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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


He reached the place and spent the night there because the sun had set. (28:11)

Darkness can be overwhelming. The symbolism inherent in darkness can be debilitating, since it evokes hopelessness; when there is no hope, there is no life. Hope is the candle that lights up the darkness, regardless of the size of the candle. Sadly, consistent with the well-known proverb, too many of us are too busy cursing the darkness to seek out a candle to counteract the darkness. We are too intensely involved in complaining about the miserable hand that has been dealt to us to focus on the positive, in order to engender hope into our lives.

Yaakov Avinu had two seminal experiences which took place at night: the famous dream; and wrestling with the "man," who was Eisav's patron angel. He entered into each situation filled with fear and trepidation, and he emerged a stronger, more resolute person. His emunah, faith, in Hashem upheld him throughout the darkness of night, throughout the ordeal, lighting up his path. Yaakov symbolizes triumph over adversity. He was the Patriarch who initiated Tefillas Maariv, the Evening service. He taught his descendants that, even in darkness, Hashem is with us, and we must entreat His favor. Yaakov taught us that, with emunah, we can light a candle and overcome the darkness.

One who has faith in his heart and a candle in his hand does not experience the darkness. The amount of darkness one experiences is commensurate with the amount of faith he maintains. Our people are aptly called Bnei Yisrael, after the Patriarch who taught us to light up the darkness with our emunah in Hashem. With emunah in Hashem, our vision becomes clear, allowing us to see through life's ambiguities and adversities. This indomitable faith has carried us through the worst epochs of our tumultuous history.

I cite three vignettes, two of which are well-known. Nonetheless, they have a common lesson which should be reiterated: A Jew who has emunah does not experience darkness. He has a built in generator that lights up the way for him. Horav Ezriel Tauber, Shlita, writes that the sadistic Nazis were not satisfied with destroying Jewish lives; they resented the Jewish spirit. Thus, they did everything within their power to ravage and utterly abase the Jewish spirit. A Jew who died with pride was a greater anathema to them than a Jew who lived. In order to carry out their diabolical goal, they hung a Paroches, curtain-- stolen from the Ark where the Torah scrolls of a destroyed synagogue had originally been placed -- over the entrance way to the gas chamber. Embroidered on the velvet were the words: Zeh HaShaar l'Hashem, tzaddikim yavou va, "This is the gate of Hashem, the righteous shall enter therein."

Their hope was that the sight of the holy Paroches on the door of the gas chamber would provoke such hopelessness and despair in the condemned that they would abandon their faith as they made their final mortal walk. At the last moment of their lives, they would revile their Creator.

The Nazis did not know the Jewish spirit. Such human refuse is so distant from the spiritual dimension that they did not realize that, when the Jew came to this outrageous spot, he was filled with an indescribable spiritual revelation. These words situated in that spot brought light to the Jew's darkness. He now saw clearly the beauty and inspiration of his faith.

Suddenly, their souls awoke within them, as a new strength coursed through their ravaged bodies. Their spirits soared as they went to their final destination with song and dance. They were leaving a world where such filth dictates life and death and has the power to create such misery for humanity. They looked at the words, and they knew - clearly and without a doubt - that this gate, the gate to the gas chamber, was truly the gate that led to Hashem. The gentile world that surrounds us does not realize the inextricable bond that exists between Hashem and His children - the Jewish People. Even those who have regrettably distanced themselves from Him still maintain a sort of relationship which even they themselves have difficulty explaining. Yet, it is there - often arousing them when they least expect it.

It occurred in Poland at the end of World War II. European Jewry had been decimated. Somehow, small groups of children had been housed by gentiles, many in monasteries, where the Abbots thought they were reclaiming a prize for their lord. True, they had saved the physical lives of these children, but, if they could get away with it, they were not going to release these children to become Jewish - again! They had them, and they would baptize them. Unless incontrovertible proof was presented that these children were Jewish, they were remaining in the monasteries.

Horav Eliezer Silver, zl, the legendary head of Vaad Hatzalah, the relief and rescue organization that addressed the physical and spiritual needs of the survivors of the Holocaust, appeared together with Horav Gorfinkel of England at a monastery and demanded that the Abbot release the Jewish children that were housed in his facility. The Abbot's response was simple: "Prove that they are Jewish." "We will return at the children's bedtime, and we will then prove to you that these children are, in fact, Jewish." The Abbot thought they had lost their collective minds. How could two or three minutes before these children retire for the night prove that they were Jewish?

Dozens of Jewish boys and girls were held "captive" in the monastery. I say captive, though they had not really been kidnapped, but the gentiles were never giving up a Jew whom they felt they could convert to their religion. This was part of their dogma. As long as Jews believed in Hashem, it impugned the integrity of their faith. The Abbot knew quite well which children were Jewish and which were not. After all, he had been present when their parents, out of desperation, gave them these children, as they themselves were being deported to their deaths. There was no way the Abbot would return these children to their true faith. All proof of their religious identity had perished in the fires of the Holocaust.

The two rabbanim did not agree. They knew that Jewish parents imbued their children from the moment of birth with an indomitable faith, with a light against the world's darkness. They would prove to the Priest that a Jewish child does not lose sight of his faith, regardless of how dark it is, or how dark one makes it for him. When the two rabbanim arrived at the prescribed time, the Abbot was waiting-with a mocking smile across his face. He was confident that no children would be leaving today. Nothing that could prove the children's origins had survived the flames.

The young eyes peered silently - almost longingly - from every side, watching as two bearded figures made their way to the room where they were gathered. A small group of children in their bedclothes - boys with no yarmulkes, their payos shorn, a group of young boys and girls who, for all intent and purposes, looked and thought like goyim.

Suddenly, one of the bearded figures walked to the middle of the room, climbed atop a chair and just stood there - smiling at the children. Then, in the din of the silence, his voice rang out, uttering just six words: "Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad!"

As if by some mysterious cue, the silence was broken as the thin voices cried out: "Mama! Mama!" Tiny forms jumped from their beds, "Mama! Mama! Where are you?" They had never forgotten the good night kiss their mothers had given them when they recited Shema Yisrael before retiring to bed. These were the last words that had been instilled years ago. These were the words for which they had been longing.

The Abbot hung his head in shame. He knew that he had been defeated. The light that had permeated their Jewish hearts had risen to guide these children back home.

Our last vignette is about Rav Meir Feist, zl, an individual whose life personified light, despite being plagued with what many would consider extreme darkness. Confined to a wheelchair since the age of four, when both of his legs had become paralyzed, he suffered from a number of other chronic diseases as well. For more than half of his life, he had lived alone in the world, without the support and comfort of family and friends. Yet, he continued to amaze the medical world, who had written him off at age forty. At age sixty-eight he was niftar, passed away, from an illness unrelated to his chronic health problems.

This was a man who always manifested a joyful countenance: he never deferred to depression; he displayed incredible patience; and he actually felt that he was the beneficiary of eminent good fortune. It could actually be said that happiness was an integral component of his being. How did he do it? He understood that living a Torah life, ensconced in a Torah environment, was the most rewarding life one could lead. There is no greater source of pleasure than that which emanates from connecting with the Torah. This was the secret of his "happy" life. He understood that every day that he lived serving Hashem and learning His Torah was infinitely invaluable. Thus, despite his severe handicaps, his life was filled with joy. He saw no darkness - only light.

He stepped near and rolled the stone from the mouth of the well. (29:10)

Rashi teaches that Yaakov Avinu was able to roll the stone off the well with the same ease as one removes a stopper from a bottle opening. Are Chazal that impressed with Yaakov's physical strength that they feel it is a necessary lesson to impart to us? Are we that interested in our Patriarch's physical prowess? Furthermore, in Tefillas Geshem, we say, Yichad lev v'gal even mi'pi be'er mayim… Baavuro al timna mayim, "He dedicated his heart and rolled a stone off the mouth of a well of water… For his sake, do not hold water back!" What merit does Yaakov's physical strength serve for us? Last, if Yaakov Avinu had truly been that strong, why did he not employ his strength to -- once and for all -- put Eisav in his place? Why did he shirk from Elifaz when he came at his father's behest to eliminate Yaakov?

Horav Meir Chadash, zl, explains that our Patriarch was, indeed, a very strong man, but this strength was used only in pursuit of his avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty. He deferred his opportunity to be with his father, and chose instead to escape to Charan, because he did not want to chance a confrontation with Eisav. He was prepared to give away all of his money to Elifaz, rather than to battle with him. He used his strength only for such a noble purpose as providing chesed, kindness, enabling the people to draw water from the well. He used his strength to overcome his strong desire to put Lavan in his place, when he had the opportunity to avenge his honor. He demonstrated his strength by not resorting to bloodshed, instead seeking avenues of compromise. The merit that Yaakov used his physical advantage only for spiritual goals is what stands on our behalf. Our Patriarch understood that everything which is placed at our disposal is not for our personal advantage, but for the purpose of enabling us to help others and to further our own spiritual development.

And he (Yaakov) rolled the stone from the mouth of the well. (29:10)

Yaakov Avinu exhibited brute force when he rolled the heavy stone off the well. Was Yaakov attempting to impress Rachel Imeinu with his strength? Clearly, he had a deeper message to convey to his future wife than his brawniness. Furthermore, when Yaakov Avinu cried following his encounter with Rachel, Rashi explains that this weeping was the result of his seeing b'Ruach HaKodesh, Divine Inspiration, that Rachel would not be buried near him. If his vision was so penetrating that he could see the future, he obviously saw that Rachel was a righteous and virtuous woman who would certainly not be impressed by his display of physical strength.

The Arizal teaches that the Tanna, Rabbi Akiva, was a nitzutz, holy spark, of Yaakov Avinu. Likewise, his wife, Rachel, daughter of Kalba Savua, was a nitzutz of Rachel Imeinu. The similarities continue: Rabbi Akiva was originally a shepherd, as was Yaakov; our Patriarch was married to two women, as was Rabbi Akiva (Rachel, daughter of Kalba Savua, and the wife of Turnusrufus).

With this in mind, Horav Pinchas Friedman, Shlita, observes how Hashem weaves a complex web, a variegated mosaic, so that all the neshamos, souls, created by Him will one day find their proper and complete tikkun, repair. Rachel Imeinu was born to Lavan, who wanted to destroy Yaakov and, by extension, his future descendants. Yaakov was able to extract her from the spiritual dross of Lavan's klipah, spiritual husk/shell, thereby facilitating her rise to Matriarchal status. Rabbi Akiva's holy soul was trapped within the shepherd Akiva until his future wife, who was a spark of Rachel Imeinu, married him and encouraged his Torah study which, in turn, catalyzed his rise to the pinnacle of Torah eminence and leadership. She somehow knew in her heart that she "owed" something to this man, as reparation for Yaakov saving Rachel. In other words, Yaakov "rescued" Rachel's nitzutz; later on, Rachel, daughter of Kalba Savua, returned the favor by rescuing Rabbi Akiva, who was a nitzutz of Yaakov Avinu. How little we know of Hashem's manipulation of "life."

Chazal reveal another reason that Rabbi Akiva turned to Torah. At an advanced age, after having lived a life of complete illiteracy, he chanced upon a large stone resting upon the top of a well. He asked how the furrows had been carved out in the stone. The response he received was that water was constantly dripping upon the stone. The great sage derived a compelling lesson from this. If water, which is soft, can carve out a stone, Torah, which is strong and hard as steel, would surely penetrate his soft heart. Immediately, he decided to turn to a life of Torah study. The rest is history.

Rav Friedman applies this Chazal to the "stone" which our Patriarch encountered upon the well. At the moment that he saw the stone resting upon the well, Yaakov saw that, one day, Rachel, daughter of Kalba Savua, would rescue Rabbi Akiva from the spiritual morass that had overtaken him. In order to allude to this event, which would take place centuries in the future, and to signal to Rachel that "her" efforts carried out through Rachel, daughter of Kalba Savua, would achieve successful fruition, he "rolled" the stone off the top of the well. The word used to "roll" (the stone), va'y'gal, alludes to the word gilui, reveal, denoting Yaakov's revelation to Rachel. This was no ordinary rolling of the stone; it was a portent for the future. This was not an act of chivalry as some might erroneously think. It was Yaakov intimating his and Rachel's role in Divine Providence.

And (Yaakov) cried out in a loud voice. (29:11)

The Torah informs us that Yaakov Avinu wept when he met Rachel Imeinu for the first time. Rashi gives us two reasons that the Patriarch wept. Horav Arye Leib Heyman, zl, addresses both reasons, seeking the Divine Providential factor in each one, and explaining how it impacted our People for generations to come. The first reason that Rashi gives is that Yaakov saw b'Ruach HaKodesh, by Divine Inspiration, that he would not be buried with Rachel. He would be buried in the Meoras HaMachpeilah, while Rachel would be buried on the road near Bais Lechem.

We wonder why, specifically at this point in time, our Patriarch was Divinely informed of his "burial"? Was it necessary for him to know then that Rachel would not be buried near him? Furthermore, Chazal teach that Rachel forfeited her burial next to Yaakov as a result of the incident with Leah Imeinu concerning the dudaim. Apparently, she demonstrated a lack of respect concerning Yaakov's holy stature. While this may explain the reason that Rachel was denied her burial plot next to Yaakov, it does not explain why Yaakov was compelled to relinquish his place next to Rachel. The mere fact that we perceive Yaakov's weeping as an indication that he was pained by this decision means that he must have done something inappropriate to in some way warrant this change.

Let us go back in time, to the story of Yaakov appropriating the blessings from Yitzchak Avinu, his father. These blessings were originally destined for Eisav, but Yaakov arrived first. After all, he had purchased the right to those blessings from Eisav. How conveniently Eisav forgot the sale that he had made. When Eisav arrived to receive his blessings and discerned that Yaakov had received them instead, he raised his voice in a loud cry. Two tears (some say three) escaped from his eyes; this was sufficient for Eisav to condemn his brother.

While Yaakov actually had done nothing wrong, the Heavenly scale, which measures right and wrong to the hairbreadth, took note that Yaakov had caused Eisav to weep. Because he had taken the bechorah, birthright of the firstborn, Leah, who originally had been destined for Eisav, was now transferred to Yaakov. Thus, by extension, the burial place next to Yaakov, which had previously been designated for Rachel, was passed on to Leah. Yaakov caused Eisav to weep; he lost the privilege of having Rachel's grave next to his.

We now turn to the second reason quoted by Rashi that Yaakov cried. He had arrived empty handed. Although his father, Yitzchak Avinu, came to his mother, Rivkah Imeinu, with material gifts consisting of gold, silver and jewelry, Yaakov had nothing. He had lost all of his possessions to Elifaz, Eisav's son, who was dispatched by his father to kill him. True, trading his possessions for his life was fortunate, but Yaakov was still penniless. For this, he wept.

Let us take a moment to ruminate over this reason thatYaakov wept and how it later manifested itself. Imagine if Yaakov had not met Elifaz, and instead had arrived at Lavan's home with a full complement of gold, silver and jewelry. Seeing all of this material wealth, the crooked Lavan would have extended himself backwards for this distinguished guest. Does one think that Lavan would have had the audacity to switch Leah for Rachel if Yaakov would have been his wealthy nephew? Never! It is only because Yaakov was penniless that Lavan took advantage of him. Yaakov wept because he knew his newly arranged poverty was the reason that he would have to slave seven years for Rachel. There is, however, a flipside. Had Eisav not sent Elifaz to impoverish Yaakov, our Patriarch would have married Rachel without any mishap. As a result, Leah would have been married to her designated - Eisav. In other words, by sending Elifaz, Eisav lost out on Leah. Baruch Hashem!

What is my crime? What sin did I commit that you were in such hot pursuit of me? (31:36)

After over two decades of being cheated and surrounded by his evil father-in-law, Lavan, Yaakov Avinu left in the hope of finally having a home undisturbed by the nefarious machinations of his father-in-law. Lavan, of course, accused our Patriarch of every evil endeavor known to man. Yaakov's response? "What is my crime?" No screaming; no shouting; no malediction; just a relaxed and calm, "What did I do?" How did he contain himself after so many years of suffering and degradation? Horav Reuven Karlinstein, Shlita, explains that Yaakov did not respond to Lavan, because he was acutely aware that Lavan was merely a pawn, part of Hashem's Divine Plan. A Jew who lives with such awareness takes a blas? attitude to life's experiences. He knows that he does not call the shots; Hashem does. He might as well accept what comes at him. Ranting and raving will not alter the sequel to his story.

So many factors are instrumental in Hashem's determination of what, when and how He will have the final curtain played out. We are not privy to all of the factors, and certainly not to the decision-making process. We must, however, never lose sight of the big picture. Every decision that we make must take Hashem into consideration. The issue of secular education was once raised in Lithuania. The government felt that the Jewish school children should have their secular education during the morning hours together with gentile children. During the latter part of the day, if the Jewish children desired to study Torah subjects, they were free to do so. The primary times of the day, when the children's minds were sharp, should be devoted to secular knowledge. Obviously, two things were wrong with this demand: the child's minds would not be functioning at their optimum acuity in the afternoon; studying secular subjects together with gentile children would be damaging to their spiritual health. The problem quickly reached crisis proportion.

The Ponevezer Rav, zl, Horav Yosef Kahaneman, was a very wise man, and he knew that the only way to overturn this decree was with sharp logic. The Lithuanian ministers were not moved by tears - only rationalism. The Rav asked to meet with the education minister. He asked that a dispensation be made on behalf of the Jewish children, so that they could learn secular studies in the afternoon. The education minister was very understanding, listening respectfully to the Rav present his case. He then asked, "Rabbi, you have not explained to my why the Jewish children are unable to study secular disciplines together with our wonderful Lithuanian children. Is there something different in the way you teach secular studies so that you must study separately?"

"Yes, we count differently than you. For example, you begin counting with zero, one, two, etc. We begin nothing with "zero." Every subject, every issue, every occurrence, begins with the number "One," the One G-d in whom we believe!"

It is a basic tenet of our belief that nothing "just happens." Every occurrence in life is pre-ordained by the Almighty. The sooner we learn to accept this verity, the less complex life will be.

Hashem s'efasai tiftach u'fi yagid Tehilasecha. My Master, my lips you should open, and my mouth shall relate Your Praise.

Before we even begin the primary tefillah, Shemoneh Esrai, it is incumbent upon us to reflect that entreating Hashem, the capability of praying to Him, is in and of itself a gift. For what were our lips and our tongues, the entire vocalization dynamic, created? Certainly not for devarim b'teilim, idle/wasted speech. Indeed, at this moment, we should pause to reflect upon the facts that Hashem created us for a purpose and that every component of our body is to serve Him. Our lips, which protect what exits our mouths, are there to guard what we say. Without Hashem, articulating would be impossible. Prayer is a gift, an opportunity availed to us so that, upon reflection of all the good that He has done for us, we are able to offer Praise to Him. This is our mindset as we begin Shemoneh Esrai. Thus, Hashem s'fasai tiftach becomes a powerful and compelling statement, which actually colors and gives meaning to the Shemoneh Esrai. A proper and meaningful, "Hashem s'fasai tiftach," entreating that He open up our lips, together with a penetrating reflection concerning what we actually use our lips for, will determine the tenor and acceptance of the upcoming Shemoneh Esrai.

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