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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And Sarah laughed at herself, saying, "After I have withered shall I again have delicate skin?"… "Is anything beyond Hashem?" (18:12,14)

Sarah Imeinu questioned her ability to return to youthfulness. The response was simple: "Is anything beyond Hashem?" If it is Hashem's will, it will happen, regardless of the apparent "laws" of nature. The Chafetz Chaim, zl, remarked that we, too, the surviving remnants of over two thousand years of exile, question whether our people will ever experience rebirth and rejuvenation as a vibrant nation once again. We have suffered so much, sustaining the greatest calamities to befall human civilization. Dare we hope? Can we possibly return to our past glory? The answer, claims the Chafetz Chaim, lies in the words, Hayipalei mei'Hashem davar, "Is there anything beyond Hashem?" The Torah uses the word davar, anything, specifically to teach us that shum davar, absolutely nothing, is impossible for Hashem. The Chafetz Chaim exhorts us to continue believing that everything for which we pray can and will occur at the time that Hashem deems it appropriate.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, extends this idea to all areas in which people have been ready to throw up their hands in frustration, sadly giving up, accepting that nothing can change a given situation. He feels that Sarah's declaration, Acharei belosi haysah li ednah, "After I have withered, will I again have delicate skin?" applies to all situations in which a favorable outcome appears unlikely. One topic that seems to be coming to the fore, receiving its rightful and significant attention, is the serious problem concerning boys and girls from fine, observant backgrounds who have been gravitating to the darker side of humanity and rejecting any effort to bring them back to a life of observance. Regrettably, after they have rebuffed every solicitation of help, parents and educators give up. They should not, but sometimes it is just too overwhelming to address, and the prospects of even minor success seem remote. Hayipalei mei Hashem davar, "Is anything beyond Hashem?" That should reflect the attitude, as prayer and continued attempts at spiritual conciliation will ultimately invoke Hashem's favorable response.

Rav Zilberstein relates a powerful story which teaches us a dual lesson concerning hope and chinuch, education. A middle-aged mother brought her son to the Baba Sali, zl, for help. Perhaps, the blessing of the tzaddik, righteous person, would have a positive effect on her long-haired, unkempt, unruly son. Her son had long stopped listening to her. Now, he was constantly abusive and derisive. While his mother understood that the only person her son hated was himself, the self-loathing had reached a point at which he no longer respected anything Jewish.

The mother figured that the revered Baba Sali would chastise her son and present to him the serious fate in store for one who transgresses the Torah, but he did not. Instead, he began to cry. The weeping continued for a few minutes, at times uncontrollable and bitter. Finally, the Baba Sali stopped, looked at the boy, and said, "If my mother would still be alive, I would carry her upon my shoulders!" A miracle occurred. As soon as the sage uttered these words, the boy's face softened. No more look of derision, no animus, no bitterness, just remorse, and the tears began to flow. The boy wept as the tzaddik wept, until the boy declared that he had been foolish. Could he come back to a life of observance? The answer the Baba Sali gave is obvious.

We learn a lesson in chinuch. This boy must have heard plenty of rebuke and much mussar day in and day out, but all to no avail. Why? Because it was probably improperly doled out. When one makes a number of attempts to open a door and does not succeed, he tries another key. The Baba Sali tried another key: love. He connected with the boy by showing that he cared. His tearful declaration, "If my mother would be alive I would carry her upon my shoulders," taught the boy the importance of a mother, and the special care one should provide for her. His words struck home, and a life once lost, returned. "Hayipalei mei'Hashem davar?"

Avraham arose early in the morning to the place where he had stood before Hashem. (19:27)

In the Talmud Berachos, 6b, this pasuk is used as a source for an interesting halachah. "Anyone who sets himself a makom kavua, fixed place, in which to pray, will have the G-d of Avraham in his aid. Furthermore, when he dies, he will be eulogized thus: 'Alas for the humble one, alas for the pious one, a disciple of Avraham Avinu.'" This pasuk indicates that Avraham "stood," which is interpreted as "prayed," in the fixed place which he had used before. The question that confronts us is simple: What connection can there possibly be between picking a fixed place and the character trait of humility?

In order to explain Chazal, Horav Meir Bergman, Shlita, cites a Midrash that gives us a perspective on the disciples of Avraham Avinu. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos 5:19 teaches that the disciples of Avraham possess the following three positive character traits: a kindly eye, a humble temperament, and a subdued spirit, while Bilaam's disciples manifest a grudging eye, a haughty temperament, and an uncontrolled spirit. If their disciples display opposite characteristics, it stands to reason that Avraham and Bilaam were also opposites. We learn this from their individual behavior in two parallel situations.

When Balak engaged Bilaam to curse the Jewish people, they went from place to place building altars and offering sacrifices, all to no avail. Each time that Balak did not experience success, he suggested that they try a different place. Perhaps another place would effect a better response to their cause. Three times they went, and three times they were stymied. Each time, Balak attributed their failure to the place. Bilaam knew the truth. The place was not the problem. He was the problem. Thus, he continued underscoring the place, rather than focusing on the mission, which did not have Hashem's approval. Instead of acknowledging that his request was going unfulfilled because his personal behavior was lacking, he blamed the place. His arrogance did not permit him to see the true cause of his failure.

Avraham, however, rendered long entreaties on behalf of the people of Sodom. Finally, he was down to ten righteous men, but Hashem could not find even ten righteous men in this wicked city. Although Avraham's request was not granted, he arose early the next morning, returned to the place where he had prayed the previous day and began over again. He did not go elsewhere. He did not convince himself that his failure was due to the place at which he prayed. No, his sole thought was that he failed because he had not prayed hard enough and with great enough fervor. It was his fault - not that of the place. His humility would not allow him to blame anyone, or anything, other than himself.

This conceptualizes the contrast between Avraham and the wicked Bilaam. Avraham returned to the same site, because he blamed his failure on himself. Bilaam knew the truth. He was acutely aware that he was at fault. Yet, he blamed the place for his failure. This is why someone who chooses to pray in one particular place - and does not alter his position - indicates that he is humble and pious, a disciple of Avraham. He acknowledges that the success or failure of his prayers has been dependent on his own deeds - not the place in which he prayed. Is there a better demonstration of humility than this?

Avraham journeyed from there to the region of the south and settled between Kadesh and Shur, and he sojourned in Gerar. (20:1)

The first Jew seems to have wandered considerably. We first see him as he isolated himself and his household from relationship with towns. He, therefore, chose to reside in the inhospitable region of the south as his earliest place of settlement. Gradually, he entered back into humanity into the region of cities, finally making his home in a most friendly and highly respected position, maintaining an amicable relationship with his allies Aver, Eshkol and Mamre. In his declining years, we see that he moved once again to the south, settling between Kadesh and Shur, in what was the loneliest part of the least visited region, near the desert of Shur. He seems to have moved once again into isolation. At the same time, he did appear to seek some connection with city life by stopping temporarily in Gerar, capitol of the Philistines. What was behind Avraham Avinu's latest venture into seclusion?

Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, asserts that the approaching expectation of the birth of Yitzchak catalyzed Avraham and Sarah's decision to select this peculiar site as their new place of residence. A "Yitzchak" should grow up in isolation, away from the pernicious influence of a pagan society which was marked by a bankrupt set of moral codes. Such isolation, however, in which the young child never comes into contact with other people, other ideas, other perspectives, people living different lives with different goals and objectives, comprises an equally dangerous fault in education.

Rav Hirsch explains the above assertion - a powerful statement from an individual who was a Torah pedagogue at a time when the Jewish world was falling prey to the effect of external, secular influences. He explains that a young man who has never been privy to any other way of life than that of his parents - who has never learned to value, respect, and remain steadfast in his commitment to that way of life - who is unaware of its moral contrast to others, certainly is in danger of falling victim to strange influences as soon as he confronts them. It is like shutting all of the windows and not allowing fresh air to enter the home. Such a person is certain to catch a cold the first time he goes out. He simply is not used to the "air."

The son of Avraham, the future Patriarch, the one who was to continue the Abrahamatic legacy, transmitting it to the next generation, should from time to time leave his pristine world and enter into the world that does not adhere to the Abrahamatic mission. Yitzchak needed to learn what there is to oppose in their world, to strengthen himself through his practice of Torah and mitzvos in a world that is antithetical to a life of the spirit, the way of life espoused by Avraham. Thus, he would be able to maintain fidelity to his mission. It is for this reason that Avraham chose a city that was the residence of a Philistine prince. Apparently, the Philistines had not plummeted into the abyss of depravity in the same way as their Emorite neighbors. Thus, they were not included in the destruction.

Sarah saw the son of Hagar, the Egyptian…mocking. So she said to Avraham, "Drive out this slave woman with her son." (21:9, 10)

Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam makes a remarkable statement in his explanation of Sarah Imeinu's complaint concerning Hagar and Yishmael. He says that Sarah noticed Yishmael's mockery, his use of profanity, and the lack of purpose which is common among young people, thus, she feared that if Yitzchak would fraternize with Yishmael, he, too, would waste his precious time, when, in fact, he should be devoting himself totally to seeking and attaining perfection. This is incredible! It seems that the fact that Yishmael transgressed the three cardinal sins of adultery, idol worship and murder did not bother Sarah as much as his wasting time, which prevented him from achieving sheleimus, spiritual perfection.

Horav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro, zl, gives an insightful answer when he says that sinful behavior can be rectified through teshuvah, repentance; wasting time, cannot. Once it has been wasted, it is gone forever. Wasting one hour of time for someone destined to become the next Patriarch is an unpardonable sin.

The sons of the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna write - in their preface to his commentary to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim - that their father would often speak about the importance of time. He would chastise his students to treasure every moment and value its potential. Furthermore, every moment should be a quality moment, making every moment count - not simply counting every moment.

When Horav Elchanan Wasserman, zl, returned to Baranowitz from Warsaw, he was queried concerning the greatest impression he had while visiting this preeminent Polish city. Rav Elchanan replied that it was the Gerrer Rebbe, zl that made the greatest impact on him. Here was a man who had regularly designated sedarim, study sessions, that lasted for only five minutes! So important was time to him that five minutes constituted an entire seder! It was a lifetime. We, on the other hand, allow hours - and even days - to pass without giving it a second thought.

Rav Moshe Shmuel asserts that the Gaon's urgency regarding time was not connected to the mitzvah of limud ha'Torah, Torah study. Bitul Torah, wasting time, when one should, or could be, studying Torah, is a grave sin, which constitutes dvar Hashem bazah, denigrating the word of G-d. The Gaon's urgency concerning time was not because wasting time would limit his ability to earn the kesser, crown of Torah. These are both significant reasons for not wasting time, but they do not explain what the Gaon was cautioning his students about. He was referring to sheleimus, perfection. We are each individually allocated a definitive amount of time on this world, during which we are to achieve sheleimus. If even one moment is squandered, or even misapplied, it is forever lost, and the individual is no longer able to achieve the sheleimus that is expected of him.

The following episode is one which I am certain will not sit well with some people, but that is only due to a lack of understanding of the value of Torah study, what it means to a ben Torah, and the value of time. We all have priorities in life. For some people, it "just happens" to be studying Torah! Rav Elchanan Wasserman was the chavrusah of Horav Yosef Kahaneman, zl, popularly known as the Ponevezer Rav, in the Kollel Kodoshim, in Radin, under the aegis of the Chafetz Chaim. Understandably, such a kollel was all about one thing - learning Torah. One day, Rav Elchanan received a telegram notifying him of the birth of his son. He stopped learning for a moment, recited the appropriate brachah, blessing, and returned to the Gemorah. As the eighth day approached, Rav Elchanan approached the Chafetz Chaim to inform him that he was leaving for the Bris of his son. The sage looked at him and asked, "Are you a mohel, ritual circumciser?" Rav Elchanan replied in the negative. "If you are not a mohel, why are you going? Why are you interrupting your Torah study?" the Chafetz Chaim asked. He then added that he should wire his family and ask if they acquiesced to his decision to remain in Radin and not attend the Bris of his own son. I do not know if the Chafetz Chaim would have responded in a similar manner to anyone else. But, Rav Elchanan was destined to become the leader of European Jewry.

We now have some idea of the Chafetz Chaim's perception of time. Let us go a bit further in contemplating the Chafetz Chaim's perspective on time. Another time, during the chavrusaschaft of Rav Elchanan and the Ponevezer Rav, they came across a question for which they needed access to a certain sefer. They remembered that in his Shaarei Tzion commentary of the Mishnah Berurah, the Chafetz Chaim cites this sefer. Clearly, he must have the sefer in his library. They would go to the Chafetz Chaim's house and ask to borrow the sefer, which they did, and asked to see the sefer. Their rebbe replied that he did not own the sefer. When he needed it, he had borrowed it from someone else who owned it. Afterwards, the Chafetz Chaim stared for a few moments at his bookcase and sighed. Rav Elchanan immediately asked, "Rebbe, what is wrong?" The Chafetz Chaim answered, "When I stare at the bookcase, I begin to wonder how many of these sefarim I really need. After all, sefarim cost money and money is time. If I do not really need something, and I spend money to acquire it, then I waste precious time." Rav Elchanan interjected that the Chafetz Chaim only possessed about thirty or forty sefarim, a meager outlay of money, but sufficient enough, that if he felt there was no absolute need for them, it represented a demand on his time which he was not willing to sacrifice.

The secular world screams that one should not waste time because "time is money." We, however, view money as time. Every penny that a person possesses represents a segment of time which he expended. Money should not be squandered, since we have just so much time.

I recently came across a "timely" story which conveys the importance of time. Rav Lipa Silverman, zl, was a preeminent mechanech, Torah educator in Eretz Yisrael. He would give lengthy discourses to students, as well as to parents, about the importance of guarding every minute. Time is a part of one's avodas ha'kodesh, service to the Almighty. One who arrives on time, whether it be to shul or to the bais ha'medrash to study, has the "time" to daven properly, or to study without being rushed. Any endeavor carried out in a timely fashion is performed more fully.

Rav Lipa would often emphasize that timeliness is not only important for the young student, it is equally important for the parents. He would note that in one of Yerushalayim's many observant neighborhoods, two families lived in the same building, with apartments facing each other. They were members of the same shul, and their children attended the same school. Both fathers were talmidei chachamim, Torah scholars, and both mothers were educated in the finest schools and maintained the highest level of personal tzinius, modesty in dress. There was one major difference between the families: their children. One family merited tremendous nachas, satisfaction and pleasure from their children, their sons all becoming erudite, knowledgeable Torah scholars, with their sons-in-law likewise carrying the mantle of talmid chacham. Their days and nights were devoted to Torah study, and their families demonstrated that they were the products of a home where chinuch, Torah education, reigned paramount. The other family, lamentably, did not fare as well. Their children began to stray at a young age and, regrettably, never returned to the fold, going from one incident to another, until they completely rejected the Torah Judaism in which they were raised.

Rav Lipa asked, "Wherein lay the difference between the families? Why did one enjoy such positive success, and why did the other suffer such dismal failure?" He explained that in one house, one could hear the same request repeated daily, "Will one of you (children) go to the grocery and buy some bread and milk (or whatever the mother needed that day)? It will not take but a few minutes." "But, Ima, I will be late for school," the child would usually reply. The mother would respond, "Do not worry. It will take but a few moments."

True, it was but a few moments, but it sent the wrong message to the children: "Torah study may be delayed for a few moments, because milk and bread take precedence." A child growing up in such a home receives a distorted perspective of their parents' value system. It appears as if Torah study is second, behind whatever is needed at the moment. For a child to value Torah, he must learn by example of its significance. Sadly, these children learned that a "few moments" spent for bread and milk took priority over Torah study.

G-d tested Avraham and said to him, "Avraham," and he replied, "Here I am…" "Please take your son…bring him up there as an offering..." So Avraham woke up early in the morning… and went to the place of which G-d had spoken to him. (22:1, 2, 3)

Avraham Avinu must have been filled with questions. Everything about Hashem's command was in direct contradiction to everything he had been led to believe. Since when does Hashem approve - even demand - human sacrifice? How does He ask his elderly, hand-picked progenitor of the Jewish nation to sacrifice his only son? True, it was a test, but where were Avraham's questions? Why did he simply not ask for some form of explanation? Surely that would not undermine his successful emergence from the test. Instead, Avraham woke up early in the morning, enthusiastic and prepared to go to Har HaMoriah. No questions, no doubts, only silence, total acceptance. Why?

I think that undoubtedly a multitude of questions coursed through Avraham's mind, but the questions never came to the fore, because his attitude defined emunah, faith: no questions; unequivocal acceptance; complete trust that Hashem has a plan; He knows what He is doing. This is the underlying meaning of Hineni - here I am. Avraham was prepared to accept whatever Hashem sent his way - without question.

Hashem Yisborach is our Healer, as it says in Shemos 15:26, Ani Hashem rofecha, "I am Hashem, your Healer." When a physician prescribes certain medicines for his patient he is not questioned. This is his specialty, for which he went to school for many years. The patient believes that his doctor knows what he is doing. That is why he is the doctor and I am the patient. Likewise, we trust Hashem without question. We accept His decrees as the Healer Who knows what He is doing. The father of the previous Belzer Rebbe, zl, went out of his way during the Seder on Pesach night to do the unusual, so that his son would ask, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" No matter what he did, as strange as it seemed, his son, who would one day be the spiritual mentor and leader of thousands, did not ask a single question. At the end of the Seder, his father, quite perturbed, queried him concerning his lack of questioning. "After all," his father said, "you saw me act in a strange manner, unlike any other time of the year."

The young boy, who was clearly much wiser than his age seemed to indicate, replied, "Was it not you who reiterated to me a number of times that one does not ask questions of a father? Whatever father does is good and to be accepted, regardless of how strange or unusual it might appear. One trusts his father."

The lesson is clear. Hashem is our compassionate Father to Whom we turn through thick and thin. We must trust Him, even when what we observe seems difficult to accept.

Va'ani Tefillah

Ha'sam gevuleich shalom, cheilav chittim yasbiech.
He Who makes your borders peaceful, He will satiate you with the best of wheat.

We will live in peace and prosperity, without fear from within or from without. In the Talmud Bava Metzia 59a, Chazal say: "A person should always be careful to have adequate grain in his house, for quarrels are most commonly found in a person's home on account of grain." Rav Papa adds: "This reflects what people say, 'When the barley in the container is finished, the sounds of quarrel begin in the house.'" What is Rav Papa adding to the statement of the previous Tanna? The Chasam Sofer, zl, explains that every person has limits to his wisdom. At times, regardless of how astute he may be, the challenge is too much to overcome, and he acts in a very "unwise" manner. For some, it is jealousy which brings out their worst. Others have issues with money or honor. They confront the challenge, and regrettably fall prey to their base instincts, totally forgetting their sense of wisdom and discipline. Thus, if one feels that following his wisdom will lead to discord, he sets his limit, feeling that he would rather be considered a fool than involve himself in a machlokes, dispute.

The pasuk is now understood homiletically. "He who sets peace as the border (to his wisdom)" will be rewarded to be "satiated with the best of wheat." Rav Papa is adding that usually when there is no parnassah, livelihood, it leads to discord in the home. The tzadik is blessed, so that not only will he not be at a loss, he will even be sustained from the best of the wheat.

Dedicated in loving memory of our dear
father and grandfather
Arthur I. Genshaft
Yitzchok ben Yisrael z"l
niftar 18 Cheshvan 5739
by his family
Neil and Marie Genshaft
Isaac and Naomi

Peninim on the Torah is in its 18th year of publication. The first fourteen years have been published in book form.

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