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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Blessed is Hashem Who has rescued you from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh. (18:10)

The Talmud Sanhedrin 94a makes a striking statement: "It was taught in the name of Rabbi Papyas, g'nai hu l'Moshe, it is a shame for Moshe and the 600,000 Jews that they had never uttered, Baruch (Hashem), until Yisro came and said, Baruch Hashem asher hitzil eschem.'" This is a strong statement which begs elucidation. Clearly, Klal Yisrael had praised Hashem when they sang the Shirah amid great joy, praising Hashem for the spectacular miracles and wonders which He had wrought. They did not say the words, "Baruch Hashem." Does that warrant that their inaction be termed a g'nai, shame? In other words, Klal Yisrael's gratitude in comparison to that of Yisro was shameful! How are we to understand this?

Horav Mordechai Zuckerman, zl, derives an important lesson concerning appreciation and gratitude from Chazal. Veritably, Klal Yisrael sang Shirah, praising Hashem's lofty power, His outstanding miracles and His absolute control over all of the forces of nature. They forgot one thing: the personal relationship of those miracles to them. They never thanked Hashem for their personal salvation. Sure, they had offered boundless praise, but what about the simple fact that they were alive and well? This is the g'nai. They praised Hashem's miracles, but forgot to say, "Thank you Hashem for saving me!"

Thus, Chazal use a cogent statement to underscore that each and every one of us must constantly introspect concerning what we owe Hashem. We regularly benefit from His favor; yet, we fail to acknowledge our gratitude. We either do not think, or we have gotten so accustomed to taking that we have lost track of Who is the Giver.

L'sitcha Elyon cites a letter penned by Horav Chaim Stein, zl, (who was a close friend of Rav Mordechai Zuckerman), and addressed to his son, Rav Sholom Rafael Yehuda, zl, who suffered greatly for years until his untimely passing at a young age. The Rosh Yeshivah lovingly tells him that man is obliged to bless Hashem for every chesed, kindness, which he receives from Him. He must sense this even during those difficult periods when he feels that he is in dire need, and he opens his heart to Hashem in prayer. Even then, when he pleads amid pain and deprivation, he must not lose sight of all of the good that Hashem has done for him.

All too often we remember the source of our good fortune - as long as we experience the good. What about when the tables are reversed, and we are no longer on the receiving end of Hashem's kindness? What if the money stops flowing, the accolades are non-existent, and the pain that was supposed to stop - does not?

It is easy to feel grateful when life is good, but when pain sets in, when disaster strikes, we suddenly renege our responsibility to those from whom we have benefitted. This is not only a grave error; it is a deficiency in one's understanding of the middah, character trait, of hakoras hatov, gratitude. During difficult times, not only will gratitude be helpful, it is essential toward maintaining one's level of human decency. In fact, it is precisely during times of crisis that we have most to gain from a grateful perspective on life. In the face of brokenness, gratitude gives us strength. In the face of despair, gratitude imbues us with hope. Indeed, gratitude grants us the ability to cope with difficult situations and hard times.

We should really distinguish between feeling grateful and being grateful. The average person does not have total control over his emotions. Thus, it is difficult for us to will ourselves to feel grateful, less depressed, or happy. Feelings are emotions which are dependent on the way we view life, the world around us, the situation in which we find ourselves. They are: an expression of what we perceive; thoughts concerning the way we are, as opposed to the way we want to be. Therefore, since feelings are often not within our ability to control, we might not feel grateful - even though we know that we should.

Being grateful is an entirely different story. Acting appropriately, such as being grateful and acting with gratitude, reflects a prevailing attitude; it is a choice that is enduring and should be relatively immune to the gains and losses that are part of our lives. When disaster strikes, a grateful attitude can provide a perspective by which we view life in its entire context. In other words, things may not be going in our favor - now - but that can change. It was not always this way, so it is quite possible that it will change and become good once again. Acting in a grateful manner allows us to grow, to transcend the present crisis, to look toward the future with hope. Furthermore, by being grateful we will achieve a level in which we will feel grateful.

You shall make known to them the path in which they should go and the deeds that they should do. (18:20)

Haderech yeilchu bah, "The path in which they should go." Yeilchu, "they should go," is a reference to visiting the sick. By virtue of simply "going" to visit someone who is ill, even if he does nothing, the individual has already fulfilled the mitzvah. What is it about simply visiting that provides mitzvah fulfillment? Obviously, the optimum mitzvah is spending time, talking. Calming the patient-- encouraging and engendering hope -- is what the patient needs, but the mitzvah at its basic is fulfilled merely with a visit. Perhaps by understanding the immediate consequences of illness we can better comprehend why visitation in its basic form is a mitzvah.

Illness punctures our self-established defenses which conceal the fact that: we are vulnerable to fear; we are really weak and powerless; and, above all, we are alone. One who is a prisoner to his hospital bed is a victim of profound loneliness. He has time to think, and the thoughts that course through his mind are often far from positive. People may claim that they need no one, but no one wants to be alone. Everyone seeks a connection with someone. No Jew is ever alone, he is a member of a community, a shul, a school, a chabura, a group. When he is alone in the hospital and all of his friends are out in the world living their lives, talking about their future plans - the patient feels terribly alone.

People must make the patient feel that others still care about him. Out of sight - out of mind is sadly a reality. Ask anyone who has been a patient alone in a hospital. Bikur Cholim means visiting the sick. When one enters the room of a sick person, he is conveying a message: "You still matter. You are still connected to your friends. No one has forgotten about you." By helping him to conquer his loneliness, we are fulfilling the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim.

Bikur Cholim is an act of chesed and, as such, demands that the benefactor identify with the beneficiary. In the case of Bikur Cholim, this means that we must understand as best as possible the meaning of loneliness. How does it feel to be all alone? Some of us have Baruch Hashem never experienced that feeling; thus, fulfilling the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim takes on a new challenge. I must convey to the sick person that I know what you are going through and I feel your loneliness. In that way, the patient will not feel that "they are just visiting me to ease their conscience. They do not know what I am going through. They are clueless concerning my loneliness." If we can psyche ourselves up to understanding the meaning of being a prisoner in a hospital bed, alone at night and most of the day, with no one to share the patient's personal emotions, then we can properly fulfill the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim.

And you shall discern from among the entire people, men of accomplishment, G-d-fearing people, men of truth, people who despise money. (18:21)

Ramban explains that the phrase, sonei batza, "people who despise money," refers to improperly obtained money. Moshe Rabbeinu is searching for those individuals who are of sterling character, G-d-fearing men who are not swayed by offers of material abundance. Money means nothing to them. Such people can be judges. We wonder why someone who is a person of accomplishment, G-d-fearing and honest, would still have to prove that he despises money gained inappropriately. If he is an ish emes, honest person, false money would be abhorrent to him. Why is it necessary to underscore that the judge must have proven himself to be a sonei batza?

Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, explains by employing a simple analogy from everyday life. One can have a number of combustibles in a room, such as newspaper, gasoline, and sulphur and still be safe from fire. What is missing from the equation? A spark -- one little spark -- transforms all of these potential flammable items into a conflagration. The potential fire requires a spark to ignite the combustibles. Otherwise, it is nothing more than potential.

This is the idea behind the above qualities. Each one is a potential quality which reaches its full definition when the spark is ignited. All - except for sonei batza; despising evil, being intolerant of a wrong, is not simply a potential quality. The very definition of despising evil is that one is intolerant and, in turn, takes action about it. Many G-d-fearing, honest people in the world are sadly indifferent to injustice. Injustice does not flare up their feelings of indignity. They are not happy, but, if necessary, they can live with it - as long as it does not infringe upon them.

Our quintessential leader was a sonei batza. He stepped out of the royal palace to confront an Egyptian hitting a Jew. He immediately acted. Moshe Rabbeinu could not tolerate such an injustice. He saw his brethren slaving in the mortar. He plunged in and carried the load with them. The Midyanite shepherds were abusing Yisro's daughters. Moshe acted immediately to save them. One can fear Hashem, be the paragon of integrity, yet fail to take action when an injustice occurs. It is so easy to turn away, to not get involved. Such a person should not be promoted to a leadership position. He is missing the quality of sonei batza. He does not take umbrage when evil reigns. His moral indignation is kept private, as he negotiates diplomatically with those who harm our people. The sonei batza does not leave well-enough alone, because it is unjust; it is not "well-enough."

Moshe sent off his father-in-law. (18:27)

Shlomo Hamelech says, Lev yodea moras nafsho u'b'simchaso lo yisarev zar; "The heart knows the bitterness of his soul and in his celebration a stranger shall not mix" (Mishlei 14:10). Hashem said, "My children were enslaved with mortar and stone, while Yisro was sitting comfortably in peace and calm in his land - and now he wants to see (and take part in) the celebration of the (Giving of) the Torah" (Yalkut Shimoni, Yisro). The Yalkut implies that the Revelation of the Giving of the Torah was reserved for those who had suffered in Egypt. Yisro had been in Midyan until now, safe from persecution and pain. He was a zar, stranger, to this occasion.

Yisro left everything - honor, wealth, all of the worldly pleasures that were available to the Chief Priest of Midyan. He left it all to come to the desolate wilderness to join the Jewish People, so that he could convert and be a part of their destiny. Is this not considered a sacrifice? Why is he viewed as an outsider? What more should he have relinquished?

Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, explains that, while Yisro did sacrifice much, he still had not achieved the spiritual plateau of Klal Yisrael, which resulted from their bondage. One who extends himself more, who expends greater toil in achieving his spiritual success, is on a higher, more elevated level, than one whose accomplishments come with less toil.

Horav Yitzchak Hutner, zl, related that during a meeting of American Torah leaders, someone recounted the following story concerning the Maharil Disken, zl. Apparently, a man came to him with a problem. He had taken a chassan for his daughter who was reputed to be a brilliant Torah scholar. Now he discovered that he was of average acumen - not brilliant at all. His question was: our sages teach that one should sell all of his assets in order to pay a dowry deserving of a son-in-law who is an erudite scholar. "What should I do?" the man asked. "I sought a scholar, and I obtained an average student." The Maharil Disken replied, "The primary source for success in Torah study is learning al y'dei ha'd'chak, 'through hardship and toil.' This does not mean that one must be poor in order to achieve success in Torah. Regardless of one's material abundance, if he expends great effort in learning, such as would be the case with one who is not blessed with exceptional acumen, he will become a great talmid chacham, Torah scholar."

Rav Hutner said that when he related this story during the meeting of rabbanim, Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, (who had been in attendance) rose from his chair and went into another room. After a short while, Rav Hutner went looking for him. He found Rav Aharon in another room quietly weeping. When Rav Hutner asked Rav Aharon why he was crying, the Lakewood Rosh Yeshivah replied, "When I heard the story, I became weak with the realization that I have never really toiled to understand my learning. Hashem blessed me with the ability to grasp the Talmud and its commentators quickly and well."

This is the definition of gadlus baTorah, greatness in Torah. Rav Aharon's shiurim were the epitome of brilliance. His ability to analyze a subject and formulate the ideas with amazing clarity was peerless. Yet, one particular shiur always had special meaning to him. When he was escaping from Kletzk to Vilna and he was living with the fear of death over him, he visited a bais hamedrash to learn. It was in that bais hamedrash, during the days of fear for his life, that he was mechadesh, innovated, the original idea that was the basis for this shiur. Since it was the product of great effort and toil, it meant more to him than those shiurim which he innovated while safely ensconced in the bais hamedrash.

They journeyed from Refidim and arrived in the wilderness of Sinai. (19:2)

Rashi asks why the Torah found it necessary to relate from whence they journeyed. We already know that they had previously encamped in Refidim. He explains that the Torah reiterates their journey from Refidim to teach that, just as they came to Har Sinai in a state of teshuvah, repentance, in preparation for the receiving of the Torah, likewise, during their journey from Refidim they were in a state of teshuvah. Having said this, we wonder why teshuvah seems to be a prerequisite for receiving the Torah - to the point that they were in a state of teshuvah on the way to Sinai, as well as when they left.

Teshuvah is an integral component of receiving the Torah. Without teshuvah, we forget exactly what took place, what Torah means to us, and what our responsibility to it is. Horav Yitzchak Yeruchem Bordiansky, Shlita, Mashgiach at Yeshivas Kol Torah, vividly portrays this idea with a practical image. Imagine a young couple are married amid great pomp and celebration. Much excitement and joy reign until the very end of the wedding when all of the participants return to their respective homes. Yes, the chassan, groom, goes home, and the kallah, bride, returns to her pre-nuptial residence. Does this make sense? The wedding was celebrated to unite two people in matrimony. How could they go their separate ways once the wedding is over?

When Klal Yisrael received the Torah at Har Sinai, it was their collective wedding day, as they entered into a lasting covenant between themselves and Hashem and His Torah. Is it possible for one to make a covenant and remain the same person afterwards? In other words, could Klal Yisrael reach Har Sinai, and, after receiving the Torah, move on from there as if nothing had changed? Clearly not. Har Sinai was transformative. The men were no longer the same people who had earlier journeyed there. Likewise, every year following Shavuos, after having spent an entire festival reaffirming our acceptance of the Torah, could we go back to business as usual? The prerequisite for Kabbolas HaTorah, receiving the Torah, is teshuvah, to shake-off the dust and open a new page in one's rise to spiritual ascendancy.

This idea may be alluded to from the custom that we eat dairy foods on Shavuos, in commemoration of Klal Yisrael who ate dairy following the Giving of the Torah. Once they accepted the Torah, the dishes from which they had previously eaten were no longer kosher, having absorbed foods which had previously not yet been deemed unfit for Jewish consumption. Likewise, when we accept the Torah, we cannot return to the same keilim, utensils/vessels, through which we previously served Hashem. After receiving the Torah anew - we, too, must become new people by changing our previous standards of observance. Every instance in life which spiritually inspires us must leave an indelible mark on our character. We cannot continue along the same route, because we are no longer the same.

I am Hashem, Your G-d. You shall not recognize the gods of others in My Presence. (20:2,3)

The first two commandments exhort us to believe only in Hashem. No other power, however real or purported, has any validity. Only Hashem is One. He is our G-d, and the G-d of the entire universe. We understand that we may not turn to any other source for salvation, since only Hashem has the power to save. The Alter, zl, m'Novorodok was wont to relate the following story in support of this idea. A poor man had reached the limits of degradation. He had no one to whom to turn. He had exhausted every avenue of "income." Depressed and dejected, he did not know what more he could do, until he heard that in Frankfurt, Germany, lived an outrageously wealthy man by the name of Rothschild who had a generous heart and distributed charity to anyone who crossed his threshold. The poor man decided that he had nothing to lose. He would make the trip.

Traveling by coach was out of the question, since he could not purchase a ticket. So he took the next best means of transportation: he walked. After a few days, his feet were blistered and his food was practically depleted. With his last bit of strength, he trudged on until he reached the door of Mr. Rothschild's mansion. He fainted right there on the threshold. His last bit of strength had ebbed out. No food, no strength - he just passed out.

The servants came running, and they moved the poor man. He found himself sitting in a chair in Mr. Rothschild's study. Across the desk was the magnate himself. "What do you seek?" Rothschild asked the poor man. "I heard that you help people in need. I have nothing, and I have no way of ever having anything. I came here to plead with you for some alms, so that I could return to support my family," the poor man answered.

Rothschild was moved by the man's sincerity and wrote a check for a large sum - enough to return home and start a business with which he could support his family.

Word of the poor man's success spread throughout his village until it reached the ears of another poor fellow who wondered why he, too, should not benefit? If his friend had succeeded, he would also make the trip to Frankfort. This fellow, however, was more enterprising, stopping along the way to "fundraise" in every village that he passed. When he finally reached Frankfurt, he sought an appointment with Mr. Rothschild. Arriving at the palatial mansion for his appointment, the poor man presented his case. He thought he had made a strong presentation; thus, he was surprised when the philanthropist gave him only a few dollars.

"Is this all I get?" the poor man asked incredulously. "Fine," replied Rothschild, "here is another ten dollars."

"I do not understand," the poor man began to plead. "My friend came here, and you set him up in business, while you give me a few dollars."

"What is the comparison?" Rothschild countered. "Your friend fell on my steps. He had no one to turn to but me, so I helped him. You are an entrepreneur who has stopped in every village between your hometown and Frankfurt. You have other means of support. You do not need me."

"Likewise," explained the Alter, "the first two dibros are statements affirming that we have no other G-d than Hashem. We turn only to Him. Thus, He will support us - completely."

A powerful statement; A penetrating message which we should all take to heart. Hashem is all that we have. We cannot go running to Him only when our other options run out. We must always remember: Hashem is our only option!

Va'ani Tefillah

Elokeinu v'Elokei Avoseinu. Our G-d and the G-d of our Fathers.

Should not the words, "the G-d of our Fathers," precede "our G-d"? That would be true if the origin of our belief has only been through transmission from one generation to the next. Each and every one of the Avos accepted Hashem on his own without prior prompting from the previous generation. Bircas Yitzchak elaborates that our avodah, service, to Hashem is to discover, believe and maintain our faith founded on our own beliefs. As a support, we turn to the shalsheles ha'doros, succession of the generations of Yidden whose emunah in Hashem has been affirmed and ratified by their undying commitment. We are mekabel, accept, what our forebears believed, but it is we who are making the commitment, because we believe on our own. Thus, it is Elokeinu - our G-d, v'Elokei Avoseinu - and the G-d of our Fathers. This is why preceding each of the Avos, it is written, Elokei. Hashem was recognized by each one as his own G-d.

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