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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And he said, "I will surely return to you at this time next year, and behold, Sarah, your wife, will have a son. (18:10)

The Torah dedicates what seems to be an excessive number of pesukim to detail the wonderful news concerning Sarah Imeinu's impending motherhood. This begins with the three angels that visit Avraham Avinu, in order to notify Sarah that she would bear a son. The angels ask Avraham, "Where is Sarah, your wife?" He responds that "she is in the tent." Afterwards, the angel tells Avraham that Sarah will give birth to a son. The Torah interjects to tell us how old Avraham and Sarah were, so that the reader understands that only a Divine miracle could enable Sarah to give birth. Sarah hears and "laughs" at the impossibility of this occurring. Then we note Hashem's critique, "Is anything beyond Hashem?" Sarah denies her initial response to the news. This is followed later with the news that, indeed, Sarah has just given birth commensurate with the time designated by the angel. This lengthy description and detail of Yitzchak's birth seems superfluous, especially considering how many halachos Chazal derive from each extra letter in the Torah.

Horav Eliyahu Schlessinger, Shlita, cites Horav Tzadok HaKohen, zl, m'Lublin in his Divrei Sofrim who explains that a Jew should never be me'ya'eish, give up hope. Ha'yipalei mei'Hashem davar? "Is anything beyond Hashem?" (ibid.18:14) should be the believing Jew's motto in life. Nothing is beyond Him. The Torah seeks to emphasize how little hope there was for Sarah to bear a child, and, yet, she did. The Torah is teaching us that we should never give up hope, because nothing stands in Hashem's way. Rav Tzadok adds that just as a Jew should never despair over the lack of physical salvation, so, too, should he not abandon the thought of spiritual salvation. Regardless of how far he has distanced himself from the Torah way; or how deep he has sunk into the muck of moral depravity, he can return and Hashem will welcome him.

The concept of yiush does not apply to the Jewish nation, for it is a people that was founded after all hope had been lost. Avraham and Sarah were barren, past the child-bearing age. No one would have thought twice about Sarah giving birth - even after the angel had told them that this would occur. Sarah laughed, although she knew nothing was impossible for Hashem, but she felt this miracle was unnecessary. Had Hashem wanted her to have a child, she would have had one earlier. There is no reason to create a miracle if it is not necessary.

Sarah did not realize that Hashem chose this moment because of its propitious nature. Particularly now, when all hope for a child had been lost, when no one - even Sarah - believed it would occur, Hashem decided to teach us and the world a lesson: Hayipalei mei'Hashem davar - nothing is beyond the Almighty.

Rav Tzadok adds that the future redemption for which we are all waiting will occur under parallel circumstances, when people will have despaired over the geulah, redemption. As our nation was initiated l'achar yiush, after and beyond hope, so will our redemption materialize under similar circumstances.

Avraham Avinu taught us to never give up. When Lot was taken captive and it seemed impossible to rescue him, Avraham assembled 318 members of his household and pursued Lot's captors. In an alternative explanation, Chazal say only Avraham's trusted servant, Eliezer, whose name has the gematriya, numerical equivalent, of 318, went with him. The name Eliezer implies, Elokei avi b'ezri, va'yatzileini m' cherev Pharaoh. "The G-d of my father came to my aid, and He saved me from the sword of Pharaoh." (Shemos 18:4) The sword of Pharaoh was already on Moshe's neck. It seemed hopeless, and, specifically at that moment, Hashem came to his aid. Eliezer/318 is the gematriya of yiush including the kollel (adding number one, by including the entire word.) Therefore, yiush is 317, with the entire word added as one, making it 318. With hope, one drives away yiush. A Jew believes in Hashem, and this conviction energizes within him the ability to hope beyond hope, beyond reason.

A life steeped in emunah is an entirely different life than one lived without this sense of faith. The Navi, Chavakuk (2:4) says, "The righteous person lives by his faith." The life of a tzaddik can only be lived with emunah. A life based on such a deep and penetrating faith is what makes him a tzaddik. He lives by a completely different set of rules.

Living according to a different set of rules aptly describes those tzadikim who are bound up with Hashem through their emunah. As the Kaliver Rebbe, Shlita, writes, "These are people who put all of their piety, erudition, and moral greatness at the service of their people." These were individuals who confronted misery and death with equanimity. It was all a part of their avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty. This is not a thousand years ago, but as recently as sixty-five to seventy years ago, during the tragic years of persecution when myriads of Jews died while a cultured world stood by and silently turned their heads away in indifference. When the Nazi murderers entered a town, they first sought out its leaders - the rabbis. They would torture these giants of Torah and avodah with all of the cruelty they could muster. These tzadikim, however, paid no attention to their suffering and sanctified Hashem's Name in public, such that at times even the Nazi beasts stood in rapt silence.

One of the giants who miraculously survived the war and merited to rebuild his chassidus in America was Horav Shlomo Halberstam, zl, the Bobover Rebbe. His exploits on behalf of his brethren are legend. We can best describe this individual who was respected, admired and loved by all - regardless of Chassidic affiliation or level of spiritual persuasion and observance - by something he said after he had been saved at the last moment from the Gestapo firing squad.

It was in Neimark, Galicia that the Germans finally caught up with the elusive rabbi. The gentiles watched mirthfully as Rav Shlomo, his young son, Naftali and the Rebbe's sister were being led away in handcuffs to the Gestapo chief. This was it. Their last attempt to escape to Slovakia had failed. It was certain death.

Later on, when the Rebbe spoke about those moments, it was not about his fear of death. What he chose to talk about the most was his backpack and its contents. In it there were: manuscripts of his grandfather's writings; his Tefillin, written by the famous Rav Moshe of Pshevorsk; and the notebook containing the transcription of seven hundred articles by his saintly father. Each of these items was his "provisions" that he had packed in preparation for his meeting with the Gestapo chief.

The Rebbe's life was spared through a series of miracles. As he referred back to that time that he sat in the cold dungeon waiting for his verdict, praying as he had never prayed before, he said that his only request was that if his life were somehow spared, "I should remember for the rest of my life that all the world is nothing but utter futility and that a Jew never has anything worthwhile, but the service of Hashem." He survived, and he remembered. He lived by a different set of rules.

Will You also stamp out the righteous with the wicked?...It would be sacrilege to You to do such a thing…It would be sacrilege to You! Shall the Judge of all earth not do justice? (18:23, 25)

One who examines the dialogue that ensues between Avraham Avinu and Hashem, concerning the proper punishment to be meted out against the citizens of Sodom, is left a bit taken aback. Our Patriarch, who symbolized emunah, faith in Hashem, who withstood ten seminal tests that established his preeminence on his conviction in and devotion to Hashem, comes across to the casual spectator as questioning Hashem. One who believes does not question. He accepts the Divine decree unequivocally without bias and without malice. This does not seem to be the case with Avraham.

First, our original premise is wrong. The idea that a believer does not question is false. Indeed, a number of individuals have, over the generations, turned from the Torah way as a result of this attitude. All too often, spiritual cripples who are ill-equipped to render sensible answers have responded with the usual: "We do not ask." We certainly do ask, but we understand that some answers are beyond our grasp. To ask is a profoundly human endeavor. Indeed, the gematriya, numerical equivalent of Adam, 45, equals that of mah, what. Man's entire development hinges on his ability to question. To quell one's questioning is to stunt one's growth. Many people have performed mitzvos and accepted customs simply as an act of complacency, because they did not ask, either for a lack of concern or out of a sense of embarrassment. There are also those who strayed so far away from Judaism that they do not know what to ask or how to formulate a question. They just moved away out of a lack of interest.

Returning to Avraham Avinu, we see that questioning is an integral part of his quest to deepen his belief in Hashem. He constantly questions and wants to understand more. Questioning is not the problem. It is how one presents his question that determines his moral posture. One who truly seeks an answer asks with respect and accepts the fact that some answers will elude him. Those whose questions are thrust as daggers to undermine, to impugn, to humiliate, however, are not worthy of receiving answers. They are only interested in their own rhetoric. For those, their question is their answer. They are not interested in anything else.

Emunah is an ongoing process. Avraham began when he was three years old and continued on throughout his life asking until he arrived at the truth. One who wants to concretize his belief, to solidify his convictions, must question, but at the same time acknowledge that some answers are beyond his ken. With this in mind, we wonder why, when Hashem commanded Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak, he did not question. Could there be any more inexplicable situation that demanded a cogent reason than such a command? It went against everything that Avraham had heretofore believed in. Yet, Avraham is lauded for his alacrity and equanimity in carrying out this command. What happened to his ability to question?

Perhaps, the difference lies in who is the focus of the question. Clearly, Avraham believed in Hashem with complete devotion. He understood and believed that whatever Hashem requested of him was the correct thing to do - even if he could not rationally reconcile it. He believed, and therefore, he acted. When the focus was centered totally on others, like the inhabitants of Sodom, or it was a question concerning receiving Eretz Yisrael for his descendants, Avraham felt it incumbent upon himself to make every effort to understand the situation, to rationalize the decree, to make sense out of a situation that seemed nonsensical. To put it simply: it is much easier to believe and accept subjectively when it involves oneself. When it involves others, we must try to understand so that we can explain. It is much more difficult to instruct others to believe without question than to do so for oneself.

Yitzchak Avinu's trust in his father was such that he viewed himself as part of his father. He was not a separate entity. He was Avraham. Avraham's emunah concerning himself was transferred to Yitzchak to the point that the Patriarch did not consider his son as "another" person. He was "Avraham." Furthermore, Yitzchak was fully aware of the sacrifice he was about to make, while the people of Sodom and Avraham's descendants who would one day inherit Eretz Yisrael were not in the loop. Thus, Avraham did not have the right to speak for them.

She departed and strayed in the desert of Be'er Sheva. (21:14)

Rashi interprets va'teisa, and she strayed, as alluding to Hagar's return to her father's idols, to her original pagan life. She figured that if she could not have a life of moral spiritual rectitude in the home of Avraham Avinu, she might as well revert to a life of paganism and moral degeneracy. Rashi does not cite any sources to support this claim. We wonder why he deviates from the regular p'shat, interpretation, that she strayed in the wilderness. Furthermore, from the fact that we note her speaking with the Heavenly angel, it would seem indicative that she had not yet returned to a life of degeneracy and spiritual contamination. Otherwise, why would the angel speak with her?

In his sefer, Daas Chaim, Horav Chaim Walkin, Shlita, derives a powerful lesson from here. A Jew who has descended to such a nadir that he is on the level of va'teilech va'teisa, it is a certainty that he has lost his emunah, belief in the Almighty. Otherwise, it is impossible for a Jew who retains a sense of conviction, who still maintains his belief in Hashem, to turn to idols. Hagar merited seeing angels in Avraham's home. She spent time with an individual of such holiness that he is considered to be one of the legs of the Holy Chariot of the Almighty. Certainly, she was inspired and influenced by his unprecedented level of holiness. She may have been a pagan, but you cannot reside in such a spiritually elevated environment and not become inspired. Yet, the Torah attests to her "straying." If so, we must deduce that she returned to her father's idols. Had she had the slightest vestige of a memory of her past relationship with Avraham's home, she could not have descended to a matzav, situation, of va'teisa.

David Ha'Melech says in Tehillim, "Though I walk in the valley overshadowed by death, I fear no evil, for You are with me." During every situation, under all circumstances, regardless of where he is, he is never alone. Hashem is always with him. The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, commented that, "Whoever does not see G-d everywhere, does not see Him anywhere." What a powerful and profound thought! How many have strayed from the Torah using the excuse, "G-d has forsaken me," or "I cannot see G-d in my life." One who does not see G-d does not want to see Him. His eyes are closed. His heart is shut off. "Floundering, lost, wandering," these are terms not applicable to the believing Jew. He is always connected, like a kite flying through the wind. It may appear to be all over, but it is firmly rooted through a strong cord.

The parshah concerning Hagar's wandering in the wilderness is also read on Rosh Hashanah. If it is important to note during the year, it is especially significant at a time when the Jew sets out on his journey for the new year. Rosh Hashanah is the Yom HaZikaron, the day that we remember. We remember that we are not alone, that we can repent and return, because we have an address to which to return. We know where we belong and how to get there. We just have to turn around. As long as that cord of conviction has not been severed, we can go back. Indeed, we have never really left.

And it happened after these things that G-d tested Avraham. (22:1)

It makes sense to say that the test of the Akeidah revolved around Avraham Avinu. On the other hand, in the Mussaf Shemoneh Esrai of Rosh Hashanah, we say V'akeidas Yitzchak l'zaro hbayom b'rachamim tizkor. This implies that it was primarily a test of Yitzchak's devotion - not so much that of Avraham. Veritably, Avraham's test was greater because he had to perform the act of slaughtering his son proactively. Yitzchak's mesiras nefesh, act of self-sacrifice, was passive. He was to lay, prepared to offer up his life as the symbol of mesiras nefesh. His father had to act; he had to make sure not to upset this mitzvah. Nonetheless, it is called the Akeidas Yitzchak, and, apparently, we call upon Yitzchak's z'chus, merit, to protect us during our time of judgment. How are we to understand the depth of his nisayon, test?

The Chasam Sofer, zl, explains that Avraham heard the command directly from Hashem, similar to the Torah She'Biksav, Written Law. Yitzchak, however, gave up his life for something that he heard from his father, similar to the Torah She'Baal Peh, Oral Law. The Oral Law represents commitment to a tradition that is heard from our ancestors whose integrity and character we trust. The tradition of Torah She'Baal Peh has been transmitted throughout the generations from father to son and from rebbe to talmid. This is the very same tradition that Moshe Rabbeinu taught to Klal Yisrael during his forty years of leadership. The lesson of Akeidas Yitzchak is the lesson of commitment to the Oral Law. It is ironic that those who impugn commitment and the words of our sages venerate the Akeidas Yitzchak as the seminal event in the formation of our People. Yitzchak set the tone. He taught us the meaning of respect for the Oral Law. He was prepared to die for it. Should we not at least be willing to live by it?

And Avraham said, "Because I said, but there is no fear of G-d in this place… (20:11) "Now I know that you are a G-d fearing man." (22:12)

The concept of yiraas Elokim, fear of G-d, is mentioned twice in this parsha. First, Avraham Avinu remarks that he does not sense that yiraas Elokim is prevalent in Avimelech's country; thus, he feared for his life. Second, Hashem says that He now knows that Avraham is a G-d-fearing man. What is the meaning of the second statement? It is as if until now, Avraham had not proven his fear of G-d. A person who notices that the Philistines are lacking in fear of G-d should be in itself an indication of his own yiraah, fear. Otherwise, why emphasize a failing that exists in others? Horav Yonah Mertzbach, zl, explains that one who criticizes another individual's lack of fear does not necessarily establish his own credentials. In other words, it is easy to criticize others, but it proves nothing regarding one's own moral and spiritual posture. On the contrary, human nature dictates that we easily find fault in others. This certainly does not serve as a barometer of our own rectitude. When Avraham responded to Hashem's command with complete devotion and equanimity, he demonstrated his true affiliation with Hashem. He had spiritual integrity in that what he critiqued in others, he first made sure was not a personal failing. Now, he could be called a yarei Elokim.

Va'ani Tefillah

I who have always had trust in Your loving-kindness, my heart may jubilate, because of Your salvation. I want to sing to Hashem when He brings His promises to fruition.

The Malbim, zl, interprets gilah, jubilation, as an expression which is used to describe a reaction to an unexpected occurrence. One who is saved under circumstances that had been unanticipated will have a "gilah" reaction - spontaneous, unheralded joy. David HaMelech says that although he trusted in Hashem's yeshuah, salvation, he "expected" it, nonetheless, when it arrived, his reaction was one of gilah, sudden, unpredicted joy. He never doubted for a moment that Hashem was there and that He would save him. Since he felt himself unworthy of this salvation, however, he realized that if it would occur, it would be because of Hashem's boundless chesed, loving kindness. This is why his joy is expressed through gilah. It was expected, but undeserved, which is a reason that it could have been denied. Now that he sees that he warranted salvation, he has an added sense of joy. Therefore, he sings his praises to Hashem Who rewarded him for his service.

The Gaon, zl, m'Vilna, distinguishes between gilah and simchah in that gilah is an expression of joy for a past occurrence, while simchah is a reaction to a present circumstance. David Hamelech says that he reacts with gilah to chasdecha, Your loving kindness of the past, but to the present salvation he sings with renewed joy.

Dedicated in loving memory of our dear
father and grandfather

Arthur I. Genshaft
Yitzchok ben Yisroel z"l
niftar 18 Cheshvan 5739

by his family
Neil and Marie Genshaft
Isaac and Naomi

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

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