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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And Yaakov went out from Be'er Sheva and went to Charan. (28:10)

In a well-known statement, Rashi teaches that the departure of a tzaddik from a community leaves a void. When the righteous person is in town, he comprises its glory, beauty and glow. When he leaves, its glory, beauty and glow leave with him. This is derived from the word, Vayeitzei (Yaakov), and "he (Yaakov) went out (from Be'er Sheva)." It is not necessary to write his point of departure. That is obvious, since he had been there until this point. All that is required for the reader to know is his destination - unless his departure creates a void. The question is: although, undoubtedly, Yaakov's departure from Be'er Sheva impacted the community, what about Yitzchak and Rivkah? They were both holy people who remained in Be'er Sheva. Yaakov was one out of three. Rashi seems to be ignoring the fact that these two giants remained in Be'er Sheva. Simply, we must say that each and every tzaddik contributes to a community's beauty. While two tzaddikim remain, the presence of one less holy person leaves an impressionable void.

Horav Gedaliah Shorr, zl (quoted by Horav Yisrael Belsky, zl,), offers another explanation which provides us with a window on how to survive spiritually in a world whose moral compass is antithetical to Torah dictate. The Rosh Yeshivah made this observation at a time when the entire world was focused on the moon landing. It was a sensational moment in history, as man finally conquered space. Did he really, however, conquer it? Nothing about the moon had changed - it was still not human-friendly. Indeed, the only reason the astronauts were able to maneuver and survive in its hostile environment was that they brought a "mini-earth" with them: oxygen and food upon which to subsist. They brought pressurized spacesuits, weighted boots, and a whole array of scientific data-collecting devices, just for the short time that they would be there; without their complex life-support systems, they certainly would have died.

In other words, the astronauts brought earth up to the moon. This is exactly what Yaakov Avinu was compelled to do if he were to survive in the spiritually hostile environment of Charan. The members of Rivkah's family were idol worshippers. Her brother was the paragon of a swindler. How could Yaakov maintain his spiritual status quo in such a place? Only if he brought Be'er Sheva's hod, glory; hadar, beauty; and ziv, glow, with him. Yaakov's body was in Charan, but his mind was ensconced in Be'er Sheva.

This is what Rashi means when he writes that when Yaakov left, he took the city's hod, hadar and ziv with him. He had to! Thus, he was able to build a spiritual cocoon around himself, so that he could survive Lavan's spiritual onslaught. As a result, Be'er Sheva was left devoid of these qualities.

Is it any better in our lives, when we leave the protection of our homes, our shuls, our yeshivos and enter the secular world that surrounds us? While I will not identify exactly how the secular world differs from our lifestyle, because this dvar Torah is read by a vast audience, everyone has his or her opinion concerning what defines "secular" and what dictates "modern"; therefore, it is best left unsaid. Nonetheless, we must maintain a semblance of vigilance in our relationship with the outside world in order to protect ourselves and our children. We must monitor this exposure by "wearing" the proper protective gear, so that the far-ranging effects of contemporary secular society does not leave us spiritually traumatized.

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

Rashi explains that this "place" was none other than Har HaMoriah, the site where Avraham Avinu had bound Yitzchak Avinu on the Altar of the Akeidah. This was also the future site of the Bais Hamikdash. Chazal interpret this "encounter" to mean "he prayed." Yaakov Avinu's encounter was not with a geographical location, but rather, with Hashem. Why did the pasuk not simply state that he prayed? What is the significance of the word, encounter, and what is its relationship to prayer?

Various terms express tefillah, prayer; pegia, encountering, is one. I think that pegia refers to a prayer in which the focus is not on the words, but rather, on the encounter: one feels and acts like he is in the Presence of G-d. One is unaware of his surroundings, in the sense that he feels entirely alone with the Creator. He has no need for words. The individual's presence is totally subjugated, with no need for external validation; he is withdrawn from the surroundings, but completely focused on Hashem. That is pegia. It does not mean that one is alone; rather, it means that one feels himself alone - with Hashem. He achieves total self-abnegation, almost spent, withdrawn from the present and thrust into a far-off encounter with G-d - only with G-d. He feels utter trepidation, overwhelming awe, because he is "here" - in the presence of Hashem. He becomes one (so to speak) with Hashem. This is pegia - encounter.

Why so subdued? Where is the enthusiasm? The solemnity and sober-sided feeling of the encounter reflect a certain form of prayer. Perhaps it is prayer when one has nothing else - meaning, he is spent, having articulated and cried out his heart. He is utterly subdued, with nowhere to go. This is it. He is full-face with Hashem. Words are not necessary. Indeed, he has no words. Hashem knows the words. We provide the emotion. That is pegia.

Yaakov Avinu "encountered" Hashem as the sun set. Chazal teach that he initiated Tefillas Arvis, the evening prayer. It is night, the end of the day - the end of the road. Regardless how bleak, how dark, how black - one needs to pray. That is the only way. Yaakov's life was filled with adversity. Yet, he never gave in; he never gave up. He prayed and taught his descendants that - regardless of the circumstances - one must pray. Indeed, the only medium that is effective is prayer.

At times, all one must do is be honest with Hashem - sort of tell it like it is, open up and pray with integrity. All too often, we promise and promise, but our promises are based on contingencies. We give our word, as long as everything goes our way. Integrity in prayer means realizing that our only avenue of salvation is Hashem. He is not our last resort. He is our only resort.

The following story underscores this idea. A Jewish lawyer, himself non-observant, arrived in Eretz Yisrael and asked to see Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl. Apparently, his wife was gravely ill, and he sought a blessing for her recovery. The Maggid replied, "I will bless you, but I want you to know that your personal prayer on behalf of your wife has greater efficacy."

The lawyer said, "I cannot speak with G-d!" Rav Sholom was quite taken aback with this declaration. First, he was "impressed" by the straightforwardness. Second, he wondered why. "After all," he asked, "you cannot speak with Hashem? You are a lawyer. Speaking is the staple of your profession."

The man explained. "Rebbe, I am a non-practicing Jew. For my entire life, I have maintained my distance from Torah and mitzvah observance. I had only one daughter that was born to us after quite a few years of marriage. She became very ill at the age of three to the point that one day the doctor called me to the hospital, 'You must come immediately. Your daughter is in the last few hours of her short life.'

"I was shaken beyond belief. I immediately took a taxi to the hospital, where I went straight to its chapel. I opened up the Ark and began to weep bitterly, 'Hashem,' I cried out, 'I have never once asked You for a thing. Now, I have one request. My baby is dying. She is my only child for whom I waited for years. I plead with You to heal her. I promise that if You heal her, I will never ask You for another thing!' As soon as I concluded my prayer, I ran up to the ICU to discover that a miracle had occurred. My daughter's situation had turned around. She was on the road to recovery.

"Now you see why I cannot pray to Hashem. I gave Him my word, and I will not go back on my word."

Hashem listened to this Jew because he spoke sincerely from the heart. He made a promise which, from his uneducated background, manifested total integrity. He kept his word, not realizing that Hashem wants to hear from us - all of the time.

And he became frightened and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the Abode of G-d, and this is the gate of the Heaven!" (28:17)

It was the 28th day of Sivan 1930; the crowd gathered to partake in the chanukas ha'bayis, dedication, of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin. While it was not the first yeshivah in Poland, it was the most innovative. This was truly an auspicious occasion. The Gerrer Rebbe, zl, the Imrei Emes, was given the honor of addressing the assemblage. He quoted the above pasuk, asking why a redundancy of the word zeh, this, occurs: zeh Bais Elokim v'zeh Shaar ha'Shomayim; "This is the Abode of G-d; this is the gate of the Heavens." He cited the Baal Shem Tov, zl, who explained this pasuk based on a statement of Chazal in the Talmud Shabbos 31b. Chaval al d'les lei darta v'tara l'darta avid, "Woe (what a waste it is) for he who does not have a courtyard, yet makes a gate for his courtyard." Rashi explains that the Torah is the gateway through which one enters to avail himself of yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven. Therefore, it is incumbent that fear of Heaven should precede the study of Torah. Yaakov Avinu studied Torah for fourteen years (after leaving home). Now, he has arrived at this holy site (Har HaMoriah), where he was privy to a Divine vision, experiencing the dream of the ladder with Hashem sitting on top. The Patriarch said, "This place is the Abode of G-d. The other zeh, place, the yeshivah of Shem and Ever where I studied Torah for fourteen years, was merely the gateway to prepare me for yiraas Shomayim."

The Rebbe continued, "The yeshivah is an impressive edifice. Yehi ratzon, may it be the will of the Creator, that it should be both: the gate to the courtyard; and the courtyard. The students who toil in Torah should, likewise, be engendered with yiraas Shomayim."

He loved Rachel even more than Leah. (29:30)

Obviously, the interpretation of this pasuk contains more than meets the eye. This is not a romantic tale. This pasuk is laden with profound meaning. First and foremost, when the Torah writes that Yaakov Avinu's love for Rachel Imeinu was greater than the love he had for Leah Imeinu, it certainly is not referring to an emotional attraction. I came across an interpretation by Horav Moshe Leib Sassover, zl, which I find especially meaningful. He quotes the well-known and often-used pasuk, Tachas asher lo avadita es Hashem Elokecha b'simchah u'b'tuv lev, "Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, amid gladness and goodness of heart" (Devarim 28:47). Klal Yisrael's lack of joy in serving Hashem is the catalyst for its ultimate punishment. They serve, but they are not excited, enthusiastic, filled with joy. As a rule, joy is a powerful barometer that indicates one's love for a person, endeavor, organization. If one drags his feet, it shows that he is neither happy, nor does he care for what he is doing.

Joy reflects a greater and stronger love of something than do tears. Chazal teach that Shaarei demaos lo ninalu, "The gates of tears are never closed" (Bava Metzia 59a). One's tearful entreaty will always penetrate the Heavenly Gates. Joy, however, breaks down, shatters, the gate; nothing stands in the way of joy. In other words, for tears to ascend and penetrate the Heavenly Throne, the gates must be opened. Joy is able to pass even through a closed gate. Leah Imeinu merited her place in the Matriarchal hierarchy as a result of her weeping: V'eini Leah rakos, "Leah's eyes were tender" (Bereishis 29:17). Chazal attribute the tenderness of Leah's eyes to her incessant weeping, pleading with Hashem that she not be compelled to marry Eisav. People would say that Rivkah had two sons, and Lavan had two daughters. The elder daughter (Leah) would be married to the elder son (Eisav). So, Leah had a reason to weep. This is what is meant that Yaakov loved Rachel even more than Leah. Rachel achieved through joy what Leah accomplished through her weeping.

Chazal teach, Shaarei demaos lo ninalu, "The gates of tears are not closed" (Bereishis 32b). The Yehudi Hakadosh, zl, was wont to say, "If the gates would indeed be closed, the tears would not be able to enter. Tears are (usually) the result of a depressed feeling, thus, they find it difficult to penetrate a sealed door. With joy, however, one can make a hole (and penetrate) even through a closed door."

Ostensibly, the advantage of living a life filled with joy is obvious. Serving Hashem amidst joy is the way one manifests his profound love for the mitzvah. What about taking joy to the next level, such as in the most solemn and difficult moments of life: imbuing the process of death, the closing moments of life, with joy? This is the most remarkable test. I think it is a powerful indicator of a life that one has lived with "no regrets," a life of satisfaction, of gladness, a life totally connected with Hashem. The following vignette, which describes the last hours and final moments of the life of a giant of Torah, the founder of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin and the initiator of the Daf HaYomi, Horav Meir Shapiro, zl, is something to read over and over, allowing it to guide our lives. It shows how a person should live - and die; more importantly, however, it demonstrates the sublimity of the human psyche and indicates the heights that it can reach.

On Tuesday, the fourth of Cheshvan 5695 (1934), the Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Meir Shapiro, did not appear on time for his early morning shiur, lecture. This was highly unusual, since, normally, he was the first one to arrive. As the minutes passed, they realized that something was amiss. Their concern became stronger when he did not attend Shacharis, morning prayer service. Rav Meir was not merely a Rosh Yeshivah. Although he had not been blessed with his own biological children, the students of the yeshivah were his sons - and they felt he was their father. After davening they went to his home to inquire why he had not been to davening. They discovered him lying in bed with a bad cold. The doctor who was at his bedside said there was no reason for concern. The Rosh Yeshivah simply had a bad case of the flu.

The following day, Rav Meir's condition worsened; a swelling had developed in his throat, impeding his ability to breathe properly. Other doctors were summoned to his bedside, but they, too, concurred with his primary physician. There was no reason for concern. In a few days, the Rosh Yeshivah would be up and about. Rav Meir's body did not seem to agree with the doctor's prognosis. With each hour, he became significantly weaker. The doctors, nonetheless, felt that he would bounce back and recover.

Late Thursday night, it was evident that the doctors were grossly mistaken. It was clear that their beloved Rebbe had but minutes to live. On a piece of paper, he wrote an instruction to his talmidim standing around his bedside, "Everyone should drink l'chaim!" Immediately, a bottle and cups appeared, and the bachurim drank l'chaim.

As weak as he was, Rav Meir stretched out his hand and shook the hand of each and every student. After this, he motioned that they should sing one of his niggunim, tunes, to the words, Becha batchu Avoseinu ("In You did our ancestors trust"). In the middle of the song, he beckoned to them to form a circle around his bed, and then, on a scrap of paper, he wrote his last words: "Rak b'simchah - only with joy." This was his final epistle.

The students danced around his bed singing and crying. In the middle lay Rav Meir, his august countenance shining like an angel. With his hand, he beckoned them to go faster, to sing louder, until suddenly, he gave a shudder and his holy neshamah, soul, ascended Heavenward to meet the holy Tanaaim and Amoraim who were surely waiting to greet him.

As I write this, I attempt to imagine the scene. It must have been the most remarkable experience, as true joy overcame sadness, reality overshadowed illusion. To achieve such a death, one has to have lived such a life: "Rak b'simchah - only with joy!"

"Give me children - otherwise I am dead." Yaakov's anger flared up at Rachel, and he said, "Am I instead of G-d?" (30:1,2)

Ramban says that, undoubtedly, Yaakov Avinu prayed for Rachel Imeinu. He admonished her for wrongly implying that a tzaddik, righteous person, has the power to "coerce" Hashem to respond to his wish. Thus, when Rachel saw that relying on Yaakov's prayer was not an option, she prayed herself to the One Who listens and responds - Hashem.

The Avnei Nezer of Sochatchov was a brilliant Gaon who hardly ever left his home. He was constantly involved in Torah - either studying or teaching. One day he announced to his students that he was attending the Bris of the son of a simple tailor who had asked him to serve as sandek, hold the infant during the circumcision. When asked why he was making such an exception, he explained, "This Jew had sanctified the Name of Heaven. Thus, he deserves that I attend the celebration. He came to me and said, 'Fifteen years have passed since my wedding, and Hashem has helped me. Now I am fortunate to usher my son into the covenant of Avraham Avinu. I ask the venerable Rebbe to honor our simchah!'

"When I heard these words I decided that I must attend. How often have I heard individuals say, 'I was helped in Gur; I was helped in Kotzk; I was helped in Radzmin'? I never hear a person declare, 'I was helped by Hashem!' Finally, today, I hear the tailor announce, 'Hashem has helped me!' I must attend the simchah of a Jew who attributes salvation to its true Source."

With whomever you find your gods, he shall not live… Now Yaakov did not know that Rachel had stolen them. (31:32)

Yaakov Avinu uttered the curse, because he suspected that one of the pagan servants had stolen the teraphim. Had he known that it was Rachel Imeinu who had taken them, he certainly would not have pronounced the curse. Sadly, the curse took effect, catalyzing (in some way) Rachel's untimely death. Every word that exits our mouth must be carefully weighed. One never knows… We find this occurring a number of times in Tanach. One notable instance occurred when the brothers returned from Egypt and related to their father, Yaakov Avinu, the troubles that the Egyptian viceroy had caused them. Imagine, had Yaakov issued a curse against this Jew-hating pagan (not knowing that, indeed, it was none other than his own son, Yosef), his curse might have been the catalyst for the Egyptian viceroy's death!

Horav Yitzchak Eliyahu Landau, zl, was a brilliant and pious gaon, who was a contemporary of Horav Chaim Volozhiner, zl. Unfortunately, he was not blessed with biological offspring. One day, the son of Horav Itzele Volozhiner (Rav Chaim's son) became seriously ill. Rav Itzele was beside himself in fear for his son's life. His father said to him, "Halevai (if only) Rav Yitzchak Eliyahu would experience your pain. Sadly, he has no children." The child's condition worsened, and he passed away.

Meanwhile, Rav Yitzchak Eliyahu was appointed Rav in Zaskowitz, a small town which bordered on Vohozhin. In due time, the change of makom, place, engendered a change in his mazel, fortune, and he and his wife were blessed with a son. When the child reached the age that Rav Itzele's son had become ill, this child, too, became gravely ill, and, in a short time, was on the verge of death.

When Rav Yitzchak Eliyahu heard about Rav Chaim's remark (years earlier) to Rav Itzele, he became overwhelmed with concern. He sat the entire night by his son's bedside, praying, pleading, beseeching Hashem to spare his child. He added, "This is not what Rav Chaim meant when he remarked to his son that Rav Yitzchak Eliyahu would have been pleased with your worry. He did not wish me to have a child that would become ill. He meant that I, too, should become a father! Please, Hashem, spare my child!" The child lived. One never knows the effect of the words that leave his mouth.

On a positive side, Horav Shimon Pincus, zl, relates that, prior to the bar-mitzvah of one of his sons, he was blessed with a daughter. The obvious question was: Should he make a separate kiddush, celebration, or, rather, merge the bar-mitzvah with the kiddush for his daughter. It would be economical both from an economic and time perspective.

After giving the matter some thought, he came to the conclusion that he should make two separate affairs. He conjectured: The idea of a kiddush is based upon the words of Yitzchak Avinu prior to sending Eisav to bring back for him matamim, delicacies, which he had been used to eating. The joy incurred as a result of eating those delicacies would create a spiritual bond between the two (father and son), thereby increasing the efficacy of the blessings. Likewise, when one celebrates a milestone joyous occasion in the company of good friends, satiated with food and drink, the blessing of mazel tov and the various good wishes that are articulated by the guests represent a powerful force of benediction. This is the power of the Jewish "word."

In the Sefer Bais Elokim, the Mabit (Horav Yeshaya D. Trani) writes that the power of a blessing uttered by a Jew is similar to that of a prayer. Thus, the power of a multitude of people all issuing a blessing, constitutes an incredible prayer on behalf of the newborn infant for whom the kiddush is being rendered.

Likewise, when one Jew blesses another on Rosh Hashanah night with the well-known, L'shanah Tovah Tikaseivu, "You shall be inscribed for a good year," it is a compelling merit for the individual who is the recipient of the blessing. We should never take a Jew's blessing for granted.

Va'ani Tefillah

Atah chonein l'adam daas. You favor man with knowledge.

Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 115:a) explains why this blessing (unlike the rest of the weekday Shemoneh Eisrai blessings) begins with a declaration (Atah chonein; You favor man with knowledge) instead of with an immediate request, as in the case with the other blessings. In order to ask, to petition, to pray - one requires daas, knowledge, common sense, understanding. Otherwise, he does not know what to ask for (or, if I may add, have the ability to appreciate what he receives). Horav Baruch Sorotzkin, zl, would say concerning the pasuk: Re'eh! See! Anochi nosein lifneichem hayom, "I present before you today - brachah u'klalah, a blessing and a curse." The Torah uses the word "see" because, oftentimes, we are blessed and we either do not realize it or refuse to look at it objectively in order to see the blessing. Without daas, we are limited in prayer and (even more) limited in our ability to pay gratitude.

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

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