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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Please speak in the ears of the people: let each man request of his fellow and each woman of her fellow silver vessels and gold vessels… the people picked up its dough before it became leavened… and Bnei Yisrael carried out the word of Moshe… Hashem gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians. (11:2) (12:34,35)

Rashi tells us that Hashem asked Moshe Rabbeinu to make a special effort to convince the Jews to request valuables from their Egyptian neighbors, so that the soul of Avraham Avinu would not have a grievance against Hashem for not providing them with wealth as great as He had promised him. We must endeavor to understand this statement. If Hashem made a promise to Avraham that, after Klal Yisrael's many years of captivity, they would not leave empty-handed, then Hashem will keep His word simply because He gave it - not because of what Avraham might say. Rashi seems to imply that the only motivating factor for requesting that the Jews ask for gold and silver was to allay Avraham's potential complaint.

In response to this question, Horav Avraham Schorr, Shlita, cites the pesukim later on in the parsha that detail Klal Yisrael's exodus with their matzah on their shoulders, mentioning, as well, the fact that the Egyptians gladly parted with their gold and silver. The two pesukim seem to create a contradiction in the text. The pasuk begins by referring to the Jews who carried the unleavened dough as the "Am," people. The next pasuk begins by calling them Bnei Yisrael and closes by once again referring to them as "Am." The Torah commentators distinguish between Am, people, denoting the simple, common folk, and Bnei Yisrael, referring to the nobility, those who served Hashem on a deeper, more intellectually passionate level. Why does the Torah change its description of the Jews? Rav Schorr cites the Haflaah at the end of Meseches Kesubos, who renders a fascinating explanation for Hashem's use of the word, na, please, in requesting that the Jews appeal to the Egyptians for their gold and silver. Regarding Avraham's wealth, the Torah writes that Avraham was kaved me'od, very heavy, with cattle, silver and gold. The word kaved, heavy, implies that all this material wealth comprised a heavy load for Avraham. It is as if the Torah was telling us that Avraham was uncomfortable with the added wealth. Is this true? The Haflaah explains that, indeed, Avraham Avinu, as Patriarch, was transmitting an important lesson to his future descendents. They were to view material wealth as an added weight. Not only should they learn to be satisfied with what they have, but they should also eschew wealth. This would serve as a portent to his descendents, so that when they leave Egypt laden with gold and silver, they would view this material abundance as kaved, heavy, an added weight that they were obligated to take along with them. This would ensure that the wealth would be used properly, channeled to the appropriate outlets.

Hashem asked Moshe to "please" ask the emerging Jewish nation to request the Egyptian's valuables. He wanted the Jews to view this as a special favor, a unique request. If they would approach the gathering of Egyptian wealth in this manner, Avraham Avinu's soul would be at rest, because he was concerned about their attitude towards wealth.

Now, there were two types of Jews. The first, the Am, common people, did not want to partake of the Egyptian wealth for fear that they were not up to handling material abundance. They were not yet ready to deal with the opportunities and possible dangers that wealth would present for them. The Chasam Sofer adds that if they had at least one mitzvah that would provide them with a reminder of Hashem's Presence over them, they could risk the wealth. Without any protective mitzvah, however, they feared that the wealth would lead to arrogance and, ultimately, to forgetting about G-d.

Consequently, the Am, common people, decided on their own to take along a remembrance. The Matzah and Marror, symbolizing Hashem's Presence over them, were to serve as a constant testimonial of who they were and their purpose in life. "Bnei Yisrael," on the other hand, did not need this indicator of their relationship with Hashem. They were able to proceed - unhindered by feelings of inadequacy and fear - and request silver and gold from the Egyptians. Bnei Yisrael went on their own. They did not need Hashem's support. They asked the Egyptians outright for their wealth. In contrast, the Am, common people, needed Hashem to help them find favor in the eyes of the Egyptians.

Every Jew should view his G-d-given material abundance as Daber na, "please speak," as if Hashem is asking him to accept it for a purpose. This will engender restraint in regard to one's possessions. He will then remember that he is only a shomer, guardian, for a gift that Hashem has bequeathed to him for a specific purpose: to share it with others.

Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die… to the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the millstone. (11:5)

The firstborn children of the lowly Egyptian maidservants also died during the tenth plague, because they, too, enjoyed the suffering of the Jews. They suffered on their own account; yet, they took pleasure in the fact that there were those who suffered worse than they did. How often does it happen that one is involved in a business, and someone comes along and opens a similar business not far from him? He would love to do something to prevent his competitor's success, but he is afraid of getting into trouble with the authorities. Therefore, he waits and stews, hoping that something will happen that will prevent the other business from succeeding.

One day, a fire breaks out and destroys his competitor's store. He is overjoyed. Of course, he would not dare publicize his joy over his competitor's downfall. Indeed, he might even do everything to help him, so that he appears to be a fine and wonderful human being. Deep down, however, in the inner recesses of his heart, he gloats.

Horav Yitzchak Aizik Sher, zl, posits that such a miscreant, who is happy at the expense of his competitor's anguish, is considered more than "a not nice" person; it is considered as if he had burned down the store! The lowly maidservants took pleasure in the Jewish pain. Hashem viewed them as oppressors because of their covert, subtle support for the Egyptian tyranny. Thus, they paid for their behavior in the same manner as the Egyptian taskmasters. Taking enjoyment from another's pain is tantamount to causing it!

This month shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year. (12:2)

Rashi comments that we derive from this pasuk that the month of Nissan, the month during which the Exodus took place, is to be counted as the first month of the year, followed by Iyar as the second month, and so on. This is enigmatic. Why should Nissan take precedence over the other months? True, the Exodus was a seminal event for our People. What about Tishrei, the month in which the world was created, or Sivan, the month in which the Torah was given? Perhaps Tishrei should not be the first month, since the creation of the world is not a uniquely Jewish experience. Why, however, should Nissan precede Sivan? Indeed, are we not taught that the entire continuity of the world was dependent upon our acceptance of the Torah at Har Sinai? This event should certainly grant Sivan pre-eminence over Nissan.

Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, explains that we must not view the Giving of the Torah, which occurred in the month of Sivan, as an independent experience. Klal Yisrael could not possibly have reached the level of dedication necessary to be capable of receiving the Torah with a lasting commitment, until they had first undergone great preparation. Their faith and other character traits had to undergo a complete metamorphosis prior to the Revelation at Sinai. In addition to their personal refinement, they needed to divest themselves of the gentile influence which permeated their lifestyle. They were the products of two hundred and ten years of assimilation. This all had to change. It did. During the forty-nine day period between Pesach and Shavuos, between the Exodus and the Revelation, Klal Yisrael elevated themselves as they matured spiritually.

How was this possible? How could a nation that was subject to so much persecution and pain, a nation that had in a sense "bottomed out," that had descended to the nadir of depravity, turn around and accept the Torah. True, it took forty-nine days of intense and incessant preparation to achieve this goal, but what catalyzed this change?

The miracles of the Exodus, with the powerful lessons that they inspired, brought about this overwhelming change in Klal Yisrael's attitude. Thus, the Exodus symbolized more than Klal Yisrael's liberation from bondage. It was the genesis of the acceptance of the Torah. The Torah, therefore, deems it appropriate that the first month of the year be Nissan.

Rav Moshe adds that this idea applies equally to the proper method of raising children. The teaching of proper character traits and emunah, faith in the Almighty, cannot wait until a child is ready, willing and able to understand Torah. A child must be prepared for Torah study. Therefore, it is important that we strive to imbue our children with these all-important ideals from birth, so that when the time comes, they will be prepared for a life of Torah and mitzvos.

This month shall be for you the beginning of the months. (12:2)

The Jewish year is based on the lunar calendar, while the secular year is based on the solar calendar. A number of reasons are cited by the commentators for this divergence. Horav Moshe Shternbuch, Shlita, suggests that by relying on the lunar calendar, Klal Yisrael emphasizes that whatever occurs in the world is not in accordance with the laws of nature, but are rather ordained by the Almighty. The Torah we study and the mitzvos we perform are the determining factors in the mehalech ha'chaim, course of life, that affects us. Just as the moon does not have its own source of illumination, everything is derived directly from the light of the sun, so, too, do we believe that the light that shines on this world has its source in the spiritual dimension. Everything that occurs in this world is a by-product of Torah and mitzvos.

This is contrary to contemporary society's perspective that views world happenings as part of the natural order. We know that this is not true. Indeed, the effect of the ben Torah sitting in his corner studying Torah is compelling and far-reaching.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, substantiates this idea with the miracle that occurred during the makas barad, plague of hail. The Torah tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu left Pharaoh's palace and stretched out his hands Heavenward. As a result, the powerful sounds that accompanied the hail stopped, and the hail no longer hit the ground. The Midrash adds that the hail was suspended in midair. It hung in the balance for a number of years until, when Yehoshua was battling the Emorites, stones descended from Heaven upon them. The remainder will descend during the final war of the nations, Gog and Magog, which will usher in Moshiach Tzidkeinu. Even the powerful sounds were literally put on "hold", to descend during the days of Elisha.

We wonder, asks Rav Shternbuch, why Hashem deemed it necessary to save the hailstones and the sounds in midair? Was there a shortage of stones that Hashem could not create other ones? He cites a commentator, who explains that the stones were created by the tears of Klal Yisrael, the men, women and children who suffered the Egyptian prosecution and cried out to Hashem. He saved these tears and placed them in a receptacle to be used at a later date. No tear will be wasted. There is a time when it will be put to good use.

The sounds of agony that accompanied the cries of pain were also stored away to be used later. Hashem directs His world in a way completely different from our level of understanding. A Jew cries out in pain. That cry and those tears will one day have an effect. On what? We do not know. When? We also do not know. What we do know - and believe - is that they will not be wasted.

About six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from the children. (12:37)

The word k'sheish, about (six hundred thousand), implies that there were not exactly six hundred thousand men. How many were there really? Rabbeinu Bachya says that only one was missing. When Klal Yisrael left Egypt, there were six hundred thousand men - minus one. What did Hashem do to ameliorate this problem? He included Himself with them as it says in the pasuk, "and I shall also surely bring you up." (Bereishis 46:4) What merit did they have that Hashem included Himself among their numbers? Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, suggests that it was their overwhelming cheishak, desire, to perform mitzvos. Chazal say HaKadosh Baruch Hu, v'Oraisa, v'Yisrael, chad hu, "Hashem and the Torah and Klal Yisrael are one entity." Understandably, this occurs only when Klal Yisrael exhibits an incredible eagerness to serve Hashem.

Mesiras nefesh, devotion to mitzvos to the point of self-sacrifice, has powerful properties. Indeed, it has the power to eradicate the most compelling decree. This is especially true if the decree is hampering the individual from fulfilling the specific mitzvah for which he is being moser nefesh. The story is told about one of the Gaon m'Vilna's disciples, who, despite suffering from blindness at an early age, continued to dedicate himself to Torah study on an almost super-human basis. The Gaon was determined to find a shidduch, compatible mate, for him. A special young lady in Vilna saw beyond his physical challenge and was prepared to become his wife. Her father was even willing to support the young couple, while the young man devoted his life to Torah study.

The Gaon's joy on the day of the wedding was unprecedented. He felt like the father of the chassan, groom, ushering his son into the milestone event of his life. The chassan was walked down to the chupah and the marriage ceremony was about to begin, when the Gaon turned to the chassan and said, "Chazal teach us that one may not marry a girl until he has seen her." As soon as the Gaon completed his sentence, the chassan opened his eyes and was miraculously once again able to see!

All those assembled took note of the Gaon's incredible powers. Moreover, they understood that one who clings to Torah with mesiras nefesh has the merit that the most serious decree will be abrogated if it stands in the way of his mitzvah performance.

And you shall relate to your son on that day, saying, "For this sake did G-d act for me when I came forth from Egypt. (13:8)

Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, makes a noteworthy observation here regarding the manner in which we, as parents, are to convey the foundations of our belief to our children. First, we note that immediately upon mentioning the Festival of Pesach, the Torah emphasizes the duties of education. Our children are not to be induced to be faithful and observant of the Torah by habit alone, nor should this communication consist merely of preaching to them. They have to be shown the way by our example, and, simultaneously, by conveying to them the meaning of our observances. This inspires their minds and hearts, so that they learn to perform mitzvos with understanding and enthusiasm. Thus, their zeal for Jewish observance appeals to their minds, as well as to their emotions.

Baa'vur zeh, "Because of these practices". For this sake, because of the various observances that you, my child, see me doing (eating matzoh, marror, etc), I was liberated." We explain to our children that when we were taken from slavery to freedom, the one and only thing that we were capable of doing towards achieving this freedom was committing that for all that time we would observe these commands. The only reason that we were liberated was that we accepted upon ourselves to observe Hashem's mitzvos - no other reason! From this statement, one can begin to measure the inestimable value of these practices. Our entire existence, based on Hashem and dependent on Him, rests on this commitment. From day one, a child must be taught, given to understand, and shown by example that what we are is because of what we do. A heartfelt commitment remains in the heart. One must demonstrate his conviction with the actions that we are prescribed by the Almighty.

Va'ani Tefillah

L'olam yehei adam yerei Shomayim b'sisar u'vagalui - always let a person be G-d-fearing privately and publicly.

In an alternative explanation, the Tefillah seems to be out of sequence. The emphasis should have been on private serving of Hashem. Therefore, it should have been written second. The Yismach Moshe gives a novel reason. One might think that as long as he is covertly observant, serving Hashem in private, while publicly he is embarrassed to call attention to himself, that this behavior is acceptable. He is wrong. One should always maintain his observance and take pride in his relationship with Hashem - acting in public as well as in private. Public opinion should have no impact upon his observance of the Torah.

This is the idea behind the Torah's enjoinment, "I should be sanctified among Bnei Yisrael" (Vayikra 22:32). The true concept of v'nikdashti, "I will be sanctified" is best manifest when it is done publicly among the people.

While this thesis seems to focus on the challenges that one must surmount in public observance, it does not mitigate the problems that one confronts in private observance. This is illustrated by the following anecdote. Someone once came to Horav Yitzchak Blazer, zl, and related to him that a group of pious students had refused to sleep in a hotel because there was inappropriate reading material publicly displayed there. The giant of mussar, ethics, replied, "They should learn mussar, so that they elevate their yiraas Shomayim. Otherwise, they could lock themselves into the Aron Kodesh, and they will still light a candle and read what is inappropriate." It is the person, not the place, that determines wholesomeness.

l'zechor nishmas
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