carried), Tachrichim (shrouds in which the deceased is dressed). Alternatively, the Ksav Sofer says emes is an acronym for Eino Metzapeh Tashlum, "He does not expect payment," a reference to the ritualistic nature of the deed.


Assemble yourselves, and I will tell you what will befall you in the End of Days. (49:1)

The word yikra, which is translated as "will befall you/occur to you," is written with an aleph at the end of the word, rather than a hay. The word yikra with an aleph has as its root the word kara, to call. Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, interprets this to teach us that Yaakov was saying, "Whatever may occur, it should be understood as a 'wakeup call' from Hashem." Nothing is without design and purpose. It is up to us to "hear" that "call" and to respond to it.


For in their rage they, murdered people. (49:6)

The Chafetz Chaim was wont to translate apom, "their rage," as a derivative of af, nose. With the "turn of the nose," a drai mitten noz, one can destroy a person. A snub of the nose can have a devastating effect upon a person.


Yehudah, your brothers shall acknowledge you. (49:8)

The Veitzener Rav, Horav Tzvi Hirsh Meisels, zl, would note that during the Holocaust, the evil decrees that were made against the Jews, were against all Jews - even those who had assimilated and had become apostates. This is what Yaakov Avinu said to his sons: Yehudah atah, "My son, you should know that in regard to the gentile world you are a Yehudah - Jew - regardless of how much you attempt to assimilate. Therefore, you might as well - Yoducha achecha, "Your brothers shall acknowledge you." You might as well act in such a manner such that your brothers will acknowledge your Jewishness.

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