Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


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

Clearly, one's interest is piqued when he notes that the Torah begins with the letter bais, the second letter of the alphabet, rather than the aleph which precedes it in the order of the alphabet. It would reason that the Torah would open its account of Creation with the first letter of the aleph-bais. This question has not eluded the commentators, who offer their varied explanations. The simplest and most straightforward explanation offered by the Midrash is that bais is the language of berachah, blessing, while aleph is the vernacular of arrur, curse. Upon commencing any endeavor, one wants to infuse it with blessing. Creation is certainly no different.

How do we define blessing in contrast to curse? If we were to take the Midrash beyond its philosophical explanation, we could say that the gimatria, numerical value, of the letter aleph is one, while the gimatria of bais is two. Since the dawn of time, man has been able to decide how he wants to live his life. Should he live as a "one," self-centered, caring only about himself, or does life go beyond the ani, I? Does life transcend his personal needs, his interests, his desires, and answer to the bais, "two," the mutual sharing of oneself with his fellow. One who lives only for himself is cursed. Hillel says, Im ani l'atzmi, mah ani? "If I am for myself, what am I?" Life is about working with others, helping others, needing others, partnerships, affiliations, alliances and brotherhoods. One who thinks only of himself, to the exclusion of Hashem's "other" creations, does not fulfill the purpose of creation.

The bais represents blessing and duality. It is the peaceful coexistence of two people that gives the greatest expression to the motif of creation. When Hashem asked Kayin, "Where is Hevel, your brother?" his response was, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Kayin had just expressed his perspective on life: Me. He was an aleph person, caring only about himself. His brother did not fit into the equation. His life was determined by his needs - not those of his brother. Is it any wonder that, when threatened by his brother's spiritual success, he responded with murder. He had no room for anyone else in his life.

Lo tov l'heyos ha'adam levado, "It is not good for man to be alone" (Bereishis 2:18). While this pasuk addresses the need for man to seek a mate, a companion for life, it may also be viewed as our mission vis-?-vis the Jewish community. Just as it is not good for man to be alone, caring only about himself, neither should we, as Jews, allow another Jew to be left alone. Just as it is incumbent upon us to share with others, so, too, it is our responsibility to see to it that no Jew be left alone. As I recently saw stated, the Hebrew word for life, chayim, is plural. This teaches us that life is essentially shared. To live for oneself alone is not to live.

The Maharal connects the bais of plurality with the bais of blessing and the bais of Creation. Hashem created the world with the bais, imbuing it with blessing, for He is blessed and only from Him does true blessing emanate. True blessing, however, is possible only when opposites work together towards a common, beneficial purpose. The harmonious interaction is demonstrated by the various phenomena: heaven and earth; light and darkness; man and woman; etc. Through such cooperation, the world and its inhabitants can continue to coexist, providing blessing for mankind. The bais is the beginning of plurality, and it best symbolizes the blessing of common endeavor.

We certainly cannot ignore, however, the "aleph." Indeed, we may suggest that the goal of the bais, two people working together, such as husband and wife, is that they should meld together into one harmonious unit, so that they will transform the bais/plurality, into an aleph, unity. That is what achdus, unity, is all about.

This idea may be derived from a passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi, Meseches Chagigah 2:2. As we mentioned earlier, bais signifies blessing, whereas in earthly matters, aleph implies arur, curse. Chazal tell us that after bais was chosen for Creation, aleph withdrew itself from the running. It did not compete for "first place." Hashem turned to the aleph and asked, "Why do you remain silent?" Aleph replied, "In the presence of the other letters, I cannot render any claims, since they all request plurality, while I am only one."

A very impressive response, but Hashem had already "decided" to create the world with the bais. Why did He question the aleph's reason for keeping silent? The Baal HaTanya explains that the aleph was under a grave misconception concerning this world's purpose in Hashem's scheme of things. A world in which the bais, plurality, plays such a preeminent role is not a place for the aleph, which represents oneness, G-dliness, uniqueness. To correct this error in perception, Hashem said to the aleph, "Do not be afraid, for you stand at the head of the aleph-bais like a king. As I am One, so are you one. My intention is to create a world in which My Divine Spirit prevails throughout. This will be achieved through my Torah, which I will give to My People. When I present them with the Torah, I will begin with the Aseres HaDibros, Ten Commandments, with an aleph/Anochi Hashem, 'I am G-d.'" From the above, we may surmise that the goal of duality is oneness. Diversity is good, as long as the various sides/perspectives share a common goal. Otherwise, they catalyze contention and controversy.

The letter bais is related to bayis, house or home. Horav Michel Munk, zl, explains that a home is much more than a shelter from the elements. It is a place of refuge, a place where one has the feeling of belonging. A home is an enclosure in which one can develop his personality, where he can define himself emotionally and spiritually. One's abode symbolizes his stability, his coming of age. One who has a home has a presence.

It, therefore, makes sense that a home can be viewed as a focal point. When a Jew performs a mitzvah correctly, with the appropriate zeal, fervor and dedication, his very personality becomes a focal point - a veritable bayis - from which the holiness of this mitzvah emanates to all who come into contact with him. We may add to this that one becomes a bayis only when he is focused on the aleph of Anochi Hashem. Thus, the purpose of the world might be the "bais," but it can only be achieved through the "aleph," because a true "bais" is actually an "aleph".

Let us make man in Our image and in Our likeness. (1:26)

Adam, man, is the yetzir kapav shel Hakadosh Baruch Hu, fashioned by the hands of Hashem. He is the ultimate creation, exceeding all that preceded him. It would, thus, give us good reason to reflect upon what it is that distinguishes Adam from all other creations. The commentators focus on various human attributes which enable man to soar far beyond Hashem's other creations. For the purpose of this thesis, I will focus on one of these attributes. Horav Simcha Bunim, zl, m'Peshischa traces the root of the word adam to damoh, compare and contrast, distinguish and differentiate, analyze and understand. Man is gifted with the power to think and use his mind to discern between right and wrong, foolish and wise, blessing and curse. One who does not cogitate, who does not make use of his G-d-given qualities, is not simply a fool; he descends to the level of the subhuman. He becomes much lower than an animal who at least possesses instinct.

Binah, understanding, consists of the ability to understand what is taking place before one's eyes, delve into a concept and understand what makes it "tick;" draw conclusions; make decisions and discern the truth. This is what renders man a "man." It is Hashem's most precious gift. When properly pursued, it enables one to come closer to Hashem. Indeed, we pray to Hashem for binah three times daily, in tefillas Shemoneh Esrai: Atah chonein l'adam daas, "You graciously endow man with wisdom;" u'melameid l'enosh binah, "and teach insight to a frail mortal." Man's intelligence is his primary characteristic, it sets him apart from animals. Without binah, we are neither able to draw proper conclusions, nor to achieve intellectual discernment.

Binah is the foundation of ethical character. One who has no binah, who has "no clue," has no ethicality. He simply cannot be a mentch in the true sense of the word. Indeed, Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, was wont to say, "The cardinal mitzvah that one should observe is, 'You shall not be a fool.'" Rav Yisrael was acutely aware that an intellect, which has at its root an awareness of the feelings of others, is a prerequisite for human relations. One who does not "understand" - who is not "with the program" - is often self-centered and totally oblivious to the concerns and feelings of others. Hashem did not place us in this world to live solely for ourselves. We are here to serve others. In order to live up to this raison d'etre, one must be a mentch; he must possess binah.

What does it mean to be a mentch? Veritably, it means many things and reflects many qualities, most of which center on ethical character. Are ethics that significant? What is the worst that can happen if one is nisht kein mentch? Let me share the following vignette which I read, compliments of Rabbi Yisrael Besser's book, Warmed By Their Fire. It will give us all something to "think" about.

An elderly woman (whom we will identify shortly) emigrated from Russia to Eretz Yisrael. This was no ordinary woman. She was the scion of an illustrious lineage, the granddaughter of a sage who had transformed the Torah world. Regrettably, she was far-removed from religion. Russia did that to people. The virulent Haskalah, Enlightenment, was a scourge that destroyed the minds and lives of thousands of unassuming Jews. Despite this woman's lack of affiliation with Torah Judaism, the venerable Roshei Yeshivah who sat before her listened with reverence and awe, as they imbibed every word she had to say, for she was relating memories of her saintly grandfather. Her grandfather was the Chafetz Chaim, zl, the quintessential Torah teacher and prime example of what a human being suffused with Torah can achieve.

The woman recalled a conversation that she had had with her grandfather many years earlier, when she was young, idealistic and highly under the influence of the secular winds of change that were captivating Russian youth. Entranced with the promises of science and technology, the generation was quickly shedding the archaic trappings of the shtetl and, with it, its religious beliefs.

As a university student living not far from her grandfather, she once came to visit. In the ensuing conversation, she asked a pressing question. "Zayde," she said, "there is a brilliant world out there, a world of technological advances in which anything is possible. When will you come out of the darkness and limitations of your old-fashioned world?"

The Chafetz Chaim looked at his granddaughter through his piercing eyes and replied, "Zei, they, with their technology and sophisticated science, will one day develop a bomb with which they will succeed in killing many people. With their science, they will bring death and destruction to the world."

Then the tone of his voice dropped to a whisper as he continued, "Ubber mir machen mentchen - but we are developing people! Do you hear? Mir machen mentchen!"

I think the Chafetz Chaim's response defines the meaning of the word mentch.

With darkness upon the surface of the deep…and G-d separated between light and the darkness. (1:2,3)

The darkness about which the Torah speaks is not merely the absence of light, but a specific creation, as we find in Yeshayah 45:7: Yotzeir ohr u'borei choshech, "He Who fashions the lights and creates darkness." Chazal teach us that until light and darkness were separated by Hashem, they functioned b'arvuyya, in a mixture, implying that patches of light and darkness were intertwined with one another. Ultimately, the wonderful light that originated during Creation was of too great intensity. Its spiritual quality was too pristine for the wicked of this world to enjoy. They were simply not worthy. Thus, Hashem separated it from the rest of the universe and set it aside for the enjoyment of the righteous in the World to Come.

The pasuk in Yeshaya correlates light with yotzer/yetzirah, fashioning/forming and darkness with borei/ briah, creation. The commentators teach that briah, creation, is on a higher plane than yetzirah, fashioning. Why, then, is darkness linked with briah? Is light not the primary creation?

The Nesivos Shalom cites the Sefarim Hakedoshim who explain that the darkness linked to briah is actually light - a light that is so powerful, so incredibly brilliant, that it is even brighter than the light connected with yetzirah. There is light that, as a result of its brilliance, will blind a person, rendering him incapable of seeing anything else. Indeed, people who stare at the sun even briefly are momentarily blinded.

Keeping this in mind, let us "gaze" at another instance in which there was a darkness so "dark" that it was devastating, it was palpable, with substance and body to it. This was the character of the darkness that enveloped Egypt during the Makkas Choshech, plague of darkness. The Midrash tells us that the source of this overpowering darkness was from Above, from the Heavens. What darkness is there in Heaven? It is a place that is suffused with Heavenly light!

The Toldos Yaakov Yosef explains that Moshe Rabbeinu was instructed to stretch his hand over, above the Heavens, and take hold of some lofty, elevated spiritual level/entity and bring it down to Egypt. There - in Egypt - the Heavenly light would be transformed into painful darkness for the Egyptians. The Nesivos Shalom compares this to placing a thoroughly evil fellow in Gan Eden, where he will sit together with the greatest tzadikim. He will go out of his mind observing them basking in the glow of the Divine Presence. This essentially defined the plague of darkness. Moshe took some of the light from Above, and it plunged Egypt into a state of unprecedented darkness.

And Hashem Elokim said, "It is not good that man is alone; I will make him a helper corresponding to him." (2:18)

In much the same way that Creation was not complete until Adam, man, was created, and then Hashem declared him to be the crown of Creation, Hashem did not pronounce His "tov," good, until woman, man's corresponding help-mate, was created. Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, notes that the Torah does not write, lo tov l'adam liheyos levado, "It is not good for man to be alone," but, rather, "this is not good; man being alone." The emphasis is on Creation. As long as Man stands alone, it is altogether not yet good. The goal of perfection which the world is to attain through him will never be reached as long as he stands alone. The completion of the "good" which Hashem sought was not by man, but by woman. "Good" was brought to the world by woman, not man.

This concept is taught to us by Chazal: "Only through his wife does man become a man." Man's task is too great for man alone. It must be divided. Thus, Hashem created woman as an eizer k'negdo, "a helper corresponding to him." Even from a superficial perception, this defines the dignified role of the woman. Her designation is purely as an equal partner in man's function on this world. It was there that she was missing. Man cannot do it alone. Eizer k'negdo implies equality, on the basis of equal independence. Woman stands with man, at his side, on one line, one complementing the other, so that Hashem's purpose will be realized.

Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, sees another, perhaps deeper, objective behind the creation of woman. Man's neshamah, his soul, resides within the physical container which we call the guf, body. Man is a duality of body and soul melded together. Being that the spiritual dimension of man is encased within a physical entity, man must utilize his physical senses in order to relate to spiritual concepts. While this might sound complicated, it simply means taking the lessons one learns in the physical dimension and applying them to the spiritual dimension.

One such concept is that of deveikus b'Hashem, clinging to Hashem. This means abrogating one's self and clinging totally to Hashem. When we think about it, one who is alone has a most difficult task comprehending the concept of self-nullification for another. To love another means to give up one's "self." What I do is for someone else - not for myself. One who does not know what it means to live for someone else cannot fathom true love. In order to relate to deveikus b'Hashem, man must first experience such a concept in physical terms.

When Hashem saw that Adam could not orientate to this idea of deveikus, He created a helper to enable him to understand this concept. Chavah was the partner through which Adam could physically experience deveikus, and only then would he be able to achieve spiritual deveikus.

The Rosh Yeshivah cites the Talmud in Yevamos 62b, which teaches that one who has no wife resides without goodness, as is indeed attested to by our pasuk, "It is not good that man is alone." Absolute goodness is deveikus b"Hashem, and, if one does not possess a wife, he cannot achieve this spiritual plateau. The husband/wife relationship, when observed in accordance with Torah dictate, which is a relationship based upon mutual respect and admiration leading to an inseparable bond, lays the groundwork for one to understand the meaning of clinging to the Almighty. Is it any wonder, then, that contemporary society lives a G-dless life? They simply do not comprehend the meaning of a spiritual relationship, because their idea of a physical relationship is akin to that of a breeding ground for wild animals.

And Hashem Elokim said to the woman, "What is it that you have done!" The woman said, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate." (3:13)

Sforno interprets Hashem's query of Chavah as a rhetorical question. Clearly her actions were obvious. She ate from the tree. Hashem was not seeking information; rather, He wanted to present her with an opening, an opportunity to express remorse and begin the process of teshuvah, repentance. Ben Ish Chai writes in his drashos/Od Yosef Chai that we may derive from Hashem's dialogue with Chavah a powerful lesson concerning Hashem's goodness, His love and kindness to us. He wanted Chavah to provide some form of justification for her sin. Thus, He asked, "What is it that you have done?" This really means: "What led up to this infraction? What was the cause of your defection?"

Hashem is not seeking punitive damages against us. It is not His intention that we suffer punishment. He will stretch out time, allowing the sinner to have some space, so that he can rationalize the absurdity of his actions, regret his sinful behavior, repent and return to Hashem. Furthermore, as Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, points out, Hashem not only entered into a conversation with Chavah in order to stimulate her teshuvah, He even went so far as to allude to her that perhaps she should discern a reason for her sin. Chavah responded, "The serpent deceived me." She was not simply blaming the serpent; she was attempting to absolve herself, to somehow justify her actions.

When a person finds no reason to justify his behavior, it might work to his detriment. He becomes depressed and self-loathing. The result of such self-deprecation can be resentment and a reason not to repent. The sinner sees only negativity; he is too far gone. Self-justification allows one room to breathe, to hold his head up in order to gather the courage it takes to repent.

Hashem knows that remorse and regret might be immediate, but the next step, repentance, is much more difficult. He allows us some time. This is why He entered into a conversation with Chavah: to give her time to come to her senses, to realize her sin, and to regret her actions.

The cause of sin is important and plays a pivotal role in how we might view the actual transgression and its perpetrator. Rav Zilberstein cites the Yalkut Shimoni on Melachim I 16, who comments on Melachim I 21:25, "There has never been anyone like Achav, who sold himself to do what was evil in the eyes of Hashem." Apparently, Rabbi Levi expounded on this pasuk over a period of six months. One night, the soul of Achav appeared to him in a dream, with a bitter accusation. Why is it that for the past six months he has maintained his emphasis on the beginning of the pasuk, which decries Achav's wickedness, but he has neglected to quote the second half of the pasuk, "because Izevel, his wife, had incited him"? At least, this way his students would know that it was not entirely Achav's fault. He had an evil wife who spurred him on! Rabbi Levi woke up and reacted accordingly. For the next six months, his exposition on the pasuk was: "There had never been anyone like Achav, whose wife incited him."

We derive from here the overriding importance that motive, background and influence play in the performance of a sin, and how we should take all of this into mind when judging a sinner. Yes, not all sins are created equal, and not all sinners are cut from the same cloth. To bundle them all into one group would be doing them all a disservice, as well as undermining the chances for teshuvah to occur. How often do we meet individuals who have strayed far from the Torah path, to the point that the secular life they lead is, in their minds, their way of acting like "good Jews." They simply do not know, because, regrettably, nobody taught them. They assimilated at a very young age and grew into maturity and adulthood with the belief that this is the way it is supposed to be. They would love to change, but sixty, seventy years, a family of three generations, is often too much to ignore. Yes, they sinned, but are they "sinners"? That is for Hashem to determine.

Va'ani Tefillah

Va'titein osos umofsim b'Pharaoh u'b'chol avadav…ki yadaata ki heizidu aleihem.
You imposed signs and wonders on Pharaoh and upon all his servants…For You knew that they sinned flagrantly against them.

During Makas Bechoros, the smiting of the Egyptian firstborn, every b'chor was affected - from the prince of Egypt to the lowly prisoner. Rashi explains why the b'chorim of the servants and prisoners were included in this plague. After all, it is not as if they had played a role in enslaving the Jewish population. They, too, were slaves. He says that, despite their own miserable conditions, the Egyptian slaves rejoiced when they heard that the Jews were suffering. Misery loves company, and the Egyptian slaves took advantage of their own predicament because they hated the Jews. The Baal Haflaah explains that this idea is expressed by David HaMelech in the above pasuk: "You imposed signs and wonders on Pharaoh and on all of his servants," indeed, on all of the land. Why? This is because, "You knew they sinned flagrantly against them." The misery imposed upon the Jews was not exclusively relegated to Pharaoh's domain. Every Egyptian took advantage of the situation. They either personally afflicted the Jews, or they felt great joy in their suffering. Their evil did not go unrequited.

Sponsored by
Etzmon and Abigail Rozen and children

in loving memory of their Father and Zaide
HaRav Nosson Meir ben Yechiel z"l
niftar 2nd day of succos(16 Tishrei) 5748

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

The Fifteenth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel