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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Yisro…heard everything that G-d did to Moshe and toYisrael, His people. (18:1)

Yisro heard about two events: the miracles at the sea, when the Egyptians were punished for their treachery; and the war against Amalek, when Klal Yisrael triumphed over their archenemy. Yisro was not the only one who "heard." Many heard; he, however, internalized it and acted positively in response. Why did Yisro need two incidents to impress upon him the greatness of Hashem and His People? Was not the splitting of the Red Sea a sufficient miracle to influence his way of thinking? Indeed, the war with Amalek could have been misconstrued as a victory effected by Klal Yisrael's military genius. The splitting of the Red Sea, however, was a miracle of the highest order. No one could question it. Why, then, was it necessary for Yisro hear also about the war with Amalek before he decided to join Klal Yisrael?

Horav Shlomo Gestetner, Shlita, explains that while Krias Yam Suf was an incredible miracle that had no equal, one might err and think that Hashem produced this miracle in order to save Klal Yisrael whose lives were in grave danger. Indeed, if another nation had been pursued by Egypt, Hashem would likely also have saved them from their oppressors. In other words, Krias Yam Suf does not demonstrate a clear indication that Hashem sought to save Klal Yisrael specifically because they would soon receive the Torah and mitzvos. Only after Yisro saw that they were rescued from Amalek, whose sole desire was to destroy them spiritually, was he convinced that Klal Yisrael's spiritual destiny was what mattered to Hashem. Their spiritual ascendancy gave the Jewish People preeminence over the other nations. This motivated Yisro to leave Midyan and join the Jews.

The name of one was Gershom, for he had said, "I was a sojourner in a strange land." (18:3)

Horav Shlomo Margolis, Shlita, notes that Yosef Hatzadik named his first son Menashe because "G-d has made me forget all my hardship and all my father's household" (Bereishis 41:51). Upon naming their sons, Moshe Rabbeinu and Yosef recognized the significance of remembering the past. There are people who attempt to erase the past, to eradicate the memories of the previous generation, its culture and way of life. Some are even ashamed of the past, considering it to be obsolete and antiquated. Not so the Torah-oriented Jew. He remembers the past; he venerates the past; he lives the present and builds toward the future based upon the foundation of the past. This is the reason that when they name their children, who symbolize the future of our people, they use names that recall the past. Even Yosef, the viceroy of Egypt, eternalized the past when he named Menashe. He was not embarrassed; he was proud.

Only by connecting to the past, are we assured of a promising future. Why? Why is the past so important? What crucial role should it play in our lives? One who does not acquaint himself with the past cannot pretend to grasp the present. Anti- Semitism, for instance, cannot be fully understood without an examination of its roots in history; its development over time and the myths about Jews and Judaism that it has catalyzed. The concept of geulah, redemption, isbetter understood when one has a more profound understanding of galus, exile. Through the prism of history, galus takes on a new perspective. One strengthens his Jewish identity and heightens his Jewish pride when he becomes acutely aware of the many significant achievements of his ancestors throughout history. One who becomes acquainted with his Jewish past will identify and take pride in it, as he integrates this knowledge into his own life. Lastly, he will see how many of today's issues, problems and challenges have been confronted in the past. One who ignores his past is destined to relive it.

Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain shall surely die. (19:12)

Rabbi Paysach Krohn cites the Kotzker Rebbe's homiletic interpretation of this pasuk. This was to be the basis of a speech that Rabbi Moshe Sherer,zl, was to deliver at Agudath Israel's 76th Annual Dinner. Regrettably, Rabbi Sherer, who served as Agudah's president for over thirty years, passed away that morning. The following is the Rebbe's exegesis and Rabbi Sherer's supplemental note.

There are instances when one undertakes a project with the desire to make a significant contribution via his work. All too often, as happens with many of us, we do not achieve our planned goals. Yet, this does not phase us. We become complacent and satisfied with what we have done because after all, it is still more than had been previously accomplished. The Kotzker says this is wrong. He interprets this idea into the pasuk: Beware if you are trying to "climb a mountain" with the stated goals of accomplishing something great. You succeed, however, in reaching only part of your goal. Do not be satisfied, for if you have merely "touched the mountain" and not succeeded in conquering it, that is not life. Rather it constitues a form of death.

Rabbi Sherer added what probably defined his own essence, as well as the prevalent perspective of so many of Klal Yisrael's gedolim, Torah giants: "If you have merited to climb the mountain, do not be like those who are satisfied with a little, but instead endeavor to climb higher and higher!" This is the way a Jew should live. It is only through such an outlook on life that one can achieve gadlus, greatness, and true success.

Too many of us are "mistapek be'muat," satisfied with a little, acquiescing to whatever we achieve, even if it falls dismally short of our intended goals. Horav Yissacher Frand, Shlita, focuses upon our lack of going "all the way," our sense of complacency with whatever we achieve, our satisfaction with our level of observance. In the parsha of Vidui Maasros, the confession one recites upon bringing his tithes to Yerushalayim, the individual says, "I have removed the holy things from the house, and I have also given to the Levi, to the ger, convert, to the orphan, and to the widow, according to whatever commandment You have commanded me." Concealed in this recitation, say the commentators, is the letter "chof" of the word "k'chol," which underscores the confession. We do not say that we have given precisely as we have been commanded, but rather, "k'chol," like, all that we were commanded. We gave, but perhaps not enough, not in accordance with our full ability. We waited to give at the last possible moment, rather than at the appropriate time each year.

When we evaluate our lives and our observances, we will see that everything revolves around the "k'chol," "like." We do - we observe - but it is lacking in content, lacking in feeling, lacking in attitude. Our Shabbos is cold, our davening is at best lukewarm, our minyan attendance leaves much to be desired. We are, however, frum! Yaakov Avinu said, "I lived with Lavan, but I did not learn from his actions." One of the commentators interprets this to mean, "I did not learn from him to do good as he does evil." Lavan's approach to evil was whole-hearted and passionate. We have yet to learn from that.

We must ask ourselves: do we maximize our potential? Adam Harishon was judged by Hashem. He was asked one word - "Ayeca," "Where are you?" Chazal teach us that this question encompassed much more than it seems to. It critiqued Adam for failing to realize his remarkable potential. "Yesterday you reached up to the Heavens," encompassing the entire world from one end to the other. You were My handiwork, My special creation. And where are you today? Hiding among the trees of the garden." This was Hashem's mussar, rebuke. Adam Harishon's tragic failure to realize his incredible potential frequently repeats itself in our lives. We must never become complacent, thinking either that we have reached the top of the mountain or that wherever we have been is "good enough." It is not.

We are all created by the Almighty with a purpose, with goals to achieve, with objectives to realize. Something happens along the way which precludes us from fulfilling our mission in life. We say in the Mussaf Shemoneh Esrei of Rosh Hashanah, that each person is judged in accordance with "maaseh ish u'fekudaso," everyone's deed and mission. What is the meaning of deed and mission? A person should be judged according to what he does or does not do. What is the meaning of one's mission? Horav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz,zl, explained that a man has a G-d-given purpose in life. We are judged not only by the quality of our deeds, but also by the extent to which we fulfill our personal purpose in life.

Interestingly, when Reb Shraga Feivel made this statement, he added, "How does one know whether he has fulfilled his mission in life?" He immediately began to cry. Here was a person who catalyzed much of the Torah environment that the post World War II Americans enjoy. Yet, he felt insecure regarding his achievements. Perhaps this is why he was so eminently successful. He never felt that he had made it. This is what Rabbi Sherer was alluding to. The individuals that feel they have made it have only begun to ascend the mountain. We can never become complacent. The process of trying to reach our potential is a never-ending quest for achievement. To paraphrase Horav Frand, "Not only is each one of us brought into this world with a unique combination of strengths, but each one of us is brought into the world at a particular time when those powers are needed for the fulfillment of some part of the Divine Plan." We have a responsibility to ourselves, our People, and the Almighty Who put us here at this specific time and place for a purpose. There are people who go through life doing little more than searching for that purpose. Others search less and do more. They are ascending the mountain.

Honor your father and your mother. (20:12)

To what extent must one honor his parents? Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, focuses on the degree of kavod, honor, one must accord to a parent who, due to illness or advanced age, has a deteriorated mental capacity. The question becomes stronger in situations when the illness has advanced to the point that there are serious issues of extreme hardship for the children, both as sons or daughters to their parents and as husbands or wives to their respective mates. How much does one have to sacrifice for a parent? How much hardship, and - at times - abuse must one endure from a parent who is ill and whose mind does not function properly?

Horav Zilberstein writes that when he posed this question before one of the preeminent poskim, halachic arbiters, of the generation, the answer he received was: a son or daughter must do for their parents to the same degree that their parents will do for them. In other words, parents sacrifice their lives for their children, should we not at least do the same for them? Hashem commands us to honor our parents out of a sense of hakoras hatov, gratitude and appreciation. We owe them. While at times fulfilling our obligation might be extremely difficult, and even crushing, it is our obligation. Perhaps, when the situation becomes diffucult, we should ask ourselves: what would our parents do for us if the situation had been reversed? No one has ever said that life was going to be easy. Regrettably, some of us would rather take than give.

Horav Y. Eliyashiv, Shlita, feels that a child's obligation goes beyond what a parent would do for a child. There is no comparison. He cites the Rambam who says that the chiyuv, obligation, is "ad shekocho shel ha'ben magia," as much as the son can physically endure. We might be so bold to add that emotional endurance on the part of the child might also be taken into account. It is noteworthy that the famous gaon, Horav Chaim Pelagi, zl, merited to live to a ripe old age. He was revered by all. The Turkish government accorded him the honor due to royalty. When asked by one of his students to what he attributed his exceptional longevity, he wrote down ten acts that merit longevity. One of them is attending to one's parents, despite their mental infirmity.

There is no doubt that caring for an elderly parent can, at times, be an overwhelming burden. The response to "How much can I take?" is an individual one. People react differently to this burden, and they must acknowledge when they are responding inappropriately.

In the Talmud Kiddushin, Chazal describe a situation in which a son feeds his father the finest delicacies, yet loses his reward in Olam Habah. The son places the food before his father. His father asks him from where he obtained the money for such delicacies. The response is a terse, "What difference is it to you? Eat." Horav Reuven Feinstein, Shlita, questions how such a paradoxical attitude could exist within a human being. On the one hand, the son seeks to provide his father with the finest delicacies. On the other hand, the manner in which he offers the food bespeaks of cruelty and disdain. He explains that quite possibly, the son has spent more than he could afford for the food. His obligation to provide the very best for his father has guided him. Now that he must come to terms with the cost of the food, he resents his father for placing him in such a position.

Regrettably, such an amalgams of obligation and resentment, love and hate, joy and bitterness, coexist to one degree or another, when the situation becomes overwhelming. We have to consult with a talmid chacham, Torah scholar, anddecide whether our inability to cope is overriding our ability to love.

We have to remember that what goes around comes around, and the respect we accord our parents is, in effect, the type of respect we might receive one day from our children. They are watching us. We must provide them with the proper models for Kibbud Av v'Eim - ourselves. While we might forget how we have acted towards our parents, our children remind us.

Vignettes on the Parsha

Men of truth, people who despise money. (18:21)

Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zl, would change the sequence of the words to read it as, "People who despise money, who are men of truth," He added that there are people who appear to be "sonei botza," despisers of money, but they act this way only because of money. In other words, for money an individual can acquire anything - even a sonei botza, who supposedly hates money.


And Yisrael camped there opposite the mountain. (19:2)

Rashi says the word "vayichan", "and (Yisrael) camped," is written in the singular to imply that they all camped as "one man with one heart," so great was their brotherly unity. Horav Yitzchak,zl, m'Varka, adds that the word "vayichan" may be derived from the word "chein," favor; each Jew was "motzi chein," found favor, in each other's eyes. Therefore, they merited to receive the Torah.


Ohr Yesharim says that when there is unity among Jews, when they are all as "one man with one heart," then they can challenge / stand up to the "mountain," i.e., yetzer hora, evil inclination, which seems unconquerable as a mountain.

And prepare them today and tomorrow. (19:10)

Horav Mordechai HaKohen,zl, explains that the ikar, main thing, is the "tomorrow." "Today," as everyone stands at the foot of the mountain experiencing Revelation, they are all surely holy. What about tomorrow, when they go home, when they go to work, when they leave the utopian environment of holiness? Will they remain holy? That is the test - tomorrow.


And the sound of the shofar was very powerful. (19:16)

Horav Levi Yitzchak, zl, m'Berditchev, was wont to say, "There are two types of Shofar sounds, and each has a profound effect on certain people. Some hear the sound of the Shofar of Rosh Hashanah all year, while some hear the sound of the Shofar of Revelation throughout their lives."


And all the people could see the sounds and the flames…and they moved and they stood from afar. (20:15)

Horav Mendel, zl, m'Kotzk would say, "It is possible for a man to see, to experience and to outwardly be moved, but still inwardly remain afar. It is one's penimius, inner essence, that must be moved.

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