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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


In the beginning of G-d's creating the heavens and the earth. (1:1)

Sefer Bereishis is aptly given its name as a result of being the "first" of the Chumashim. The Talmud in Avodah Zarah 25A has another name for Sefer Bereishis: Sefer HaYashar or Sefer Yesharim, the Book of Righteousness. Yashar means more than righteousness. It means straightforwardness, integrity, mentchlichkeit, human decency. Sefer Bereishis chronicles the lives of the Avos, Patriarchs, men who exemplified righteousness to G-d and mentchlichkeit to all human beings. In the preface to his commentary to Sefer Bereishis, the Netziv, zl, expands on this idea. The Patriarchs distinguished themselves not only in their relationship with Hashem on the highest spiritual plane, but also in their dealings with the non-Jewish people with whom they came in daily contact. They acted with integrity and esteem for every human being. Propriety, honesty, and decency were character traits which earned them the deep admiration and respect of all people. The non-Jewish world knew not of their spiritual relationship with Hashem. They knew only of their yashrus with people.

In his commentary to the first pasuk in the Torah, Rashi questions why the Torah, which is primarily a book of commandments and instructions for life, begins with an account of Creation, rather than the first mitzvah which Hashem gave to the Jewish people. He explains that the Torah anticipated a time when, after we would have conquered Eretz Yisrael, the nations of the world would arise and condemn us as robbers and thieves. Thus, from the onset, the Torah informs us that Hashem created the world, and, as Creator and Proprietor of the entire universe, He gave Eretz Yisrael to us. He may do as He pleases. It pleased Him to give Eretz Yisrael to His Chosen People. We are not thieves. We are simply taking what is rightfully ours.

Everyone has heard of or studied this Rashi. Does anybody ever wonder about Rashi's answer? How will our response to the citizens of the gentile world allay their critique of us? They do not care about what is stated in the Chumash. Rashi's exposition certainly has no place in their minds. A quotation from Sefer Bereishis is not an argument that would compel the non-Jewish world to rescind their complaints against us. I do not believe that this approach will sway them.

Horav Yissachar Frand, Shlita, explains that Rashi is not suggesting a reply to be offered to the nations of the world. Nothing will impress them. They will never abandon their hatred towards us. The response, however, is for our own edification. As a kind, softhearted, mentchlech nation, we have a difficult time listening to complaints which impugn our integrity. If we hear the nations of the world calling us thieves long enough, we might even begin to believe them. We might begin to doubt our inherent right to the land. Perhaps the Torah was wrong in granting us the land that had until now belonged to the Canaanite nations. These are some of the thoughts that might slowly infiltrate our minds. Before long, we will lose the courage and will to fight for the land.

It is for this reason that the Torah begins by assuring us that everything it does is with yashrus. The only way to act is with propriety and fairness. The nations that had inhabited Eretz Yisrael did not have eternal rights to the land. Their lease had expired, and it was time for them to move on. It was now time for the Jews to enter and inhabit the land which Hashem had given them. If it is in the Torah, it is yashar and, therefore, the land is ours.

Let me take the liberty of citing a few vignettes to support the idea and demonstrate the significance of acting with yashrus. In the Talmud Sotah 40A, Chazal relate that Rabbi Avahu was a great Torah scholar who had the opportunity to become a Rosh Hayeshivah. This was an enviable position, not only because of the inherent esteem, but also because of the financial rewards that were involved. When Rabbi Avahu heard, however, that Rabbi Abba, another Torah scholar, who was in deep financial straits also needed this position, he deferred, asserting that Rabbi Abba was more suitable to be Rosh Hayeshivah. This is yashrus at its zenith! Imagine, how much time and effort Rabbi Avahu had exerted preparing for such a position. He had expended endless hours of study and research to achieve a position of erudition and respect that would render him worthy of being selected as Rosh Hayeshivah. He had another character trait that outshone his learning - yashrus. This trait did not permit him to assume a position that another scholar needed. His humility was consistent with his erudition. He was rewarded with five sons that illuminated the Torah world with their knowledge.

Horav Meir Simcha HaKohen, zl, Rav of Dvinsk and author of the Ohr Sameach and Meshech Chochmah, was certainly well-known for his encyclopedic knowledge of Torah. He was also recognized for another unique quality - his relationship with -- and the respect he received from -- the non-Jews of Dvinsk. When World War I broke out, Grand Duke Nikolai ordered the expulsion of all Jews from the Russo-German front. Dvinsk became dangerous for the Jews, and many fled, leaving their homes and belongings. Even the Rogatchover Gaon, zl, the other rav in Dvinsk, was prevailed upon by his congregants to leave. Rav Meir Simcha refused to budge. He said, "As long as there are nine Jews and I am the tenth, I will be there for the Minyan." When he was reminded of the constant danger, his response was simply, "Every bullet has a designated address, and none will reach where there is no Heavenly decree that it do so." Yet, despite the obvious dangers of doing so, thousands of Jews and gentiles signed petitions attesting to the nobility of the Rav's character and his vital importance to the well-being of all of the members of the community. He was allowed to remain unharmed. His reputation was so widespread that even non-Jews sought his counsel. Indeed, some say his universal acceptability began with a decision he had rendered in a dispute between a Jew and a gypsy. These two had been business partners until a major conflict of interest developed between them. The gypsy suggested that they both go to the Rav for a decision. Rav Meir Simcha listened to both sides and, after his own careful independent investigation, decided in favor of the gypsy. From that day on, word of Rav Meir Simcha's integrity and sense of justice spread throughout all of Dvinsk and even Latvia.

Horav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, zl, was an outstanding tzaddik and undisputed halachic authority. Indeed, he was a man of singular greatness. His ability to "conceal" his greatness was a true measure of his gadlus, distinction. As the head of the famous Ezras Torah charitable organization, he carried on his shoulders the plight of literally tens of thousands of families throughout the world. Their daily well-being was his daily concern. Yet, he never revealed the identity of these families. His weekly salary was a paltry fifty dollars. Indeed, at one meeting, the resolution was passed that his "salary" should be increased. Rav Henkin immediately arose from his chair and exclaimed, "Must I leave Ezras Torah?" Rav Henkin carried a small notebook with him, in which he kept a log of those minutes during the day that he did not fully dedicate to Ezras Torah. He was not involved with personal business during this time. He had no personal business. He lived for the klal, general community. When someone would visit to discuss a halachah, however, or if he would receive a call from anywhere in the world requesting his opinion concerning a halachic issue, he would immediately look at the time and note in his record how many minutes he had borrowed from Ezras Torah. He would then know how many minutes he would have to "make up" for Ezras Torah. Yashrus!

The earth brought forth vegetation, grass producing seed of its kind, and trees producing fruit. (1:12)

There is a fascinating Midrash concerning this pasuk that should give us all something to ponder. Chazal teach us that when Hashem created iron, the trees became distressed, because the sharp blade of the axe could destroy them. Hashem replied to the trees, "Do not worry. As long as you do not provide wood for the axe handle, the blade will remain harmless." The simple lesson from this Midrash is: We are our own worst enemies. We shoot ourselves in the foot. No one can impose worse harm on us than the harm we cause ourselves. Ask anyone, however, who carries the fault for a certain incident or situation, the response will, in all likelihood, be-the other person. The fault lies either with parents, or teachers, or the community, but never oneself. Parents provide their children with all forms of gifts, both monetary and tangible gifts. We give them every electronic invention known to man, then we wonder why they have no time to study. The first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet - aleph and bais - spell the word av, which means "father". Veritably, it is from our fathers, our parents, that we learn the alphabet of life. The Jewish home is the primary institution in life. It is the place in which the character and proclivities of a child are molded and shaped for the future. Thus, parents must assume responsibility for their own actions. We would do well to examine ourselves vigorously before attributing our faults to others.

There is another lesson to be derived from Chazal. The trees complained about the possible destruction that could be wrought by iron. If we think about it, it is not the iron or the wood, nor is it the axe that destroys; it is man who swings the axe that destroys. Yet, the trees immediately complained. That is nature. As soon as progress is about to commence, someone has to voice a complaint. They are afraid it might hurt them. It is always about "me." Considerable progress has abruptly come to a halt as a result of people's petty vested interests. As soon as the trees heard of another creation that might affect them, they complained. History has proven that this attitude still plagues us.

These are the products of the heaven and the earth when they were created in the day when Hashem made earth and heaven. (2:4)

The Torah now focuses on the events preceding the creation of man. In the second interpretation he offers in his commentary to this pasuk, Rashi explains the word b'hi'baram, "when they were created," to mean that Hashem created them with the letter "hay." This is supported by the pasuk in Yishayah 26:4, "With 'kah' (G-d's Name is spelled with "yud" and "hay"), G-d created worlds." In other words, b'hay'baram means that the two worlds - this temporary world and the Eternal world - were created with the letters that connote Hashem's Name, "yud" and "hay." The letter "hay" was used to create this world and the letter "yud" was used to create the Eternal world. What is Rashi teaching us?

Horav Aharon Soloveitchik, zl, explains that each of these letters has a separate function in the Hebrew alphabet. The letter "hay" represents the hay ha'yediah in Hebrew grammar. When the letter hay prefixes a word, it indicates something outstanding. For example, while shulchan means table, ha'shulchan is a reference to the table, a distinct, specific table. The letter hay, in this case, is used to denote a certain entity.

The function of the letter "yud" is primarily at the end of a word. In Hebrew grammar, when a "yud" is added to the end of a word, it indicates possession. Hence, shulchani means my table.

The Torah teaches us that man is created b'tzalmo, in his image (ibid.1:27). It also states that man is created b'tzelem Elokim, in G-d's image. How do we reconcile these two expressions? The Torah is teaching us that while man is created in the G-dly image, he is also created in his own image, with his own unique potential. Every single person has his own "yud." This may be the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, but it is his exclusively, and no one can take it from him. Man must, therefore, strive to achieve his own potential, to realize the unique Tzelem Elokim within him. When we say that the next world was created with the letter "yud," it means that one can attain a share in the World to Come only if he exercises and asserts his individual tzelem, his 'yud.'

We cannot, however, ignore man's "hay," the letter which denotes his desire to stand out in the crowd, to be recognized for his uniqueness, to be distinguished among men. This drive for individuality is what motivates men to excel, to be original, to be innovative. This drive also motivates selfishness among men, compelling them to live on a more materialistic level than their neighbor. After all, I cannot be like everybody else. Without the "hay," there would probably be little progress in this world. People would not be driven. Thus, the concept of this world being created with a "hay" means that advancement in worldly matters is, for the most part, achieved via the vehicle of man's selfish ambition expressing itself, whereas advancement to the World to Come is the product of asserting one's "yud," his uniqueness.

Let us go one step further. While constructive ambition, represented by the letter "hay," is commendable and, in fact, indispensable to world progress, destructive ambition is dangerous and can bring down the world. Constructive ambition takes on the forms of achievement in Torah study, amassing greater knowledge, endeavoring for chesed, acts of loving-kindness, and pursuing righteousness. Destructive ambition is the product of jealousy, and it is manifest when a person attempts to realize his goals to the detriment of others. The "hay" of progress can, in the wrong person, be transformed into the "hay" of destruction. It can corrupt and degenerate in the pursuit of the wrong goals.

How does one make sure that he does not fall prey to the "hay" of ruin? He can do so only by having the "hay" work in consort with the "yud." Thus, he channels his ambitions to act in consonance with his unique, inherent potential, his tzelem Elokim. We should try to achieve distinctiveness by becoming the individuals that Hashem has designed us to be.

Cain spoke with Hevel, his brother. (4:8)

Targum Yonasan gives us a clue concerning the conversation that took place between the world's first two brothers. Kayin said, "There is no Judge, and there is no Justice; there is only one world; there is no reward for the righteous and no punishment for the wicked." Hevel, of course, disputed each point. These words led to physical violence, during which Hevel was killed. We wonder at Kayin's hypocrisy. Here is a man who had just offered a sacrifice to Hashem, and he was distraught that Hashem was more pleased with Hevel's sacrifice than his. If Kayin felt there was no Judge, i.e., no G-d, why did he offer a sacrifice? Apparently, he did not really believe it.

Horav Moshe Shternbuch, Shlita, suggests that Kayin was actually aware of Hashem's existence. He had to take one look at his father, Adam HaRishon, to see Hashem's handiwork. His problem was that he hurt; he was distressed that Hashem did not accept his sacrifice with favor. This is why he made his sacrilegious statements. He knew he was wrong but he was angry that his sacrifice was not accepted. Instead of introspecting to discover a reason that he was not heard, he denied Hashem's existence. To erase the envy in his heart over his brother's acceptance, he renounced the validity of his acceptance.

Is it any different today? All of those who deny Hashem are doing so to placate themselves. They know the truth; they just cannot handle it. It is easier to repudiate Hashem's Torah than to admit one's personal inadequacy.

Va'ani Tefillah

Korban Olah, Elevation/Burnt-offering

The Korban Olah has three requisites: a.) hafshet, the animal must be skinned, b.) nituach, it must be cut into sections, c.) kalil la'ishim, it must be completely burned by the fire. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, makes a noteworthy observation. Our Tefillah is the modern-day substitute for the Olas Hatamid. Understandably, the Shemoneh Esrai, the most prominent part of the daily prayer, also contains these requirements. First, when saying Shemoneh Esrai, one must be mafshit, strip himself, of his gashmiyus, physicality. We are to ignore our outer physical component as our inner self communicates with Hashem. Rather, it is the spiritual aspect which is his neshamah, soul, that is speaking to Hashem. As the Olah must be cut up, so, too, should we undergo nituach, present ourselves before Hashem with a lev nishbar, broken heart, a humble persona, in the knowledge that we are simple people standing before the King of Kings. Last, the prayer must be said with hislahavus, fiery passion, corresponding to the kalil la'ishim. We throw ourselves at Hashem's mercy and, with fiery enthusiasm, we begin our entreaty: "Hashem sifasai tiftach," "O'Hashem, open my lips."

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