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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Hashem appeared to him. (18:1)

Rashi tells us that Hashem appeared to Avraham Avinu in order to visit him during his recuperation from his Bris Milah. Man is instructed to cleave to Hashem. Chazal explain that we cling to Hashem by following in His ways. As He visits the sick, so should we emulate this great act of chesed and see to it that we care for the ill and infirm. Visiting the sick means more than sending flowers and a card. While this gesture certainly has value, the essence of the mitzvah requires that one pray for the sick person. In fact, we determine when we visit the sick according to what time will inspire the greatest outpouring of tefillah, prayer.

In his inimitable manner, Horav Avraham Pam, zl, focuses on this mitzvah. What is most inspirational about his shmuess, ethical discourse, is the sensitivity, caring and love that the venerable Rosh Hayeshivah displays toward his fellowman. Rav Pam gave a shmuess about what he felt was important for his talmidim to learn. Some may feel that Bikur Cholim, visiting the sick, is relegated to the female gender; Hashem Yisborach demonstrates otherwise. Rav Pam's shmuess delves into the minutiae of this mitzvah from a practical standpoint, something he sought to infuse in his talmidim, students. Bikur Cholim means more than mere visitation. It compels us to assess the needs of the sick person and to address them. In some situations, this may involve seeking appropriate medical attention. In other circumstances, it means providing for simple necessities such as seforim, tapes and various items that can occupy the patient's time. The Perishah emphasizes the importance of making sure that the patient's room is clean and orderly, for a person's mind is clear when everything around him is neat, clean and in its proper place. Incidentally, this applies equally to the classroom. A student studies best in a clean, organized environment.

One who is a Kohen has a problem visiting the sick in a hospital which also has a morgue. Nonetheless, there are other ways to enliven the patient's spirits, as evidenced by Rav Pam himself, who was a Kohen.

There was an elderly Jew who davened with Rav Pam in the neighborhood shul. The man was hospitalized with a serious illness. Rav Pam wanted badly to visit him, but due to his status as a Kohen, he was not able to do so. What did the saintly Rosh Hayeshivah, whose sensitivity to other Jews was his hallmark, do? He wrote the man a three-line note wishing him a refuah sheleimah and expressing his hope that the man would soon return to his place in shul.

Can we imagine what such a simple note from Rav Pam could do for an elderly Jew who was alone in the hospital? To be told that he was missed in shul and to be given a brachah for a refuah sheleimah by one of the spiritual giants of the generation could raise a person's spirits from the depths. Indeed, the note did so. The man was strengthened by it. He displayed the note that the "Rabbi" sent to everyone who came to visit. It became his most treasured possession during his last months on earth. When the man passed away, the family hired a rabbi to deliver a eulogy at the funeral service. Not knowing the deceased, the rabbi based his remarks on the salutation Rav Pam wrote in the note. The salutation was Rav Pam's characterization of the man!

Rav Pam emphasized the great kindness a little gesture of sincerity can affect. This note, which meant so much to the sick Jew, became the basis for his own eulogy. He would often express his fear that this kleine tzetele, small note, would someday be held against him by the Heavenly Tribunal, which would accuse, "If you saw how much one small note can accomplish, why did you not do this more often?" What amazes this writer is the nature of Rav Pam's thoughts. Instead of the customary pat on the back for which we all yearn, he was concerned that he either did not do enough or did not do it often enough.

In closing, Rav Pam explains that besides the halachic aspects of the mitzvah, there is a crucial emotional aspect to recognize. Many people feel that their achievements and qualities are underestimated, a fact which is regrettably true. We are into ourselves and it is basically our own accomplishments that mean something to us. This attitude misses the mark and is harmful to others. People crave recognition. While this is true on a regular basis, one who is bedridden or hospitalized, forcibly removed from his daily endeavor and contact with the outside world, is even more miserable. Loneliness, lethargy and feelings of depression quickly set in. This can even delay the recuperative process. Hence, someone who finds it difficult to visit the sick should make it a point to call or write, to convey a few words of hope and encouragement. At least the patient will not think he has been forgotten. When a sick person sees that people care about him, it increases his desire to live, to fight the illness. Indeed, Bikur Cholim can spell the difference between life and death.

And Hashem said, "Shall I conceal from Avraham what I do…And Avraham will be a great nation…For I have cherished him, because he commands his children and his household after him…Avraham came forward, and said, "Will You ever obliterate righteous with wicked?" (18:17,18,19,20)

Horav Yaakov Moshe Charlap, zl, posits that Avraham Avinu's dialogue with Hashem serves as a cogent lesson in how to educate future generations in the area of middos tovos, positive character refinement. To this end, Hashem said, "Shall I conceal from Avraham what I am about to do to Sodom?" After all, he is the educator par-excellence, whose devotion to his progeny sets the standard for others to emulate. Therefore, it is essential that he know what I am about to do to Sodom, so that he will transmit the information - to his descendants, concerning the dangers of negative character traits.

Furthermore, Avraham will derive from My actions that one must be patient with his children. Give them space and time to return, to mend their ways. At the same time, however, he must realize that there is a time when enough is enough. Sodom had reached the point of no return. The residents were beyond education. Punishment was the only recourse.

Avraham Avinu countered, "Will You even obliterate righteous with wicked?" If the purpose of the destruction of Sodom was not specifically for its pedagogic value, I would never question it. Since it is to serve as a lesson for the future, would it not be a greater lesson if the city was spared because of the righteous? This way, future generations would realize the overwhelming role the righteous play and the inspiration they infuse in a community. Regrettably, the number of righteous was inconsequential.

And Lot saw and (he) stood up to meet them. (19:1)

Rashi tells us that Lot learned from the house of Avraham the significance of seeking out guests. In other words, Lot, by his very nature and deed, was not a person who enjoyed performing acts of loving-kindness. Opening his home to wayfarers was not only against his nature, but, in Sodom, it was also against the law and, thus, dangerous. Yet, he did so because of the chinuch, education, that he received from Avraham. This teaches us the far-reaching effect of education. Lot spent his early years in the home of Avraham and Sarah. There he imbibed the spiritual lessons from the paragons of education. Avraham Avinu was the amud ha'chesed, pillar of loving-kindness. He exemplified this attribute in his every demeanor. Lot was inculcated with this middah, and it stayed with him in his later years, when his "other" character traits were manifest.

We suggest that it was no simple education that inspired Lot. True, it was Avraham as the rebbe that should have made the difference. There was something else, however. Rashi says that Lot learned chesed in Avraham's home. This does not mean that Avraham Avinu gave classes in chesed in his house. It means that Lot saw by personal example that chesed reigned supreme. When one observes the lesson, it has greater and more enduring value than when it is simply taught in the classroom. When the rebbe's demeanor is the classroom of instruction, its effect has a greater impact on the student. Avraham's home was the natural classroom, because he lived and breathed his lessons.

Still he lingered - so the men grasped him by his hand. (19:16)

Lot is an enigma. Throughout the entire episode of his rescue from the destruction of Sodom and the ensuing relationship with his daughters, back to the previous parsha where he severed himself from Avraham and his G-d, Lot perplexes us. On the one hand, he risked his life for the safety of the angels. On the other hand, he offered his children to the wild mob outside his door. As he was being rescued, he lingered to save his money, the sole reason that he came to Sodom. In the end, in a state of inebriation, he fathered his grandsons. Previously, he had been Avraham Avinu's close disciple, absorbing not only his teachings, but even his mannerisms. Yet, when the going became intolerable between his shepherds and Avraham's, he left, as the Torah relates (13:11), "And Lot journeyed from the east." Chazal say that the word kedem, usually translated as east, can also be understood as kadmono shel olam, "the Ancient One of the world," its Creator. Lot separated himself from Avraham, saying, "I want neither Avraham, nor his G-d." So what was he, a saint or a sinner? If he was both, how did this reality unfold?

Horav Yechezkel Levinstein, zl, explains how a person can grow up in the presence of Avraham and Sarah, be witness to the glorious endeavors on behalf of the monotheistic belief, absorb their Torah and ethics, and, yet, descend to the nadir of depravity, as evidenced in Lot's relationship with his daughters and his rejection of everything that his rebbe Avraham stood for. He explains that Lot possessed middos ra'os, negative character traits, and an overwhelming passion for materialism that had not been expunged during his tenure with Avraham and Sarah. True, he succeeded in covering it up out of shame. He did not want Avraham to discover his true essence, so he put on a show. The moment that the chains were off, however, Lot reverted to his true self. Immediately, he expressed his disdain for Avraham and his monotheistic belief. This idea applies equally to anyone who does not work on developing his character traits. Rav Chatzkel asserts that one can study for years in a yeshivah gedolah and develop into a G-d-fearing Torah scholar. Yet, when he leaves, he may suddenly transform into a stranger to Torah. What happened to his learning? What happened to his yiraas Shomayim? Nothing happened to it. It was all built upon a shaky foundation. As long as he disregarded his middos, character traits, his Torah study and fear of Heaven were foundless. He did not change. He acted differently, but he remained the same. The following story serves as a powerful analogy to the above thesis. A distinguished rav came to a community for a visit. In an attempt to get an understanding of the nature of the community, he sought out various individuals and asked them probing questions about the character and activities of the citizenry. "Young man, tell me, what is the state of mitzvah observance in this town?" the rav asked the first person he met.

"Rebbe, our town has people that are truly righteous," the young man responded. "You will never find a thief or murderer, or, indeed, anyone whose character traits are deficient."

The rav met another person and asked him, "Tell me about the interpersonal relationships among the members of this community." "Rebbe, in this city everyone loves one another," the man said. "No one would ever testify falsely or lift a finger to his fellow. Never does it occur that someone raises a hand to his fellow man. Indeed, if every Jew was like us, Moshiach would surely come."

When the rav heard this, he was greatly impressed. He still had one more question to ask to determine the essence of the community. "Can you tell me about the community's observance of the mitzvos of Tefillah, prayer, Tefillin, Shabbos, and other such mitzvos that define man's relationship with the Almighty?"

"Rebbe," the third man answered, somewhat incredulously. "Why are you so negative? Is it not sufficient that the members of our community are fine, upstanding citizens who are active in all sorts of charitable endeavors? They get along with and care for each other. Why do you have to bog them down with all these mitzvos? Is it not enough that they do nothing wrong?" The rav was dumbfounded. These people really had it all wrong. How was he to impress upon them that sur meira, refraining from doing evil, was not enough? One also had to be asei tov, be proactive and perform positive mitzvos.

While the rav was thinking, a foul odor seemed to fill the air. He looked around and noticed that the carcass of a dead mule had been flung to the side of the road. Suddenly, a brilliant idea dawned on him. He knew how to convey the message to the townspeople. He turned to his shamash, assistant, and asked him to go to the tailor and purchase a large black sheet. The shamash went and bought a black sheet, which the rav, in turn, draped over the dead mule. He then instructed the shamash to go throughout the community and publicize that everyone should gather in the street for the funeral of a meis mitzvah, someone who had died and had no one to be involved in his funeral. This mitzvah takes precedence over all other mitzvos.

Word got out that someone had been tragically killed, and his funeral was presently taking place. Everyone should attend the service. The whole town, men and women, gathered to hear the rav eulogize the deceased.

The rav began his eulogy with a broken voice, "My brethren, the deceased was holy. His life was tragically cut short. He did not deserve to die. He never spoke lashon hora, slanderous speech, nor was he a talebearer. In fact, throughout his life, he never spoke - period." The people were stupefied. Who could this great person be?

The rav continued, "He was among those who accept their humiliation and do not respond negatively. He was constantly being beaten, taking each lash stoically. Material necessities meant nothing to him. He never ate meat or fish. He suffered the cold with whatever covering he had. He never slept in a bed, laying down on the ground or on some straw. He was the paragon of humility. Who can replace him?"

Everyone cried bitter tears for the exalted deceased. He apparently was no simple human being, but who was he? "My friends, we must all ask his forgiveness. Little were we aware that in our midst lived such a great tzaddik. Oy, we were so wrong. How did we ignore such a great presence in our community?"

Suddenly, to everyone's shock the rav pulled off the black sheet. Everyone took a step back when they saw that the "great tzaddik" was none other than a foul-smelling dead mule. They, of course, began to mumble. "How could you have fooled us so?" they asked the rav.

"I did not fool you," the rav countered. "Everything that I said was absolutely true. The donkey meticulously fulfilled the concept of sur meira. He never wavered from his lack of doing evil. Yet, he remained a donkey all of his life, because it is not enough merely to distance oneself from evil. One must act positively and perform mitzvos. Without mitzvah observance, one remains a donkey."

Yes, Lot distanced himself from evil. On the other hand, he did nothing positive to refine his character. He was a donkey in many ways. When he left Avraham, his true character was manifest. An observant Jew is one who distances himself from anything negative, while simultaneously acting in a positive manner to perform mitzvos and refine his character.

Va'ani Tefillah

B'yado afkid ruchi, b'eis ishan v'a'ira - I entrust my spirit into His hand when I go to sleep and when I am awake.

When I lose control of my conscious self, I entrust my conscious life to Hashem, knowing that He will do with me as He sees fit. Likewise, when I am awake, I know that I will remain so, as long as it is the will of the Almighty. In Tehillim 31:6, David Hamelech affirms his belief that Hashem will redeem him - if he is worthy.

Man entrusts his soul to Hashem, and when he arises the same soul is immediately returned to him. When we deposit an object with someone, there is always the possibility that the original deposit might be accidentally exchanged for another object. Not so with Hashem. Every morning, upon awakening, the very same soul that has been with the individual since birth is returned to him. Moreover, the soul is returned fresh and invigorated. The Midrash adds that from the phenomenon of our daily renewal, we learn to have faith in the future redemption and renewal of Klal Yisrael.

trht tku hk 's - Hashem li v'lo ira - Hashem is with me. Therefore, I shall not fear.

David Hamelech says in Tehillim 118:6 that even when he was forsaken by men on earth, he feared not, because of his trust in Hashem. Furthermore, even when men were at his side to help him, he viewed them as agents sent by the Almighty. He understood that everything in his life, both positive and negative, was present by Divine design.

We begin our day with Adon Olam, proclaiming our selfless devotion to Hashem, understanding that He controls everything in our life. What better way to begin and end the day than by expressing some of the most fundamental and profound principles of our faith?

Mazel Tov to
Rabbi & Mrs. Simcha Dessler
upon the bar mitzvah of their son
Eliyahu Eliezer
May he fulfill your every wish.
A special Mazel Tov to the grandparents
Rabbi & Mrs. N. Z. Dessler
Marilyn and Ivan Soclof



Peninim on the Torah is in its 11th year of publication. The first seven years have been published in book form.

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