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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Please place your hand under my thigh and do kindness and truth with me - please do not bury me in Egypt. (47: 29)

We wonder why Yaakov Avinu made Yosef swear that he would be sure to bury him in Chevron in the Meoras Hamachpeilah. Was Yosef's word not sufficient guarantee that he would carry out his father's last wish? It is not as if Yosef had a history of breaking his word. He was a thoroughly righteous person. Keeping one's word is part of human decency. In Forever His Students, a collection of the Torah thoughts of Horav Yaakov Weinberg, zl, by Rabbi Boruch Leff, it is explained that while Yaakov certainly trusted Yosef, he feared that "excuses" - even valid ones- would interfere with his word's fruition.

Yosef's word was gold; his commitment solid. There was, however, an area of concern: there might be a legitimate reason for Yosef's inability to fulfill his word. There were good reasons why Yosef might be hampered in carrying out Yaakov's wish. Pharaoh would surely not agree. Such a famous personality as Yaakov buried in Egypt would be very good for the country. He would designate a large section of land for a tomb - perhaps even a park or museum. Pharaoh would never go along with Yosef's desire to bury his father outside of Egypt. However, once Pharaoh would hear that Yosef committed himself through an oath, it would be an altogether different perspective. Even Pharaoh would have to honor Yaakov's request.

An excuse, regardless of its justifiability, is nothing more than a reason for a lack of achievement. It may be an excellent reason, but it does not change the fact that one is not accomplishing what he set out to do. The term "no excuses" means just that: no reason is accepted for failure to complete a mission. We are well aware that when something must be done - or when we really want to accomplish something - we must allow nothing to stand in our way.

There is a story told about a Vermont farmer whose neighbor wanted to borrow an axe. "Sorry," said the farmer, "I have to shave tonight."

Later, his wife took him to task. "Why did you give him such a silly excuse?"

"If you do not want to do a thing," the farmer replied, "one excuse is as good as another."

In other words, excuses are a way of saying "no." Excuse is defeat. Excuse is - an excuse!

When it comes to the observance of Torah and mitzvos, we have no room for excuses. There might be difficulties, obstacles which seem impossible to traverse, mountains too high to scale but, regardless of the challenges, Hashem does not give us assignments that exceed our abilities. Things may appear difficult but, if something is incumbent upon us, we must at least make an attempt. Hashem will see to the rest. All one needs to do is make up his mind to do. If the determination is in gear, he will move forward. The difficulty exists only as long as one has not yet made the decision to move forward. A chassid of Horav Yehudah Leib, zl, of Radzovil, had been an innkeeper for many years. He decided that it was time to move from the rural boondocks and move to the village. Now he would have greater opportunities for learning in a bais ha'medrash, davening with a minyan. In short, he felt that in his retirement, he would be able to enhance his religious observance. What could be wrong with this?

He shared his plans with the Rebbe, who did not respond either way. The man retired, and his son took over the family business. Children do not always expend the same effort for an enterprise as their parents, who established it with blood, sweat and tears. In addition, the smile and warmth exuded by the individual - to whom the business is more than a manner of earning a living - is often non-existent from the one who assumes the family business. It was no different in the case of the innkeeper. During his many years as proprietor of the inn, the chassid had provided a warm welcome for travelers, availing them comfortable, clean accommodations and nutritious meals. Understanding that being on the road, away from one's family, was particularly stressful, he made a point to inquire about their families, and was interested in their business dealings. For those who did not have the funds to pay, he was liberal in extending credit. He opened his inn free-of-charge to the poor, feeding them gratis. His son did not possess such an open heart. It was all business: no credit; no warmth; no charity. One either paid or he was not wanted.

This turn of events troubled the chassid. He had no desire to have all of his years of hard work go for naught. He returned to the Rebbe to seek guidance. The Rebbe shared the following story with the chassid:

The army was comprised of two types of soldiers: volunteers and recruits. Those who were drafted into the army were subjected to the rigors of boot camp and grueling exercises to make them fit as soldiers. The volunteers, however, received preferential treatment. Those who showed promise were given the option of joining the special training reserved for officers.

One young man, who was the son of a feudal lord, waited until the very last minute until he was drafted. They had no mercy on him. The trainers went out of their way to devise "extra-special" exercises just for him. The pleasures of his civilian life had not prepared him for such punishment. So he deserted the army and moved to another city, where he lived under an assumed name. His new identity, based upon forged papers, listed him as much younger. This time, he decided to volunteer for the army. It was a difference of night and day. The treatment was much better, the exercises less rigorous. Soon, he was admitted into officer training school. Graduating quickly, he received a number of promotions, as he progressed up the ladder.

One time, in the company of a general, this young man, who was in a slightly inebriated state, told the general about a "friend" of his, the son of a feudal lord who, after deserting the army, made a new identity for himself and succeeded in becoming a successful officer. The general was no fool, and he quickly realized who this "friend" was. He became very angry, grabbing the soldier by the lapel, ripping off his officer's insignia, and quickly demoting him to common soldier. "The army needs soldiers as well as officers," he said. "You did not volunteer because of your allegiance to the emperor, but simply to further your own selfish interests. If you would have cared about the emperor, you would have looked out for his needs - not your own."

The Rebbe then said, "Hashem's 'needs' were for you to provide comfort and consideration for the travelers. He saw in you a good, kind heart that was sensitive to the needs of others. Thus, you had no right to 'retire.' You can study Mishnayos and recite Tehillim in the inn, as well as in the shul. You retired, not due to Hashem's will, but to make it easier for yourself. It was not the spiritual ascendency that you sought. It was an escape from the inn that motivated your retirement. You are AWOL from your obligation to Hashem.

"Every person can come up with an excuse to justify why he is not praying properly or learning Torah to his utmost: 'If only I were somebody else'; 'if only I were smarter, wealthier, healthier.' These are all excuses. Hashem wants you to produce as you are - where you are. This does not excuse your spiritual obligations. You can achieve them where you are - now."

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

Rashi teaches us that the kindness performed for the benefit of the deceased is true kindness, for one never expects to derive any gratitude from the beneficiary. Chesed shel emes has become the catchphrase for involvement in the area of dealing with the dead. Because of the sacred nature of this kindness and the seeming lack of remuneration, it seems to be the source of great eternal reward. Many stories abound concerning this reward. One that stands out in my mind featured the Chazon Ish.

In the settlement of Rishon L'Tzion, there lived a non-observant Jew who had emigrated to Eretz Yisrael following World War II. The product of a strictly observant home in Hungary, the war and its concentration camps wreaked havoc on his religious commitment. At this point, even the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, meant nothing to him.

It was Erev Yom Kippur 1952, and the man returned home after work as usual, unconcerned, unperturbed by the sanctity of the following day. That night, his father appeared to him in a dream, wearing his white kittel and Tallis. The father "encouraged" his son to repent his ways and return to a life of religious observance, or else his life would be cut short. At first, the man ignored the dream. The last thing one who is non-observant wants to do is change his lifestyle - for a dream! After the dream persisted for seven nights in a row, however, it was becoming more of a reality, something of concern. As distant as he was from religious observance, he was still aware that it "existed" and thrived. At that time, the leader of Torah Jewry was the Chazon Ish. Our "dreamer" decided that he would have no rest until he discovered the meaning of his dream. So, he traveled to Bnei Brak to speak with the Chazon Ish.

No sooner did he walk into the Chazon Ish's study, than the sage looked at him and exclaimed, "Alas, you perform work on Shabbos. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have no meaning to you. Your father has no peace in the World Above. Kares, Heavenly excision, has been decreed upon you!"

The Chazon Ish finished speaking and rested his head on his arms, as if deep in thought. The man did not respond. In fact, he had not yet uttered a word. A few more minutes went by, and the Chazon Ish looked up: "In the merit of a certain mitzvah that you performed will you be granted added life… if you begin to live a life of Torah observance. Something, you must have done something special to warrant such a reprieve."

We must remember that the man had never said that he would recommit to a Torah way of life. The Chazon Ish "accepted" it. Finally, the man spoke up, "I gave charity, even though I was non-observant."

"No," said the Chazon Ish. "That is not sufficient cause to commute your punishment. Think, there must be something else for which you have merited such reward."

Suddenly, the man remembered. "There is something. When I was fourteen years old, I was home one evening when a woman came to speak with my father. It seemed that in a village some distance from ours, a young Jewish boy had died and there was no one to bury him. My father sent me - alone - to provide a Jewish burial for the boy. Here I was, myself a young teenager, traveling alone on a sacred mission to provide kever Yisrael for a young, deceased Jew. It was a dangerous time. The roads were treacherous with bands of robbers lurking in the shadows. I was under constant fear of death. Yet, I prevailed and successfully completed my holy mission."

"Yes, that is it," said the Chazon Ish.

The very next day, the man returned to a life of Torah and mitzvah observance. The mitzvah involving chesed shel emes was the precursor of a new life for him.

Now Yisrael's eyes were heavy with age, he could not see. (48:10)

Sforno explains that Yaakov Avinu's inability to see precluded him from establishing a strong bond with his grandsons, thus inhibiting him from granting his blessing in the fullest sense. In order for blessing to achieve efficacy, one must see the subject of his blessing, so that the "souls" spiritually bond. The bonding lays the groundwork for the blessing to be effective. The Mishnah Berurah (47:10) writes: "A father and mother should always pray for the spiritual welfare of their children, entreating Hashem that they diligently study Torah and remain G-d-fearing Jews who act morally and ethically." He singles out specific places in the daily tefillah in which these personal entreaties are most appropriate.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, derives from this that, in order for one's blessing to be effective, there must be a close relationship between the individual giving the blessing and he who is the subject of his blessing. Every father blesses his children Friday night prior to reciting Kiddush. Is this a blessing made by rote, or is it the blessing of a parent acutely attuned to the needs of his child, his challenges, his triumphs and failures, sensitive to his yearnings and to his inhibitions? Only such a blessing is the type for which the Patriarch declared Becha yevorach Yisrael, "By you shall Yisrael bless." Only under such circumstances, where the relationship is near and close, is the blessing worthy of serving as the exemplar of Jewish blessing.

Rav Zilberstein decries the fact that while parental love has clearly not diminished, parental interest and, hence, their relationship, has waned considerably. The culprit is, of course, our lack of time. We are busy earning a living, studying with a chavrusah, study partner, attending lectures and classes, weddings, bar-mitzvahs, and every celebration in between. We are not reneging our responsibility; we are actually overwhelmed with responsibilities that devour our available time, but our children are the victims.

I wonder if it was much different way back when I was growing up. Our parents were hard-working refugees, survivors of the Holocaust, to whom a twelve-hour day including travel was the norm. I saw my father in the morning at 6:30a.m. Shacharis, just before he left for work. We davened together. That, the Shabbos meal and Shabbos davening was the extent of the relationship, but it was complete and undivided, whole and wholehearted. The time spent together was mine; it was for us.

Let me contrast this fifty years later to our technologically-advanced society. I was visiting my children and davened in one of the more popular minyanim in the area. Seven o'clock Shacharis is attended by many sixth-grade boys, since they do not daven in school. They have quality time davening with their fathers and even learn a few minutes together, either before or after davening, depending on the father's schedule. This would be great if the father was not busy checking his "texts" or "messages" or his pocket-hand-held office. During davening, it is Hashem that he is ignoring; during his designated time with his son, it is his child that he is ignoring. Are these the values we want to impart to our children? Need I say more?

And as for me, I have given you Shechem… which I took from the hand of the Emori with my sword and with my bow. (48:22)

Why did Yaakov Avinu notify Yosef that he "obtained" Shechem through the medium of his sword and his bow? Is there a significant lesson to be derived herein? Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, quotes the late Mashgiach of Beth Medrash Govohah, who opines that Yosef is actually teaching us the key to his success in life: he never gave up; he fought with all of his might, inching forward in his quest to overcome the enticements of the yetzer hora, evil-inclination. The yetzer hora was his mortal enemy and, as such, there was no room for compromise. Yaakov obtained Shechem by fighting for it. This was his life's story, because anything worth having is worth fighting for.

The Mashgiach quoted Horav Yeruchum Levovitz, zl, who taught that this is true concerning all of us. Even the great Torah scholar, the very righteous, are able to stumble and fall prey to the allures of the evil-inclination. The yetzer hora is very crafty, and he can take down the most spiritually adept individual. In order for something to become our very own, one must contend for it. Even when one has begun to ascend the ladder of spirituality, his battle has not ended. Indeed, it is specifically at this juncture that he must wage an even more spirited struggle, because the yetzer hora is now roused and provoked to retrieve what it has lost.

Rav Nosson would often mention the Chovas Halevavos who comments on the "great war" which we carry on with the yetzer hora, who is unlike any other enemy. The usual foe gives up after losing a few battles. Realizing that continuing to battle will only increase his chances for defeat, he throws in the towel and surrenders. Not so the yetzer hora, who never gives up, who seeks new and "more improved" ways to ensnare us in its tentacles. Every time is a new opportunity for triumph. It will never give up - neither should we. It is a battle from which we cannot rest. Rav Nosson was queried about how a person can live a life of constant readiness to do battle. Will one not "snap" from the tension? He replied, "If anything, he will crack from a state of quiescence." We do not realize the emotional and spiritual fracture created by boredom, resulting from too much tranquility.

Changing a middah, character trait, is a most difficult undertaking. Maintaining a good character trait, not allowing oneself to fall into the abyss that personifies the life of one who lacks character refinement, is not much easier. An individual is judged by his character traits, since they are the root, the origin of his actions. Yes, the one who is seemingly observant, but who lacks character refinement, is a flawed person. Likewise, one who is a baal middos, person of refined character, presents hope. He is someone that is reachable.

The individual whose middos are exemplary was not born that way. Perhaps he had a head start with family and environment, but without his constant struggle to maintain his good character, he would not be a baal middos tovos. In fact, middos is one area that serves as a dichotomy between human and animal. A baal middos is a human being. One who lacks good character traits is not a human being. He may have the appearance of a human, even, at times, speak as a human, but, for all intents and purposes, he is not much different from an animal.

One who is able to exert control over his middos is a powerful person. It takes tremendous self-control, born of inner-strength, to exert mastery over one's middos. The blessings which such a person gives to others have unusual efficacy, because they emanate from the mouth of a very unique person. Rav Zilberstein relates that a young man who had been married for a number of years - and had yet to be blessed with a child - requested a blessing from Horav Chaim Kanievsky, Shlita. Rav Chaim told him to seek out a person who controlled himself during an argument, suffering humiliation and pain, yet refusing to respond with anything negative. Such a person, whose self-control is exemplary, can bless with great efficacy. The young man later related to Rav Chaim that it was with great difficulty that he discovered such a person. He asked for his blessing, which he received. His wife subsequently gave birth to a healthy child.

Rav Zilberstein concludes with a story well-worth repeating, because it demonstrates the power of a baal middos. In addition, it shows the tremendous self-control one must have to achieve such an august position. The daughter of a distinguished Torah scholar in Bnei Brak was married for quite some time and had still not conceived. She had undergone many painful and difficult fertility tests and procedures, all to no avail. The frustration led to a sense of serious depression, as she began to accept her designated fate. As Lag B'Omer approached, the young woman's mother decided that she would travel to Meron and pray at the kever, grave, of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for her daughter. Perhaps a mother's broken-hearted entreaty might make an impression. Her daughter decided to accompany her mother on the trip.

It was 10:00p.m., and mother and daughter set out for the bus station - in the company of thousands of others - to take the bus to Meron. After a while, they were able to obtain their seats on a bus. A woman, whom they did not know, sat down directly across from them. As the bus began to move, another passenger moved into their proximity. A man, who from all appearances seemed American, walked over to the seat occupied by this unknown woman and began to berate her: "You are sitting in my seat!" he screamed. She, of course, explained to him that he was mistaken; it was her seat, and she had been sitting there for a while.

The man was adamant. It was his seat, and he wanted it - now. The woman never raised her voice, despite the vitriol laced abuse he was pouring out at her. The man was clearly wrong, rude and impossible. This, however, did not seem to faze him. He wanted the seat, regardless of how much abuse it would take to obtain it. Passengers sitting in their proximity came over and pleaded with him to leave the woman alone - to no avail. He kept on screaming at her, "Why did you take my seat? Why do you not allow me to sit down in my seat?" During this entire time, the woman never responded; she did not say a word, suffering her humiliation in silence. Finally, after the man had subjected the poor woman to another one of his tirades, she picked herself up and left the bus.

Those who witnessed this travesty were appalled by the man's behavior and astounded by the woman's reaction. How could a person sustain so much abuse and remain silent as if it did not occur? The bus moved on, and then the man, who was now ensconced in the woman's seat, began to experience waves of regret: "Why was I so cruel to that woman? What prompted me to be so callous towards her?" He went from passenger to passenger, explaining that he was not that kind of person. He was really a decent individual who was overtired.

The bus pulled into a rest area, and the passengers alighted. Meanwhile, other busses pulled in, and the rest area quickly began to fill with passengers on their way to Meron. The woman who was relating the story noticed that getting off another bus was the woman who had originally been on her bus. Apparently, as soon as she left the original bus, another one pulled in and she was able to obtain a seat. It was at that moment, upon seeing the woman, that the mother and daughter remembered what Rav Chaim Kanievsky had said concerning the type of person from whom to elicit a blessing. This woman clearly fit the criterion.

"I went over to her, together with my daughter," the woman said, "and I asked her if she would forgive the man for the hurt that he caused." "Certainly," she replied. "I forgave him immediately."

"When I heard this," the woman continued, "I told her what Rav Kanievsky had said. She listened and motioned with her head in agreement. 'Will you bless my daughter? She has not yet been blessed with children,'" the mother asked. "I will be happy to bless her." She did, and, on Shevat 19, exactly nine months later, the daughter gave birth to a healthy son.

Va'ani Tefillah

Az yashir Moshe u'Bnei Yisrael. Then Moshe and the Bnei Yisrael sang.

Moshe is equivalent to the nation of Klal Yisrael, and they are equal to him. When they sang Shirah together, the potential of each individual Jew was magnified to the point that there were no limitations to what they could achieve. Any one of them could have reached the sublime spiritual plateau reached by Moshe Rabbeinu. Indeed, Chazal teach that the simple shifchah, maidservant, perceived greater revelation of Hashem Above than even Yechezkel HaNavi. This is why their Shirah was equal to that of Moshe.

There is still a difference, however, between the level achieved by Moshe and the one reached by Klal Yisrael. Horav Baruch Sorotzkin, zl, explains that there is a vast chasm between the plateau achieved through toil and labor and that achieved through being privy to a one-time, mind-altering experience. If one does not expend effort, working tirelessly, climbing step by step up the rungs of the spiritual ladder, then he can fall. Spiritual wonders are great motivators; miraculous experiences inspire, without a doubt, but one is still not standing upon an established, proven, strong foundation. He is on a precarious perch that can topple him. Yes, in the beginning it was Moshe and Bnei Yisrael but, over time, we fell, as we succumbed to the yetzer hora's blandishments. One must climb gradually - not jump.

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