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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Hashem said to Avram, "Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father's home. (12:1)

Although the Torah relates the birth of Avraham Avinu at the end of Parashas Noach, we are introduced to the Patriarch in Parashas Lech Lecha. In Derech Hashem, the Maharal explains that originally the plan of Creation was that all human beings would share equally in fulfilling the Divine mission and that the Torah would be given to all mankind. Twenty generations of failure from Adam to Noach to Avraham precluded this reality from occurring. Thus, the title of Hashem's Chosen People was given to the nation that earned it: Avraham, followed by his progeny. They would receive the Torah; they would carry out its mitzvos and moral/ethical mandates; they would be the ones to lead the world community to perfection by serving as the example of how a human being should act; they would bring all people to accept Hashem's sovereignty.

Avraham Avinu earned his position as Patriarch of our nation after passing the Asarah Nisyonos, Ten Trials, which not only proved his own personal greatness, but also demonstrated his unequivocal commitment and devotion to Hashem. How did Avraham achieve this status? How did he discover Hashem? Chazal teach that Avraham was three years old when he realized that the world had a Creator. Although he had been raised in a home steeped in idolatry, lived in an environment replete with idolaters, his own home a center for paganism, he analyzed the world and came to the realization that there had to be Someone, some entity, that not only created the world, but continues to guide every facet of it. All at the age of three, he discovered the greatest verity: the world has a Creator. All of this occured because he delved into the world around him.

Do we delve into Creation? Do we try to understand Creation? In today's technology-filled world there is very little room for us to see Hashem, unless we are misbonein, delve into wisdom, try to understand. Horav Shraga Feivel Medlowitz, zl, once told his talmidim, students, that, in the large cities that have skyscrapers, these edifices cover up Hashem. The huge building conceals His Presence. What does this mean? Horav Moshe Aharon Stern, zl, explains that, when one is in a city in which every building was built by man, where one hardly sees grass, trees, mountains, hills, seas or rivers, which were all created by Hashem, one loses perspective on what is taking place in the world. A person must attempt to understand Creation. This is why we were given the power of binah, the ability to understand.

Rav Shraga Feivel would quote the Kotzker Rebbe, zl, who said, "Hashem wrote a composition, which is the Torah. The explanation for the composition is the world. When the Zohar teaches that Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world, it means that the Torah is the blueprint for the creation of the world. Alternatively, since Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world, we may understand the Torah by looking at the world. Creation gives meaning to the Torah. Rav Shraga Feivel would recognize Hashem's ways from His creations. He was always so impressed with the glory of Creation and the beauty of the universe which are Hashem's handiwork. He saw Hashem's love for His creations by delving into the glory of the universe.

Rav Moshe Aharon relates that a group of students of the Chafetz Chaim wanted to observe their revered rebbe on the manner in which he conducts himself. One Rosh Hashanah they made a point to observe him closely to see what this holy saint did on the holy day. He davened with the yeshivah and then went home to eat the meal. Following his meal, he took a walk outside. The students followed very carefully -- from a distance. He walked outside of the city and sat down to observe the scenery. At this point, the students "caught up" with him. They did not have to ask him why he was there. He was their mentor and, understandably, they wanted to learn from his every nuance. He explained that the Rambam says that, when one delves into Creation, he increases his love for Hashem. The Chafetz Chaim felt that he was deficient in this area. He could love Hashem more. Therefore, on Rosh Hashanah, he walked outside of the city to ponder the surrounding scenery, so that he could increase his love of Hashem.

We are neither Rav Shraga Feivel nor the Chafetz Chaim. This, however, does not preclude our ability to ponder the beauty and sheer brilliance of the world around us. We see a technological marvel, and we are amazed at the genius of the man who created it. Do we stop to give Hashem the "credit" due Him? The person's genius is a gift from Hashem. The surgeon's skill is a gift from Hashem. Everything that we mortals achieve is a gift from Hashem. Yet, we tend to applaud the agent and ignore the Benefactor.

He proceeded on his journeys. (13:3)

L'masaav, on his journeys, implies that Avraham Avinu took a specific, planned itinerary. It was not a haphazard trip. Chazal teach that our Patriarch lodged in the same places that hosted him on his original trip to Egypt. Our sages derive a lesson in mentchlichkeit, human decency, proper etiquette, from this idea. One should stick to his usual lodgings. There is no reason, --nor is it appropriate - to switch from one's customary lodgings unless he has suffered harassment and anguish there. Otherwise, he inadvertently gives the impression that he was displeased with his lodgings, which could cause a financial loss to his host, or he discredits himself by having people think he is a difficult guest to please. Alternatively, Rashi suggests that Avraham incurred charges during his original trip, relying on the good graces of the inn owners to extend credit to him. He now returned to pay his bills. The Baalei Mussar, Ethical Masters, add that, when he left Charan, Avraham was not yet wealthy. Thus, he chose the simple, economically correct, motels as a place of lodging. On his return trip, he was a wealthy man who could have stayed in a five star hotel. He did not waste his money on luxury. What was good for him earlier would suffice now. His bankbook might have grown, but he did not change. He found it necessary neither to compete with others nor to publicize his good fortune.

Rashi's pshat, exposition, suggesting that Avraham returned to pay his credit bills, begs erudition. When Avraham left Charan, he was far from wealthy. He had not established himself in the world. For all intents and purposes, his financial portfolio was non-existent. Who would extend credit to him? True, he was a respectable, dignified person - in the Torah's barometer. In the pagan world that prevailed at the time, Avraham was a rabble-rouser, who claimed that idol worship was false worship, who stood up to the country's leadership and mocked them. Why would anybody trust him?

Horav Aharon Walkin, zl, explains that the credit Avraham owed to people was not financial- it was ideological. They demanded an explanation, which he owed them and was now delivering, so that he could validate his earlier predicament. Avraham Avinu had proclaimed Hashem's Name throughout the world. He decried the fallaciousness of the idols, claiming that the only true G-d was Hashem. Great! So why was he compelled to leave as a result of the hunger? If G-d was so great, why was He not sustaining Avraham? Our Patriarch had listened to Hashem and reached out to the pagans. He took everything that he had and supported those in need. He did all this so that he could speak with them about Hashem. People listen more intently on a full stomach, especially if they did not pay for the food. Yet, despite all of Avraham's constant chesed, kindness, he was forced to leave due to the hunger. He was poor, without a morsel of food for himself. Is this the manner that a benevolent G-d treats His most loyal devotee? These were good questions - powerful questions, which demanded answers, which Avraham was not prepared to give - at this time. The people were not committed enough to understand. They would only scoff.

On his return trip, Avraham was powerful. He had amassed great wealth. He was now an important, well-known and dignified person. After all, he had money. To these people, that is all that counted. With his return, he was intimating that we are all part of Hashem's Divine plan. Everything that He does is for our benefit. At times, we are afflicted; we are down; we have economic woes, but it is all part of a scenario that must play itself out. We must trust in Him and be patient. Our turn for success will evolve and be realized when we least expect it. We must trust and maintain our faith, not permitting setbacks to define or sully our life's perspective. In the eyes of the weak people of that generation, Avraham's plight represented a chillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem's Name. He now returned to correct it and show them the true glory of the Almighty. Patience and trust - and more patience.

Horav Eliezer Sorotzkin, zl, offers a practical explanation about why Avraham returned to his original hosts. Let us face it, when Avraham left Charan, he had no money and less fame. Very few people were interested in extending themselves to him. Money talks and people listen. Only individuals with very acute hearing are able to apprehend the cries of the less fortunate. It was these kind-hearted, decent people who opened their homes to Avraham. They knew he had no money, but they did not care. He was a human being who needed a place to rest his head, to have a warm meal. They were more than happy to accommodate him and offer their hospitality. Now, as Avraham, who had achieved great wealth and dignity, was returning, he did not ignore those who had cared for him when he had nothing. Unlike common practice, Avraham remembered those who had opened up their hearts to him when he had nothing. He did not forget the little shteibel, shul, that had welcomed him when he was but a poor refugee. He did not ignore the simple, well-meaning people who had reached out to him when he had nothing. He did not forget - and neither should we.

And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Avram's livestock and the herdsmen of Lot's livestocků so Avram said to Lot, "Please let there be no strife between me and you, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen." (13:7, 8)

Some people love to quarrel. It gives them something to do. Decent people, however, understand that strife is destructive, regardless of the motivation. If one is in a community, no matter the size, and a quarrel begins to ensue, he should distance himself from there as if from a contagious plague - because that is what quarrels lead to. At first, the Torah writes that a riv, quarrel, commenced between Avram's herdsmen and those of Lot. When Avram spoke to Lot, he referred to the quarrel as a merivah. Why the change in spelling? The Shlah Hakadosh explains that this is what usually evolves during a quarrel. At first, it is a riv, simple, small argument. With time, it becomes a full-blown merivah, with everyone taking a part in the "festivities."

In his Emunah Sheleimah, Horav Tzvi Nakar, Shlita, relates the following incident, which took place in the beginning of the twentieth century. In one of Europe's large cities, there lived a distinguished Jewish family whose daughter had reached marriageable age. Being a wealthy family with access to most everything, her parents sought a spouse for her with whom she could carry on their family legacy of Torah and chesed. She was a lovely girl and deserved a fine ben Torah. The fact that she was wealthy did not hurt. Baruch Hashem, in a short time she met a wonderful ben Torah, and the two seemed to "hit it off" nicely. It became a shidduch, and the two became engaged to be married. The entire city, people from all walks of life, joined in the festivities, as the two young people prepared for the road to matrimony.

Shortly before the wedding, the chassan, young man, asked to break the engagement. He was not prepared to marry this girl. Nothing could be done to change his mind. Apparently, he had heard lashon hora, slander, about his bride to be, which turned him off. There was nothing to say. He was not going through with the marriage. People in the public eye, who have accumulated wealth or have been fortunate in other areas, often become victims of sick people whose self-hatred provokes a jaundiced outlook on life in general and successful people in particular. The bride's family had fallen victim to one such individual or group whose only pleasure in life was to hurt and inflict damage on a family and an innocent young girl - whose only offense had been her family's success.

Nothing lasts forever, even perpetuated evil. The young lady once again became engaged to a wonderful young man. The family prayed fervently that nothing would happen to this match. So far so good, and the young couple was married amidst great pomp. The festivities reflected the overwhelming joy experienced by the bride's family. In the back of their minds, the threat of slander still lurked, but they hoped that whoever had earlier hurt them was satisfied with the pain and havoc wrecked against them. With great trepidation, they hoped that the worst was behind them.

Three days into Sheva Brachos, seven-day nuptial celebration, the chassan, groom, gave his wife a letter. She began to read, and, suddenly, her face turned white. By the time she had read the entire letter, her body was shaking with fright and anger. The letter, from beginning to end, was filled with slanderous lies about her. She looked at her husband, and, in a shaky voice, asked, "Do you see what this person has written about me? I? Since when have I been afflicted with a deadly, contagious disease? I am a member of the Maskillim, Enlightened Jews, who are for, the most part, apostates? My moral compass is deficient, and I have had a number of unholy liaisons? Do you believe any of this?" She then calmed down and asked, "Why are you showing me this?"

Surprisingly, her husband began to smile, "Absolutely not! This is the work of a deviant mind. Indeed, I received this letter a day before our wedding. I read the entire letter with a heavy heart. Nonetheless, I sincerely believed that this could not be true. After meeting you, I became certain that you have impeccable character, and this entire letter is a fabrication. I kept the letter, because I wanted you to see the terrible effect of slander. It can destroy an individual and shatter the lives of entire families."

That marriage lasted for many years, as the two grew old together sharing in the incredible nachas of seeing their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all remain deeply committed to Torah and mitzvos. Their oldest son lived in an Eastern Europe community, in which a dispute broke out that affected the status quo of the community. People began to take sides, with slanderous accusations hurled by each side. This son, having been raised in a family whose legacy concerning the terrible effects of machlokes, controversy, was prominently drummed into the hearts and minds of its descendants, made a decision. Despite knowing that it would hurt him financially, he picked himself up and moved his family elsewhere. People questioned his sanity. A few years later, the Nazis arrived and wiped out the entire Jewish community; the community to which he had moved was not affected by the war.

I always wondered what happened to the slanderer who had once foiled the girl's engagement and almost did the same to the next one. Was he punished? I realize now that his punishment was to live with himself! Obviously, he was a bitter, negative person, whose hatred for another Jew was so obsessive that it had destroyed him.

One more story. I just saw a story quoted by Rabbi Sholom Smith, which he had heard from Horav Avraham Pam, zl, which shows how supposed frumkeit, misplaced religion, can play a role in stoking the fires of strife; how irrationality can take over a dispute, causing two parties, who are actually sane, thinking people, to act atypically.

Radziner chassidim wear what they consider to be techeiles, Tzitzis with blue-dyed thread. Their Rebbe, Horav Gershon Chanoch Leiner, zl, had, in 1889, extracted it from a type of squid, called a cuttlefish, which he believed was the chalazon fish, the dye from which techeiles was derived. A number of Europe's distinguished rabbanim agreed with the Radziner's psak, while others did not. Thus, there were those who asserted that the mitzvah of wearing techeiles be revived, while others were in opposition. Thousands of Jews, many of whom were not Radziner chassidim, wore techeiles. Certainly, those who were Radziner chassidim wore techeiles.

Discord is bad enough when one is alive, but in this case, it extended beyond this world. A Radziner chassid who lived in a small town died. His family insisted that he be buried in the Tallis that he wore during his lifetime (which is the prevalent custom). The Chevra Kaddisha, Jewish Burial Society, whose members did not ascribe to the Radziner chassidus, refused to bury the deceased with a Tallis of techeiles, claiming that it would be a disgrace to the other dead who were not buried with techeiles. The deceased's family countered that their father had worn techeiles during his lifetime; the other dead had not.

A tremendous machlokes, controversy, broke out, with everyone taking sides. A machlokes brings out the worst in people, and it is common for those individuals who have very little involvement with the community to wake up suddenly and climb out of their self-imposed holes, just to add to the fires of strife. It did not take long before news of this dispute reached the ears of the Chafetz Chaim. The sage refused to take a position and render his halachic perspective on the subject. He did, however, offer the following comment: "I do not understand. To protect the honor of the dead, scores of Jews are vilifying and pouring out venomous words against the living! Does this make sense?"

And he trusted in Hashem, and He reckoned with it to him as righteous. (15:6)

On a recent trip to an area, which was completely foreign to me, I was forced to rely totally on my GPS to guide me, literally every step of the way. I did not know when a turn was coming up, when I should just go straight. I was at the mercy of my GPS. As Jews, we, too, have a GPS system that guides us through life. It is called emunah, faith. Without emunah, we do not function; we are unable to function. It is our lodestar, our beacon of light, our guide which takes us by the hand and helps us navigate around and over the many obstacles and challenges that are present in our path. The Jew whose faith is deficient is in serious trouble. He not only does not know where he is going, he also does not know what to do when he arrives at his destination. Perhaps, the following vignette will elucidate this idea:

Horav Yonasan Eibyshutz, zl, was walking on the street when he was met by the mayor of Prague. The mayor asked the Rav, "Where are you going?" Rav Yonasan replied, "I do not know." The mayor became enraged with this insolent answer. A man as distinguished as the city's Rav does not just walk around without purpose. Certainly, he knew where he was going. He called for his guards to incarcerate the Rav. This was life in the big city centuries ago. If a Jew offended a gentile, even if a gentile just perceived that the Jew was offending him, it was cause for serious repercussion; in this case, it was incarceration in the city's dungeon.

After a few days passed, the mayor, who had heretofore been friendly with the Rav, had a change of heart. He summoned the guards and had them bring Rav Yonasan to him. When Rav Yonasan arrived, the mayor had his chains removed. After all, Rav Yonasan was not a common thief. He then asked him, "Rabbi, tell me, does a person walk and not know where he is going? Why did you respond so insolently to me?"

The Rav replied, "If the mayor would have asked, 'where are you planning on going?' I would have responded, 'I plan on going to the bais hamedrash to learn.' Instead you asked me, 'Where are you going?' I thus replied, 'I do not know.' Veritably, that was the truth. I had planned on going to the bais hamedrash; instead, I ended up in prison!"

This powerful response defines the life of a Jew. Do we really know where we are going? Do we have any idea where we will end up at the end of the day? We make plans - but do they materialize in accordance with our intentions? We must follow our GPS/emunah and rely on where Hashem Yisborach leads us, because that is where we are going - plans or not.

Horav Mordechai, zl, m'Lechowitz, says, "Without Hakadosh Baruch Hu, one cannot cross the threshold of his house. With Hashem, one can split the sea." It is so true. Yet, we try to convince ourselves that we can do it alone. One does not discover Hashem by probing, but by believing. Indeed, as the well-known dictum goes, 'For the believer, there are no questions; for the non-believer, there are no answers." To him who questions G-d, who has difficulty serving a G-d whose ways are incomprehensible, we respond with the words of the Kotzker Rebbe, "I would definitely not want to serve a G-d whose ways are compensable to the minds of human beings."

While we may assume that Klal Yisrael is a nation of believers, whose emunah in Hashem is part of their "Jewishness"; at times, this emunah may be selective. We believe when it is convenient, and when it is not, we find an excuse to justify our indifference. We believe in Hashem when we have exhausted all other beliefs; after we have seen how ineffective they are, we then turn back to Hashem. One should believe in Hashem first and all the way through, even when life appears bleak. We believe that if the results differ from our hopes, it is Hashem's decree, and it is for the best.

There is also limited belief. Horav Bunim, zl, m'Peshischa, asks how, on Motzoei Yom Kippur, after a complete day of fasting and intense prayer, we recite in Shemoneh Esrai the prayer, Selach lanu Avinu ki chatanu, "Forgive us our Father, for we have sinned!" When did we have the opportunity to sin? All day long was spent in prayer. Immediately following Neilah, the closing prayer of Yom Kippur, we commence with Maariv. When did we have the opportunity to sin? What are we asking Hashem to forgive?

The Rebbe explains that we ask forgiveness for our lack of belief that Hashem really forgave us. The fellow feels that he is still the same sinner that he was before Yom Kippur. We believe in Hashem, but we do not believe that Hashem

believes in us! To believe in Hashem is to believe totally in Him, to give ourselves over to Him with complete trust and faith. We do not limit our belief.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'Shimcha kadosh. And Your Name is holy.

Obviously, if Hashem is holy, everything connected to Him, such as His Name, is also holy. How do we understand the concept of Hashem's Name? Horav S. R. Hirsch, zl, explains that the word shem, name, is related to sham, which means "there." Thus, in the realm of the mind, by naming and defining something, we give it an identity and put it in its proper place. A name designates the placement of the entity that it names. Hashem's Names are the way through which we know Him. While the human mind can have no conception of Hashem's essence, we can learn about Him through His Name.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, quotes the Zohar Hakadosh, which says, "The entire Torah is comprised of Hashem's Names." This means that every word in the Torah is another shem, another revelation of Hashem. The Torah's lessons are Hashem's Names. We learn about Hashem from His deeds, from Creation, from history. Since what Hashem does is endless, when we study His deeds and recognize that it is all a "drop" of His true greatness. By declaring that Hashem's Name is holy, we are affirming that everything that He does is the essence of perfection, since holiness is perfection, and His Names are His deeds.

l'ilui nishmas
R' Eliezer ben R' Yitzchok Chaim z"l
niftar 12 Cheshvan
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