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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Pharaoh approached… and Bnei Yisrael cried out to Hashem. They said to Moshe, "Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the wilderness? What is it that you have done to us?" (14:10,11)

The irrationality of the Jewish People is glaring. Their utter bitterness and sarcasm almost jump out at the reader. What makes it more incredulous is that it follows immediately after their prayer to Hashem to protect them from the approaching Pharaoh. Turning to Moshe Rabbeinu when they are in mortal fear makes sense, but simultaneously criticizing Moshe with such vehemence does not make sense. Fear motivates prayer. Does fear catalyze one to lose all sense of decency, to lash out at one's savior, all because he is afraid?

If this would have been a single occurrence, it might have been overlooked. After perusing the Chumash, however, we may note that such irrational behavior took place when Klal Yisrael did not have bread. It was repeated when the water was bitter, and again when they wanted meat. The spies returned from reconnoitering Eretz Yisrael with a negative report. This led to a similar response by the people, a reaction of anger, depression, laying blame: "Better we should have died in Egypt." What makes such a great people, a nation who were privy to mankind's greatest Revelation, a nation that was sustained for forty years in the wilderness on a diet of miracles, act so immaturely, with such ingratitude, so sinfully? Interestingly, of all the complaints issued by the people against Moshe, only the first one, above, was accompanied by a prayer to Hashem. Apparently, as time went on, they realized the inconsistency of their actions, but why did they complain?

In his farewell address to his people, Moshe admonishes them, "Rebellious have you been against Hashem from the day I have known you" (Devarim 9:24). Based on the above, one would have expected even stronger words of chastisement. This almost schizophrenic behavior of the people-- recognizing G-d's Presence and simultaneously acting with ingratitude both to Him and to Moshe-- must be explained. In his volume, Biblical Questions, Spiritual Journeys, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman suggests that the answer lies in the fact that the people had lost sight of who they were, the nature of their Patriarchal origins, and their ultimate destiny. As descendents of the Patriarchs, designated as G-d's nation, the bearers of His mission on earth, one would have expected Klal Yisrael to manifest a slightly different-- more dignified-- attitude to challenge. When one forgets or ignores these noble attributes, the spiritual components which ennoble him, drain away, such that the base physical components rise to the top of his consciousness.

Klal Yisrael became overwhelmed by their primordial concerns about their physical needs, despite their exposure to the Heavenly miracles that captivated them in Egypt and at the Red Sea; the miracles that accompanied them throughout their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness; the Revelation at Sinai with its unparalleled exposure to the reality of G-d. How quickly they forgot the past, and ignored the future, the hope, the promise of the Holy Land. It all meant nothing once they lost the connection to who they were. They were obsessed with the present, the "now." Once the emphasis is on satisfying one's current desires, regrettably one never has enough to satisfy him. He always finds something to bemoan concerning his present circumstance. It could always be better, or it "was" so much better before. Very few exits exist on the road to complaints. It becomes so bad that the misery begins to look positive. The Jews saw the positive side of the Egyptian slavery. The ability to see G-d, yet not acknowledge His Presence within our midst, characterizes Klal Yisrael. They experienced Egypt - its slavery - and miraculous redemption. Yet, they complained. This reflects their lack of attachment to the spiritual. They did not have the ability to transcend the physical.

The knowledge that we are all descendants of the Avos and Imahos, Patriarchs and Matriarchs; that Hashem loves each and every one of us; that we have a noble and everlasting future; that we are a part of a nation that has for the most part maintained its fidelity to the Almighty throughout thick and thin, infuses us with a sense of pride, dignity and joy. After Adam sinned, Hashem asked him, Ayeca? "Where are you?" We can understand this on a deeper plane. Do you know where you are? Do you realize who you are: your mission, your destiny? If so, how could you have sinned? When we lose sight of ayeca - we forget our purpose in life. We distort our goals and objectives, and everything appears bleak and tastes bitter. Then we complain and whine, lament and ultimately lose touch with reality, so that we rebel. All because we ignored ayeca.

Pharaoh approached… Egypt was journeying after them, and they were frightened and Bnei Yisrael cried out to Hashem. (14:10)

In interpreting Klal Yisrael's "crying out" to Hashem, Rashi explains, tafsu umnos avosam, "They adopted the craft of their forefathers," namely, prayer. Avraham Avinu prayed; indeed he initiated Tefillas Shacharis. Likewise, Yitzchak Avinu instituted Tefillas Minchah and Yaakov Avinu introduced Tefillas Maariv. Tefillah was very much a part of the lives of the Patriarchs, so what is Rashi teaching us? The fact that the Avos prayed is not novel to us.

Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, addresses the question in one of his discourses. He begins his thoughts after musing concerning the precarious situation in which the Jewish People found themselves at that time. Germany was beginning its persecution of the Jews. The Russian government, not to be left in the background, commenced with their reign of terror against its Jewish citizens. The Jewish People had nowhere to go: borders were closed; countries that had been diplomatic no longer had room for immigrants. The worst part was that no one seemed to care. The Nazis and the Communists were in control, and it was becoming an accepted way of life. The Jew was finally beginning to acknowledge that no one can help him other than Hashem.

Min Ha'meitzar - "From the straits" - karasi Kah - "I called out to Hashem." When I realize that I am in an impossible situation, with no way out, I turn to Hashem, for He is truly the only One who can save me. Rav Yeruchum asks: Does one have to be in an impossible situation to realize that only Hashem can help him? Does this mean that if the situation were different, if he were not being pursued, persecuted, hunted and beaten, it would be any different? Would he have anyone else upon whom to rely? No! Regardless of the circumstances, be they positive or negative, it is only Hashem to Whom we can turn. If so, why? Should it be any worse when the predicament is such that we are hounded and persecuted, our lives filled with misery and pain? What has changed? We still seek only Hashem's support.

The Mashgiach posits that Rashi specifically addressed this question when he says that the Jews adopted the craft of their forefathers. Rashi is teaching us a powerful lesson concerning the secret of prayer and its efficacy. As the Jews stood at the banks of the Red Sea, they were in serious physical straits. Surrounded on all sides, the sea on one side, the threatening Egyptians on another, the wild animals from the wilderness on the third side, with no avenue of escape in sight, the Jews were in a life-threatening predicament. So, they prayed. After all, what else could they do?

One might think that the prayers proffered by the Jewish People at this moment were quite unlike the prayers expressed by the Patriarchs. Nothing was threatening Avraham; neither was Yitzchak being pressured by adversity. Yaakov was not intimidated when he stopped to pray at the place where his forefathers had prayed. Thus, one would posit that the prayers which the Patriarchs issued were different in nature than those we have prayed throughout our tumultuous history. Rashi teaches us that this is an error. Even during the most pleasant and calm moments, the Patriarchs prayed to Hashem with such extreme urgency, entreating His favorable response as if they were motivated by the most pressing circumstances. They prayed every prayer as if their lives were hanging in the balance, their future about to become nothing more than a dream. Why? What compelled them to daven with such compulsion? It is because this is the life of a Jew. We never have anyone to depend upon other than Hashem. The Jew is always in a min ha'meitzar situation. Our only recourse is to cry to Hashem, for only He can help us.

This is why the Jews "adopted the craft of their forefathers." Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov prayed as if their lives depended on it - because it did! So, too, did Klal Yisrael pray to Hashem - as if their lives depended on it - because it did. The difference is that the Avos, Patriarchs, were always aware of this verity. Klal Yisrael, regrettably, needed "proof."

The nations of the world have soldiers, weapons, strategy and all the accouterments that provide them with success in battle. We have Hashem, Who directs our lives l'maalah min ha'teva, above and beyond the rules of nature. There is no nature, no normal, no "what should occur," with regard to the Jewish People. Only the will of Hashem determines our success at anything. The Avos recognized this reality, and they prayed accordingly. Klal Yisrael came to this realization at the banks of the Red Sea. Thus, they "adopted the craft of their forefathers."

Sincerity is the key to effective prayer. After all, if one is insincere, how can he expect to be heard? It is not as if one is speaking to a mortal who is not aware of what courses through the innermost recesses of our minds. We are entreating Hashem, Who knows everything. The key to sincerity is the awareness that no one else, no other entity, has the power to help us, to solve our problem, to answer our prayer. This is how the Avos prayed, because they were acutely aware that Hashem is the only source of our salvation. The following poignant story was told in these pages a number of years ago. It was originally taken from one of Horav Shabsi Yudelevitz's lectures. It is worth repeating, because its powerful message is timeless.

The young boy looked out of the window of the cramped dormitory room of the Peruvian orphanage which he called home. He noticed a scene that made his heart flutter and his eyes tear. Before him stood a "family": father, mother, son and daughter, walking together as a family. This was a scene which the young orphan longed to experience, but one that had eluded him all of his short life. The only family he had ever known was the company of other orphans like himself, bunched together in small, cramped, cold rooms. He felt more like a prisoner than a resident. It was not as if the staff did not try to be nice. They were just not a replacement for parents. At times, the counselors who were in charge of the youngsters got carried away and took out their anxieties on their young charges. Regrettably, today was another one of those days.

"Come on, out of bed. Time for breakfast and chores. Let's move it kids," could be heard throughout the dormitory. The young boy quickly completed his chores. It was not as if he disliked work. He just needed the warmth of a home, the support of a family, the encouragement of a father and mother. This was the young boy's recurring dream. He decided that he could no longer live like this. Since no one seemed to care, he was determined, once and for all, to leave the orphanage. He had a plan, and the time to implement it was now.

He had written a letter - a simple letter - but it carried a most powerful message. He put it into an envelope and placed it in the mailbox. Now, he would wait for a response. The postman who picked up the letter was taken aback. He had never before seen a letter addressed to "G-d." No return address and no name - just "G-d" as the addressee. Under normal circumstances, in most other countries, one opens such a letter to obtain some clue concerning the sender. Peru did not permit such an infringement on personal privacy. Mail was not opened by anyone other than the intended addressee. It had something to do with superstition. What would they do with the letter?

The letter traveled from postal supervisor to supervisor until it caught the attention of the media. Once the media got hold of it, it became a national conversation piece. Everybody wondered what was in the letter and who had sent it. After receiving such attention, it ultimately made its way into the halls of the Peruvian government, where, after a few weeks of being shuttled from minister to minister, it landed on the immaculate desk of the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister was a no-nonsense leader. He could not understand how a letter could have traveled throughout the country for weeks, with no one responding to it. He, therefore, proceeded to open the envelope. Out fell a note written in large children's scrawl. He began to read:

"Dear G-d.

My name is Diego, but I'm sure that You already know that, because You know everything. I'm 9 years old, and I live in an orphanage. I miss my mother and father and badly want a family. Please, can You help me? You are the only one who can. Your son, Diego"

The Prime Minister was visibly moved by the letter. After wiping away the tears from his eyes, he summoned his advisors to decide what to do about Diego. He also called his wife. After some discussion, he decided to pay Diego a visit, but first he had to locate him. The government initiated an intense search until they located the orphanage which was Diego's home. The Prime Minister immediately dispatched a chauffer-driven limousine to fetch the boy. Diego's personality fascinated everyone, and, before long, he had won over the hearts of the Prime Minister and his wife. They then decided to take a bold step and asked to adopt Diego as their son. The young boy's dream became a reality.

Diego was a hopeless child who was acutely aware that only G-d could transform his nightmare. He prayed; he acted; and G-d responded, because the child was sincere. He turned to the only One Who could help. We must do the same. When we pray to Hashem, it should be much more than mere lip service. We should mean what we say.

Rav Shabsi concluded his lecture with the following inspirational words. David Hamelech says (Tehillim 145:18), Karov Hashem l'chol kor'av, "Hashem is close to all those who call Him," but He endears Himself, especially l'chol asher yikre'uhu b'emes, "to all those who call out to Him - truthfully/sincerely." It is the sincerity that makes the difference.

You will bring them and implant them on the mount of Your heritage, the foundation of Your dwelling place that You, Hashem, have made - the Sanctuary, my Lord, that Your hands established. (15:17)

Rashi explains that the Bais Hamikdash of this world coincides with the Bais Hamikdash of Above - they stand directly opposite one another. Indeed, the city of Yerushalayim of this world stands opposite the Heavenly Yerushalayim. Furthermore, it was the Yerushalayim of this world that catalyzed the construction of the Bais Hamikdash Above. The Bais Hamikdash of this world was built upon a mountain - a mountain which had earlier earned its credentials as the place wherein Yitzchak Avinu lay down his head to be slaughtered as a sacrifice to Hashem. The rest of the story is history. The Divrei Chaim, Horav Chaim Halberstam, zl, wonders why Hashem chose the mountain of the Akeidah as opposed to Har Sinai, the mountain upon which the Torah was given. He explains that, on Har HaMoriah, our Patriarch stretched out his neck in preparation to serve as a sacrifice for Hashem's honor. There is no greater act of hisbatlus, self-abnegation, before Hashem. Thus, Hashem selected this place as the site for the Bais Hamikdash.

Was Har Sinai not also a scene of hisbatlus? In fact, it was more than partial renunciation; it was absolute surrender, whereby the nation committed itself completely to Hashem when they said Naase v'nishmah, "We will do and we will listen." Horav Eliyahu Marciano, Shlita, notes that this idea is underscored in the Talmud Shabbos 68a, which relates an episode concerning a Tzeduki, Sadducee, who saw Rava studying a Talmudic matter. Clearly disturbed by this display of devotion to Torah She'Baal Peh, oral law, the Sadducee noticed that Rava had placed his fingers beneath his leg and was inadvertently crushing them, to the point that his fingers had begun to bleed. The Sadducee could no longer contain himself and remarked "O, impulsive people, who put their mouths before their ears. You sill persevere in your impulsiveness! First, you should have heard the commandments so that you would have known whether you were able to accept them. And if you did not hear the commandments, then you should not have accepted them." Rava replied, "About we, who go in the ways of complete faith, it is written, 'The perfect faith of the upright shall lead them' (Mishlei 11:3). About those people who go in the ways of perverseness, it is written,'And the perverseness of the faithless, shall destroy them'" (ibid).

The Bais Halevi explains that when Klal Yisrael declared naase v'nishma, they finally dedicated themselves to Hashem in such a manner that they became totally committed to Him in every way. This is much like one who sells himself as a slave. He is committed in every way to his new master. He must do everything that he is asked/told to do. While the Torah was given on Har Sinai, this presentation was preceded by a declaration of naase v'nishma, which connotes clear and unequivocal commitment to the will of Hashem. Is there any greater form of hisbatlus, surrender, than that? This brings us back to the original question: Why was the Bais Hamikdash not built on Har Sinai, the scene of the Jewish People's greatest surrender to Hashem?

Furthermore, at Har Sinai, an entire nation of hundreds of thousands of Jews committed themselves to the Almighty. How can the surrender of one individual overshadow such a seminal event in the history of our nation? Concerning this question, Rav Marciano posits that, on the contrary, the mere fact that the declaration was public, with each individual serving as a source of encouragement to his neighbor, decreases the impact of the sacrifice. The greatest generation in Jewish history banded together to declare emphatically their total commitment to Hashem and His Torah. This is an incredible event, but it does not compare to the sacrifice of the individual who stood alone, with no outside support, to render himself null and void before Hashem. Yitzchak stood alone, as he prepared to give up his mortal existence to serve Hashem. This act of self-abnegation warranted even greater Heavenly recognition than the declaration of naase v'nishma at Har Sinai.

In addition, Yitzchak's act of courage and self-sacrifice implanted the attribute of hisbatlus to Hashem in the Jewish DNA. The reason Klal Yisrael had the fortitude and resolution to make their seminal declaration was that their ancestor, Yitzchak, stretched out his neck in preparation for the greatest act of self-sacrifice. Yitzchak led the way - Klal Yisrael followed.

I think we can take this idea one step further. When Yitzchak walked to the Akeidah, he acted with complete faith in his father. Avraham Avinu heard the command from Hashem. Yitzchak did not. He acted with emunas chachamim, faith in the Torah scholars, which is a cornerstone of our faith. The Akeidah personifies this essential quality. The Jews stood at Har Sinai and heard Hashem amidst an unprecedented, unparalleled Revelation of His glory. They committed themselves to Hashem, because they heard Him. Yitzchak listened to his father. This represented a greater level of faith, a stronger sense of commitment. Thus, the Bais Hamikdash was built on Har HaMoriah, the scene of the Akeidah.

Miriam, the prophetess… took her drum in her hand and all the women went forth after her with drums and with dances. (15:20)

The pesukim indicate that first Moshe Rabbeinu and the men of Klal Yisrael sang Shirah to Hashem. Afterwards, the womenfolk, led by Miriam HaNeviah, took their drums and expressed their gratitude to Hashem. The men articulated their praise, while the women expressed it through motion and dance, accompanied by the beat of drums. Why was there a dichotomy between the men and women? If perhaps it was for tznius, modesty purposes, why did the women not sing the Shirah quietly, exclusive of the men? Would it be any different than women davening in shul behind the mechitzah? The men recite Hallel; so do the women. Why did it have to be separate and ultimately, through two distinct venues?

Horav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, zl, attributes this to reciprocity. The joy which accompanies freedom and salvation is commensurate with the suffering endured by the one who sings the praises. "No pain, no gain" claims the popular dictum. With regard to expressing Shirah to Hashem for His salvation, one must have had firsthand knowledge of the "pain," the misery of the slavery, before he can sing Hashem's praises. The men felt the pain. Chazal teach that when Egypt caught up with the Jews, the Jewish people recognized the taskmasters that beat them.

The women were also involved in the neis. The extent of their involvement, however, was limited to the pain that they experienced while watching their husbands suffer under the whip of the Egyptian taskmaster. Clearly, this was painful, but to a much lesser degree than the pain endured by the men themselves. This experience served as the precursor of their desire to sing Shirah. Thus, although the women had achieved a very high level of Heavenly perception, it was still not enough for them to sing Shirah. They listened to the men and they expressed their personal praise via the medium of the drums.

Perhaps we can explain this idea further. Prayer is a conversation that takes place between man and Hashem. It is a dialogue: we ask; we are answered. Rabbi Hillel Goldberg writes about a blind Sephardi man who cautiously made his way to the Kosel. He put down his cane and slowly began to caress the stones, lovingly running his hand over them. After a few minutes of doing this, he began to recite a few chapters of Tehillim. Then, he began his conversation with Hashem. It went something like this:

"Ribbono Shel Olam, I have not had the opportunity to be here for a few weeks, so I have to bring You up to date about my life and my family. You remember that I told You about my son who was supposed to enter the army. Well, he left ten days ago. I have no idea where he is, but I am sure that You do. Please watch out for him. And then, of course, You remember my daughter, who is ready and of age to get married. She has recently started dating and finding it more difficult than she had expected. Perhaps, You could ease the process for her. And my third child…"

By this time, a man who was listening to all of this felt he was eavesdropping on a private conversation. So, he moved away. After all, he did not want to appear to be nosy. The story is obviously impressive, and gives us much to consider and think about our own relationship with Hashem. Perhaps Rabbi Goldberg sums it up best when he writes, "Does one have to be blind to see G-d in such a direct way?"

There is formal prayer, which is structured and community-orientated. There is also personal prayer, which reflects our relationship with Hashem. One who has experienced a serious trauma, or has endured a terrible illness and has emerged well and with all of his faculties, has an enormous debt of gratitude to Hashem. He acknowledges his obligation and seeks to express himself in the most personal manner. Clearly, the level of expression is commensurate with the unfortunate experience and how much pain he personally sustained. One who is a spectator can, and should offer thanks to Hashem for His beneficence, but it is not the same as that of the actual beneficiary. If one speaks or utilizes another form of expression, such as the drums, the manner in which he speaks and what he says are all personal reflections of his experience. The women's Shirah was of a personal nature, expressed more as observers than as participants. Thus, their manner of expression differed from that of the men.

Va'ani Tefillah

sus v'rochvo ramah ba'yam.
He hurled horse and its rider into the sea.

There seems to be a variance in the way Targum Onkeles translates this phrase when Moshe Rabbeinu sings the Shirah, compared to his translation of Miriam HaNeviah's rendition of the Shirah. In the latter, he writes shadi ba'yama, while in the former he writes, rama ba'yama. Why does he deviate from his original definition? The Baal Haflaah explains that two miracles occurred when the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea. First, when the Jewish People were halfway through the sea, the Egyptians chased them in an attempt to also pass through the dry land. The sea swept them up and flung them back into the water. This is called shadi ba'yama. Second, once the water returned to its natural position, the Egyptians who still remained on the shore were heaved into the sea. This is referred to as rama ba'yama.

The men who preceded the women into the water saw the Egyptians who were still on the banks of the sea flung into the water. Hence, it is translated as rama ba'yama. The women, however, who were second to enter the water, saw the Egyptians who went in after them being flung backward into the sea. Onkeles, therefore, translates it as shadi ba'yama.

Dedicated in loving memory of our dear
mother and grandmother
Leona Genshaft
Leah bas Rephael HaCohen a"h
niftar 16 Shevat 5770
by her family
Neil and Marie Genshaft
Isaac and Naomi

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.

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