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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)

The opening pesukim of Sefer Bereishis detail the process of Creation. This process progressed over a period of six Creation days. The last day was yom Shabbos kodesh, the holy Shabbos, a day on which Hashem rested from Creation. It was after these days of Creation that the natural clock of time with which we identify began. The Talmud Rosh Hashanah, 32a, explains that the word bereishis, in the beginning, is much more than a chronological term which describes when it all began; rather, the word bereishis is the word which Hashem employed to commence creation itself. Horav Tzadok HaKohen, zl, explains (citing a number of Midrashic and Kabbalistic sources) that, when Hashem uttered the word bereishis, He actually created the entire spectrum of spiritual "concepts" which later transformed into the physical universe. The Zohar HaKadosh adds that the word bereishis brought with it a spiritual potential which contains the roots of the entire Torah. Thus, the first word of the Torah is the DNA of both the physical world and the Torah itself.

To have us understand the above statement, Rav Tzadok explains that the word bereishis includes within it three fundamental mitzvos which represent the essence of life for a Jew. True, the Torah has 613 mitzvos, but, like everything else that is comprised of many components, there are always a few vital components without which it will not work. The following three mitzvos define us and characterize our DNA. They are: yiraas Hashem, fear of G-d; Shabbos; and Bris Milah. We all know that these mitzvos are important. We are now taught exactly how important they are to us as Jews. Essentially, without their observance, we are deficient in our Jewishness.

The Zohar derives this etymologically by taking the six letters of the word bereishis and moving them around in such a manner that each arrangement produces a different word or word combination. The Zohar then expounds upon each of these permutations, explaining the overriding significance of each one and delineating how it is a vital component to the Jewish DNA. First is yira boshes, spelled: yud, reish, aleph, bais, shin, tav; fear and fame; fear of Hashem and the inherent shame one must harbor to prevent him from transgression. The second is bris eish, spelled: bais, reish, yud, tav, aleph, shin; covenant of fire, which is a reference to the mitzvah of circumcision. Last, is yira Shabbos: yud, reish, aleph, shin, bais, tav; fear - observance of Shabbos. These mitzvos are not just exceptional or compelling mitzvos; they represent the very foundation of both the material world and the Torah! They are the spiritual seeds that give rise to and sustain the Torah, as well as all of the material elements of the world.

Rav Tzadok goes on to explain the nature of each of these mitzvos, thereby demonstrating how each plays a pivotal role in defining a Jew. The first mitzvah, yiraas Hashem, without a doubt is the most significant mitzvah, without which one cannot survive as a Jew. Rav Tzadok explains that yirah goes beyond the rudimentary desire for survival, ie. one is good because he fears punishment; one fears an entity that is more powerful than he is. It is more than this. The Torah wants us to develop a sense of fear which demands that we introspect and cultivate within ourselves a profound and meaningful awareness of Hashem - in our thoughts, speech and actions. A thoughtful, intimate, tangible consciousness of Hashem's ubiquitous Presence in every aspect of our lives leads us to a sense of inadequacy and shame, whereby we would not dare do anything that would cause us to look "bad" in Hashem's eyes. Fear of Hashem should be part and parcel of our psyche and written all over our faces. Thus, yira boshes is a sense of fear and shame of acting inappropriately before Hashem. This concept is the greatest deterrent to wrongdoing. A sincere and reverent sense of fear and shame, which molds a person's spiritual persona, differentiates between an observant Jew and one who is not yet observant. In other words, an observant Jew manifests this intrinsic sense of fear and shame as part of his observance, as part of his spiritual integrity.

The second mitzvah included in the bereishes is bris milah. According to Rav Tzadok, bris eish, the covenant of fire, is a reference to the fiery passion of one's base desires, the urge to indulge in sensual pleasure, that is tempered by the mitzvah of bris milah. The physical dimension of man is not easily controlled. It requires the sacred covenant of bris milah which imbues the Jewish body, soul and psyche with a strong desire to do what is holy - even at the expense of temporary self-gratification.

The covenant of milah brings to mind that spirituality takes precedence over everything. One does not sacrifice the holy for the profane, the spiritual for the physical, the sacred for the mundane - regardless of its enticing nature. Avraham Avinu was the first man to be instructed to perform the mitzvah of bris milah. He personified the lesson of milah. He demonstrated that one can transcend the consuming fires of egocentric passion and channel that same energy towards living a life of sanctity, lovingkindness and self-sacrifice. Who better than he to be granted that the mitzvah that represents the hallmark of Judaism? Avraham HaIvri - who stood on one side in opposition to an entire pagan world-taught us the importance of standing up, alone, for that in which one believes. An entire depraved world, a society drowning in the morass of moral filth and hedonistic pleasure seeking, challenged our Patriarch. He did not care. He stood alone then - as we do today-bolstered and strengthened by the mitzvah of bris milah, which gives us the ability to overcome the challenges to our inherent kedushah, holiness.

The final mitzvah in the bereishis/Jewish DNA group is Shabbos kodesh. Our holy Shabbos is the pinnacle of Creation, the apex of Hashem's handiwork. Indeed, its observance is tantamount to the fulfillment of all the mitzvos. The sacred essence of Shabbos is the basis and ultimate goal of the entire Torah. Indeed, Hashem's Presence has greater palpability on Shabbos than at any other time of the week. One can almost feel the sanctity. The "fear of Shabbos," explains Rav Tzadok, is the ability for a Jew to sense Hashem's closeness as He watches over our thoughts, speech and actions. Thus, the vehicle of "fear," generated throughout the Shabbos, ensures our compliance with all of the Torah's mitzvos. One who desecrates the Shabbos misses that spiritual antibody which gives him the strength and perseverance to observe the other mitzvos of the Torah.

Shabbos represents an exclusive relationship between Hashem and His children. Thus, while gentiles are allowed to perform any other mitzvah of the Torah - Shabbos is off limits. They are strictly prohibited from observing Shabbos. Shabbos is ours. It belongs to us; it is our gift from Hashem. Chazal compare our relationship with Shabbos to that of a king and queen who are engaged in intimate conversation. Clearly, a stranger who interjects himself into their discussion will be severely punished. He has no business mixing into a private conversation between two monarchs. Likewise, a gentile has no right to observe Shabbos. He treads on hallowed ground where he does not belong. Shabbos is an intimate domain which Hashem shares with His People. Outsiders are neither invited nor wanted.

As we begin the Torah anew, having just come full circle, we should pause for a moment to think and rededicate ourselves to the three foundation stones of the entire Torah: fear of Hashem; leading a holy and sacred life; maintaining a loving and careful observance of Shabbos.

And there was evening, and there was morning. (1:5)

The commentators discuss the essence of choshech, darkness: Was it nothing more than an absence of light; or was choshech a creation in the same sense as light? G-d created darkness. If we view darkness as the absence of light, we can understand why darkness preceded light. There was no light - hence, it was dark. According to the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna, who contends that darkness is a creation (I have no idea how to describe the void that "existed" prior to the creation of darkness), why did it precede light? They were both equal entities. Indeed, creating light first was more "creation oriented."

We may suggest that although Hashem created darkness, it is man who causes it to descend into his life. Each and every person travels through moments of darkness. Life is not a rose garden. How much we allow the darkness to permeate our lives, how much of the hovering darkness we allow to suffuse our daily endeavor, is up to us. Sadly, some people allow a greater amount of darkness to seep into their lives. We are all susceptible to the challenges of darkness, but some people are better than others at dealing with it. Some are so weighed down by the darkness that they do not allow for the light to creep in. Others seem to be at ease with the darkness. They have difficulty when the light is shining and life is positive. They would rather mope and blame the world for their misery than do something about it. One has to work to bring in the light. Otherwise, he remains enveloped with darkness.

This is perhaps why the creation of darkness preceded light. Hashem wants us to know that light is not to be taken for granted. One must appreciate its value and endeavor to deserve it. Otherwise, darkness will be his overriding companion.

Alternatively, I saw Horav Yosef Sorotzkin, Shlita, approach this pragmatically. Darkness is a part of life. We all have moments of darkness. For some, these moments become overwhelming. These moments can cause a person to be meyaeish, become hopeless, give up on life. Thus, Hashem created light immediately after darkness to teach us that darkness gives way to light. It may be dark now, but, ultimately, the sun is going to rise; a new dawn will begin. The very knowledge that darkness is followed by light engenders within a person a sense of hope that things will change: life will be better; a new day is dawning.

And G-d saw that it was good. (1:10)

Horav Zelik Epstein, zl, Rosh Yeshivah of Shaar Torah, spent the early part of 1940 in Kelm, Lithuania. He was an aveil, mourner, for his father, and he required a thrice daily minyan to recite Kaddish. He felt that, at the time, while the war was raging, the most practical place to do this would be in Kelm. Already at a young age, his reputation as a talmid chacham, Torah scholar, preceded him. Additionally, he was proficient with a Hebrew typewriter. Thus, Rebbetzin Nechamah Leeba, daughter of the Alter m'Kelm and widow of Horav Tzvi Hirsch Broide, asked him to edit and type the Alter's kesavim, written manuscripts. He agreed, and, for the next six months, he sat upstairs in the Rebbetzin's attic redacting the kesavim. Indeed, a good part of the five volume Chochmah u'Mussar was the result of his editing.

Rav Zelik made three copies: one to be sent to Eretz Yisrael; one for the family; one for himself. When he was about to leave Kelm, he was prepared to take his copy along with him. Horav Gershon Miadnik, zl, brother-in-law of the Rosh Yeshivah of Kelm and Horav Doniel Moshovitz, zl, son-in-law of the Alter, demanded that he return the third copy. It was not leaving Kelm with him. Rav Zelik claimed that the primary reason that he had accepted the task of typing (a task which had taken a considerable amount of time) was that he wanted to avail himself of a copy of the Alter's kesavim. Not out of a sense of disrespect, but out of a desire to know the halachah with regard to the fruits of his labor, he decided to present the question to the Rosh Yeshivah of Kelm, Rav Doniel Moshowitz, who was the Alter's older son-in-law.

Rav Doniel quoted the above pasuk and its accompanying Midrash which compare Hashem (so to speak) to a cook who wants to taste the meal that he had prepared. This indicates, posited Rav Doniel, that one may partake pleasure from his creation. Hashem created the world for man; yet, He took a moment to "enjoy" His creation. Likewise, when one designs, composes, originates an entity, he is permitted to savor it and has definite rights to it. Rav Zelik took his copy with him to Mir when he left Kelm. While most of his original typing was later printed, he never divulged or showed anyone the parts of the kesavim which had been omitted. He figured that, as the typist, he had a legitimate right to it, but this did not necessarily allow it to be open for public consumption.

And G-d saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good. (1:31)

The Midrash interprets tov, good, meod, very (good), in a novel manner: "And behold it was very good" - tov is a reference to the Malach Ha'Chaim, Angel of life, or life per se. Meod, very (good), is a reference to the Malach Ha'Maves, Angel of death. Clearly, Chazal's choice of the term "very" good to denote death begs elucidation. How can we understand death as being "very good" when life is only "good"? Horav Eliezer Sorotzkin, zl, posits that herein lies the secret of simchas ha'chaim, joy of life. When a person goes through life acquiescing to whatever Hashem doles out to him with an attitude that it is all tov, good, his life is blessed. He merits a rich, blissful life. If, however, tov is insufficient, if, whatever he receives, he wants more, so that he seeks tov meod very good, then he does not "live." He is not "alive." He exists, but lacks the joy to make life vibrant for him. He lives an unproductive, unhappy, wasted life, because whatever he has - he still wants more. The tov meod person courts the Malach Ha'Maves, because he does not appreciate "life."

In pain shall you bear children… by the sweat of your brow shall you eat your bread. (3:16,19)

Prior to the sin, Chavah conceived and gave birth immediately. She did not have to go through the physical change. After the sin, however, conception was not a given, and the extended pregnancy followed by a painful childbirth became a reality. Likewise, Adam, who, heretofore had his sustenance right before him, would now have to toil to earn a living. The Torah uses a strange word, etzev, to describe the pain associated with childbirth. The word etzev is more closely related to anxiety and depression than to pain. Horav Tuvia Lisitzin, zl, derives from here that when a person is to undergo a painful situation, often times the fear and anticipatory anxiety that precedes, and most often accompanies the pain, are often worse than the actual pain. Thus, the Torah uses the word etzev to denote the pain of childbirth. Fear is more "painful" than actual pain.

We know that Hashem punishes middah k'neged middah, measure for measure. Therefore, a clear, common relationship must exist between a sin and its punishment. How does this apply to the pain of childbirth? Rav Lisitzin explains that, by eating of the Eitz HaDaas, Tree of Knowledge, as opposed to the Eitz HaChaim, Tree of Life, of which Chavah was allowed to partake, she indicated that daas, knowledge, has greater significance than life. It is quite the opposite, with knowledge playing a secondary, subordinate role to life itself. There is nothing of greater import than life. It is G-d's greatest gift and, without it, we are nothing. By her actions, Chavah elevated daas over chaim. Her punishment was to experience pain in bringing a child into this world. When she experiences pain, she realizes the importance of life.

Likewise, concerning Adam HaRishon, the toil and sweat associated with earning a livelihood was to engender in him a greater respect and appreciation for the significance of life.

Kayin said to Hashem "Is my iniquity too great to be borne." (4:13)

Kayin committed a grave sin. To take a human life is a heinous act of aggression. Yet, Chazal teach that Kayin did teshuvah, repented, for his terrible crime. What is the meaning of his teshuvah? Can this teshuvah bring back Hevel? Obviously, it is impossible to bring back the deceased. Hevel is gone. He is not coming back - regardless of the sublimity of Kayin's teshuvah. Murder is different than robbery. A thief can return the money. The murderer has taken a life, which he cannot bring back.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that, indeed, this is the wonder of teshuvah. When one repents with sincerity, is truly brokenhearted over his misdeed, Hashem considers it as if his crime had never happened. Hashem expunges the act, negating it completely. Hashem created the world ex-nihilo, yeish meiayin, something from nothing. By accepting a person's sincere teshuvah, He makes ayin miyeish - nothing from something. This, explains Rav Schwab, is the meaning behind Chazal's statement that teshuvah was created before the world came into existence. How could anything have been created before the world came into being?

The world was formed as a tangible reality out of nothing. Only Hashem can do this. To create something from nothing is scientifically impossible. Therefore, the world must be Hashem's doing. By negating an aveirah, sin, a reality that occurred, transforming it into nothing, is much like creating the world. In this sense, teshuvah was created before the formation of the world, since teshuvah returns conditions to where they had been before creation, to the status of ayin, nothingness. Thus, the sinful act is considered null and void.

This is the miracle of teshuvah. One who repents, recites viduy, confesses to his sins. His heartfelt emotion is real; it is sincere. He demonstrates his shame and promises never to act in such a nefarious manner again. Hashem is compassionate. He knows what the sinner is experiencing. He is acutely aware of his sincerity and remorse. Then Hashem forgives him and wipes his slate clean. Regardless of his original motivation to sin, whether it was the result of a lack of knowledge of what connotes a wrongdoing or deference to his base passions, even if he sinned out of spite, as long as he is now regretful, his teshuvah will be accepted.

Rav Schwab relates an emotion-laden story that should inspire every one of us. While the Rav still lived in Baltimore, he was called to visit a Jew from Vienna, who was sadly dying from tuberculosis. As he walked into the room, the man asked, "How much do you charge?" The Rav immediately replied, "I never charge anything." "That is good," the man said, "because I have no money." The patient then asked the nurse to leave the room, so that he could be alone with the rabbi. He began to have a coughing fit, which the nurse was able to calm down before she agreed to leave.

When they were alone, the man began to relate his life story. He was born into a religious family in Vienna. Despite being raised observant, he deferred to his desires and rejected everything as soon as he was old enough to get away with it. He lived an undisciplined and unrestrained life of abandon. He married a girl who was Jewish in name, but, in practice, she was no different than he was. Together, they raised a son to outdo his father, when he married out of the faith. It was then that it hit him. Everything that he had rejected, all of his earlier religious misdeeds, came to haunt him as he witnessed the tragedy of having a child marry out of the Jewish faith. He was here now, filled with remorse, weeping over a life that he wholeheartedly regretted. He wanted the rabbi to listen to his viduy, confession.

Suddenly, the man began to scream! He shouted out Hashem's Name, and then he spoke directly to the Almighty, "Ribono Shel Olam, I was the greatest sinner! I wasted my life! How can I appear before You?" The scene of this sick man on his death bed, amidst wracking cough and bitter tears, was heartrending. Indeed, Rav Schwab said that, whenever he remembered the image of the man lying in bed screaming out to Hashem for forgiveness, he would tremble. The man began to cough uncontrollably, and the nurse was called in.

Rav Schwab attempted to calm the man, "Do not get excited. I will come again to visit you. There is no need to tell me everything today. I will see you again tomorrow."

Sadly, there was no tomorrow. In middle of the night, the Rav's phone rang: "Can you come to a funeral? A man has died, and he was all alone; there is no one to take care of things." The funeral home needed a rabbi to perform a service, to bury a man who had died with no one at his side, no one to call, no one who seemed to care.

When Rav Schwab arrived, he saw that the deceased was the man that he had visited earlier that day. They barely put together a minyan for his funeral, and those who came did not know the deceased. Rav Schwab was asked to deliver the eulogy. He did not say much, but what he did say reverberated throughout the assembled few.

"I knew this man for only one day," he began. "I do not know what his life was like. One thing, however, I do know: He did teshuvah before he died. Furthermore, I never saw a person do teshuvah with such sincerity."

Ad yom moso techakeh lo, im yishuv miyad tikablo, "Until the day of his death, You wait for him (to repent). If he repents (before he dies), You immediately accept him." Hashem waits for us to repent, because He knows that deep down it was not our intention to act maliciously. So, He waits. If we come through with the teshuvah, Hashem expunges the sin as if it had never taken place.

Va'ani Tefillah

Mi Kamocha baeilim Hashem? Who is like You among the Heavenly powers?

This is a most powerful pasuk whose message should ring in our ears, as it gives us comfort in time of pain. Chazal see this pasuk as praise to Hashem, not only for the redemption, but even for the exile which led up to it. They interpret the word eilim as derived from the word, ileim, mute. Thus, the pasuk is translated as, "Who is like You among the mutes? You hear the suffering of Your children, but You remain silent like a mute." Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, cites Horav S. R. Hirsch, zl, who posits that eilim refers to the forces of nature. The forces of nature remain still - mute, silent to the outcries of the tormented human beings. Indeed, Rav Schwab notes that a writer observed that, while tens of thousands of our brothers and sisters were being sadistically slaughtered, screaming with terror and anguish, the birds were oblivious to their screams. They continued chirping, the flowers still blossomed, and the sun still shone. The natural forces of the world remained mute, while humans were suffering.

When our people suffered the pain and indignities of the brutal exile, they could not fathom why Hashem was "mute," seemingly oblivious to their torment. They understood that the forces of nature were still; they were unable to express themselves, but what about G-d? How could He be silent? When they stood at the banks of the Red Sea having just experienced Krias Yam Suf, the Splitting of the Red Sea, they understood that the exile was all part of Hashem's Divine Master Plan. They now accepted their suffering as part of His Divine Will. They praised Him for the exile, as well as for the redemption.

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