Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Reuven heard, and he rescued him from their hand; he said, "We will not strike him mortally." (37:21)

Two of his brothers attempted to save Yosef from his fate: Reuven and Yehudah. Yet, it is only Reuven who has been recognized as the one who made the attempt, and it is he alone who has received credit for his effort. Why? Chazal (Makkos 10a) explain, She'hu posach b'hatzalah techilah, "He was the first to initiate the rescue of Yosef." Yehudah made the attempt by convincing them to sell Yosef. Should he not also have received credit for his good intentions?

The Ponevezer Rav, Horav Yosef Kahaneman, zl, teaches us a profound lesson concerning the true meaning of "saving a Jew." Regarding Reuven, the Torah writes that his goal was to save Yosef from the hands of his brothers, l'hashivo el aviv, "in order to return him to his father." Reuven's goal was not simply saving a life; it was to return Yosef to his pre-capture idyllic state of ruchniyos, spirituality. Yosef had been ensconced in Yaakov's bais hamedrash, studying Torah with his father. This is where he belonged, and this is where Reuven sought to return him.

Concerning Yehudah, the Torah writes that his goal was to have him sold, rather than have him killed. True, this would have spared his life, but what would his life have been without Torah? Undoubtedly, Yehudah was not overjoyed to see the saintly Yosef in the morally bankrupt environment of Egypt, but, at least, Yosef would be alive. His concern was for Yosef's hatzalah gashmis, physical survival, while Reuven's concern was also for his hatzalah ruchnis, spiritual survival.

Justifying Yehudah, he clearly read the situation differently than Reuven. Surely, if Yehudah could have successfully returned Yosef to his father's embrace, he would have done so. He did what he felt he could do at the time. Nonetheless, the lesson is significant for all those involved in reaching out to those in need. While they certainly have physical/material issues which must be addressed, we may not ignore their spiritual needs. A hungry person is not concerned with Tefillin, but the one who supplies him with his next meal must remember that his Jewish neshamah, soul, is hungry as well.

One can satisfy his spiritual needs in various ways. We are, of course, aware of the usual outreach efforts which bring those who never knew - or those who have, for some reason, become alienated - closer to Torah Judaism. What about when it is supposedly too late, when the subject of the outreach has passed from the world. Is it too late? Do we make an "x" and go on to the next person? Rav Moshe Porush was one of the leaders of the Agudath Israel party in Eretz Yisrael. Rav Shlomo Lorincz writes that he once saw Rav Moshe reciting Kaddish. Startled, he asked him which relative had passed away. Rav Moshe replied that he had undertaken to say Kaddish for a certain individual who was one of the leaders of an extremely anti-religious party whose virulent diatribe against Orthodox Jewry was infamous. He had even served as a cabinet minister.

"Rav Moshe, what was your connection with him?" Rav Shlomo asked.

"I had no connection with him," replied Rav Moshe, "but he left over no one to say Kaddish for him. Regrettably, his son is following in his footsteps. I simply felt sorry for his wretched soul, suffering without anybody to say Kaddish for it. It occurred to me that it was my achrayos, responsibility, to say Kaddish for his neshamah. When it applies to a meis mitzvah, a deceased person who has no relatives to attend to his burial, all Jews are regarded as his relatives. Why should Kaddish be different? He has no one, so I will be his relative. Why should his neshamah suffer? Incidentally, the deceased's grandson had been born and raised in the kibbutz founded by his grandfather. As a boy, his education reflected the myopic, single-minded Marxist ideology staunchly espoused by the members of the kibbutz. When he joined the Israeli army he was the product of two generations of animus to Torah, with an education in anti-Torah rhetoric to boot. In the army he discovered that the world contains a wide diversity of viewpoints, and, lo and behold, there are intelligent people whose opinions actually oppose the ones he had been taught on the kibbutz. He began researching and investigating until he found his way to a kiruv, noted outreach, seminar.

After some investigation, the young soldier/ex-kibbutznik discovered that his family name evoked extreme reverence - especially in Orthodox circles. Apparently, his great-great-grandfather had settled in Yerushalayim over a century earlier. He was a well-known, highly respected Torah scholar whose Torah insights were quoted by the last generation's most illustrious rabbanim. His two sons had established one of the most prominent yeshivos in Tel Aviv. Something had happened along the way, as a few of their descendants had become alienated from the Torah way of life. Yet, their descendant returned to the fold - and to the kibbutz where he was born and raised. He started a Torah shiur, which incidentally began on the yahrtzeit of his grandfather!

Did the Kaddish have something to do with it?

Behold! - A caravan of Ishamelites was coming from Gilead, their camels bearing spice, balsam and lotus. (37:25)

Rashi's commentary is well-known. After all, why did the Torah find it necessary to mention the cargo carried by the Ishmaelite caravan? He explains that the Torah is teaching us that Hashem intervened on behalf of Yosef. Ishmaelite caravans usually transported foul-smelling cargo, such as naphtha and tar, but, in order to spare the righteous Yosef the discomfort of smelling the offensive odor, Hashem arranged for this caravan to carry sweet-smelling fragrances.

Many lessons can be gleaned from Rashi's interpretation of the sudden change in Ishmaelite cargo. Indeed, Horav Eliyahu Baruch Finkel, zl, categorizes these lessons, based on individual insights which (I think) are the product of individual approaches to mussar, ethical behavior. The different yeshivos represented not only variegated approaches to Talmudic analysis and methodology, but they also reflected their own unique approach toward understanding a situation, based upon their personal derech ha'chaim v'hamussar. I will quote them with the author's embellishment.

The primary mussar yeshivos (or, at least, yeshivos which were famous for their strong leanings toward mussar, ethical character development, we're under the guidance of their Roshei Yeshivah: the Alter, zl, m'Kelm, Horav Simcha Zissel Broide; the Alter, zl, m'Slabodka, Horav Nosson Tzvi Finkel; the Alter, zl, m'Novoradok, Horav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz.

The mussar movement had originally been initiated by Horav Yisrael Salanter out of recognition that, while Klal Yisrael's commitment to observe and study Torah was sufficient, its observance had become habitual, almost complacent, and the emotional dimension of avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty, had become lacking. Thus, the young people were especially susceptible to the blandishments of the outside world, the Haskalah, Enlightenment, and other various nationalistic movements which were far removed from anything Jewish or religious. They presented Jewish observance as archaic, without meaning, with almost no satisfaction. By formalizing the independent study of mussar, the ben Torah would grow both spiritually and ethically and would elevate his pride as a Jew.

Some Roshei Yeshivah were against this formalized study, fearing that an independent focus would result in differentiating spirituality from Torah study. To put it simply, they were afraid of frum am ha'aratzim, observant - but illiterate - Jews. They felt that love and fear of Hashem could be achieved by learning a blatt Gemorah with intensity.

The Chassidic approach was to use the vehicle of emotional stimulation, through joy, singing, davening, and/or hisbodedus, seclusion, whereby one would delve deeply into knowledge of G-d. The truth of the matter is that every method worked for different people. Some required intensity, and others needed the joy, while some just studied Torah, and that was their paradise.

In the mussar approach, Kelm, Slabodka and Novoradok differed, as we will soon see from their disparate approaches to gleaning the lesson from the Ishmaelite cargo. In Slabodka, it was all about gadlus ha'adam, the greatness of man. The Alter encouraged his students to learn mussar, thus polishing their character traits, so that they could aspire to be true great people in erudition and personal ethics.

In Kelm, it was shleimus ha'adam, the perfection of man, to work on self-development; never acting on impulse, without forethought; always maintaining complete order and correct behavior. Only someone who was a "man" could properly serve Hashem.

Novoradok believed in the total negation of one's self and the physical world in which he lives. One's ego should be non-existent, with a person's complete focus only on his spiritual and intellectual dimension. Nothing else matters.

Having shared this bit of historical perspective, we will now see how each mindset plays itself out in understanding Yosef's situation, and the Heavenly change of tar and naphtha to sweet perfumes. Kelm taught that we see from here the exactitude of Hashem's Justice. Yosef was to receive exactly what he deserved - no more and no less. Since he did not deserve to be surrounded by foul-smelling naphtha with its offensive odor, Hashem changed the course of things and the Ishmaelites were carrying a new fragrant-smelling cargo. Slabodka taught that this teaches us the greatness of a person. A person may be down, being sold as a slave, yet he is still turned off by an offensive odor. He may be down in the dumps, but he has not lost his senses. He is a man - not an animal. In Novoradok, they viewed this from the opposite perspective. We see here how absorbed a person is with this world. Even at a moment when he is being sold as a slave, when his life as an independent free person is over, he is still bothered by the insignificance of a foul-odor! Are you a person so small that, at such a time, you are concerned with the inconsequential? This may be compared to a person who just received a devastating diagnosis from the doctor, but is bothered by the fact the doctor's bad breath is offensive. These represent three different perspectives on humanity, three varied ways of looking at Yosef's "predicament."

Let us go further. Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl (who was a student of Mir and son-in-law of the son of the Alter m'Slabodka), explains that Hashem demonstrated His beneficence towards Yosef. Even in the misery of captivity, Hashem gave Yosef something to think about: "You are not alone. I am with you. Otherwise, the Arabs would have been carrying a cargo of tar. Never fear, even in the most difficult moments of life, Hashem does not forsake us."

Brisk was of those who countered the mussar movement. The Brisker Rav and the Chazon Ish felt strongly that one who learns with the proper intensity, who prays with the expected fervor, will develop a strong sense of yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, and maintain himself on the highest level of moral and ethical rectitude. The Brisker Rav saw in Yosef a person who, despite all of his adversity, continued to maintain his inextricable bond with the Torah. Nothing could sever his relationship with Torah - except, if there were a foul smell, he would not be able to study Torah. One does not study Torah in a place where the odor is pungent and offensive. Thus, Hashem changed the cargo, so that Yosef could continue his life of allegiance to the Torah unabated.

Yeshivas Telz viewed the study of mussar on an intellectual level, integrating its lessons into the total harmony of the ben Torah. Mussar was not a separate limud, but an integral part of the law. In Telshe, learning was halachic and hashkafic - not something abstract. It was a way of life. When a Telzer talmid studies a sugya, topic, in the Talmud, it is a transformative experience. What he learned became part of his psyche.

Horav Mordechai Pogremonsky, zl, was one of Telshe's most celebrated students. He explains that two individuals may use a knife to cut into the flesh of a person. One is a physician who is performing a surgical procedure. The other is a murderer who is committing an act of treachery against his victim. How does an innocent spectator discern between the surgeon and the murderer? For all intents and purposes, to the uninitiated eye, they are both doing the same act. When we look closely, however, we observe a stark difference between them. The surgeon makes sure that he is clean and that his hands are washed and covered by sterile gloves. He then takes a scalpel which has been sterilized and is germ-free. This is because the cut that he is about to make in the patient's skin is a therapeutic cut and must, therefore, be as clean as possible in order not to contract infection. The murderer, however, does not care about washing his hands; he does not mind if the blade he uses to take the life of his victim is rusting, or even if it is sharp, as long as it does the job.

This is what Hashem showed Yosef. The adversity with which he was challenged, the pain infused upon him, was not derived from a filthy murderous knife, but from a sterile scalpel. Yosef's troubles would eventually catalyze his ascension to being the Egyptian viceroy - just as the surgeon's scalpel brings about the patients' recovery. Thus, Hashem manipulated it that Yosef's accompanying cargo should consist of fragrant perfumes. Yosef should be aware that he was being sent down to Egypt compliments of the Great Physician - not by murdering Arabs.

Last, we cite Horav Yitzchak zl, m'Varka, one of the early illustrious Chassidic leaders, who explains that the decree against Yosef affected him physically - not spiritually. Hashem does not want to impose one iota on the neshamah, soul. Smell gives the neshamah enjoyment. Thus, to accompany Yosef with a pungent smell would mean infringing on the neshamah, which Hashem did not want to do.

But he adamantly refusedů how then can I have perpetrated this great evil and I have sinned against G-d. (39:8,9)

Above the word va'yima'en, "but he adamantly refused," are two cantillation signs/notes, a shalsheles followed by a p'sik; the shalsheles is a rarely used sign. Together, they underscore the word va'yima'en, indicating that Yosef's refusal was emphatic and unequivocal. It was a definitive "No!" which offered Potifar's wife no question about her ability to entice Yosef into committing a sin with her. He asserted that there was no room whatsoever for negotiation. It was only after he emphatically said, "No!" that he explained his reasons to her. From this pasuk, Horav Shlomo Amar, Shlita, derives the Torah's approach to dealing with the yetzer hora, evil inclination: no discussion; no negotiation; just plain emphatic, "No!" Once one enters into discussion with the yetzer hora, he has already lost. Even if he ultimately wins, he has lost.

One must realize that we do not triumph over the yetzer hora with logic - only with strength, and that strength is derived from an ability to overcome its wiles by refusing to give in, regardless of its blandishments. Discussion leads to compromise, and we cannot compromise with the yetzer hora. Compromise is a diplomatic term for failure to succeed. One triumphs over the yetzer hora by not giving it the time of day - as Yosef did.

The Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh (commentary to Vayikra 18:2) writes that discussion with the yetzer hora causes the prohibition to lose its nefarious nature in his eyes. The more he analyzes, "if, maybe, possibly, perhaps a little," the aveirah becomes much less of an aveirah, as his emotions become desensitized to the sin. One should not - for any reason - enter into negotiations with the yetzer hora. A sin remains a sin, regardless of what image is presented.

I am going to relate a well-known inspirational story, which is well worth reviewing due to its compelling message in buttressing the concept of non-negotiating with the yetzer hora. Horav Yitzchak, zl, m'Vienna, was one of the major Ashkenazic Tosafists. Counted among his many students was the Maharam, zl, m'Rottenberg, who was later considered to be the leading posek, Halachic decisor, in Ashkenaz/Germany. In his magnum opus, Or Zarua, Hilchos Rosh Hashanah 27b, Rav Yitzchak cites Horav Ephraim, zl, m'Bonn (who was of the Baalei Tosfos, and who lived two centuries prior to Rav Yitzchak), who writes that Horav Amnon, zl, of Mainz authored the Tefillah U'Nesaneh Tokef as the result of a terrible incident which he had experienced. At the end of the story, mention is made of the individual who received the text of U'Nesaneh Tokef from Rav Amnon in a dream. This was Horav Klonimus ben Horav Meshullam. Based upon the names involved, we must adduce that the story took place in 1020, about seventy years before the First Crusade. Thus, the Or Zarua recorded an event which had occurred two hundred years before his time.

This is neither the place nor the forum to describe Jewish life in Germany at that time. Let it suffice to say that we lived at the mercy of the barbarians who called themselves human. Guided by a religion whose maniacal fanatics were urged on by the sadistical populace to avenge the death of their lord, one can only begin to imagine the terror which engulfed the Jewish communities at that time.

The church ruled the land with the help of kings who obsequiously deferred their land to the church, so that their sins would be pardoned. (So much for any spiritual aspect to their religion.) The kings, in turn, considered the church sacrosanct, and anyone who did not ascribe to the Catholic dogma was reviled as an enemy of the church. The kings appointed governors who were also bishops, thus serving as managers of the land and its religious leadership. While most of these people were simple folk who had been elevated to power by currying the favor of the ruling kings, some were intelligent men who sought to attain wisdom. It was this attribute which they most envied of the Jews, who were erudite and wise, cultured and refined.

The governor of Mainz sought the friendship of the city's most illustrious Jewish leader, Rav Amnon. He was the generation's leading Torah sage, wealthy, of illustrious lineage, an individual whose handsome countenance greatly impressed the ministers and governors with whom he came in contact. The governor of Mainz wanted a relationship with Rav Amnon so that he could learn from his wisdom, and because, in the back of his mind, he wanted to convert him to Christianity. This would be his greatest prize. At first he was subtle, but as time went along, he became more and more emphatic in his request that he convert. Finally, Rav Amnon replied, "Let me take counsel and consider the matter for three days." He did this in an attempt to repel the governor. He never for one moment considered abandoning his religion.

Once again, I must underscore that the only reason their discussion went this far was in consideration of the security and safety of the Jewish community. These people lived at the whim of their church leaders/kings. As long as the Jews eschewed their religion, they were still not secure. After all, their godhead (in their small minds) was a Jew. How could they accept him if his own people ignored him? Thus, their doctrine demanded that Jews were tolerated only until they were forcibly converted or murdered - whichever came first. Rav Amnon had heretofore played along with the governor, having discussions and maintaining friendship, all to protect the small Jewish community of Mainz. This time, however, the governor had shown his true colors, and they were not very friendly colors. Rav Amnon was in a serious predicament, confronted with a quandary that might very well cost the Jewish community their lives. If Rav Amnon would agree to the governor's request, he would himself become the leader, the governor of the Jews, thereby allowing them to thrive. On the other hand, if he rejected the governor - he would probably be killed - but quite possibly the Jews would survive - in their dismal state, but, at least, they would be alive.

There really was no question. A Jew cannot live as a goy! He might assimilate, i.e., talk, dress, think, act as they do - in all areas he would be a goy. Biologically a Jew, but actively a goy, was not a choice for our forebears. They would rather die, and they did. This is why we are alive, thriving as observant Jews, because our forebears chose death over conversion or assimilation.

Rav Amnon had a much deeper problem. The Or Zarua writes: "As soon as he parted company with the governor, he reflected upon his having voiced his uncertainty, expressing to the governor that he needed counsel to ruminate over the question of disavowing the living G-d."

How could this be? His Judaism was his complete essence, his entire being. How could he have made such a vacillating statement? True, physical existence is important - but at what expense? Is it even possible that someone in his right mind would even for one moment consider taking counsel or consideration concerning this subject?

The Or Zarua continues: "Rav Amnon returned home - miserable. He could neither eat nor drink, subsequently becoming feverishly ill. His relatives and friends came to comfort him, but he refused to be consoled, 'I will go down to my grave mourning because of what I said.' He cried incessantly and became even more morose. 'How could I have given the impression that serving Hashem was negotiable?' he wept. On the third day, the governor sent for him. Rav Amnon refused to come. The governor sent a number of messengers to ask Rav Amnon to appear. Rav Amnon refused. Finally, the governor forced him to come. 'Why did you not come on the designated day, as originally agreed?' the governor asked Rav Amnon.

The governor was intimating that adhering to Judaism was a waste. He could convert and have it all: fame, wealth and power. Why was he being so obstinate?

Rav Amnon replied, "I will determine my own sentence. I had no intentions of coming to you, because I have no intention of converting. I misled you, giving you false hope that I, a Jew, faithful to the Almighty, would even consider reneging his faith - Heaven forbid. I am to blame for this and I will determine my punishment.

"The tongue that spoke and misled you shall be cut off!" Having this punishment carried out on his tongue would also convey a message to the Jews of Mainz: A Jew who promises someone that he will abandon his faith will ultimately disappoint. No Jew will renege his faith. It is useless forcing Jews to convert. They would sooner die than convert.

The governor now showed his true sadistical self, "No, the tongue will not be cut off, because you spoke well. You expressed a willingness to consider relinquishing your faith for Christianity. Your body which did not come to me will be tortured. We will keep chopping off limbs until you finally give in and convert."

Twenty times the ax was raised to sever another limb. Each time they asked him if he had recanted his decision. Would he now be willing to convert? Each finger and toe was mercilessly cut off amid indescribable pain.

When the evil sadist finished his business, he placed the dismembered fingers and toes at Rav Amnon's side, and he sent him home. In those days of infections, blood poisoning, swelling and abscesses, with limited hygiene and no medicine, Rav Amnon became mortally ill. He lay in excruciating pain until Rosh Hashanah arrived, and he asked to be carried to shul.

During Mussaf, prior to returning his holy soul to its Heavenly abode, Rav Amnon recited his poignant prayer, U'Nesaneh Tokef. This prayer has become an accepted inspirational prayer during the Yamim Noraim, High Holy Days. We now understand the deeper meaning of the prayer. A Jew does not negotiate with the yetzer hora. He brooks no compromise concerning his faith in Hashem. He would rather give up his life than swerve one iota in his commitment to Hashem. It is because of this sense of fidelity to Hashem that we are all still here today-vibrant, committed and strong.

Va'ani Tefillah

Hashem sefasai Tiftach u'fi yagid tehilasecha. My Master, my lips you should open, and my mouth shall relate Your Praise.

The Ramban (Emunah u'Bitachon 5) maintains that the word sefasai, usually translated as lips, has a different connotation in this verse. Sefas ha'nahar is defined as banks of the river, the sefas being the barrier which confines the river to stay within the parameter of its narrow channel. Thus, sefasai tiftach is an entreaty to Hashem to allow our prayers to override the confines of the "banks" which hold them in place. Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, elucidates this further. Man's soul is restricted and stifled within the confines of the human body. When man stands in prayer before Hashem, he has the opportunity for his soul to surge forward and overflow the restricted confines of the finite body. At times, our soul wants to cry out to Hashem, to exalt in His Glory. The body, however, does not allow this. During prayer, the banks are released, and, as we speak to Hashem, our neshamah, soul, becomes aroused and reaches out to its Source.

We have so much that we want to convey to Hashem, but, somehow, we just simply forget, or lose the desire, lack the courage, or are emotionally blocked from expressing our true feelings. When we are about to begin our prayer/conversation with Hashem, we ask that He help us by eradicating the restrictions that we often place upon ourselves. Hashem! Clear the path of all the debris that we have strewn, so that our tefillos can soar directly up to You.

l'zechar nishmas
R' Noach ben R' Yehuda Aryeh z"l
niftar 22 Kislev 5726
on his fiftieth yahrtzeit
by his family

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

The Fifteenth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel