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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


But he got up that night… and crossed the ford of Yabok…Yaakov was left alone and a man wrestled with him. (32:23,24)

Chazal teach us that Yaakov Avinu had forgotten some pachim ketanim, small pitchers, and returned to retrieve them. They derive from our Patriarch's action that "to the righteous, their money is more dear to them than their bodies." They earn every penny diligently and honestly, thus everything they own is very dear to them. Is that a reason to endanger one's life? In fact, Chazal in Pirkei Avos 3:5, admonish us to beware of the night and to refrain from going out alone. "If a person is awake at night, or travels on the road alone…then he can blame himself if anything bad happens to him." The night is a time when the mazikin, spiritual demons, prevail. The road presents its own set of dangers. One who puts himself into a dangerous situation has only himself to blame if he suffers as a result of his foolhardy decision. Yaakov endangered himself for some little jugs that probably were not worth very much. Was it worth it? Was it the correct thing to do? Apparently, if Yaakov did it, it was the proper action to take - but why?

The Arizal explains that Yaakov viewed his material possessions as gifts from Hashem. When one receives a gift from the King of Kings, he makes certain not to lose it. We view our possessions as something we either purchased, earned or deserved. We look at all the parties involved in enabling us to acquire our material possessions - but we never think about the true source of all that income. From where did it actually come? The righteous understand that it all begins and ends with Hashem, the Source of all income. Therefore, they have a deep and abiding respect for their possessions, regardless of their monetary value. It is not what it is, but, rather, from Whom it comes.

Probably the greatest gift that we receive from Hashem is the gift of life. We have become so complacent with life that we fail to recognize its Source. I recently read a story about Horav Yaakov Kaminetzky, zl, that underscores this idea. His devotion to Klal Yisrael , to the Klal, general community, and the prat, individual Jew, was legendary. As a man of ninety years old, he was certainly entitled to take it easy, to have some "down" time for himself, but he was not that way. He would tell his Rebbetzin never to leave the phone off the hook - even during meals. "Picture the frustration," he would say, "of a person who calls, finds the line busy, and calls again - only to find the line still busy. Can you imagine his frustration? Besides, my feeling is that Hashem has granted me these extra years as a gift for me to use for others. How can I squander my time for my personal comfort?"

The Sanzer Rav, zl, would record in a notebook every single moment that he did not devote to Torah or mitzvos. One year, prior to Yom Kippur, he tallied up the minutes, and it totaled three hours. He then wept for three hours, asking Hashem for Divine forgiveness. Time is short; time is precious; time is a gift. It is not to be wasted.

Horav Meir zl, m'Premishlan would give everything away to the poor. He once remarked, "Every day I thank the Almighty that having money is not a mitzvah. If it were, I do not believe I could sleep a single night knowing that I have the means, while there are those less fortunate than I who are going hungry." When one recognizes that he has been granted a gift, he delves into the purpose of that gift.

And a man wrestled with him (Yaakov) until the break of dawn. When he (the angel) perceived that he could not overcome him, he struck the socket of his hip; so Yaakov's hip-socket was dislocated…the sun rose for him…and he was limping on his hip. (32:25,26,32)

Yaakov's Avinu's handicap did not last very long. He was struck at alos ha'shachar, daybreak, and was healed by the zerichas ha'shemesh, rising sun. This implies that Eisav's guardian angel did not have the power to overwhelm Yaakov during a time that was either clearly night or clearly day. It was only during this small window of opportunity between alos ha'shachar and netz hachamah, daybreak to sunrise, that he was able to achieve a measure of success. What does this teach us? Horav Eliyahu Schlessinger, Shlita, explains this homiletically. Night and day represent clarity. Whether it is clear day or dark night, it is unambiguous. These two concepts reflect Klal Yisrael's spiritual condition when it is strong, conclusive and free of doubt. Under such conditions, there is no question concerning Klal Yisrael's ability to withstand challenge and triumph over adversity. This idea applies equally to the individual. When a person's beliefs are unequivocal, and his moral posture and perspective are not vague, he can overcome the trials that confront him. As long as he is rooted solidly in his Torah- study and ethical demeanor, he will triumph through every encounter with the forces of Eisav.

It is only when he is philosophically on shaky ground, when his emunah, belief in Hashem, is unclear, that his situation is compared to a twilight zone, which is neither dark nor light. It is not night, but it is also not yet day. This is symbolized by the period between daybreak and sunrise. It is no longer dark, but it is not yet fully light. During this period of obscurity, Eisav can grasp a foothold in us, squeeze himself in, and even, at times, succeed in swaying us.

Eisav's angel is the yetzer hora, evil inclination, who knows that it is during these times in which we are unsure of ourselves and our beliefs that he must launch his spiritual offensive against us. This is our weak point, and he will make the most of it. Our moment of indetermination, our lack of clarity, is his window of opportunity. He is sure to seize the moment. The Gaon, zl, m'Vilna interprets this idea into the pasuk in Bereishis 4:7, "L'pesach chatas roveitz." "Sin rests at the door." A pesach is an opening, a doorway. When man prepares the opening, when he opens the door, he allows the sin to enter. When there is doubt, it creates an access for the yetzer hora. Chavah said to the serpent, "Of the fruit of the tree…You shall not eat of it nor touch it, lest you die." (ibid.3:3) By saying "lest you die," she was implying that death was only a possibility. She was unsure. This allowed the serpent to penetrate the doorway that she created. Had she said, "You will surely die," with clarity and certainty, the serpent would not have had a chance.

This is the lesson of the gid ha'nashe, the sinew that moved out of place. Anything that is not in its place or in its proper perspective is in danger of falling prey to the winds of change. When we are firmly rooted in our heritage and strongly committed to transmitting the legacy to the next generation, nothing can stand in our way.

Yaakov was left alone and a man wrestled with him…when he perceived that he could not overcome him, he struck the socket of his hip…Therefore, the Bnei Yisrael are not to eat the displaced sinew on the hip socket. (32:25,26, 33)

Yaakov Avinu's encounter with the guardian angel of Eisav is an experience that remains eternalized in the annals of Jewish history. There is more to this confrontation than meets the eye. The Zohar Hakadosh says that this encounter took place on the night of Tisha B'Av. When the angel succeeded in striking the socket of Yaakov's hip, it became a portent for the Jewish nation that Tisha B'Av would remain a day on which Eisav and his minions of evil would have the ability to prevail over us. The angel did not affect Yaakov, since he quickly healed from the mishap. It affected, however, the future generations of the Patriarch, an idea which is symbolized by the yerech, hip.

Children are referred to as yotzei yerech, those "who go out from the hip." Therefore, Tisha B'Av became a night when the forces of evil have prevailed against us. It was the night that the meraglim, spies, returned and disparaged Eretz Yisrael. It was the night that Klal Yisrael overreacted and wept for no justifiable reason. Hashem declared, "You cried needlessly; I will give you a reason to cry for generations." Tisha B'Av commemorates that fateful night with its own set of tragedies: the destruction of the two Batei Mikdash and a number of other calamities that have taken their toll on our People. In other words, it is not that the Ninth of Av became a day that denotes negativity and tragedy because of what has historically occurred on that day. Rather, there are "good" days and "not such good" days - days which for some reason have been rendered as days that are not fortuitous for Jews. Horav Zvi Hirsch Broide, zl, explains that time, as it was originally created, stands still. We travel through time, and there are "station" stops during the calendar year which are designated by Hashem and maintain the same attributes and spiritual context as that date held in the original calendar of creation. Thus, Shabbos has been imbued with the exact forces that prevailed in the original Shabbos Bereishis of Creation. Pesach has the same forces that are endemic to geulah, liberation. Adar has the qualities inherent in simchah, joy. Av is a month during which misfortune has had its reign. The Ninth of Av is a day that from the creation of time has been designated for trouble and calamity. We have only to peruse our history to perceive this reality.

It is due to this that Eisav's angel chose this unfortuitous night to challenge Yaakov. He knew that the forces of evil and impurity have greater power on this night. Indeed, the Chasam Sofer posits that Hashem enabled the meraglim to return to their camp three days earlier than planned. He did not want them to be on the road during the Ninth of Av, because of that day's negativity. It would be too much of a challenge for them. Regrettably, despite returning early, they nonetheless fell into the trap of Tisha B'Av, memorializing it forever as a day of even greater calamity.

Interestingly, the Zohar HaKodesh says that eating on Tisha B'Av is tantamount to eating the gid ha'nashe. Furthermore, the Sifrei Kabbalah say that the three hundred and sixty-five prohibitive mitzvos each correspond to one day of the yearly calendar, and the mitzvah of gid ha'nashe coincides with the Ninth day of Av! Apparently, there are times in the Jewish calendar that are propitious, and there are times that are not. This awareness gives us all the more reason to acknowledge and appreciate the good fortune that Hashem provides for us.

Yaakov arrived intact at the city of Shechem. (33:18)

The first place of significance that Yaakov Avinu visited upon returning to Eretz Yisrael was Shechem. The Ramban applies the rubric of Maaseh Avos siman l'banim, "all that occurred to the forefathers is a portent of what will happen to their descendants on a general, national level." Indeed, Shechem was the first place that Klal Yisrael conquered upon entering the land. Avraham Avinu also first approached Shechem when he entered Eretz Yisrael. On the very day that Klal Yisrael entered the land, they went to Har Gerizim and Har Eival, which are situated in the Shechem district. Something about this place must have caused Avraham, Yaakov and Klal Yisrael to commence their relationship with Eretz Yisrael at this specific location.

The Shem MiShmuel gives us a deeper understanding of the meaning and significance of the place called Shechem. When Yaakov arrived in Shechem, he experienced an unfortunate incident in which his daughter, Dinah, was violated by Shechem ben Chamor, who was the area's ruler. After his beastly act, he asked for Dinah's hand in marriage. The condition that Yaakov's sons demanded, in order to grant permission for this union, was that all the men in the city circumcise themselves. Shechem agreed, and the rest is history.

Interestingly, when Shechem asked for Dinah's hand, she is referred to by the Torah as "the daughter of Yaakov." She had a name. Why is she not referred to by her name? The Avnei Nezer, father of the Shem MiShmuel, explains that he was not merely interested in satisfying his physical desires, he wanted Dinah because she was "Yaakov's daughter"! He wanted to be a part of Yaakov's unique world. In truth, this is implied by the name "Shechem," which means "segment" or "portion." He sought a portion of Yaakov's family. He did not want Dinah simply as a wife, but also to share in his future father-in-law's distinction. This attitude is in contradiction to the general position which one who seeks to convert to Judaism must maintain. A ger tzedek, righteous convert, should feel privileged to be a part of Klal Yisrael. Shechem, however, felt that Klal Yisrael owed him something!

Every word in the Hebrew language describes the essence of its subject. Thus, the word shechem aptly describes the individual who was named Shechem. It was not a coincidence that he and the city's inhabitants lived in Shechem. They all personified the meaning of shechem - segment, portion. Each person wanted his own portion in life. They all sought individuality, significance and personal distinction. Being a part of a larger entity, of a community, of an organization, was not for them. Shechem was a place that infused its inhabitants with a feeling of importance and worthiness.

The character trait signified by Shechem is a double-edged sword. One can apply it positively, saying that bishvili nivra ha'olam, "the world was created for me." He can perform one mitzvah and have the privilege of tipping the scales of merit in his favor in order to save an entire world. Having a feeling of self-worth and self-confidence is extremely important in one's quest for Torah distinction.

On the other hand, if one misapplies this character trait, it can lead to his downfall. He becomes so obsessed with furthering "himself," his goals and objectives, that his principles and his position on everything revolve around himself. He becomes so self-oriented that he will not permit anything to stand in the way of his personal achievement. He becomes so arrogant that people, society and even G-d may not dispute him. Such a person refuses to accept criticism, so that he can never be corrected. He is perfect in his own eyes.

In other words, the middah of "shechem" is something we all need in varied dosages in order to succeed in life. Like all therapeutic devices, however, too much can be destructive. To succeed one must be driven. He must be able to triumph over challenge and adversity, to stand up for what he believes. In order to complete a project of significance, one must feel good about himself, or else the project is doomed from its inception. The flip side is obvious. Personal empowerment and independence can lead to arrogance. Self-sufficiency and inflexibility are the precursors of haughtiness. The shechem character trait has to be carefully blended into the human persona, so that it does not overpower the individual, undermining his potential for success.

This is why Klal Yisrael began their assault on Eretz Yisrael through the city of Shechem. Until that time, they had been living in the wilderness, the descendants of slaves- certainly not what we would consider the necessary attributes for conquering a land. This was probably the greatest enterprise that they ever encountered. It would demand an incredible amount of self-assurance and drive to overcome the awesome and daunting task that confronted them. They received their boost of energy and self confidence in Shechem. It launched their mindset and energized their drive to conquer, to succeed, to triumph for Hashem.

There is a caveat that must be observed in Shechem. Too much indulgence in the character trait of shechem can lead to self reliance and arrogance. The Avos attempted to ameliorate this fear, to prevent plunging into the trap of shechem. Avraham and Yaakov, who were paragons of humility and self-effacement, sought to temper the shechem effect on future generations. Their visitation to Shechem ensured that the positive aspects of Shechem could be employed when necessary, and a proper perspective on life and success could still be retained. Through the established rule of Maaseh Avos siman labanim, they transmitted this ability to their descendants, so that they could receive the proper inspiration from this place without losing the balance between self-confidence and arrogance.

Shechem was a holy place with incredible potential. Yet, it was a place that has been recorded in the annals of Jewish history as one of disaster and strife. It is not the place that is inherently bad. Shechem can bring out the best in a person, but if not checked and tempered properly, it can lead to personal disaster. The sale of Yosef resulted from the brothers' refusal to submit to his leadership. The monarchy of Klal Yisrael was split due to Yerovam's arrogance, his refusal to accept the Davidic monarchy and the authority of the Bais Hamikdash. Shechem empowered them. It also set them up for destruction. Is that not the story of life? The greatest good can suddenly, with too much indulgence, become destructive.

Va'ani Tefillah

Melech mehulal batishbachos.
A King extolled in praises.

The Yalkut Katan gives the following analogy to explain the meaning of "a King extolled in praises." How else is He to be extolled, if not in praises? A villager who had never met the king-- or even left his small, rural village for that matter-- arrived in the capital to pay gratitude to the king for the many favors he had received from him. When he arrived in the capital, he received directions to the palace. As soon as he arrived at the palace gates and met the gatekeeper, he thought that he was meeting the king. He immediately began to laud the "king" for his many favors. The gatekeeper interrupted him saying, "I am sorry, but I am not the king. I am a simple gatekeeper." The villager continued on and did the same thing when he met the doorman at the palace. Closer and closer the villager went, each time meeting another servant or minister, until he finally entered the throne room and met the king, offering his praise and gratitude. When we look back at each individual that the villager had mistakenly thanked, although his intentions were noble, he erred in their identity, thereby indirectly hurting their feelings, because he was essentially the catalyst for bringing to their attention the fact that they were nothing more than the king's servants. In their own right, they were really not deserving of any praise.

The same idea applies when we praise Hashem. Every creation in the universe is only a "servant" to the Almighty. Thus, its praise also has a subtle negative connotation, since it brings to the fore the fact that in their own right, they are not worthy of praise. Only Hashem, Who is Master and Creator of the world and Who does not rely on any thing or anyone else, is truly "a King extolled (only) in praises."

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