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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Ephraim and Menashe shall be mine like Reuven and Shimon… (48:5)
By you shall Yisrael bless… May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe. (48:20)

At best, Ephraim and Menashe are considered equal to Reuven and Shimon, two of the Shivtei Kah, Tribes. Fathers and mothers do not bless their children, "May you be like Reuven and Shimon." Why, then, do Ephraim and Menashe serve as paradigms for blessing? Surely, they were not better people than Reuven and Shimon. Sefas Emes explains the distinction of Ephraim and Menashe. Although they were "second generation," thus at birth not on the same spiritual plateau as the Shevatim, they achieved their status by developing themselves to the point that they reached Shevatim status. In other words, while it is true that they did not have a higher status than the Shevatim, they developed themselves to equal them. Considering that Menashe and Ephraim started out light years behind Reuven and Shimon, achieving Shevatim - status was an exceptional feat. This is the blessing of spiritual growth which every parent gives his children: "May you be like Ephraim and Menashe; i.e., "May you grow spiritually from strength to strength."

The Sefas Emes is teaching us that we have "natural" strengths, physical attributes, with which we are born and upon which our natural potential is established. A human being born with these physical qualities is capable of achieving just so much. Then he has the spiritual ability to transcend this potential by pushing harder, working more, exerting himself so that he makes an impact. Hashem listens and grants him the ability, the strength, the wisdom to develop further, deeper, higher. This is the blessing of Yesimcha Elokim k'Ephraim u'k'Menashe. You should not be impeded by arbitrary boundaries. As Ephraim and Menashe superseded their physical capabilities and achieved Shevet -status, so will you. Just as they did it on their own through exceptional motivation and work, however, so must you. You do yours - Hashem will do the rest.

But as for me, when I came from Padan, Rachel died on me in the land of Canaan on the road… and I buried her there on the road to Efras. (48:7)

Earlier, Yaakov Avinu had asked to be buried in the Meoras Ha'Machpeilah. In all fairness, Yaakov was expecting Yosef to do something for him which he himself had not done for Yosef's mother, Rachel. Sensing that this might be bothering Yosef, the Patriarch explained his actions. It was not his choice to bury the Matriarch on the road, only a short distance from Bais Lechem. Hashem had commanded him to bury her there in preparation for the future, when she would be a source of solace to the Jewish People being led into captivity, following the destruction of the first Bais Hamikdash. When the Jews passed by - hungry, tormented, filled with fear of what the future would bring - Rachel's neshamah, soul, came out of her grave and wept on their behalf. She entreated the Almighty to have mercy upon His children. The Navi Yirmiyahu 31:14 so movingly relates the "dialogue," Kol b'ramah nishma, "A voice is heard on high, the sound of lamentation…Rachel weeping for her children… (G-d replied to her) Withhold your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded, says Hashem…and your children will return to their border."

For generations, Rachel's tomb has been the location to which the Jewish People have turned to pray, to receive solace and hope. Whether the supplications are national or personal, the address of the "Mama Rachel" has eased and soothed the hearts of the aggrieved, the grief-stricken, the individuals seeking hope and encouragement. We wonder why. What attributes of Rachel's grave have engendered such popularity? While the graves of many tzaddikim, righteous persons, in Eretz Yisrael are considered holy sites, and, as such, are visited by thousands, something about Rachel's Tomb compels Jews of all stripes and beliefs to gravitate to this site.

I write this on the yahrzeit of Rachel Imeinu, and, after thinking about the question, I realize that the answer is in the pasuk in Yirmiyahu which was quoted above. Rachel mevakah al baneha, "Rachel cries for her children." It is the cries of a mother - a mother who is sensitive to the needs of all of her children. Let us face it, who were the first Jews to pass by Rachel's gravesite? They were not rabbonim, roshei yeshivah, bnei Torah, bnos Torah. They were not the spiritual elite - because then there were none - or very few. The Jews who were exiled from Eretz Yisrael, survivors of the destroyed Temple, were idol worshippers, thieves, malcontents who did not get along with one another - hardly Jewish/spiritual nobility. Yet, a mother is a mother to all of her children, regardless of their conduct and demeanor. On the contrary, the ones who are challenging usually receive a greater manifestation of love. Rachel wept for them - then- and she continues to do so today - whether they are roshei yeshivah, rebbetzins, or alienated Jews looking for a "return address" for their spiritual lives.

Yosef understood his father's message. As the one son who grew up away from home in the dungeons of Egypt, a country notorious for its decadence and moral turpitude, he was acutely aware of the importance of a common address for all people, a place where all can turn to pray, to seek a sense of comfort and hope. A mother's love transcends a child's most iniquitous needs and finds a place in her heart for his return. While all the Imahos, Matriarchs, have this title, it was Rachel who was buried on the side of the road, to be present one day for her children. Her self- abnegation and sensitivity to the feelings of her sister, Leah, primed her for her future role as "Mother Rachel," the address for all Jews.

Interestingly, many of us journey to Rachel's Tomb without realizing its true significance. The following story, which crossed my desk recently, is well worth sharing. One of the most distinguished personages of Yerushalayim's Old Yishuv, Jewish settlement, about one hundred years ago, was Horav David Biederman, zl. A scion of an illustrious rabbinic and chassidic family, he was a devout individual who was recognized as a tzaddik, righteous person, among tzaddikim. His primary concern in life was living up to the expectations of his Creator.

One day, Rav David decided to undertake the long, arduous journey from Yerushalayim to Kever Rachel. While today this is not considered much of a trip, a century ago this trip took one complete day traveled by donkey. He set out early, following the vasikin, sunrise, minyan. On the way, his mind was set on contemplating the correct prayers to recite, and for whom. He was concerned lest he forget something. This was too difficult a journey to just return again if he had forgotten something.

When he finally arrived at the Tomb, he realized that he was not alone. A young woman with a number of children in tow had arrived earlier, and she was basically "setting up shop" there. She had spread out a blanket on the stone floor of the domed chamber, laying her youngest child down to sleep. She began to prepare dinner for her family.

Rav David was incredulous. Her actions were demeaning this holy site. Had she no respect? Did she fail to realize where she was? How could she involve herself in such mundane matters while at Kever Rachel? Rather than keep these questions pent-up within himself, the sage approached the woman, and, in a less-than-amicable tone, demanded an explanation.

The weary mother turned to the venerable sage and said, "I think that our Mama Rachel would be pleased that we are eating and resting here."

"Wow!" Rav David was floored. He suddenly felt faint and queasy as a result of the realization that he had for decades been making the journey to Rachel's Tomb and had not even begun to understand its significance. Here, this simple, unschooled woman had a deeper perception than he had of the true holiness of Rachel's Tomb. What had he been doing all these years? What had he been thinking? He now understood why, Rachel mevakah al banehah, "Rachel weeps for her children": Her desire is only that we have some relief, some comfort in life, some peace of mind, so that we can better serve Hashem. Well, is that not what every Jewish mother wants for her child?

From that day on, whenever Rav David made the trip to Rachel's Tomb, he brought along food to share with the others who were visiting their "mother," entreating her to intercede on their behalf.

We have no dearth of inspirational "Jewish mother" stories. The following vignette, which has previously found its place on these pages, is a favorite. It was the time to elect a Chief Rabbi for Yerushalayim. The candidate who was being endorsed was Horav Chaim Yaakov Levine, an erudite scholar, whose father, Horav Aryeh, had achieved eminence as the Tzadik of Yerushalayim. The push was on to elect Rav Levine. The candidate, however, wanted to know who else had been nominated for the position. When he saw that Horav Betzalel Zolty was also a candidate, he demurred, asserting that under no circumstances would he run. A number of distinguished rabbanim attempted in vain to get him to recant. He absolutely refused. There was no way he would compete against Rav Zolty for the position of Chief Rabbi. It took some time, but he finally related his reason.

He had heard from his revered father, zl, who, once, while walking through the small alleyways of Old Yerusahalayim, chanced upon a woman who was darning socks by the light of a small torch. In today's society, where nothing lasts and change is a way of life, mending socks is a strange way to earn a living, certainly not a profitable one. Usually, it was someone who was quite poor who would do this to "supplement" their income. "Why are you doing this," asked Rav Aryeh, "and especially with so little light?" "I am a poor widow," she replied, "and with the few coins that I make, I am able to pay a rebbe to learn Torah with my orphaned son." The woman continued her work, as tears rolled down her face onto the socks she was repairing.

"Do you know who this widow was?" Rav Chaim Yaakov asked. "She was the mother of Rav Betzalel Zolty! Is it possible to estimate the value of that righteous woman's tears? Can you imagine the effect of those tears? There is no question in my mind. Rav Zolty should become Rav of Yerushalayim. His spiritual growth was catalyzed on a field irrigated with a widowed mother's tears."

But as for me - when I came from Paddan, Rachel died on me…and I buried her there on the road to Efras. (48:7)

Yaakov Avinu explains to his son, Yosef, why he did not bury Rachel in the Meoras HaMachpelah. It was Hashem's decision that Yaakov bury Rachel on the side of the road, so that the exiled Jews on their way to Bavel would pass by the Matriarch's grave. Her neshamah, soul, would then rise up, weep and pray for their safe passage and eventual return. Her prayers effect a positive response from Hashem. We wonder why Rachel was selected for this mission. Clearly, she was virtuous and saintly, and, thus, her prayers would have great efficacy, but is that all? Is it simply Rachel's ability to pray from the heart, to weep with sincerity that makes the difference?

Horav Dovid Budnick, zl, Rosh Yeshivah in pre-World War II Novarodok, suggests that Rachel's prayer was comprised of more than her prayer. It was Rachel herself, her character. A deep understanding of her life can catalyze within a person a sense of return, a desire to repent and embrace the life of a Jew. Geulah, redemption, will occur when we will perform teshuvah, repent/return to the Almighty. Rachel's life can generate that emotion, that striving to return.

The second Bais Hamikdash was destroyed due to sinaas chinam, unwarranted hatred, among Jews. They studied Torah, performed mitzvos, but they did not get along. They had no regard for one another. It was that reason - totally unwarranted, baseless hatred - that brought about the churban, destruction. Let us analyze the roots of hatred. Enmity does not grow in a vacuum. One does not just suddenly decide to hate his fellow. The precursor for hate is simple jealousy. We become envious of the fellow who "used" to be our "good" friend, and suddenly we begin to hate him. My "friend" receives an honor which makes me envious. The next step is denigrating him. He does not deserve it. Who is he to be so honored? Why him, and not me? This is how unwarranted, baseless, nothing to gain hatred begins. It begins with kinah, envy, and graduates to sinah, enmity. Rachel Imeinu withstood one of the greatest challenges that a human can confront. Yaakov wanted to marry her - and only her. It was her hand in marriage for which he worked seven long years. Out of his love for Rachel, the time went by quickly. This is all attested to by the Torah. Rachel was well aware of this and waited patiently, anticipating a life of matrimony with Yaakov. Suddenly, her father, Lavan the swindler, a man who was incapable of telling the truth, came up with a plan to swindle Yaakov and Rachel. He claimed he was doing it to preserve the custom of not giving the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. Did he really care about Leah? No! He was a crook, and this is how a crook operates!

Rachel, nebach, regrettably, was the innocent victim. She was humiliated by her father, and she would have to witness her sister wearing the wedding gown. She would marry Yaakov, for whom Rachel waited seven years. How easy it would have been for Rachel to blow the ruse wide open and expose it for what it really was. She did not, however, because it would have hurt her sister. She swallowed her pride, accepted the shame, and even gave Leah the predetermined signs. She went so far as to remain in hiding while Yaakov spoke with Leah, answering for her sister, allowing the ruse to work. She was willing to do all of this as long as her sister, Leah, would not be humiliated. This represents nobility of character at its zenith. This was unabashed goodness, a golden heart over-flowing with kindness and sensitivity. Is there still a question concerning why Rachel was selected to be the Matriarch to intercede on behalf of her children? They had been victims of strife founded upon the seeds of envy, cultivated by baseless hatred. She would teach and inspire them about how brothers and sisters should act, how human beings should behave toward one another. Her inspiration would catalyze their introspection and eventual teshuvah which would bring about the Geulah sheleimah, complete Redemption. It was not just Rachel's prayer. It was Rachel Imeinu as the hallmark of selflessness, love for a sister, empathy for a sister's pain, a willingness to sustain pain and humiliation, in order to spare another person. Rachel will help to catalyze the Geulah.

Reuven, you are my firstborn…water-like impetuosity - you cannot be foremost…Shimon and Levi are comrades, their weaponry is a stolen craft. (49:3,4,5)

Yaakov Avinu's blessing to his sons commenced with words of rebuke to his first three sons. The reproof was not pretty - but then, it never really is. It was succinct and to the point, focusing on their errors, expressed without embellishment. It must have hurt. These were grown men, leaders of distinction, from whom the future Klal Yisrael would descend. To their father, however, they were his sons, and, as such, he was obligated to rebuke them. It was not a time for coddling or sugar-coating. Yaakov told it like it was.

Chazal laud the brothers' reaction to their father's critique. In fact, Yalkut Shimoni posits that, as a result of Reuven, Shimon and Levi's acceptance of the rebuke without complaint, they merited to have their genealogy mentioned in the beginning of Sefer Shemos when the Torah details the pedigree of Moshe and Aharon. Apparently, accepting chastisement without argument, conceding to one's failings without attempting to justify previous actions, demonstrates incredible nobility of character and tremendous inner-strength. This idea is supported by the pasuk in Mishlei 15:31, "The ear that hears life-giving reproof will abide in the midst of the wise."

Horav Henach Leibowitz, zl, analyzes this statement. Understandably, accepting rebuke is not easy, acceding to criticism is quite difficult. It takes a strong person to concede his error. These were not, however, average people. They were the Shivtei Kah, the twelve tribes who were the foundation from whom Klal Yisrael descended and upon which it was built. Furthermore, this was an especially auspicious moment. Yaakov lay on his deathbed. These were no simple words of reproof; this was Yaakov's "good-by" to his sons. They stood there with their heads bowed in respect, accepting his critique. They did not attempt to defend themselves, to justify their actions, to offer some sort of rationale. For this they are lauded. Why?

The Rosh Yeshivah derives from here that accepting rebuke requires great inner fortitude. Even Torah giants such as the Shivtei Kah could have found it difficult, despite all the love they manifested for their father, and all the love they knew he had for them. They could have demonstrated a resistance, however so slight, but an impediment to acceptance nonetheless. They triumphed over whatever feelings of opposition they might have had, and for this they are praised.

In the commentary to Sefer Tehillim, Midrash Socher Tov notes that David HaMelech found it difficult to accept Avigayil's criticism concerning Naval Ha'Karmi. She concluded her words with, Al tomar bishvil she'ani melech, ein adam mochichani, "Because I am King, no man (or woman) can rebuke me," Hocheiach atah atzmecha, "Rebuke yourself!" Avigayil's need to add an addendum, "Rebuke yourself!" indicates that she was concerned lest David not accept her critique. We should bear in mind that this is David HaMelech about whom we are speaking, and the sin is murder. Yet, there was a sense of foreboding concerning his concession to rebuke. So, what should we say? Is it any wonder that as soon as we even begin alluding to some form of chastisement against another person, we ourselves become the target? "How dare you! How could you! Who do you think you are? What makes you so perfect?" These are common responses to rebuke.

If it is that difficult, how do we get around it? How does one develop a positive attitude to rebuke, a willingness to listen, to change, to act appropriately? The Rosh Yeshivah suggests that the answer lies in the Midrash's rendition of Avigayil's last three words to David HaMelech: Hocheach es atzmecha, "Rebuke yourself." We learn from this that when we hear rebuke from others, we should immediately introspect and "take over," reproving ourselves. The time to become inspired and to act is when one hears it from others. Instead of closing our minds and hearts to someone's sincere critique, it is a time for us to act, to take the "bull by the horns" and personally tackle the issues before us. It is all in our hands. It requires a heavy dose of pride-swallowing, but, ultimately, it will be well worth the effort.

"So now, please forgive the spiteful deeds of the servants of your father's G-d." And Yosef wept when they spoke to him. (50:17)

Yaakov Avinu had passed from this world. Feeling a sense of foreboding, the brothers asked Yosef to forgive them for what they had done to him. They recalled the suffering which had resulted from his sale to a degenerate nation that relegated him to live in miserable dungeons with individuals of base character. From their choice of words (so now), intimating that from now on, since Yaakov's death, they were seeking Yosef's forgiveness. What does Yaakov's passing have to do with the need for forgiveness?

In his volume, A Vort From Rav Pam, Rabbi Shalom Smith quotes the Rosh Yeshivah's explanation. When a father passes from this world, the children are understandably left in flux. On the one hand, they have a sense of loss. The individual whom they revered, who was their mentor, their confidante, their friend, is gone. They must now fend for themselves. They must also seek ways to perpetuate his memory, through ways that will serve as an enduring legacy for them- and eternal merit for him. Clearly, this is not a time when one takes revenge against a brother. Indeed, this is why the brothers entreated Yosef to forgive them. Whatever unity existed within this fragile family unit would be dismantled if Yosef were to seek revenge. Additionally, this would cause great pain for Yaakov's neshamah in Olam Habba. Imagine the shame Yaakov would experience in The World of Truth when it became known that his sons had been fighting. This would be a sad commentary on the education he gave them. The neshamos would begin to talk. Yaakov would be blamed for not providing an appropriate education. Clearly, this hatred did not just happen. It must have been there for quite some time, simmering, waiting for an opportunity such as Yaakov's death. He was not here to prevent Yosef from openly hating them. What could be a greater disgrace for the memory of a parent than to "look down" and see bitter acrimony prevailing among his children. When Yosef heard the implication of their words, he broke down and wept, hurt that they would suspect him of such discriminatory behavior.

The Rosh Yeshivah is not afraid to address a problem that plagues and ultimately destroys some families. As long as the parents are alive, appearances of unity and congeniality are maintained. A parent passes from the world and, suddenly, the children all seek avenues for perpetuating his/her name. L'ilui nishmas, to elevate the soul, is the catchword used by those who study Mishnayos, give charity, establish free-loan funds and simply perform manifold acts of chesed. All of these are wonderful expressions of kavod, honor, for a parent, but what one must never forget is that: the greatest respect one can give to a parent's memory is to live harmoniously with his / her siblings. This will be a clear indication and positive testament to their parent's education. People will see that these parents raised their children in the most positive manner, in such a manner that is expected of a Jew. What good is a son's Kaddish if he does not talk to his brother or sister? We understand now why Yosef wept, to think that his brothers would suspect him of such malevolence.

Elokei olam b'rachamecha ha'rabim, racheim aleinu
G-d of the Universe, in Your great mercy, have compassion on us.

The blessing of the me'oros, stars and planets, is primarily a blessing of praise. We thank the Almighty for His creation of light and emphasize that everything that He creates is good, even if, with our limited perception, it does not necessarily appear as good. We wonder why there is an interruption in the blessing. We begin with words of praise and gratitude, interrupting to entreat Hashem for compassion. We should stick to the subject. The answer cited by the commentators is that the me'oros were created on the fourth day of Creation. In Sefer Bereishis, the word me'oros is spelled missing one vav, which allows it to be read as meiros, curses. Chazal teach that sickness was also created on that day. Therefore, along with the stars and planets, we were given sickness. In our daily prayers, when we praise Hashem for the me'oros, we take a "break" and ask Him to spare us from the meiros.

Alternatively, we recognize Hashem as the G-d of Creation and the G-d of history. Hashem created the universe, and He continues in this function providing His constant Providential control over our lives. We recognize this by issuing our request that He spare us ill health. We, thus, acknowledge that both the me'oros and the meiros emanate from the same Source.

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