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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


There was a thick darkness throughout the land of Egypt for a three-day period. (10:22)

Rashi asks a question regarding makas choshech, the plague of darkness, which he does not ask concerning any of the other plagues: why did Hashem specifically bring about the plague of darkness? He answers that there were Jews in Egypt who refused to leave. They would rather choose to live with the slavery, suffering and persecution that Egypt had to offer than risk possible death in the wilderness. During these three days of darkness these Jews died and were buried by their brethren. Resigned to remaining in the position in which they were before the plague began because of the "weight" of the darkness, the Egyptians were not aware of this. Otherwise, they might have ignored the impact of the plague, noting that it was happening also to the Jews.

We derive from here the importance for every Jew to seek an environment containing nothing that is counter to his spiritual development. A Jew does not belong in Egypt. A Jew is not to be a slave to Egyptians. He serves only one Master, Hashem. We have to ask ourselves: Why? Why would such a large group of people - which, according to Rashi in Parashas Beshalach, amounted to four-fifths of Klal Yisrael - want to stay? Only twenty percent of the Jewish People desired to leave the miserable conditions and moral depravity of Egypt. Why?

Horav David Shneuer, Shlita, cites the Ibn Ezra in his commentary on the pasuk, "You shall not eat it partially roasted or cooked in water; only roasted over fire-its head, its legs, with its innards." (12:9), which sheds light on the psyche of the Jewish slaves. Ibn Ezra suggests that one might think that since the sheep is the Egyptian god, we should not make a public display of roasting it. Perhaps, just cook it partially, and "get it over with" as quickly as possible. The Torah empathetically replies, No! We must stop being afraid of the Egyptians. They are no longer our masters. We are the victors, and they are the vanquished.

We learn from here the level of depression to which the Jews had descended. Their fear of the Egyptians broke their will and destroyed their spirit. The slave mentality had completely enveloped them. They were like victims of abuse; they cowered, they were filled with anxiety; they were filled with nervous tension. They were willing to suffer, to be cruelly beaten and violated, to be persecuted and afflicted in the most heinous ways - and they would come back for more! To make trouble with the Egyptians, to defy their oppressors, was unthinkable. They would never think of leaving Egypt. They were here forever. They were slaves.

This is called "yiush," despair, hopelessness, terms antithetical to Jewish belief. The Jew always has hope. He is never to be "meyaesh," give up hope, because he trusts in Hashem. No one said that life was going to be easy. Without Hashem, however, it is impossible.

You shall say, "It is a Pesach feast-offering to Hashem, Who skipped over the houses of Bnei Yisrael in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but He saved our households. (12:27)

Imagine, person A testifies that person B attempted to kill him. Person B is found guilty and placed in jail. Afterwards, person A makes a festive feast thanking the Almighty that he was not also incarcerated. Anyone privy to this case would certainly raise his eyebrows and wonder if person A is sane. Is that not, however, what the pasuk relates to us? The Egyptians sinned against the Jews. Hashem found them guilty and punished them severely. The Jews were offering their gratitude to Hashem for not also killing them! Why? It is the Egyptian who was the aggressor, and the Jew who was the victim. What could have justified punishing the hopeless victim?

Siach Yitzchak suggests a pragmatic response to this question. There were individuals in Egypt who did not want to leave. The situation in Egypt notwithstanding, who knew what the wilderness might bring? Sometimes, status-quo, regardless of the pain and troubles which accompany it, is more desirable than an ambiguous and potentially risky change. Moreover, the Egyptian lifestyle was definitely not as spiritually demanding as life in the wilderness would be. Fearing that Hashem delay the liberation in response to these misguided individuals, Moshe Rabbeinu implored Hashem, asking, "Are all of us going to be held back because of these few who refuse to leave?" Immediately, Hashem caused a wind to blow the sweet smell of Korban Pesach into their nostrils. They were so captivated by the aroma that they acceded to leaving Egypt. This was then a great kindness from Hashem, for otherwise this minority would have impacted on Yetzias Mitzraim, the Egyptian exodus.

The power of an individual is incredible. We have only to look back over the last sixty to seventy years of Orthodoxy in America to note how much was accomplished by a few dedicated Jews. Whether it was lay people who understood the importance of Torah, or it was Roshei Yeshivah and rabbanim who would not permit the Nazis to destroy their will, these individuals, with Siyata diShimaya, Divine Assistance, overcame all odds to set in motion the great Torah renaissance which we enjoy today. We have also to remember that, regrettably, individuals can also destroy what has been built. We must never discount the single individual, because his potential is awesome.

Pharaoh rose up at midnight (12:30)

After Moshe notified Pharaoh of the impending death of the firstborn Egyptians, the Torah states that "Pharaoh rose up at midnight." From where did he rise? Rashi responds, "From his bed." Anyone who had been following the narrative knows that Pharaoh's time was up. Everything that Moshe had said would occur had been realized. Nine devastating plagues had come and gone. What more did Pharaoh need to make him face the reality that Egypt was doomed? He was being told about the tenth and most devastating plague-makas bechoros, death of the firstborn. What did he do the night before he was likely to die? He went to sleep as if nothing had happened or was going to happen! What possessed a human being to have such insolence. Pharaoh's incurable arrogance was absolutely mind-boggling!

Horav Yaakov Galinsky, Shlita, explains that it is necessary to maintain a balance between the forces of good and evil. Otherwise, the concept of bechirah chafshis, free-will, has no meaning. Consider an individual of exceptional kedushah, holiness, whose unstinting devotion to Hashem is his benchmark. When told he is to sacrifice his beloved son, for whom he has waited nearly a life-time, he is prepared to do so without question. There must be an antithesis to him among the forces of tumah, impurity. If, on the night before he is to leave to slaughter his son, Avraham Avinu went to bed, then there must be a representative of the forces of evil, who, when told he and the other firstborn of his kingdom will die, would likewise go to sleep, ignoring Hashem's warning. If Avraham goes to sleep, then Pharaoh must also have been evil enough - or foolish enough - to go to bed.

Avraham Avinu's power of kedushah was so great that he transcended human nature and emotion in order to fulfill the word of the Almighty. As a counterpart to Avraham, there had to be a Pharaoh, whose evil and defiance of Hashem would likewise transcend human nature. Avraham went to sleep secure and trusting in Hashem's command. Pharaoh went to sleep demonstrating his obstinacy and hostility to Hashem's command.

Horav Chaim Kanievsky, Shlita, supplements this thought with another case in which one's trust in Hashem overcame his natural tendency towards fear and anxiety. Yonah Ha'navi was on a ship, being thrown around the sea in the midst of a dangerous storm. The waves were shaking the ship and its passengers. Everybody was screaming, frightened for their lives. Yet, Yonah descended to the ship's hold and went to sleep. Is this a typical response to a life-threatening situation? Klal Yisrael was not created today or yesterday. We have been around for awhile and have endured the most formidable challenges to which human beings have been subjected. We are still here because Hashem protects us and wants us to be here. As He has protected us from our external enemies, He will also protect us from our enemies from within. Yonah goes to sleep trusting in Hashem, knowing that this storm is Hashem's work. Whatever will be - will be.

Horav Yitzchok Zilberstein, Shlita, attributes the rise in tension among Jews specifically to the above thesis. There has never been such a surge of Torah growth. Thousands upon thousands of young men and women are returning to Torah Judaism. The Yeshivos and Kollelim are filled with bnei Torah studying b'kedushah u'betaharah, with holiness and purity. Yet, in contrast, we find a world filled with moral decay unparalleled in history. There is a virulent animosity towards the observant Jew, regrettably, from some of our own brethren. That, however, is only a sign that the forces of kedushah are on the rise. To abate this elevation in holiness, there has to be a balanced rise in the forces of tumah, impurity. It is tragic that this has to be emanating from among our own People. We have to hope that one day they will come to their senses and realize that there is only one way for a Jew to live.

The situation seeks equilibrium. The Midrash relates that when the angel struck Sancheriv the king of Ashur's camp, during his battle against Chizkiyahu Ha'melech, all of his soldiers died. He was left alone with his two sons. When the wicked general saw this, he bowed down to his idol and said, "I am prepared to slaughter my remaining two sons to you, if you will help me." Before he had the opportunity to carry out his ill-fated plan, his two sons, who had overheard his prayer, killed him. The question glares at us. Sancheriv saw his own folly. He clearly saw that he was no match for Hashem. He had the strongest army, the most powerful weapons, and they were all transformed into nothing. Yet, he was prepared to slaughter his two children to an idol which has proven itself time and time again to be a worthless piece of stone. How irrational and senseless can one be? The answer is as mentioned. If Klal Yisrael possesses individuals whose level of kedushah, coupled with their overwhelming devotion to Hashem, is incredible-there has to be a balance. Sancheriv represented the balance.

In contrast, we offer the following story that demonstrates the kedushah of our People. In Russia, during the reign of the N.K.V.D., Russian secret police, who were notorious for their ruthlessness, it was forbidden to perform a bris milah, circumcise Jewish boys, or to shecht, ritually slaughter animals. Heaven-help he who was caught in such "defiance" of the state. Rav Aizik Roth, zl, was a mohel, ritual circumciser, who shared an apartment with another chasid who happened to be a shochet, ritual slaughterer. One night there was a loud knock on their apartment door. They knew that such a knock could only be a sign of trouble, since they were both "employed" in vocations that were strictly prohibited by the government. Rav Aizik told the shochet to gather his knives and leave through the back door. He would deal with the police. He opened the door to be greeted by a major in the Secret Police. "Where is the mohel?" he asked somewhat forcefully. Rav Galinsky, who happened to be in the apartment, looked at the officer and innocently asked, "Do you think, Major, that we would circumcise our children knowing that it goes against the government? No, we would never do this."

The Major was relentless; he would not budge: "Where is the mohel?" He walked through the apartment and saw that no one was there but himself and the two rabbanim. He turned to them and said in Yiddish, "I am also Jewish. My wife has given birth to a little boy, and I need a mohel to circumcise him." Imagine what was occurring. There is no doubt that if it had been discovered that this Major was circumcising his son, there would not be a gallows high enough for him. The Russian Secret Police would make him their paradigm of one who commits treason. His death would be slow and torturous. Yet, his overwhelming devotion to fulfill a mitzvah for which Jews died throughout the ages superceded all of his fears.

There must be a balance. In contrast to the malevolent evil of a Sancheriv there has to be an individual whose devotion to Judaism transcends even their basic desire to live. We should note that this major was not observant. He knew, however, that Bris Milah is a defining mitzvah in Judaism. He was prepared to die for this mitzvah. Regrettably, today some of out co-religionists who have alienated themselves from the faith, refuse to live with this mitzvah.

And it shall be when your son shall ask you at some future time, "What is this?" (13:14)

In the Haggadah, this question is attributed to the ben tam, simple son. How does the author of the Haggadah know this? Indeed, who says this question is the result of a curious, sincere and innocent mind; perhaps he is asking this mockingly, in an attempt to ridicule the mitzvos. Interestingly, regarding the simple son, the Torah says, "And it shall be when your son shall ask you at some future time," while regarding the ben rasha, wicked son, the Torah says, "And it shall be when your children say to you, What is this service to you?" (12:26). It seems as if they are both asking the same question; just the timing is different: The rasha does not wait; He asks immediately, while the tam asks at some future time. Is there a rationale for this?

In responding to these questions, the Kli Yakar first focuses on the simple son's question, "What is this?" What does he see that prompts this query? Indeed, this chapter does not even address the concepts of matzoh or marror. It is about Pidyon B'chor, redeeming the first-born. Evidently, the tam is not questioning the mitzvos of Pesach, but rather, the mitzvah of Pidyon B'chor. What is there about this mitzvah that provokes his curiosity?

Apparently, such is the nature of the simple son. When he is told to eat matzah and marror, he does not ask questions. He is told to perform a mitzvah; he listens and acts upon the request. After all, why not? It does not hurt to act properly. Questions? He will ask those later. The rasha, on the other hand, cannot tolerate even a "convenient" mitzvah. If an act even alludes to tradition or Torah in anyway, he must fight it. He is so pugnacious, he must immediately question the source, the rationale, the authority for this mitzvah. Heaven forbid that he be influenced into performing a "mitzvah"!

When the tam is asked to reach into his wallet to redeem the firstborn, then he has questions. One might err and compare the tam to the rasha, since they both question the mitzvah prior to accepting it. The Torah "explains" that there is a distinction between the two. The rasha asks immediately, he will do nothing if it in anyway alludes to Torah. The tam, in contrast, readily accepts the mitzvah that does not impose itself too heavily on his time, his person, his wallet. The difference is clear: The tam acts, then questions. The rasha seeks every reason not to act. The questions are just his way of justifying his arrogance and inaction.

Vignettes on the Parsha

With our youngsters and our elders we shall go…because it is a festival of Hashem for us. (10:19)

Yismach Moshe comments that whenever the young and old walk together, when there is intergenerational harmony and respect, it is a great festival for the nation.


Imrei Noam interprets this to mean that it is not only the young generation that was defiant and wanted to leave the Egyptian exile, but even the older generation, who might possibly have become complacent and "used" to the misfortunes, wanted to leave.


No man could see his brother nor could anyone rise. (10:23)

Horav Henach, zl, m'Alexandr'e explains that the "v'lo kamu," "nor could anyone rise," was a direct result of the "v'lo ra'u," "no man could see (his brother)." None of them was able to elevate himself from the spiritual abyss that was his "home," because he could not see the plight of his brother.


The Koznitzer Maggid, zl, was wont to say, if every Jew would "lend a hand," to support and sustain his fellow, all the "hands" would combine into one large, strong hand that would reach up to the Heavenly Throne and bring down blessing and salvation for Klal Yisrael.


Moreover the man Moshe was very great in the eyes of Egypt…and in the eyes of the people. (11:3) It was the "ish" Moshe, the "man" Moshe whose esteem was raised in the eyes of the Egyptian citizen. It was not his ability to conjure up miracles and wonders. It was his humanness, his mentchlichkeit and decency, his integrity and ethical character that earned him the respect of the people.

Sanctify to Me every firstborn. (13:2)

The Riziner Rebbe, zl, says that when a man arises in the morning he should dedicate his "reishis machashavto," first and primary thought, to Hashem. He will then be assured that during the remainder of the day, he will remain steadfast in his moral and spiritual rectitude.

Dedicated in appreciation
of the "Cocoa Club's" completion of Meseches Bava Basra with their Rebbe.


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