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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


On the tenth of this month they shall take for themselves - each man- a lamb or a kid for each father's house, a lamb or kid for the household. (12:3)

The Jewish People were prepared to leave Egypt. Hashem had to give the word, and they would be on their way. There was one "slight" problem: they were not yet worthy of redemption. The time had arrived, but they were really not as ready as they thought. One must merit redemption. Hashem granted them two mitzvos which would occupy them in preparation for the big moment. They were told to prepare a sheep four days before it would be slaughtered and sacrificed, and they were to circumcise themselves. While these are both seminal mitzvos, why were they singled out to be the mitzvos that would warrant access to the redemption for Klal Yisrael?

In his inimitable manner, Horav Shabsai Yudelewitz, zl, presents for us an illustration of how Egypt appeared four days before the Exodus. The Jew is seen walking down the street carrying a young sheep. "Where are you going?" his Egyptian neighbor asks him. "I am preparing this sheep, so that in four days, I will slaughter it in honor of my G-d."

One can imagine that the Egyptian did not take very kindly to this idea. The sheep was his god! It is one thing to slaughter it quickly and get it over with, but why did Klal Yisrael have to take it four days before the redemption? It was to inculcate in their minds that they had nothing to fear from the hands of the Egyptians. The Egyptians were powerless to do anything to them.

Hashem wanted the Jews to know that once they "signed on" with Him, they no longer had anyone or anything to fear. A Jew fears only Hashem - no one and nothing else. Let us proceed to the next mitzvah: circumcision. When the Egyptian heard that the Jews enmasse were taking his god and slaughtering it, he assumed that the Jews were planning a rebellion. They were going to war against their oppressors. Otherwise, why would they be doing this? However, something else occurred that confused the Egyptian and destroyed his theory. The Jews proceeded to have themselves circumcised. Not one, not one hundred - but each of the Jews was having a Bris Milah. This meant that for the next few days, the Jews would be in pain as they recuperated. They certainly could not be planning a revolt. One does not go to war when he is lying in bed in pain. Look at what happened in Shechem, when Shimon and Levi - two young boys - destroyed an entire city!

Apparently, another reason accounted for the Jews' attitude, for their seemingly ridiculous behavior. Hashem was telling the Jewish People to demonstrate to the entire Egyptian nation that their faith in the Almighty was affirmed. The Egyptians with their gods could do nothing to them as long as they were under Hashem's protection. This public declaration of their unequivocal faith in Hashem set the wheels in motion. They had earned their redemption. They were now worthy of being liberated from the Egyptian exile. This is a timely lesson for all of us. We are worthy of salvation when we demonstrate our true conviction. When we show that we truly believe only in Hashem, He is there for us. May that day come speedily in our time.

Bnei Yisrael carried out the word of Moshe; they requested from the Egyptians silver vessels, gold vessels and garments. (12:35)

The Egyptians were only too happy to give their possessions to the Jews. If it meant that they were leaving, this would mark an end to the plagues. If so, good riddance! Ibn Ezra comments that not everyone received the same valuables. Indeed, "each person asked according to his personal virtue." This is noted from the fact that in the contributions for the Mishkan, it was only the Nesiim, Princes, the highest echelon of Jews, who contributed the precious stones, jewels and expensive oils. They were the only ones who obtained these expensive materials from the Egyptians, because they were the only ones who asked for them. What does Ibn Ezra mean? What special maalah, virtue, quality, did one need in order to borrow expensive articles from the Egyptians?

Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, explains that given Klal Yisrael's background as slaves for generations, it would require tremendous courage and self-confidence for them to ask their Egyptian masters for expensive jewelry and other such items. These were people who until now had been on the lowest queue of humanity. They were viewed by the Egyptians as vermin, human garbage. For them to go to their masters and ask for their most expensive possessions took incredible strength of character. Thus, only those who had preserved their dignity throughout the many years of servitude were able to muster up the fortitude to ask for the very expensive silver and jewelry. These were the Nesiim, who were destined for distinction. They did not buckle under the pressure and abuse which the Egyptians had orchestrated.

Pharaoh was no fool. He was acutely aware of the Jews' talents, their acumen, class and moral character. Once the Egyptians were to get wind of the elevated level of the "foreigners," they would gravitate towards them, even acculturate and eventually assimilate with them. In order to prevent this from occurring, Pharaoh painted a bleak and degrading picture of the Jews. He compared them to human refuse, lowly and slovenly, slaves who could not be trusted, filthy, base people. After a few hundred years of this forced image, the Jews began to believe and even act out their parts. The slavery and degradation took their toll on the Jews' self-image. They became self-conscious, sheepish and unsure of themselves. When they were instructed to go to their masters and borrow their material possessions, it was a difficult task for them. Each, according to how he was affected by the Egyptian propaganda, responded differently. Those who were obsequious asked for very little, while others had no qualms about asking for the finest jewelry. They had risen above the Egyptians. They were men of great value.

Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, explains that this is the strategy employed by the yetzer hora, evil-inclination, in his never-ending battle to encourage us to sin. First, he attempts to convince us that what we are about to do is really permissible. He finds a way to justify our actions. The way to protect oneself from the yetzer hora's guile is to remain shtoltz, exclusive and resolute, strong in his belief in Hashem and in himself. When one views himself with self-respect, with dignity, as a member of the mamleches Kohanim v'goi kadosh, kingdom of Priests and a holy nation, he rises above the yetzer hora's blandishments.

Yosef Hatzadik almost fell into the clutches of sin when Potifar's wife attempted to seduce him. According to one explanation in the Midrash, he demurred because he said, "What will I do if Hashem appears to me and I am tamei, ritually unclean? It will be humiliating." It was his dignity-- the realization of who he was and what he represented-- that made the difference. This is what saved him from sin.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, once asked the Gerrer Rebbe, the Beis Yisrael, zl, to pray for his brother who was ill. The Rebbe replied, "I will pray, but remember, you are a Yehudi and, therefore, you do not need an intermediary. Why do you not go to the Kosel and daven? Daven for your brother and he will be healed!"

This is Klal Yisrael's koach, power. Our belief in Hashem is what distinguishes us from the nations of the world. A Jew who has emunah, faith, has no reason to feel inferior to anyone. His faith connects and bonds him with the Almighty. What more can one ask for?

It happened on that very day: Hashem took Bnei Yisrael out of the land of Egypt. (12:51)

Freedom has many meanings. It all depends on who you are, what your restrictions and values are, and how limited you are in achieving your goals. One thing is certain: the Jews' redemption from Egypt was the seminal event in their history, an event which catalyzed all future religious events. Without freedom, they could never have attained the monumental experience of receiving the Torah. How is a Jew to understand freedom, and what should the liberation from Egypt mean to us?

I think that freedom is an attitude. One may have complete freedom of movement, but remain restricted because his mind is subject to various inhibitions-- or he is a slave to his desires over which he has no control. Thus, a free man is one who is in control. It is a spiritual state, in which one expresses his convictions at all times, unafraid of the circumstances. True freedom is being able to maintain fidelity to one's values, despite the challenge of adversity and the ability to choose his actions without having to compromise his principles or beliefs. This freedom is in the mind. It cannot be taken away by persecution, nor can it be affected by constant oppression. A prisoner in an 8' x 4' cell can be a free man if his mind is free, if he does not allow the choking environment around him to manipulate his thought process. Indeed, it is specifically during periods of duress, when one is under intense pressure or suffering, that he becomes aware of his spiritual / emotional freedom.

Hashem gives us the "opportunity"-- through the various challenges we confront-- to prove that we are free. We are confronted daily with Hashem's "concealment" whereby He wants us to search for Him, to rise above adversity, to triumph over vicissitude, and to maintain our connection with Him. This is freedom. Our ability to choose the correct response, to make the right decision, to hold our heads up high under any given circumstance, connotes freedom. This is freedom that cannot be taken away from us. We relinquish it when we lose control over our lives by reneging our spirituality.

In a very poignant prayer, a group of tortured Jews, inmates in a concentration camp, composed the following "Prayer of Chametz," which I discovered recently in the Hagaddah, "In Every Generation," by Rabbi Moshe Grylak.

"Father in Heaven, it is revealed and known before You that it is our will to perform Your will, to celebrate the festival of Pesach with the eating of Matzoh and adhere to the observance of the prohibitions of chametz. However, it is about the following matter that our hearts worry. Due to our internment we may be restricted from properly observing Your commandments. Moreover, our lives are at risk. We are prepared and ready to carry out Your commandment V'chai bahem, And you shall live by them, (but not die by them). We will be careful to heed Your warning: Beware of yourself and greatly beware for your soul. It is, therefore, our prayer to You that You keep us alive, sustain us, and liberate us speedily, so that we should be able to observe Your commandments, perform Your will, and serve You wholeheartedly, Amen."

One can only imagine the circumstances and conditions under which this prayer was composed. Yet, each one of these afflicted Jews symbolized the true essence of freedom. He had risen from above his Nazi oppressors as he soared in the heights, experiencing a connection with Hashem only possible under such circumstances. He might be in pain; the tears flowing down his cheeks; his heart broken over the many losses in his life, but he nonetheless raises up the piece of matzoh and makes a brachah, blessing, with love, joy and fervor. This is freedom at its zenith! He is tasting the sweetness of freedom, because he connects spiritually with Hashem. No one can take that away from him.

When the Jews left Egypt, it was not an open-door automatic policy. They had to earn freedom. They had to present a mindset that was freedom-oriented. The physical redemption followed a spiritual redemption, a purging of one's spiritual frailties, a fusion of one's spiritual convictions. Commitments had to be made: the slave mentality that had enveloped them for centuries had to be extirpated from their psyche. In order to be free, they had to think like free men - with pride, with goals, with purpose, with initiative.

The performance of two mitzvos, which were given to the Jews prior to their redemption from Egypt-- the mitzvah of Bris Milah, circumcision; and Korban Pesach, the slaughter and sacrifice of the Paschal lamb-catalyzed this transformation. It was the "bloods" of circumcision and the sacrificial lamb which gave the Jews the ability to transcend materialism and to remove themselves from the Egyptian culture and slave mentality that had plagued them. It took great courage to spill these bloods. The lamb was the Egyptian godhead. For the Jews to overcome their natural fear of the Egyptians was an incredible step. Circumcision was their first step towards control over their physical tendencies. By taking the reins over their physical /material proclivities, the Jews became free in body and soul. They were now ready to leave the accursed country that had enslaved them for so long. Hashem's words could now penetrate into their hearts and minds, because there was no longer anything preventing these words from entering. The Jews were ready for their destiny as the Jewish nation.

We must break the chains that enslave us, for only when we make the move do we prepare ourselves for the freedom that comes with a life of Torah commitment. The messages are being conveyed on a regular basis, but we are in the midst of a slumber called habit. When we break the self-imposed chains that bind us, we will be able to apply the eternal message of the Exodus to our own lives. When those Yidden prayed in the concentration camp, they broke the chains of enslavement. The Nazis no longer controlled them. We can do the same. Why wait until we are confronted with a challenge?

Yetzias Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt, was more than a one-time experience. It is not an isolated historical event that is supposed to have great meaning for us. The exodus from Egypt serves as the prototype of our relationship with the Almighty. In other words, a Jew must believe that Hashem will redeem him. Despite the misery that we have experienced throughout the ages, we have always maintained the resolute belief that we would one day be redeemed. It has become part of our nature - or, at least, it should.

The hope that every Jew should have can be expressed with the following story: A Jew in Russia returned from shul one Shabbos HaGadol, the Shabbos before Pesach, to find his house completely destroyed by the Cossacks, and his family scattered all over, walking around in shock and bewilderment. Nu, it was Shabbos HaGadol, and the Rav was going to give his derashah, lecture, in the afternoon. Although this Jew was heartbroken and in shock, he bid his family Gut Shabbos and left for the shul to listen to Horav Yeshaya Heschel, zl, the Apter Rebbe. The city had suffered greatly. Many had lost their homes, their livelihoods, yet the Rebbe talked about Pesach and freedom. Pesach was a time for redemption. They listened to the Rebbe. The unfortunate Jew returned home to his destroyed house, to the desolation of what once was his home, and on Motzoei Shabbos he could be seen dancing and singing amid the ruins, singing the praises of Hashem. How did he do it? He believed in the lesson of Pesach: Hashem always redeems us. Sooner or later, we will be free of this wretched exile. Until then, we maintain a freedom mindset. We will be redeemed from the exile, from the dire straits, from the poverty, from the illness, and from the despair. Pesach is the festival of hope and faith. They go hand in hand with the Jew, as he learns to confront and transcend adversity.

And it shall be a sign upon your arm, and an ornament between your eyes, for with a strong hand Hashem removed us from Egypt. (13:16)

The Ramban discusses the mitzvah of Tefillin and its relationship with the Exodus. The principles of the Shema and yetzias Mitzrayim, exodus from Egypt, are central to the belief of an observant Jew. It is for this reason that these principles must always be with us, as they are wrapped around our arms, symbolizing our capacity for action, opposite the heart, the seat of emotion, and upon the head, connoting the intellect, the soul and the ability to remember. The Tefillin inspire us to fulfill our obligation and do His will. He continues by defining the purpose of the mitzvos which serve as remembrances of the miracles of the Exodus. He views miracles as the basis for the Jewish belief in Hashem as the Creator and Ruler of the world. The Ramban concludes with his famous treatise on miracles: "From the great and public miracles man learns to recognize the concealed miracles, which are the foundation of the entire Torah. A man has no part in the Torah of Moshe unless he believes that all things and occurrences are all miracles and have no nature or the 'way of the world' in them, whether communally or individually. Rather, if he fulfills the mitzvos, his reward will bring him success, and if he transgresses them, his punishment will cut him off - everything by the decree of the Almighty."

Ramban distinguished between two types of miracles: the great overt, public miracles; and hidden miracles. The first category is a reference to such mind-blowing miracles as took place in Egypt during and after the Exodus. The second category includes every other occurrence that affects the believer, those happenings which we refer to as acts of nature or natural occurrences. According to them, nothing is natural. It is all G-d's intervention. The relationship between the two forms of miracles is educationally causative. The existence of the overt-- public miracles and man's recognition of what they teach him about G-d-- leads him to recognize that the second set of miracles in the guise of nature are miracles, examples of the personal intervention of G-d in the life of the believer. In other words, nothing "just happens." It is all by design. The world we live in is guided by Hashem in such a manner as to allow one to believe that it is all part of nature. This, too, is a miracle. Horav Mordechai Schwab, zl, cites Horav Yonasan Eibyshutz, zl, who notes the word hateva: hay, tes, bais, ayin has a numerical equivalent of eighty-six which is the same gematriya, numerical equivalent, as Elokim. Hashem guides teva, nature, with the name Elokim. This is the meaning of neis nistar, covert miracle: it is hidden under the guise of nature.

The Mashgiach of Yeshivas Lomza, Horav Moshe Rosenstein, zl, explained this with an analogy. Rain can go on for days and even weeks. Snow, however, which is frozen rain, never lasts for more than a few hours or, at most, a day. This is Providential. Imagine if it snowed the way it rains. We would be buried in snow. The world would practically come to a stop. The daughter of the Alter, zl, m'Kelm once shared a room in the hospital in Koenigsburg, Germany, with a German Jewish woman who was totally assimilated. The Alter's daughter made an attempt to reach out to her, to no avail. Finally, she related the above analogy to substantiate that G-d continues to rule over the world and that nothing just happens. Shortly thereafter the lady became observant as a result of her encounter with the Alter's daughter.

Horav Asher Weiss, Shlita, in his commentary to the Haggadah, relates the following "story." A young boy sat at the Seder table, listening to his father recount the many miracles our ancestors experienced when they left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea. Suddenly, the child interrupted his father and asked, "Abba, what is so special about the splitting of the Red Sea? If Hashem created the sea, surely He is able to split it. What is the big thing?"

The father replied, "Let me tell you a story which will explain why Hashem split the sea. There was a brilliant craftsman who could sculpt an animal so well that it actually looked like the real thing. He once created a horse out of clay that looked exactly like the real thing. Having invested much time, energy and money in its creation, he decided to put it up for sale. He placed it in the market place and waited for the right customer. We can imagine how miserable he felt when, at the end of the first week, no one had even noticed the sculpted horse, let alone offer to purchase it. Obviously, this depressed the sculptor who was certain this was one of his most realistic works of art. Confiding to a friend about his concern, his friend told him, 'What do you expect? It is so realistic that no one believes it is a work of art. They think it is a real horse! No one stops to gaze at a horse!'"

"'So what should I do?'" the sculptor asked. "'I have not put countless hours of backbreaking labor to produce this work of beauty to have it ignored.'"

"His friend gave him some practical advice. 'Cut the horse in half and place the two halves side by side. You will then see how many people stop in wonderment to see a horse cut in half.'"

The same thing applies to miracles. If we would appreciate the creation of the sea and all of the countless miracles which we experience on a daily basis, there would be no need to split the sea. After all, what novelty is there for Hashem, Creator and Ruler of the world? Is it because we forget to take note of all the miracles that Hashem has to make "changes," so that we realize that everything around us is really a work of art, a miraculous creation by the Master Creator: Hashem.

Va'ani Tefillah

Ratzon yireiav yaaseh v'es shavasam yishma v'yoshieim.
He will do the will of those who fear Him; He will hear their cries and save them.

We pray to Hashem and, at times, we are answered to our satisfaction. Other times we supplicate, we beg, and yet, our entreaty seems to be ignored. Hashem does the will of those who fear Him. Are we not among those who fear Him? Horav Chaim Kanievsky, Shlita, cites the Midrash Tanchuma that distinguishes between the prayer of a Jew and a gentile. A person asks for children, unaware that they will be a source of misery and disgrace for him and the Jewish people. An individual asks for money, not realizing that if he receives his wish, he will end up rebelling against Hashem. In such cases, Hashem knows the true ratzon, will, of a Jew and therefore will not grant him his wish. The gentile, however, receives what he asks for.

A person prays for something, thinking that it is good for him. Hashem knows it is not and, therefore, this is not the G-d fearing Jew's will. Hashem does his real will, what is best for the individual. He hears his cry. He does not always answer him positively, because, at times, what the Jew is asking might be to his detriment. How ignorant are we of the ways of Hashem!

l'zechus u'lerefuah sheleima
Baruch ben Sara Chasia
b'soch she'or cholei yisrael

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