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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


While he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day. (18:1)

Avraham Avinu was selected to be the spiritual father of all of mankind due to his profound belief in the Almighty. The exemplary behavior he exhibited in caring for all people, which earned him the descriptor Amud ha'chesed, Pillar of kindness, demonstrates his incredible sense of mission to reach out in order to help others. He set the tone for his descendants. Unquestionably, Klal Yisrael have taken up the banner of chesed, a mission that encompasses all segments of Jewish belief. Indeed, one of the three character traits by which a Jew is defined is gomlei chasadim, one who carries out acts of loving-kindness. I recently came across two stories relating to the middah, character trait, of chesed which I feel shed a perspective on the profound meaning of chesed, defining our obligation towards others.

In Touched By a Story 2, Rabbi Yechiel Spero relates two episodes of chesed which teach us a number of powerful lessons. The first story is about an elderly, lonely Jew, a Holocaust survivor who had lost everything. Through various machinations, he ended up making Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey, his home. The yeshivah provided him with a bed and meals, and the venerable Rosh Hayeshivah, Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, provided him with friendship. Rav Aharon was a world leader with the pulse of world Jewry constantly on his mind; yet, he found the time to give encouragement and solace to a lonely Jew. His sympathetic ear was always listening for an opportunity to help this elderly Jew, as well as many others.

It was Yom Kippur, and the man, whose name was Leibel, approached the Rosh Hayeshivah and said that he did not feel well. Rav Aharon placed his arm around Reb Leibel and told him to lie down. Rav Aharon continued with his intense davening, and Reb Leibel went to the dormitory. The rest of the day was uneventful. The yeshivah davened with its usual fervor, Rav Aharon setting the tone for the intensity and devotion. Indeed, to gaze upon the Rosh Hayeshivah was to see a spectacle of spirituality and devotion unlike anything experienced on this earthly world. Rav Aharon's angelic presence seemed to infuse the entire assemblage.

The sun was setting, and the Minchah service was coming to an end. Everybody was mentally preparing for the concluding Tefillah of the day - Neilah. This was the prayer in which everybody raised their hearts and souls to the Almighty in a last appeal for a positive conclusion to the day. Suddenly, Rav Aharon left his seat and went over to an older student, saying, "I want you to go to the dormitory and daven Neilah in Reb Leibel's room. If he is up to it, daven with him. If not, just stay at his side and daven on your own."

"But, Rebbe," the student said, "we are about to daven Neilah. How can I miss the most important Tefillah of the year? No Minyan, no olam, group of worshippers. I will be all alone. What kind of davening could that be?"

The Rosh Hayeshivah just stared back at the young man with his piercing eyes and said, "I am referring to a chesed for an eltere Yid, elderly Jew, and you are bringing up the issue of Neilah!" The student did not need any more encouragement. He understood what the Rosh Yeshivah was demanding of him, as he quickly acceded to Rav Aharon's directive.

I think the lesson is clear: all too often, we are so wrapped up in ourselves and our own personal spiritual development that we forget that there are people out there who need us. A smile, an embrace, a good word: all these and more can make a world of difference for another Jew. It takes so little, and it can accomplish so much.

At times, our act of kindness can not only help another person, but it can earn for us lasting merit and exceptional reward, as evidenced in the following narrative. It is about a woman who was rapidly approaching middle-age and had not yet been blessed with a child. The doctors, Tefillos, prayers and berachos did not seem to help - yet. To keep herself busy, she would go to the hospital and volunteer her services. One day, as she was leaving Maimonedis Hospital in Brooklyn, she walked by a room and she heard an elderly woman moaning. She entered the room and attempted to initiate a conversation with the patient. The woman was despondent. Alone in the world, she was used to spending all day staring at the walls. She tried to give the impression that she was not interested in company. She did not succeed.

Slowly, over a period of a few months, the volunteer was able to scale the wall that the elderly woman had placed around herself. She penetrated her heart, as the two became friends. She would visit everyday. After awhile, she was even able to elicit a smile from the patient. It was clear that the high point of the elderly woman's day was her visit from the volunteer. Regrettably, as her happiness increased, the disease that was ravaging her body was progressing. It was clear that her days on this world were numbered. The last day of her life came quickly, but she was prepared and above all - no longer alone. She looked at the woman who had befriended her and with tear-filled eyes, she said, "I can never repay you for what you have done for me these last few months. Your daily visits have made life worth living for me. I have nothing to give you as a token of my appreciation. There is one thing, however, that I will do for you. I know how much you want to have a child. I promise you that when I come before the Heavenly Throne, I will pray for you. Believe me when I say that I will not let go until Hashem grants my request." With those last words, she closed her eyes and breathed her last breath. One year later, a little boy was born to the couple. The mitzvah of chesed, helping to make the last days on this earth for an elderly, lonely woman a little less lonely, a little less depressing, made the difference. What prayers and berachos did not achieve, a selfless act of chesed accomplished.

Let some water be brought and wash your feet, and recline beneath the tree. (18:4)

The Midrash Tanchuma and the Talmud Bava Metzia 86b posit that the manner of expression used by Avraham Avinu in speaking with the angels/wayfarers was later used by Hashem as a way to generate reward for his descendants. First, the words, Yukach na, "Let some water be brought," became the vernacular for proclaiming the liberation of Klal Yisrael from Egypt. As he was rebuilding the Jewish nation, Yeshayah HaNavi spoke endearingly, using the word, na, "please." The mitzvah of Korban Pesach, also connected with the Exodus, is transmitted via the word, v'yikchu, "and they shall take." In addition, the word na is used in connection with the Korban Pesach, to indicate that it cannot be eaten na, partially roasted. Chazal go on to say that everything Avraham did for the angels, Hashem Himself did for Klal Yisrael, and whatever Avraham did via agent, Hashem also did via messenger.

We derive from here a powerful lesson concerning the concept of middah k'neged middah, measure for measure. It is not a form of remuneration for an action. Rather, it is a direct consequence of one's action. Man's actions catalyze a commensurate Heavenly response. The reaction is in direct consonance with man's action. As Horav Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Shlita, notes, if two people were to do the exact same activity, with the exception that the far-reaching effect and influence engendered by one is greater than that of the other, the remuneration will vary in Heaven. The reaction is in direct response to the action and its overriding effect. No two actions are really identical. We, through our actions, determine and create the middah k'neged middah. Thus, if the reward we receive seems a bit indifferent, perhaps the manner in which we performed the good deed lacked enthusiasm. We cannot expect to receive more than what we expended.

Although I am but dust and ash. (18:27)

In the Talmud Chullin 58b, Chazal say that in the merit of Avraham Avinu's saying, "I am but dust and ashes," his descendants merited to receive two mitzvos that involve dust and ashes: (the ashes of the) Parah Adumah, Red Heifer; and (the dust of the) Sotah, wayward wife. We must endeavor to understand the relationship vis-?-vis the rule of middah k'neged middah, measure for measure, between these two mitzvos and Avraham's exceptional humility.

The Maggid, zl, m'Dubno gives the following analogy. A wealthy man made a wedding for his son. It was to be a lavish affair - as befits a man of his financial straits. He invited many distinguished people, among whom was a great Torah scholar. This talmid chacham not only possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of Torah, but his middos, character traits, were also impeccable. Furthermore, he was a man of remarkable humility. The wealthy man wanted to honor the scholar in a matter consistent with his outstanding scholarship, but due to the man's unpretentious nature, the host was challenged to find an avenue for honoring him. When the scholar arrived at the wedding, the host wanted to place him at the head table in front of all the guests. Here he would sit with other distinguished guests. The scholar, however, would not hear of it. He opted for a seat among the "common" members of society. What did the host do? He immediately switched the tables around, placing the individuals who were to sit at the head table in the back of the room. The entire seating arrangement was transformed, as the rear of the hall became the place for the higher echelon of society. It is not the position or the place that lends dignity to the person. On the contrary, it is the person that defines the position.

When Avraham Avinu referred to himself as lowly, as dust and ashes, Hashem sought to change this by elevating the level of dust and ashes to becoming primary components of two very significant mitzvos. As an aside, we derive another important lesson from here. One who truly deserves honor will ultimately receive it. This is what the Tanna express in Pirkei Avos!

Thus, Lot's two daughters conceived from their father…and she called his name Moav…and she called his name Ben-Ami. (19:36,37,38)

In the preface to Igros Moshe vol 8 from Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, the following story is recorded. It was the beginning of the winter of 1922. One of the members of Rav Moshe's community became ill with a strange sickness: his tongue swelled up within his mouth. When Rav Moshe came to visit him, the man asked that everyone leave the room. He had something private of great importance to discuss with the rav. What he told him was incredible.

"Rebbe, I must tell you the reason for my strange illness. This will hopefully expiate whatever sin that I have brought upon myself. A week ago, on Parashas Vayeira, I asked a question regarding the parsha. The Torah informs us that Lot's older daughter was the progenitor of the Moabite People - which means that she is the ancestress of Rus, who was the great-grandmother of Melech HaMoshiach. How could it be that this woman, who had no shame, and therefore publicized her illicit and immoral behavior by naming her son to eternalize her shameful act was granted such honor. I spared no words in denigrating her behavior.

"That night, two elderly women appeared to me in a dream. Their heads and faces were covered, and they said they were Lot's daughters. They had heard my complaint about their behavior and came from the World of Truth to convey to me a justification for their actions. Since it was well-known that Avraham Avinu, their uncle, was an individual for whom miracles were commonplace, they feared that people might say that their sons were conceived by an immaculate conception. There were no men around, so how else could they have been conceived? In order to prevent another religion such as Christianity from being established, they decided to publicize the source of their conception. Their motives were pure and lofty. Since he had spoken ill against them and defamed their character, he was to be punished as the Meraglim, spies in the wilderness, were punished. Their tongues swelled, and they died an unusual death."

When the man concluded his story, he looked straight at the wall, closed his eyes and died. Rav Moshe recorded this incident, because he felt that there was much truth to it.

We must learn from here to judge everyone in a favorable light, not to make judgments based upon how an individual is dressed, the color of his Yarmulke or his hat - if he wears one. Appearances are just that - external manifestations. The real person is beneath the veneer of what he wears. Actions should speak louder than clothes.

He planted an "eishal" in Be'er Sheva, and there he proclaimed the Name of Hashem. (21:33)

There is a dispute among Chazal regarding the meaning of eishal. Some say that it was an orchard whose fruit was served to wayfarers. Others contend that it was an inn used for lodging. In any event, this is the source from where we derive Avraham's exceptional sense of chesed to others. His lifelong work was reaching out to others through his acts of loving-kindness, thereby sanctifying Hashem's Name in the world. The commentators distinguish between Avraham's chesed and that of Noach, who, for an entire year, saw to the welfare and sustenance of all the animals onboard the Ark. A very interesting concept is expressed by Horav Gedalya Shorr, zl. There are two forms of chesed. One type of chesed is performed when the benefactor senses a need and feels the pain of the beneficiary. He understands his hurt and reaches out to alleviate the discomfort. He does whatever he can to help. When we analyze this form of kindness, however, we observe that he is acting because he cares about the other person. There is a need within the benefactor that stimulates him to help another person in need. In essence, he is also helping himself.

There is another form of chesed, one that is more sublime and G-dly: Acting simply to help another person. There is no sense of pity or compassion to be the motivating factor, the individual just recognizes that there is a need to be filled. This is the type of chesed that Hashem performs. Surely, he does not "feel" the pain of the beneficiary. He performs chesed because he wants to act kindly. In other words, there is a chesed which originates in the mekabel, beneficiary. He is in pain; and this stimulates the benefactor's response. The other form of chesed originates from the benefactor who seeks to do good, who actually seeks the opportunity to help others.

Avraham sat in his tent and was disconcerted that he had no one for whom to perform chesed. Why should he be upset? If no one was in need, then he had no reason to perform chesed. No, not Avraham; he sought any opportunity that would allow him to help others. His chesed was like that of Hashem. Thus, Avraham was called the Amud ha'chesed, Pillar of kindness.

Horav Avraham Schorr, Shlita, supplements this exegesis by noting that Avraham's chesed to the three angels was unique in that, because of their spiritual entity, they were really not in need of any form of chesed. Nonetheless, the Torah singles out this form of chesed to teach us that chesed should be motivated by the benefactor's desire to perform kindness.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'dabkeinu b'yetzer tov u'b'maasim tovim - Attach us to the good-inclination and to good deeds.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that by nature everybody has an innate yetzer tov, good inclination, to act positively. We all want to be nice and do wonderful deeds: some want to perform acts of loving-kindness; others are charitable; there are those who are klal, community people, always looking for an opportunity to help raise the banner of Torah in a community; others are into Torah study; and there are those who focus on avodas Hashem, service to Hashem, through prayer and intense devotion. While we all have these wonderful inclinations and desires to do good, quite often it just stays that way - in our mind. We do not carry our thoughts to fruition. As we begin our day, we ask Hashem that He attach us to follow our natural proclivities and to fulfill the positive potential that is in our minds.

V'chof es yitzreinu l'hista'bed lach - Force our yetzer, impulse, to be subservient to You:

The yetzer tov is a good impulse that must be harnessed in such a manner that the good that one wants to do coincides with Torah law. Otherwise, even a good, kindly act can end up with negative connotations. As Rav Schwab notes, Nadav and Avihu's overwhelming desire to come closer to Hashem resulted in their bringing voluntary Ketores, incense, into the Kodoshei Hakodoshim, even though they were fully aware that they were endangering their lives. Other situations occur when one becomes so wrapped up in a positive activity that he becomes a kanai, zealot, who pushes aside anybody who gets in his way. We thus ask Hashem that our good intentions be channeled properly and that they serve only Him.

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