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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Yaakov settled in the land of his father's sojourning …These are the offspring of Yaakov, Yosef… (37:12)

Rashi cites a parable to explain why the Torah mentions that Yaakov Avinu settled - immediately after mentioning Eisav's chiefs. He compares this to a certain flax merchant whose camels entered a town laden with flax. The blacksmith wondered, "Where can all this flax be stored?" A clever man who was standing nearby, answered him, "One spark can go forth from your bellows which will burn it all up." Similarly, when Yaakov saw all the powerful chiefs of Eisav whose, names are written above, he wondered, "Who would conquer all of them?" The Torah responds, "These are the offspring of Yaakov, Yosef," implying that Yosef is the solution to the problem. Yosef is considered Eisav's nemesis, as it says in Ovadiah, 1:18, "The House of Yaakov will be a fire, and the House of Yosef a flame, and the House of Eisav for straw." Fire without a flame does not have an effect over a long distance. Once Yosef-who is compared to a flame-was born, Yaakov trusted in Hashem to protect him from Eisav. What is the meaning of comparing Yosef to a flame? How does this analogy enhance our understanding of Eisav's challenge to Yaakov?

In their ethical discourses, Yeshivas Bais Shalom Mordechai explains that Eisav symbolizes the yetzer hora, evil inclination, who makes use of every form of guile and deception in order to lead people to sin. In order to triumph over the yetzer hora, one must be able to see and understand the yetzer hora's malicious intentions prior to his encounter. Once he has "locked horns" with the evil inclination, since he has already permitted him to come close, he has already been ensnared in his net. It has become much more difficult to break loose. Yosef, the flame, had the capacity to peer into the future in order to perceive his enemy. He understood fully well who Eisav was, what he represented and what his malevolent intentions were. Eisav lived by subterfuge. He dressed and acted outwardly like a saint, but, in truth, he was evil incarnate. He asked intricate halachic questions; he married a woman at the age of forty, because that is what his father did. He is compared to the pig that spreads out its split hooves, proudly displaying one kosher sign, concealing the fact that it does not have the inner sign, the chewing of cud. The pig is not kosher; neither was Eisav. When one outwardly acts as a saint, however, only a wise and perceptive individual can perceive the hidden intentions, to recognize the future risks that are involved.

Yaakov feared Eisav's duplicity. He feared his descendants would fall prey to him. When Yosef was born, however, he was calmed; he recognized that Eisav's nemesis, the one who could see beyond the individual, who could look right through Eisav's deception, had been born. During the encounter between Eisav and Yaakov, Bilhah and Zilpah and their children were the first ones to meet Eisav. They were followed by Leah and her children. Last, Yosef and Rachel came forward. Rashi notes that the first three wives went before their children. Yosef, however, preceded his mother. He said, "My mother is very beautiful. Perhaps Eisav will take notice of her appearance and want her. I will, therefore, stand in front of her and block his vision." Yosef was able to anticipate what was going on in Eisav's mind based upon their initial encounter. He knew with whom he was dealing, and he was prepared. His brothers did not take notice of what he had immediately observed. Is it any wonder that he was Eisav's nemesis?

The ability to comprehend the consequences of one's actions, the outcome which presently may be viewed as innocuous, but could later result in disaster, is especially significant for parents and educators. All too often, we tend to disregard the improper behavior of our children and students, calling it mischief and capricious, when in truth it represents a malignant evil that, if left unchecked, will devastate us later on.

Horav Yosef Chaim, zl, mi'Bagdad, relates an incredible story whose moral lesson conveys this truth. There was once a thief who was finally caught. According to Arab law, he was condemned to be executed. The condemned man asked to be allowed to speak to his mother once before he was to be executed. It seems that he had an important message to communicate to her.

Permission was granted, and the criminal was taken from his cell to meet his mother. As to be expected, his mother was grief-stricken, bewailing the terrible fate that awaited her son. He went over to her and bent down close to her as if he was about to whisper something in her ear. He did not, however, say a word to her. Instead, he did a most atrocious and fiendish act: he viciously bit off her ear! Everyone was stunned. Imagine, in the last act of his mortal life, he compounded his treachery by mutilating his broken-hearted mother. The criminal, fully aware of everyone's disgust with him, turned to the people and said, "You should know that she is responsible for my iniquitous behavior. When I was a child, she never rebuked me when I would take things from others. As I grew up and my taking became stealing, she once again looked away, saying I was going through a phase; I had too much energy, everything - but the truth. Had she been stern with me, I would never have ended up facing the gallows."

What a terrible criticism with which to charge a parent. When we stop to think about it, could it be true? We have only to open up a daily newspaper to read of the "mischief" young people are committing today. From stealing to mass murder, how long are we going to bury our heads in the ground and attribute the cruelty and treachery to childishness and mischief? Someone has to be the "flame," to have the capacity to see the results of these actions and have the courage to do something about it.

Chazal tell us that Rabbi Yehoshua's mother placed his crib in the bais ha'medrash from the day he was born, so that his ears would become acutely attuned to the sounds of Torah study. True, what can an infant hear or understand? Who knows, however, what impression it left for the future? Rabbi Yehoshua attributed his success in life to the fact that he was raised in the bais ha'medrash. Obviously, it left some kind of impression on him. His mother represented the "flame" that a parent should exhibit in raising her children. It is so much easier to prevent a tragedy from occurring than to deal with its aftermath. Regrettably, there are still some whose myopic vision and lack of courage dictate that their level of perception be relegated to hindsight.

The boy is gone! And I - where can I go? (37:30)

Reuven returned to the pit only to find that Yosef was no longer there. He expressed his sorrow at his father's grief, lamenting, "Where can I flee from father's grief?" When he would come across this pasuk, Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, would sigh heavily and cry out, "Hayeled einenu," the boy is gone - my youth has gone by - how will I face my Father in Heaven?" He was bemoaning the fact that he had let his youth slip by "unaccomplished," and now in his advanced years, when the time to meet his Maker was drawing near, he sensed that he was unprepared. If a great saint and tzaddik such as Rav Elya Lopian feels that he could have accomplished much more during his formative years, what should we say?

The experiences of one's youth will invariably leave a lasting impression on one's inner personality. Rebbetzin Shoshana Zilberstein, a"h, daughter of Horav Y.S. Eliashov, Shlita, related how she and her siblings were "taught" about the insignificance of this temporal world. She was one of twelve children. Understandably, living in a small apartment with a large family necessitated much sacrifice. On the other hand, the children were being taught that olam hazeh, this world, with its material values does not necessarily coincide with the Torah's barometer of importance. There were regrettably not enough beds for every one of the children. This reality mandated that some of the girls were subjected to sharing a bed. She related that every day at three o'clock in the morning, when her father arose, he would take one of the girls and carry her into his bed. He would then proceed to the table and begin to study Torah. It was this scene that remained engraved on the minds of his children. The sweet song of Torah that emanated from that room; the image of their father bent over his seforim, books, in the middle of the night, was eternally etched in their psyche. While they might not have enjoyed the physical comfort of a large mattress, how many of us can say we fell asleep listening to the pleasant sounds of the Torah study of a gadol hador, leader of the generation?

Yosef was handsome of form and handsome of appearance. (39:6)

Yosef's physical appearance was certainly to the yetzer hora's, evil inclination's, advantage. Undoubtedly, one who is blessed with the gift of extremely "good looks" is left wide open to contend with the pitfalls which the yetzer hora is so skilled at placing before him. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, cites a story that occurred concerning Horav Yitzchak Bender, zl, when he was Rosh Hayeshivah in Makov. It was the summer of 1913, when a young student by the name of Yitzchak Krakowsky from the city of Lodz, Poland, registered in the yeshivah. He was known as "Reb Yitzchakel Otvozker," because of the time he had spent in the city of Otvozk due to a lung condition from which he suffered. He was only sixteen years old, but his youth extended only to his chronological age. As a scholar, he was well beyond in years, soon becoming one of the foremost scholars in the yeshiva. His sagacity was captivating, his profundity in Torah knowledge was exemplary.

The Rosh HaYeshivah's shiurim, lectures, were well known for their depth and brilliance. Yet, when the Rosh HaYeshivah would begin to say the shiur, Reb Yitzchakel would soon complete his ideas. It got to the point that the Rosh HaYeshivah felt there was nothing more he could teach this young prodigy.

Reb Yitzchakel was blessed with a physical appearance that was remarkable. His face shone, his high forehead seemed to glow. Indeed, his total physical image was captivating. Here was a human specimen who was outstanding in his physical and intellectual capacities. The Rosh HaYeshivah once related how it came to pass that this exceptional young man was blessed with such an enchanting physical appearance.

It happened that Reb Yitzchakel's parents came to the yeshiva to take their son home. The winds of World War I were beginning to gust. While it would not be safe anywhere in Europe, they wanted their child at home with them. When the parents arrived, the Rosh HaYeshivah was shocked at the physical appearance of Reb Yitzchakel's father. He was the extreme opposite of his son. While the son was tall, erect and handsome, with radiant skin that seemed to glow, the father was dwarflike, with skin like leather that was dark like a blacksmith's skin. It was difficult to imagine that there was any physical relationship between these two people. The Rosh HaYeshivah turned to Reb Yitzchakel's father in bewilderment and asked him point blank to explain the "discrepancy" in the physical appearance between father and son. The father turned to the Rosh HaYeshivah and said, "Let me tell you the following story which will shed light on the inconsistency in our appearances.

"The story goes back ten generations to the time of Rav Mordechai Yoffe, the author of the Levushim, an epithet given to him because of his brilliant, scholarly works, each entitled Levush, i.e. Levush Techeilas, Levush Malchus, etc. As his family name was Yoffe, which was derived from the Hebrew word yafeh, beautiful, so was Rav Mordechai a man of captivating physical appearance. His visage was something to behold. It is quite possible that his last name was directly associated with his appearance.

"One day Rav Mordechai's good looks almost became the source of his downfall. Similar to what occurred to Yosef Hatzaddik, our grandfather was confronted with an overwhelming challenge. A beautiful gentile woman was so enchanted with his appearance that she did everything possible to encourage him to sin. When Rav Mordechai realized what was occurring, he was determined to ward off her blandishments-even at the expense of his own life.

"Outside of the house was a canal filled with sewage. He immediately jumped into the foul-smelling water. The stench on his clothes was so overpowering that the woman was "turned off," so that one left Rav Mordechai alone. The sewage seeped through all of Rav Mordechai's ten garments that he was wearing at the time. Indeed, the garments that clothed him were filthy and foul-smelling, but his neshamah, soul, and moral character remained as pure as before. "In the merit of his self-sacrifice to triumph over the yetzer hora, Hashem gave him the ability to author ten volumes of halachic treatise which he named Levushim, garments, corresponding to the ten garments that had become soiled. The ten garments which saved him would yield ten seforim, that would inspire a world of Torah students. At that moment, Rav Mordechai turned his eyes Heavenward and in emotional prayer beseeched Hashem, 'The next ten generations that will descend from me should be repulsive in appearance, so that they should not encounter the challenges associated with physical beauty.'

"The ten generations, ten generations of descendants whose physical appearance was far from appealing," continued Reb Yitzchakel's father, "ended with my son. He is the eleventh generation, with him the beauty begins anew. The external beauty and inner spiritual, moral beauty that reigned coincidentally in my sainted grandfather has returned to my son."

This incredible story gives us but a glimpse of the greatness of our Torah luminaries.


Yaakov settled in the land of his father's sojournings. (37:1)

The Alshich HaKadosh notes that as long as Yaakov's only concern was Eisav's alufim, princes, as mentioned in the previous parsha, he was "vayeishev," settled. They were not able to destroy the harmony of his home. When the kinaah, jealousy, and sinaah, enmity, of the brothers began, due to a simple multi-colored garment, the beginnings of shibud Mitzrayim, the Egyptian exile, were set into motion. Yaakov's greatest external enemies could not achieve what family infighting, regrettably, was able to accomplish.


So his brothers were jealous of him. (37:1)

The Bais HaLevi observes that regarding the first dream of the sheaves of wheat the Torah says, "So they hated him." When he foretold his superiority in material matters it brought about enmity. They were not envious of his material abundance. The second dream-concerning the sun, moon and the stars- however, implied spiritual pre-eminence. This catalyzed their jealousy.


Go now and look into the welfare of your brothers. And the welfare of the flock, and bring me back word. (37:14)

Horav Bunim, zl, mi'Peshischa explained this homiletically. Please look for the "shleimus," perfection, of your brothers, and not their chesronos, deficiencies. As you look out for the welfare of the sheep, not casting guilt upon them for their "sins," so, too, should you act towards your brothers. Last, even if you observe only one virtue about them, tell me about it, because even one "davar tov," good deed, can atone for many errors.


How then can I perpetrate this great evil; I will have sinned against G-d. (39:9)

The tenses in the pasuk are enigmatic. Furthermore, is there a "small" evil as opposed to a "great" evil? Why does it say, "I will have sinned" in the past tense; he has not sinned yet. The Riziner Rebbe, zl, explains that the yetzer hora, evil inclination, attempted to convince Yosef to sin so that he could repent, and as a baal teshuvah, he would be on a higher spiritual plateau. Yosef responded saying, "I do not have to commit such a grave sin just to perform teshuvah. I could find something minor as a means for performing teshuvah. Moreover, I already have accumulated enough sins for which I should repent. I do not need any more."


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