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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)

Who does not know the opening words of the Torah? Bereishis - "In the beginning" seems to be a very appropriate way to commence what is Hashem's Magnum Opus, His Book, our Heavenly guide to life. What does seem strange is that the Torah begins with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet - bais. One would think that a "beginning" commences with the first letter - aleph. Many and varied are the responses to this question. Perhaps the most notable is the one given by the Midrash Rabbah (1:10). Bais is the lashon, language, of b'rachah, blessing; aleph is the language of arirah, curse. This sounds like a proper distinction and an excellent reason for choosing the bais. Is this distinction, however, exclusive to the vernacular, or does the difference extend beyond the philological?

Numerically, the aleph represents the number one, while the bais symbolizes the number two. This is perhaps another reason why the Torah should have started with the aleph. Oneness is very Jewish. Hashem is One. Harmony is one. All Jews comprise one entity. Two depicts divisiveness, separation, dissension. This is all the more reason for opening the Torah with the letter aleph.

I recently saw an explanation that is worthy of reiteration, with a little personal supplementary exposition. Bais is the letter of choice. It represents one's ability to choose, to discriminate, to decide. In the very first word of the Torah, we are given the option of choice, of selection. With regard to interpersonal relationships, one has a choice of either focusing on the aleph, himself, number one, or he can disregard his self-centered, egotistical, self-reliance and reach out to others. He can choose between his primary needs and the needs of others. Does he want to live by himself and for himself, or does he want to interact with others? This is the question which presents itself to all of us. Does human society live under the sign of the aleph - all for oneself, or is it an amalgamation of people, working together in harmony, unity, with a single-minded focus on Torah and mitzvos? Is it all about "me" or is it about "we"? Do I care about my fellowman, or is my primary concern my own self-gratification?

The Torah responds with a resounding, Bereishis bara Elokim, with the letter bais the Torah began. The individual is important as part of a community. One person alone is not good. He is here to form a society, a coalition, not to live as a loner. A person who does not care for others is not a person. One's goal should be to transform the bais into an aleph: two people unified and living in harmony as one. We are given the opportunity from the onset to take the bais of Bereishis and unify it. This can only be executed by applying the aleph of Anochi, the first word of the Aseres HaDibros, Ten Commandments. Anochi Hashem, "I am Hashem," is the way the Almighty introduced Himself to us. He began with an aleph, because He is One. He also presented the formula for transposing the bais into an aleph: make G-d a part of your life. Without His direction and guidance, one falls prey to his ego.

The above ideas, distinguishing brachah from arur, are to be derived from the actual words. Arur, curse, with an aleph, is related to arur, isolated, with an ayin. Horav S. R. Hirsch, zl, explains the curse placed on the serpent, Arur atah mikol ha'beheimah, "You are cursed above all the animals" (Bereishis 3:14), to mean that you are to be lonely, desolate, isolated from the company of others, without any future, without joy, without opportunity for blossoming. In his commentary to 4:11, Arur atah min ha'adamah, "You are cursed by the earth," Rav Hirsch explained that Kayin's punishment was the curse of isolation, loneliness, castigation.

Whereas everything flows harmoniously to the one who is baruch, blessed, to further his happiness and prosperity, the one who is arur, cursed, is isolated and out of touch with all that brings prosperity and the blessings of life. Baruch may also be derived from breicha, a reservoir or spring of life-sustaining waters, or from berech, the knee-joint that propels the body as it goes forward - all signs of upward growth, sustenance and prosperity.

Two examples of brotherhood demonstrate the distinction between blessing and curse. Kayin killed Hevel in the first act of fratricide. He compounded his sin with his response to Hashem's inquiry: Ayei Hevel achicha, "Where is Hevel your brother?" Ha'shomer achi anochi? "Am I my brother's keeper?" With this statement, Kayin defines himself as an arur, cursed one. My brother is not my responsibility. I have enough on my mind without also worrying about my brother. Reneging one's obligation towards others indicates that he is an aleph person. It is all about me. I am number one and I have no need for, nor do I care about anyone else. Is it any wonder that with such an attitude, one can descend to the nadir of slaying a brother? Life has no meaning or value if it challenges my needs.

This behavior is in stark contrast to that of Yosef Hatzaddik whose famous declaration, Es achai anochi mevakeish, "It is my brothers whom I seek," immortalizes the Jewish definition of care. We do not just respond to the needs of our brethren when they come to us. We go to them. We seek them out, searching for ways to help, finding out what truly are their needs. Yosef personified the bais mentch, one who viewed everything in the dual sense - me and him; me and them. It was not all about him; it was about us.

Many gedolei Yisrael, Torah giants, were well-known for their unusual erudition, their brilliance and analytical skills. The Ponevezher Rav, zl, Horav Yosef Kahaneman, was known for all these and an added virtue: his concern for Klal Yisrael in general, and each and every Jew individually. Whenever he addressed a group of Jews, he would begin with the word, Briderlach, "My dear brothers." This was much more than a term of endearment. This constituted his essence. He loved all Jews and viewed them as family - regardless of their background or religious persuasion. When one begins his words of rebuke with, "My brothers," he demonstrates that he is not out to put anyone down, to condescend, to heap scorn. He is there to share his love. Indeed, as observed by Dayan Moshe Swift, zl, a close student to the Rav, his Rebbe exemplified Shlomo HaMelech's concept of cholas ahavah, sickness born of love. He was literally sick all of his life with the love he harbored for his fellow Jew.

I include herein an inspiring tribute rendered by Dayan Swift to his illustrious rebbe, although this exposition was published years ago in an earlier edition of Peninim. When Chazal portray the passing of Moshe Rabbeinu, they speak of the Almighty eulogizing his death with the words of David HaMelech, Mi yakum Li im mereim, "Who will rise up for Me against these evildoers?" (Tehillim 94:16) There are two ways to translate this pasuk. The world needs two types of rabbis: The first will rise up against the evildoers; identify their sins; condemn them, when necessary; and reproach their shameful behavior. A second approach, one that may not be for everyone, is no less important. This rabbi is an advocate for the evildoer, pleading to others: forgive him. He may be ignorant. He does not know any better. The Ponovezher Rav was the latter. He sought good and found good in each Jew. He was an advocate for every Jew, despite his past and regardless of his current status.

Indeed, the future played a most significant role in the life of the Ponovezher. He did not care what the individual was or what he had done. It was always his potential, what he could do, that he considered. When the Ponovezher Rav established a yeshivah in Bnei Brak, he also opened an orphanage which he called Battei Avos, which means Homes of Fathers. Clearly, Battei Avos is not a typical name for an orphanage. Beis Yesomim, House of Orphans, is the standard name for such an institution. Undeterred, the Rav explained why he did this. He wanted both the children and the teachers to focus on their mission: the bright future that was in store for them. They should not dwell on their unfortunate past. "These little boys will one day be fathers in Klal Yisrael," the Rav said. "They will be a part of our future. It is called Battei Avos, Homes of Fathers, in order to emphasize their positive future."

I think it would be appropriate to close with the immortal words of the Baal Shem Tov, zl: "In order to love one who is not a complete tzaddik, righteous person, it is sufficient if one is himself not a complete saint; but to love one who is a complete rasha, wholly wicked, one needs to be a consummate tzaddik."

And G-d said, "Let us make Man in Our image, after Our likeness. (1:26)

The Midrash Rabbah relates that, when Moshe Rabbeinu was writing the Torah as Hashem's "secretary," he came to the above pasuk. He asked Hashem incredulously, "Ribbono Shel Olam, why give an excuse to the heretics?" This pasuk appears to imply that Hashem either needed assistance in creating or had partnered with the angels. In any event, it seems to dispute the Oneness of Hashem. The Almighty replied, "He who wants to err - will err." This statement begs elucidation. There are many places in which we find Hashem doing things - even miraculous occurrences - to prevent people from making a mistake, from misjudging a situation. For instance, in order to prevent the skeptics from impugning Avraham Avinu's paternity of Yitzchak Avinu, and instead attributing Sarah's miraculous conception to her stay with Avimelech - He formed Yitzchak's facial countenance to resemble that of Avraham perfectly. If so, why did Hashem not care about the mistakes made by people with regard to the world's creation?

Horav Dovid Povarsky, zl, explains this with an exposition on the principle of belief in Hashem. He first questions Chazal's vernacular: Kol ha'rotzeh lit'os yiteh, "He who wants to err- will err." What does "wanting to err" mean? Who wants to make a mistake? The basic definition of mistake/error is that it is not on purpose, unknowing, lack of understanding. Indeed, as soon as one commits an error, he immediately declares, "Oops! I made a mistake!" Certainly, one does not attempt to make a mistake.

In response to this question that the Rosh Yeshivah posits that with regard to matters of faith, one cannot simply make a mistake unless he wants to. Belief in Hashem is cut and dried. It is clear, without question. No reasonable person who is blessed with a working mind could believe otherwise. Ostensibly, one who errs in areas of faith does so purposefully and with malicious aforethought.

This is not true concerning other areas in which one can make a justified error. For instance, in the case of Sarah Imeinu, she had been married to Avraham Avinu for quite some time. Their union had not produced offspring. Suddenly, she spent a short interlude with Avimelech, and she conceived! The fact that she was ninety years old does not seem to concern anyone. It was a legitimate mistake about which one who was not very astute could make an assumption. Therefore, Hashem saw to it that Yitzchak looked like Avraham.

The Rosh Yeshivah refers to the individual who refuses to continue living a life of error. By conceding to his mistake, his courage will be rewarded. David HaMelech achieved the monarchy for his ability to say, Chatasi, "I sinned." His ancestor, Yehudah, set the standard with his, Tzadkah mimeni, "She (Tamar) is more righteous than I." Shaul HaMelech refused to concede his guilt; thus, he forfeited his monarchy. These are all circumstances in which some form of justification is offered to legitimize the sin. Therefore, a reward is set aside for he who can overcome his ego.

Indeed, the Chovos HaLevavos observes a common problem whereby one will compound his mistake by refusing to concede error, even after he knows beyond any shadow of a doubt that he is dead wrong. This is what is meant by ha'rotzeh litos - one who wants to err. He refuses to admit that he might be wrong. Such recalcitrance engenders no hope.

The Rosh Yeshivah concludes with the following parting words to his students, "You are yet young, therefore you have no idea concerning the challenges to our faith that were present years ago in Europe. (The Haskalah, Jewish Enlightenment, with its rabid hatred of Torah was everywhere, poisoning the wellsprings of faith.) There was once a person about whom it was said that whatever he was asked to do - he would do exactly the opposite. It was decided to fool him at his own game by asking him to do the opposite of what was needed of him. This way, by doing the opposite, he would end up doing exactly what we wanted. Regrettably, he was so set in his lie that he still followed it and in this instance did not do the opposite - even though it was against his very nature.

What is it about emes, truth, that people tend to shy away from? Is it easier to live a "lie" than to live the "truth"? Apparently, by his very nature, man does not have a proclivity to the truth. This is taught to us by Chazal. As mentioned earlier, prior to creating man, Hashem consulted with His Heavenly Tribunal, asking the various forces in Heaven what they felt about Adam's creation. Would the creation of man be a good thing, would it be beneficial, or would the world suffer as a result of his creation? The primary "players" of human nature were asked. "Truth" advised that creating man would be dangerous: "He is filled with deceit," which is the last thing the world needed. "Peace" argued against his creation, since man is argumentative, always embroiled in one dispute or another. The consensus had rendered their verdict: It would be best not to create man.

The Sfas Emes derives from Chazal that man neither has a tendency towards emes, truth, nor does he gravitate towards peace. Man can exist without harmony and integrity. Therefore, if man is going to be honest, he must work at it. Likewise, it is much easier to get into a dispute than to walk away from it. Regrettably, some of us even seem to thrive on controversy.

If this is the case, if honesty is something one must pursue and work at, it makes sense that, when he is under pressure, such as conceding to his own error, which in his small mind might make him appear deficient, it becomes increasingly difficult. If this is the case, can one really blame man for his unwillingness to concede error? Yes. Apparently, Hashem had not agreed with the Heavenly forces, since He created man despite their misgivings. This means that either Hashem equipped man with the ability to rise above his nature, or He simply believes in us. Thus, one who is rotzeh litos is also letting Hashem down.

And Hashem Elokim formed the man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life; and Man became a living being. (2:7)

Adam HaRishon, and, subsequently, all of mankind are a creation comprised of both earthly and Heavenly elements. His body is composed of dust of the earth, his soul from the spirit. As the Zohar HaKadosh comments to Vayipach b'apav nishmas chaim, "And He blew into his nostrils the soul of life," One who blows flows from within himself, thereby indicating that man's soul is an aspect of Hashem's essence. It was this soul that was blown into him that made man into a living being. Targum Onkelos defines this metamorphosis as transforming Adam into ruach memalela, "speaking spirit." Thus, the life which only Hashem can grant and which is unique to mankind alone is the rational/cognitive soul, which includes his ability to communicate through speech. Man is elevated over the animal kingdom by his ability to think and speak intelligently. With a gift comes responsibility; therefore, man must make use of these in service of the Almighty.

The power of speech symbolizes man's elevated status and also his mission. When man devastates his G-d-given power of speech by using it wrongly, such as for lashon hora, evil speech, slanderous speech, or simply wasting words on insignificant foolishness, he thereby destroys the tzuras ha'adam, image of man. He may look the same, but, on a Heavenly scale, his virtual appearance has been significantly altered.

This is a novel idea. While one may concede that speaking lashon hora is truly wrong and agree that it does have a negative impact on him, this acquiescence is only with regard to his committing a sin which transforms him into someone less than virtuous. He does not, however, realize that his entire tzurah, image, is changed. He has sort of recreated himself in an image counter to the one Hashem gave him. This is serious and bespeaks the egregious nature of evil speech.

As always, there is a flipside. The individual who guards his speech, who is careful to maintain a clean mouth, a tongue which focuses on the positive, oral expression which is reserved for Torah study, prayer and speaking positive, morally elevating speech, is actually affirming and ratifying G-d's creation. By guarding one's speech, he repairs and elevates himself in a way unlike the performance of any other mitzvah.

The following lesson is attributed to Horav Yitzchak Hutner, zl. When we think about it, Adam was originally created alone. The entire world was to be reserved for him - and him alone. What need was there in his power of speech? After all, with whom would he converse? He certainly was not going to carry on a conversation with members of the animal kingdom. The Only One with Whom he could speak was none other than Hashem. This indicates that originally the purpose of man's creation was to converse with and pray to Hashem. This is alluded to when the pasuk (2:5) states: V'adam ayin laavod es ha'adamah, "And there was no man to work the soil." The world required man with his cognitive ability to realize the importance of rain for vegetation to grow. He prayed, and the rain fell. Without his prayer, nothing would happen. Without his brain, there would be no prayer. Thus, man's function is to think about what is important and to express his need through prayer. Everything else is a waste.

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

The words lo tov, not good, tell it all. Man was independent and self-sufficient. Procreation was an ability with which he was created. So, why did he require a helpmate? A life alone is "not bad," but it is also "not good." For man to achieve his primary function, he needs the companionship, support and challenge inherent in every good marriage. Hashem wanted the children born to Adam and his future mate to be born from and raised by a father and mother. Interestingly, prior to the creation of woman, Hashem brought every species of animal - wild beast and fowl - to him to see what names he would give them. A name defines an individual's essence: his character; personality; personal drive; and sense of mission. Adam studied all of these creations and gave them names. The Torah then adds that, unlike the other creations, Adam did not have a female counterpart. Rashi explains that Adam looked up to Hashem and said, "Each one has a ben zug, partner, with whom to share their life - everyone but me." At that point, Hashem placed Adam into a deep sleep and created Chavah for him.

Why was it necessary for Adam to meet every creation before Hashem created Chavah? Why did Hashem not simply create Chavah? In the sefer, Im Levavi Asichah, the author quotes an adam gadol who explains this beautifully. Veritably, Hashem said that "it is not sufficient that I know that without a wife one cannot achieve tov, it is necessary that Adam realize that he is missing something." Only then will he sense the incredible act of chesed, kindness, which Hashem did for him.

A husband must realize and acknowledge what he is missing and how deficient he would be without his wife. Otherwise, the marriage is missing its most vital component - Hashem. Only when a husband realizes how fortunate he is, does he properly appreciate the kindness Hashem bestowed on him. One who thinks that he is the be-all and the end-all views marriage as nothing more than self-gratification. It will not be a relationship; it will not be a partnership; he will not have companionship. Hashem will not be a part of it, and it will revert to being "lo tov," not good, because essentially the man is still levado - alone.

Hashem said to him, "Therefore whoever slays Kayin, before seven generations have passed he will be punished." (4:15)

Kayin sinned egregiously, going down in history as the first murderer. He took the idyllic state of Gan Eden and transformed it into a killing field. What makes his deed all the more pernicious is the reason for the murder: jealousy. Instead of learning from Hevel's act of offering a korban, sacrifice, from his choicest flocks, Kayin killed him. Envy does that to a person, blinding him from seeing what is usually a simple truth that could change his life. Instead, he kills the messenger.

Kayin realized too late that he acted disastrously, but he repented. Hashem accepted Kayin's teshuvah, but punishment had to be meted out. It would take seven generations for this to be realized. It was in the time of Lemech, whose son, Tuval-Kayin, was an expert at refining and shaping tools and iron-cutting instruments. Rashi notes the "irony" of Tuval-Kayin's profession, in that Kayin was the first murderer and his great-grandson made weapons for murderers. What Kayin had commenced as a result of unbridled envy, Tuval-Kayin elevated to abusive form.

One day, Tuval-Kayin took his blind father, Lemech, on a hunting trip. Seeing what he thought was an animal, Tuval-Kayin instructed his father to put an arrow in the quiver and release the bow. Sadly, the figure that he saw was not an animal, but his great-grandfather, Kayin. Thus, Hashem waited seven generations to punish Kayin with his own chosen method for doing away with a "problem." Once again, it was family, his very own grandson, who killed him.

Why did Hashem wait seven generations to punish Kayin? Furthermore, Kayin never knew he was being punished. When the arrow struck its mark, he was dead. In "A Vort From Rav Pam," Rabbi Sholom Smith cites the Rosh Hayeshivah who observes that Hashem is teaching us an important lesson. It was the beginning of time; people would sin. Some might even think they could get away with it. This is especially true when a number of years have elapsed since a sin was committed and nothing seems to have happened. The sinner begins to think he has gotten away scot-free.

Kayin's tragedy dispels this notion from our minds. Seven generations went by. Kayin probably thought it was over and done with. Hashem informs us otherwise. What a person does has far-reaching effects - often far beyond his own lifespan. Certain character traits, behavior patterns, and personality disorders which might seem innocuous now, are often inherited and "enhanced" by one's descendants and developed into full-scale character flaws that spawn all forms of evil.

As always, there is a positive flip-side. The same descendants may inherit one's positive character traits, refining them for greater achievement in their avodas Hashem. In any event, the lesson is powerful: What we do "today" can have serious ramifications "tomorrow."

Va'ani Tefillah

V'Shinantam levanecha. Teach them thoroughly to your children.

V'Shinantam levanecha literally means "and sharpen them," which Chazal explain to mean, "The words of Torah are to be sharply expressed by your mouth." The Torah's teachings should be taught in a sharp, precise, cutting edge manner, so that the student will have a clear and concise understanding of the subject matter. If Torah is not clearly understood, one will be unable to respond to halachic questions. Additionally, if the Torah is not understood well, mistakes in both halachah and hashkafah, philosophic rendering, may occur. All too often we come upon a person whose background and appreciation of Torah is weak and misguided due to his teacher's inability to convey the lesson properly. More often than not, this is because of the teacher's superficial knowledge of the subject matter. One cannot emphasize enough the need to have a clear understanding of Torah. To quote Horav Yechezkel Abramsky, zl, "As long as a person has not merited absorbing the Torah's wisdom, as long as he does not view the world through a lens of Torah values, he is utterly incapable of grasping the meaning, not only of world events, but even of his own experiences."

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in loving memory of their Father and Zaide
Harav Nosson Meir ben R' Yechiel z"l
niftar second night 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.

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