Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Yisro said, "Blessed is Hashem, Who has rescued you from the hand of Egypt. (18:10)

The Talmud Sanhedrin 94 notes that it was embarrassing for Moshe Rabbeinu and 600,000 Jews that Yisro was the first one to bless Hashem for saving them. This reality comprises a powerful critique of the Jewish People and their leadership. Imagine that no one had been moved to bless Hashem for all the wonderful miracles which He had wrought for them until Yisro expressed his feelings of gratitude and praise. It almost does not make sense. The Jewish people were privy to the greatest miracle ever experienced by mankind, and they were not moved to give thanks, to offer gratitude! What was the Shirah, Song of Praise, which Moshe and Klal Yisrael sang immediately after crossing the Red Sea? Was that not praise? Was their adulation on a lower level than the few words of praise uttered by Yisro?

Tiferes Shlomo explains that while, indeed, Klal Yisrael had praised Hashem, thanking Him for all that He had wrought for them, Yisro was the first to praise the Almighty for the good that He showered upon others. Yisro was not directly affected by the Egyptian exodus and its ensuing miracles. He could have easily demurred, expressing praise by saying that it had nothing to do with him. Yet, he was the first to acknowledge that when Hashem performs miracles, even for others, one must acknowledge and pay gratitude. We all derive benefit from Hashem's beneficence. Some derive benefit directly, while others draw hope for themselves - hope which they can share with others.

Additionally, we are all part of one large collective. The benefit gained by one member of Klal Yisrael should be lauded by others. When one manifests the attitude, "What does it have to do with me?" it is an indication that he does not view all Jews as part of one aggregate body.

Furthermore, praising Hashem has nothing to do with being a beneficiary. We exalt the Almighty for His greatness, similar to the Heavenly angels who adulate Hashem. They certainly do not receive any "special treatment" from Him. Indeed, I would be so bold as to suggest that singing Hashem's praises only when one is the personal recipient of His good fortune is egotistical and selfish. We praise Hashem because He deserves praise - not because we have benefited from Him.

Whoever touches the mountain shall surely die. (19:12)

The mountain represents a sphere of holiness that is beyond the reach of the average person. To penetrate this boundary is intensely dangerous to the welfare of the individual. The Chafetz Chaim, zl, derives an important lesson concerning the reverence we must accord to a talmid chacham, Torah scholar. A mountain has no intelligence and no feelings. Yet, simply as a result of being the place upon which the Torah was given, it retained such an element of kedushah, holiness, that the people were admonished not to touch it. How much more so should we revere the Torah scholar who is proficient in the Torah and has intelligence and possesses feelings. One should be careful not to offend his honor in any way. Yes, the slightest offensive taint against a talmid chacham, an individual who is the embodiment of Torah, can be extremely dangerous to the offender.

The Talmud Sanhedrin 99a posits that an apikores, heretic, is one who is mevazeh, humiliates/ridicules/denigrates, a talmid chacham. In a second opinion, the Talmud goes so far as to say that even if one were to shame another Jew in the presence of a talmid chacham, he has already demonstrated his lack of respect. Thus, he is deserving of the ignominious title of apikores.

Rabbeinu Yonah (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:155), explains that Chazal are of the opinion that one who does not show proper respect to - or in the presence of - a talmid chacham, has indicated by his action that the Torah which the scholar possesses is not something of great value for which he must demonstrate esteem. Such a person is no different than he who desecrates the Torah.

Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, would often quote the featured address delivered by Horav Yehudah Leib Fine, zl, Rav of Slonim, Poland, at the dedication of Yeshivas Kletzk in 1930. Rav Fine cited the Talmud's (Sanhedrin 99a) question: "Who is an apikores? Individuals such as the men of the house of Binyamin, the physician, who would say, "Mai ahani Lan rabbanan, "What assistance do we receive from the chachamim?" ("What have they done for us?") They never found a dispensation to permit the consumption of a raven or a way to prohibit a dove. This means that the Torah scholars have neither added to, nor subtracted from, the Torah. What is prohibited - remains prohibited; and what is permitted - retains its status quo.

Rav Fine asked: What, really, have the chachamim done for us? They have not innovated any halachah. It has all remained the same as it was when given on Har Sinai. Veritably, the question is the answer. This can be explained with the following analogy: A person who was ill visited the doctor, hoping to be cured of his illness. The physician prescribed a lengthy regimen of medicine, supplements, and vigorous exercise. The patient was to stick to this regimen for years. Twenty years elapsed, and the patient returned to the doctor with a complaint. He had strictly adhered to the regimen, but he had not fully recovered from his original illness.

The physician replied that, indeed, the regimen had worked. The greatest indication was the mere fact that the patient was still alive. Had he not adhered to the regimen, he would not be here today to complain.

The lesson is obvious. During the last few thousand years, the world and everything in it has changed. Nations have come and gone, cultures have disappeared, monarchies have vanished. The only constant in the history of the world is the Torah. It remains unchanged in its pristine form from the moment it was given to us. It has been four thousand years without any alteration whatsoever. That is our Torah. We can still raise the question: What assistance do we get from the chachamim? What have we gained from them throughout the millennia? Well, it was the chachamim who have fiercely guarded the Torah, seeing to it that it continues to retain the same pure form as it had when Hashem gave it to us on Sinai.

Hashem descended upon Har Sinai…; Hashem summoned Moshe to the top of the mountain, and Moshe ascended. (19:20)

Elevating Klal Yisrael to the level of Kabollas HaTorah, receiving the Torah, was not an overnight task. The Jewish People had been enslaved in Egypt for two-hundred and ten years, suffering persecution and degradation, misery and emotional pain, until they cried out to Hashem. This catalyzed their return to Him, effecting their spiritual development, and preparing them for the seminal movement in Jewish history: the Giving of the Torah. Egypt was the crucible that tempered their spirit. The era of Egyptian bondage served as their incubation period, during which they evolved from the Hebrew people to Bnei Yisrael, endowed with the spiritual persona inherent in a Torah Jew. We wonder why Hashem did not prepare them in the same manner that He prepared Moshe Rabbeinu. Hashem could have sent them to the Heavenly Academy where Moshe was later to obtain the Torah. Instead, He sent them to Egypt to be slaves to a nation that was both spiritually and morally bankrupt, a nation that had descended to the nadir of depravity and felt quite comfortable there. Why?

In his Michtav MeiEliyahu, Horav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zl, presents an incredible thesis on the significance of removing light from darkness, serving Hashem with both inclinations: the yetzer hora, and the yetzer tov. He explains that when the sight of evil rouses one to pursue good with such zest that he might otherwise not have felt, he uses the yetzer hora, evil inclination, as a catalyst to develop a tremendous drive to holiness.

This approach is clearly not for everyone, nor is it valid under all circumstances. The individual who is, however, compelled to live in less than refined surroundings - with people who are morally and ethically depraved - will emerge a much stronger person by resisting their influence, by having confronted and successfully overcome their challenge. When he has resisted the pull of evil with such determination that he remains unaffected by its harmful influences, he will find that the mere sight of evil will arouse feelings of revulsion within him. Indeed, the more evil he sees, the greater he is repulsed by it.

Regrettably, this spring-like reaction works both ways. One, who despite living in the company of righteous individuals, nonetheless chooses to follow an opposite path will, over time, develop an implacable hatred for all that tzaddikim, righteous people, represent. Indeed, he will be worse and act more reprehensibly than the "average" rasha, evil person. This is the reason that Eisav ha'rasha sank so far into evil that Satan himself became his guardian angel. Falsehood and evil became his very essence. His descendant, our archenemy Amalek, hated us with such venom that he attacked us for no apparent reason. We were no threat to him. Yet, his desire to combat G-d was riveted into his psyche. This was his "inheritance" from his grandfather, Eisav, a legacy of evil that he bequeathed to his descendants. Where did it all begin? It began with Eisav, who was raised in a home in which two tzaddikim, Yitzchak Avinu and Rivkah Imeinu, lived. As a result of his exposure to such good, his gravitational pull towards evil became an obsession. Eisav's moral compass was perverted. It was necessary for him to resist holiness at all costs.

Rav Dessler notes that whenever Hashem seeks an opportunity to empower a tzaddik to rise to unprecedented heights, He throws him into an environment that is completely alien to him. He is compelled to endure the company of the most nefarious individuals, society's depraved, the lowest of the low. By observing the base individuals and the evil which they have wrought, the tzaddik learns how absolutely despicable evil is, how repulsive it can be. His reaction will be to do everything within his power to distance himself and rise from the evil. He will make a supreme effort to soar upward, to ascend to the maximum of his spiritual potential. He will not settle, because he understands that complacency dooms him to mediocrity.

A number of examples are cited. In the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus leading up to the acceptance of the Torah, commences with a description of our collective roots. Avraham Avinu grew up in Terach's home, overcoming the evil effects of avodah zarah, idol-worship. Is it really necessary to trace our lineage to Terach, Avraham's father? It could simply have stated that we descend from Avraham, the father of our nation. Why did the Torah include Terach in the equation?

The point is that here we recount Avraham's true eminence. Born into a home of idol-worship, living in an environment and culture steeped in paganism - in which defying Hashem's word was a given and flagrant disobedience the norm - Avraham rose to the zenith of spirituality. How? He received an incentive from his environment. Yes, the evil all around him conveyed a powerful impetus to reach for the stars, to climb the ladder of spirituality and reach its apex. This driving force to abhor evil and reach for ultimate good became part of his descendants' DNA, inspiring them to follow suit.

Moshe Rabbeinu had a similar experience, as he was raised in the moral depravity that permeated Pharaoh's palace. He was acutely aware of Egypt's national defilement. Thus, he sought to rise above it. Being in close proximity to Pharaoh, the source of this pollution, only motivated Moshe more to rise above it.

We now understand why Klal Yisrael's internship as the chosen people could only have been served in Egypt - the antithesis of spirituality. Being slaves to a nation mired in the depths of degeneracy brought them to the point of teshuvah, repentance, by "crying out to G-d" from their affliction. The opposite extreme catalyzed this repentance that brought Klal Yisrael to the level of readiness to accepting the Torah and be privy to an unprecedented Revelation of the Shechinah.

A word of caution may be added to this thesis. In no way does it suggest that one should seek opportunities for exposure to the depraved and unclean. This catalyst is clearly not for everyone. It is for those select few whom Hashem seeks to elevate beyond the norm. Hashem knows their incredible capabilities, and deposits them in such a situation, so that they will maximize their potential.

You shall not take the Name of Hashem, your G-d, in vain. (20:7)

The Talmud Shavuos 39a relates that when Hashem said the words of Lo sissa, "You shall not take the Name of Hashem, your G-d, in vain," the entire world shook. We wonder why this particular commandment had such a frightening affect on people, more so than Lo signov, "Do not steal," Lo sirtzach, "Do not murder," or any of the other commandments for that matter. The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, explains that, regrettably, some people convince themselves and others that, under certain circumstances, for the "greater good," one can find a dispensation to steal - even to murder! It is all done in the name of Heaven: "I am acting l'shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven," seems to be the clarion call lately. In the name of Heaven, for the sake of Hashem, we find ways to circumvent Halachah, to skirt the law, to make the reprehensible a mitzvah. After all, he is doing it for G-d's sake!

The pasuk admonishes us not to use Hashem's Name for personal advantage. The Holy Name is sacred and is to be treated in such a manner. No wonder the entire world shook with fright when Hashem said, Lo sissa. No longer would we have dispensations with which to skirt the law.

A similar interpretation is quoted by the Chidushei HaRim. Horav Ezriel Hildesaimer, zl, Rav of Berlin, had occasion to be in Warsaw. While he was in Warsaw, he decided to visit the Chidushei HaRim. Their conversation revolved around Torah and Torah-related topics. Rav Hildesaimer began the conversation with a question. He quoted the pasuk in our parshah, "The entire people saw the sounds/thunder, and flames" (Ibid 20:15). The Torah is describing the supernatural perception which the Jewish People experienced at Har Sinai. What was the necessity of such a miracle? Was it not enough that they had heard Hashem? Did they have to "see" the words which had been uttered? The Chidushei HaRim gave a practical, but brilliant, response. In the Hebrew language, a number of words sound alike, but have totally different meanings. For instance, the word lo with an aleph means do not, while lo with a vav means to/for him. Imagine Hashem said Lo signov, Do not steal. A person, however, hears what he wants to hear, possibly inferring - for Him, for Hashem one may steal! For Him - one may murder! Thus, it was necessary for the people to see the true meaning of the words clearly. Make no mistake: murder and theft are never permitted - even in the Name of G-d.

I am Hashem, your G-d, who has taken you out of the land of Egypt. (20:2)

Hashem identified Himself to Klal Yisrael as the One Who performed the miracles of the Exodus. It would have been logical for Hashem to have identified Himself as the Creator of the Universe, which is clearly a more encompassing title than the Liberator Who freed them from bondage. While it is true that his liberation involved many miracles which attested to Hashem's awesome powers, they still pale in comparison with the creation of the Universe. In the Kuzari, Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, zl, explains that Hashem spoke of the Exodus because it was a phenomenon that was seen, as the entire nation witnessed it. While they all knew that there had been a Creation, no one had actually been there to substantiate it. Interestingly, with all of the logical deductions that the world must have been created by a Supreme Being, some still foolishly dispute the concept of Creation ex nihilo. 600,000 men over the age of twenty-years old experienced the Exodus with its many marvels, with their own two eyes. Hashem followed up these events with the seminal event in history, the Revelation at Sinai. Yet, there are still skeptics who force themselves to dispute this verity of verities.

Ramban writes that the Exodus, with its unprecedented miracles and wonders, availed the nascent nation an unparalleled awareness into the workings of Heaven. They were acutely aware that, without the phenomenon of the Heavenly miracles, they would have never have been able to leave Egypt. Thus, the Exodus and the Splitting of the Red Sea are testaments to Hashem's existence and power. It is as if they are the barometers by which we believe in all miracles. They represent Hashem proving Himself, so to speak.

The concept of Zeichar l'yetzias Mitzrayim, remembering the Exodus, is connected to a number of mitzvos and it seems to play an integral role in Jewish life and observance. Even mitzvos such as not mistreating the convert, orphan, or widow are tied into our remembering that we were once slaves in Egypt and it was Hashem Who redeemed us. Shabbos, which is "set in stone" from the time of Creation, is based on the core belief that the world was created in six days. Yet, in the Shabbos Kiddush, we recall a "remembrance to the Exodus from Egypt." The Torah itself (Devarim 5:15) admonishes us to remember that we were once slaves in Egypt, and it was Hashem Who liberated us. Therefore, He commands us to observe Shabbos. If, in fact, the Exodus is how Hashem wants us to realize that He created and continues to guide the world, why is Shabbos - which is clearly a remembrance of the creation of the world - dependent upon yetzias Mitzrayim? Is it not like backward reasoning? Horav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, zl, cites the Alter, zl, m'Slabodka, who offers a new understanding of the rule which we have accepted as a verity: Hashem continually recreates the world anew every moment. This means, explains Horav Chaim Volozhiner, zl, every moment of one's existence and the existence of every creature - everything in the world - is dependent upon Hashem's constant will that it continue. If for one millisecond Hashem's will would cease, if Hashem would remove Himself from the world, everything would revert to tohu va'vohu, astonishingly empty. It would just disappear.

The Alter explains that one should not think that Hashem creates the world anew every moment, and, once created, the world and everything in it is readily available to its inhabitants. No. There is a deeper understanding of this sustained creation. Hashem creates the world for each person in accordance with his individual needs. The world as created for A is not the same as the world created for B, since their individual needs are not identical. This is the meaning of Chazal's axiom, "A person is obligated to say Bishvili, "for me (specifically)," the world was created. This means that no person takes randomly from the "smorgasbord" called the world. Whatever I take is exclusively for me. I ask for it, and I receive it. If Hashem wants me to have something, it is created specifically for me at that time. What is mine - is mine. I am not taking away another's livelihood, or whatever else I seek.

We see this from the plagues that struck the Egyptians. The blood was rampant all over the land. Whatever water an Egyptian touched turned to blood. This did not happen to the Jews. Indeed, if a Jew and an Egyptian drew water from the very same well, the Egyptian discovered blood, while the Jew had water. They could drink from the same cup, and the individual results would be different.

We think that the candle that lights for one person lights equally for a hundred people. We have no compelling reason that the sun which shines for A will also shine for B, who stands next to him. In Egypt, the three days of pitch darkness affected only the Egyptians. The sun shone for the Jews. How do we understand this? Rav Weinberg says that for those three days, the sun simply was not created for the Egyptians.

This is why we constantly reiterate a reminder of yetzias Mitzrayim. It was in Egypt that we gained a completely new perspective on Creation. We learned that each and every one of us has a unique individual responsibility toward Hashem, Who constantly creates the world anew - specifically for him! Each of us is a witness to this phenomenon - constantly, continually.

This gives new meaning to the opening words recited prior to the Shemonah Esrai - Hashem sfasai tiftach u'fi yagid tehilasecha, "My Lord, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your Praise." As we are about to say Shemonah Esrai, Eighteen Benedictions, that comprise the Amidah, which is the true prayer and praise to Hashem, we pause a moment and ask that the Almighty grant us the ability to speak. We realize that everything that we do is contingent only upon Hashem's intervention.

You shall not ascend with steps upon My Altar. (20:23)

Simply, when we build the ramp leading up to the Altar, it must be made smooth and inclined - not with ascending levels. Otherwise, the Kohen would be compelled to take wide steps, which might lead to his humiliation. The word maalos has another meaning: qualities, attributes, aspects concerning an individual which, so to speak, elevate him, make him stand out. The Chafetz Chaim, zl, applied this other definition to a homiletic rendering of the pasuk.

When the Kenessiah Gedolah took place in Vienna in 1923, the Chafetz Chaim made a great effort to attend. Frail, and of an advanced age, he felt that the nascent Agudath Israel movement needed everyone's support. In his eyes, however, he was attending as a spectator - not as the senior sage of Klal Yisrael.

As the elder statesman, he was asked to grace the proceedings with his insights. The Chafetz Chaim demurred, refusing the honor of speaking before the foremost Torah leaders of that generation. The presidium asked again - only to be refused once again. Finally, the Chafetz Chaim relented and explained the reason that he had previously declined. V'lo saaleh b'maalos al Mizbechi, "You shall not ascend/approach the Altar (or any position of honor), based upon your maalos, attributes." This is an exhortation to a Kohen that when he ascends to the Mizbayach, he must remember that he has been selected to represent the nation - not because of his personal maalos, qualities; nor do his ethical character traits play a decisive role in his being singled out for this honor. It is only due to his pedigree. His father was a Kohen. He is a Kohen. This is why he was chosen to represent Klal Yisrael in offering the korbanos, sacrifices. "When I was asked to address the assemblage, I questioned your reasons for selecting me. When you attributed it to my erudition, I vehemently demurred. I am not a lamden, learned scholar. Again, when you focused on my righteousness, I declined, because I am neither pious nor righteous. It is only after you pointed out that I am a zakein and Kohen, old and a member of the Priestly family, that I am accepting. Longevity is a gift from G-d. Kehunah is an inheritance from my father. It is as a result of these two attributes, which are unique gifts from the Almighty, that I will address you."

Va'ani Tefillah

V'nosnim reshus zeh lazeh. And they give permission to each other.

We say the words daily, yet we hardly listen to what we say. V'chulam mekablim aleihem, "Then they all accept from one another;" followed by v'nosnim reshus zeh lazeh, "And they give permission to each other." Tanna d'Bei Eliyahu draws a contrast between the manner in which the Heavenly Angels act toward one another and the way humans act toward one another. There is no such thing as competition in Heaven. Regrettably, on this world, competitiveness and jealousy are facts of life, in response to which everyone seeks to outdo the other. Would it not be nice to follow the Heavenly standard? Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, notes six aspects of the behavior of Heavenly beings which would serve us well to emulate: 1) they accept the yoke of Heaven from each other. It would be nice for human beings to seek guidance, inspiration from one another; 2) they give permission to each other. Imagine if we would not speak until our associate/friend has spoken first; 3) they manifest a calmness of spirit. It would be great if people spoke gently to one another; 4) they articulate with clear speech - not out of both sides of their mouths. This really helps to participate in a conversation and to establish trust; 5) they exhibit sweetness of tone. A pleasant tone goes a long way, especially if it is part of one's total demeanor. 6) All of them speak in unison. While we cannot all speak at the same time, it is respectful of others that one does not hasten to speak first and not permit himself to continue speaking, making his point after the others have concluded. It is important that are all united in one voice.

Dedicated in loving memory of our dear
mother and grandmother
Leona Genshaft
Leah bas Rephael Hacohen A'h
niftara 16 Shevat 5770
by her family
Neil and Marie Genshaft
Isaac and Naomi

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