Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants. (10:1)

The hardening of Pharaoh's heart, preventing him from recanting and performing teshuvah, repentance, played a critical role in the punishment of the Ten Plagues that Hashem sent against Egypt. In truth, as Rabbeinu Bachya explains, Pharaoh initially took the first step by himself hardening his heart. It was after Pharaoh took the first steps and hardened his own heart that Hashem continued further to harden his heart, so that He could multiply His miracles and wonders in Egypt. Now that we know how the process began, we should ask ourselves a simple question: What is the meaning of hachbodas lev, "hardening of the heart?" Is it a dulling of the emotions, a lack of sensitivity, an obtuseness toward reality?

Rabbeinu Bachya gives us the answer to this question. He quotes a pasuk in Mishlei 28:14, "Praised is the man who always fears; and one who hardens his heart falls in evil." To paraphrase Rabbeinu Bachya, one who feels fear in every action that he takes-- who studies his actions, considering their consequences, disadvantages and benefits before he goes forward-- should be lauded. Such an individual is truly praiseworthy. He exemplifies fear of Heaven. He acts wisely, and he earns a living without infringing on others, making absolutely sure to only take what is coming to him. Such a person eats only healthy foods, so that his body is sustained, and surrounds himself with many mitzvos. He lives a purposeful and focused life. This, explains Rabbeinu Bachya, is the meaning of the first part of the pasuk, "one who always fears." In the second half of the pasuk, Shlomo HaMelech addresses the person who does the opposite: "He who does not contemplate the results of his actions is hardening his heart. This is the result of an evil and cruel heart."

Rabbeinu Bachya is teaching us the meaning of "hardening" one's heart: one who demonstrates a lack of concern and contemplation vis-?-vis the consequences of his actions. This is caused by an evil heart, a heart that is cruel - to itself. There is a powerful lesson to be derived herein. An individual who does not care about consequences is not necessarily a cruel person - even to himself. He might manifest a lack of conscientiousness or laziness - but cruelty? Is that not going a bit too far?

Horav Henoch Leibowitz, Shlita, derives a powerful lesson from Rabbeinu Bachya. We are being taught here that, in its normal state, the human psyche is completely aware and concerned with the ramifications of its actions. Man was created with an alert, perceptive mind, one that naturally feels an inner need to anticipate the after effect of his actions and remain vigilant concerning the future. Only a person who is plagued with an element of cruelty towards himself can repress this innate drive to be concerned about his actions.

The Rosh Yeshiva continues with an observation about life and people. The world is filled with people who seem to go about their business without a care in the world. They are not concerned with the results of their actions, doing what they want whenever they want, regardless of who may be affected thereby. The Mesillas Yesharim compares such a person to a blind man who walks on the banks of a river, heedless of the impending disaster that awaits him with one slip of the foot. There is a difference, however, between the two: the blind man is not blind by choice; it is G-d's decree. The other person is blind by choice. He closes his eyes, refusing to look at what awaits him. His choice is deliberate, uncaring--and cruel.

When we open our eyes and perceive the effects of our actions, we are actually showing compassion for our inner selves. We are not permitting the self-imposed blindness to distort reality and destroy our lives. How many of us are really able to do that? We often live a life without cheshbon, accountability, acting now and paying for it later. We say that we do not care, but is that really true? Moreover, even if we do not care about ourselves, even if we are so cruel to ourselves that we act without considering the ramifications, but what about those around us, such as our parents, spouses and children? What have they done to warrant the effects of the cruelty we inflict upon ourselves?

Hashem has endowed us with an instinctive desire to be concerned, to be sensitive--to ourselves and to others. We need only to defer to instinct and our own actions, so that our lives will play out in a manner that befits our status as the crowning point of Hashem's Creation.

On the tenth of this month they shall take for themselves a lamb or kid for each father's house…It shall be yours for examination until the fourteenth day of this month; the entire congregation of the assembly of Yisrael shall slaughter it. (12:3, 6)

The Mechilta questions the need for acquiring and designating the lamb four days prior to its shechitah, ritual slaughtering. They explain that the appointed time for Klal Yisrael's redemption from the Egyptian exile had arrived. There was one problem, however: the Jews did not have a sufficient supply of mitzvos in which they were engaged to render them worthy of liberation. The Mechilta cites a pasuk in Yechezkel (16:7), "But you were naked and bare." This is a reference to Klal Yisrael's being "naked" of mitzvos. Thus, Hashem gave them the mitzvos of Bris Milah, circumcision, and Korban Pesach, which would occupy them until the geulah, redemption. In order to receive reward, one must act; he must carry out the mitzvah. This is why Hashem instructed Klal Yisrael to acquire the lamb four days prior to the appointed time for the redemption.

We must endeavor to understand Chazal's statement. It is not as if Klal Yisrael had already accepted the Torah, thereby obliging them in mitzvah observance. They had not. They were a community of Hebrew slaves living in Egypt. True, they were the descendants of Yaakov Avinu and the Twelve Tribes, but, without the Torah, they were not yet Klal Yisrael. How could they be held responsible for not performing mitzvos? This teaches us, says Horav Mordechai Ezrachi, Shlita, that the Jewish People are different. Even if they do not have mitzvos to perform; even when they are neither obligated to carry out any positive commandments nor held culpable for committing a sin by transgressing a prohibitive command, they are still considered "naked and bare." They are in a state of undress, of shame and humiliation. An adult who is not concerned with his indecent exposure lacks an element of maturity. He is still a child. Mitzvos are the Jew's covering without which he is bare, exposed to the elements and open to humiliation.

Rav Ezrachi explains that geulah, freedom, is not simply the antithesis of exile. Geulah is a state of being. One who does not have the Torah as his guiding principle can be theoretically free, released from bondage, but is nonetheless considered to be a slave to himself. He may have been freed from one master, but he is still obligated to another. Freedom is a state in which one is liberated physically, spiritually and emotionally. He is in control of his destiny. His decisions are made - not compelled.

When the Jewish People were liberated from Egypt, redemption developed progressively. As they moved forward, coming closer to Hashem, establishing a greater distance between themselves and the Egyptian lifestyle and culture, they were achieving redemption. This process evolved until the very last moment when the ultimate liberation was to take place, but Klal Yisrael was not ready. They were missing their covering. They were naked. One cannot leave Egypt in such a dismal state. Their freedom would be short-lived. Hashem granted them two mitzvos, which would provide them with temporary covering until they received the Torah and become truly free men.

A Jew who cannot perform mitzvos should feel inadequate. Something integral is missing from his life. He feels naked. It goes even further than that. A Torah Jew feels that he cannot survive without mitzvos. He feels a gravitational pull toward mitzvos and an overwhelming desire to fulfill them. There is no dearth of stories that emphasize this idea. I take the liberty of relating a famous incident that occurred concerning Horav Gershon Libman, Rosh Hayeshivah of Novordak in France, the man who was most responsible for the rejuvenation of Torah life in France following World War II.

At the time of the episode, Rav Gershon was interred in the notorious labor/death camp Bergen Belsen. Subsisting on almost no food and subjected to harsh, brutal labor, it was difficult to maintain the spiritual stamina for which he was well-known in the Novordoker Yeshivah. Yet, he did. He lived in Bergen Belsen, but his mind and soul were soaring in Novordak. Indeed, every challenge was a nisayon, a test, that brought him closer to Hashem, so that he triumphed over the adversity that had confronted him.

One day while he was working in the field, he was grabbed by the SS and taken to the commandant's office. They did this whenever they sought to "break" a prisoner's will. Just being removed from the misery of the "outside" world and brought into the office with its fancy trappings could shock an inmate. The stark contrast between what the inmates had to endure and what this office represented was more than simply unnerving. What Rav Gershon was about to confront, however, was something for which he had never been prepared. He entered a room that was outfitted with plush carpeting, beautiful paintings and, in the middle of the room, a richly carved, ornate mahogany table. On the table were exquisite china, elegant silver flatware, and the main course: a large, roasted pig! While all of this repulsed him, the revulsion did not reach its climax until he noticed the tablecloth. There, spread across the table - beneath the repugnant roast pig- was a Tallis!

This Tallis, that was once probably used by a Jew davening to Hashem with sincerity and feeling, was now a tablecloth for a Jew to eat a pig! Thi revulsion was unfathomable; the shock too much to control. Rav Gershon forgot where he was and what the ramifications of his actions would be. In one swift move, he yanked the Tallis off the table. The china, crystal, silver and the pig went flying through the air, landing in a heap upon the commandant's lap. Rav Gershon grabbed the Tallis close to him, kissing it, caressing it and crying. "I am so sorry for the indignity that you had to suffer," he "told" the Tallis. "I am so sorry for your disgrace."

Rav Gershon was prepared. He waited for that bullet that would end his misery, but he would die holding the Tallis in his hands, giving it the respect it deserved. The commandant was furious. He had staged this entire scenario in order to push the Jew over the edge. Let him cringe with revulsion and shame, as his religious relic was defamed in his presence. The Jew, however, did not act according to the script. The Tallis meant more to him than his life. How could this be? For some reason, the Nazi did not kill Rav Gershon, settling instead on beating him mercilessly for his impudence. The blood flowed from his wounds, but Rav Gershon survived. He had preserved the dignity of the Tallis, the honor of Hashem. Mitzvos were his life, without which his life was not worth living.

And against all the gods of Egypt I shall mete out punishment. (12:12)

Of course, Hashem has the power to destroy Egypt's idols. Nothing has the power to stand up against Hashem - certainly not the Egyptian idols of wood and stone. What is the pasuk telling us? Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, interprets the "gods of Egypt" as referring to the various new idealisms that seem to sprout up in each generation. Every era has its plague of false and ill-conceived principles, doctrines that are touted by their innovators as the healing elixir for the world's ills. If we peruse back throughout history, we will note how Hashem in His infinite wisdom disposed of these ersatz misleading, ideals and philosophies. Socialism was going to save the world - until Hitler, the consummate socialist, demonstrated its hypocrisy and calamitous effects. Communism, at first, was heralded as the new messiah, grabbing the populace and transforming them into believers. This lasted until Mr. Communism, Joseph Stalin, proved to the world what kind of false idol communism really was.

People make idols for themselves, convincing themselves that they finally have the panacea to all of their problems. Hashem will show them, as He showed the Egyptians, that there is no room in this world for any false gods - regardless of the name under which it is packaged.

You shall observe this day for your generations. (12:17)

We have to guard the matzoh dough, making sure that it does not become leaven. Likewise, explains Horav Zalman Sorotzkin, zl, we are enjoined to guard "the day" distill the experience, preserve the essence, perpetuate the lessons and emotions of the day that we left Egypt. How careful we must be not to allow the awareness of the revelations and miracles that we experienced become part of a "war of liberation," a freedom fight, that we waged against the Egyptians. We must be on guard that "the day" remains etched in our minds as a day of wondrous miracles wrought by Hashem for His People. It was not our triumph; it was not our strength and power; it was not our victory. It was Hashem's. Remember that He took us out. We did not leave by our own volition.

And it was on that day that all the legions of Hashem left the land of Egypt. (12:41)

The Jews had been in Egypt for generations. Finally, they were leaving. Why? What did they do that made them worthy of redemption? It is not as if they were committed to Hashem. In fact, at the Red Sea, it was hard to distinguish them from their pursuers. "They are both idol worshippers," the angels declared. "Why should the Jews live and the Egyptians die? The Midrash in Sefer Vayikra teaches us that Klal Yisrael was redeemed from Egypt because of four things to which they were committed: they did not change their Hebrew names; they continued to speak the Holy Tongue; they did not speak deleteriously against each other; they maintained their moral rectitude. There is no question that these four qualities protect the Jews from assimilating with the gentile world, and it is these characteristics that served as sentinels to safeguard the Jewish People, maintaining their commitment to the Almighty. Their transgressions were external, effects of mingling with-- and being exposed to-- Egyptian culture and society. Intrinsically, however, they retained their Jewish values and commitment.

Retaining one's Jewish name has great significance, indicating a sense of pride in the individual's heritage. Jewish morals and respecting one another-demonstrated by not speaking slanderously-are certainly measures of one's values. How is an affinity to retaining one's language connected to redemption? Klal Yisrael continuing to speak Hebrew does not seem to warrant such considerable attention.

Horav Ben Tzion Yodler, zl, relates an incident that took place in Eretz Yisrael during the early part of the twentieth century. A group of rabbanim-- among them Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, Horav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Horav Yonasan Binyamin Horowitz, Horav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, and Horav Ben Tzion Yodler-- traveled to the Galil to visit the new moshavim that were being established. Their goal was to impress upon the residents the importance of religious observance. The decision to send such a large contingent was based upon the enormity of the challenge. What they saw was disheartening. There was really no intention on the part of the pioneers to observe any aspect of the Torah. They were establishing physical homes for themselves and building the country for the future. Religion was simply not part of their architectural strategy. They had long ago left religion in Europe.

The rabbanim were well aware of their challenges, and they set about preparing a religious offensive to save these Jews lost by total alienation. Rav Ben Tzion asked for an appointment to meet with the director of the primary organization in charge of developing the land and the settlements. The director agreed to meet under the condition that the conversation would take place in Ivrit, Hebrew. This was at a time when Hebrew was a religion and represented one's level of Jewishness.

Rav Ben Tzion began the meeting by telling one of his famous stories. "It happened in Russia a number of years ago. A young Jewish couple began their life together with the usual poverty, but with great aspirations for the future. Their mama lashon, mother tongue, was Yiddish - for the time being. As the young man succeeded in commerce, developing contacts and affiliations with others who had long ago rejected the mother tongue for the voguish Russian language, it became their new vernacular of communication. It reached a point where they hardly ever uttered a Yiddish word. It was always Russian.

The time came for their first child to be born, and the young man rushed to call the doctor. He came quickly, but did nothing. The young woman was in great pain, but the doctor said it was not yet time for him to get involved. She screamed, and the doctor remained adamant; it was not yet time. "Why are you making my wife go through this agony?" the man asked the doctor. "Do something to ease the pain," he demanded.

"It is not yet time," the doctor replied. "Do not worry. When it will be the 'real thing,' I will do what is necessary." This went on for another hour until the woman screamed in Yiddish, Momma, helf mir! "Mother, help me!"

"Now," exclaimed the doctor, "she is ready. Once she began to shriek in her mother tongue, I knew it was sincere. She is crying out from the heart. The time has come."

Rav Ben Tzion concluded, "My dear director. You asked that we converse in Hebrew. I am sorry, but I must speak to you from the inner recesses of my heart. For that I must speak in momma lashon, the language that has been with our people for generations. It is the dialect that conveys my innermost feelings. It is the expression of sincerity. It is the symbol of my integrity and emotion."

Klal Yisrael's momma lashon in Egypt was Lashon HaKodesh. It was their natural language - unembellished, unpretentious, and straightforward. It represented what and who they were. When they spoke from the heart, they spoke as Jews. When they cared, they cared as Jews. They were essentially Jews who--under the duress of persecution and under the influence of an immoral environment--absconded to the prevailing culture. Their choice of momma lashon, however, demonstrated the focus of their true affiliation.

Va'ani Tefillah

Hu asanu v'lo anachnu amo.
He made us and we belong to Him.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that the word asanu, "He made us," has the same meaning here as it does in the Aleinu prayer: Shelo asanu k'goiyei ha'aratzos, "He did not make us like the nations of the world." In accordance with the explanation rendered by Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, this means: All of the other nations developed first by holding on to a parcel of land founding its system of government on the basis of consent from the people (in a democracy) or through the power of a king who forced people to crown him as monarch. This is how this nation became sovereign and independent. The concept of independence for the Jewish Nation is a misnomer. The very opposite is true. We are, indeed, the only non-sovereign nation in the world, for our nationhood is not based on land or government. It is based on the laws that Hashem has decreed for us, and our land is ours by virtue of His benevolence as the most ideal place to carry out His laws. The land is ours on the condition that we adhere to His laws. Thus, Hu asanu, "He made us," means, "It was Hashem who made us into an independent nation."

Why do we proclaim that Hashem "made us"? Is it not obvious that He is our Maker? Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, explains the notion of Hashem "making" us as meaning that Hashem made us for a purpose. We are here for a reason; we have a function. He did not just "make us." We are here to serve Him and carry out His laws. Indeed, the first step in religion is to recognize that life has purpose and, thus has meaning. Without purpose there is no meaning, and, without meaning, what is life?

In memory of
My grandparents
Shomer & Mary (Shaw) Katz
Avrohom & Rose (Goldstein) Malevan

and in honor of
their descendants

Roseanne Malevan

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

The Ninth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel