Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Sarah's life was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years. (23:1)

The Torah informs us that Sarah Imeinu lived to be one hundred twenty seven years old. We are now aware of the Matriarch's longevity, but what about her life? Very little is recorded concerning her actual life, what happened, what she did, what type of person she was: simple questions whose answers would characterize the first Matriarch. We have some idea concerning her outreach activities. Chazal teach that Sarah converted the women, while Avraham Avinu converted the men. They derive this from the pasuk, V'es ha'nefesh asher asu b'Charan, "And the souls which they made in Charan" (Bereishis 12:5). Sarah taught monotheism alongside Avraham. Together, they succeeded in reaching out to the pagan population. This is taught to us by Chazal. The Torah, however, does not elaborate about Sarah. Why are we not accorded a better perspective on the life and personality of this elusive Matriarch? One hundred twenty seven years is a long time. Certainly, Sarah accomplished much during her life that would serve as a worthy inspiration to her descendants.

Apparently, Sarah Imeinu's concealment from the public eye is her greatest virtue and most "prominent" quality. When the angels who visited Avraham inquired concerning Sarah's whereabouts, A'yei Sarah ishtecha, "Where is Sarah, your wife?" the Patriarch had replied, Hinei! b'Ohel, "Behold! She is in the tent!" (Bereishis 18:9). Rashi comments, tzenuah hee, "Sarah is a private person." Avraham was not simply informing them of Sarah's present location, but rather, he was intimating a powerful and penetrating characterization of his wife: "She is in the tent! Sarah is a private person!" Sarah was modeling for her daughters throughout the future generations regarding the role of a bas Yisrael. The most fitting description of a Jewish girl/woman is: hinei b'ohel - "She is in the tent."

This does not mean, of course that the Jewish woman must remain sequestered in the home, locked up in the kitchen - as many secularists and modernists would have you think the Torah is suggesting. This description does not imply inferiority, since we know that Sarah was superior to Avraham in nevuah, prophecy. David Hamelech writes in Sefer Tehillim 45:14, Kol kevudah bas Melech penimah, "The entire glory of the daughter of the King lies on the inside." This pasuk tells it all. A Jewish girl/woman is a bas melech, daughter of the King; hence, she is different than her non-Jewish female counterpart. The Jewish woman neither needs, nor is it appropriate for her, to be involved on the public stage, in the spotlight, calling attention to herself. It is not something that she craves, because she is the daughter of the King. She is above it.

Furthermore, David Hamelech is not only addressing the private nature of the female role, he is issuing a statement concerning the religious experience in general: it does not have to be filled with marching bands and advertisements, calling attention to one's religious service. The religious experience is designed to be between man and G-d. While the concept of tznius applies to both men and women, the private sphere should be the dominant area of a woman's life. Thus, we know very little concerning the life of Sarah Imeinu. After all, she was a tzenuah!

Women throughout the generations have always been defined and presented as figures of great moral strength - especially during periods of crisis. After Sarah passed away, no one was able to fill her shoes until Yitzchak Avinu married Rivkah Imeinu and brought her to his mother's tent. Immediately, the daughter-in-law revived the spiritual atmosphere that had been missing since Sarah's passing. Rivkah assumed the role of Matriarch. She was the one who saw through the ruse of Eisav. She perceived his malevolent nature. Her moral courage helped Yaakov to retrieve the blessings, thereby preserving the future of Klal Yisrael.

Tanach constantly reiterates this idea, and Chazal underscore it. It was the women who refused to participate in the creation of the Golden Calf, and it has been the nashim tzidkanios, righteous woman of every generation, who have given the Jewish People their moral strength to survive and triumph over the vicissitudes that we face individually and collectively as a nation.

In a shmuess, ethical discourse, on the religious function of a bas Yisrael, Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, focuses on a practical question: How do we determine the gadlus, greatness, of a woman? We hear of gadlus ba'Torah, distinction in Torah erudition; likewise, we are aware of gadlus in chesed, kindness. There are individuals who stand out in areas of philanthropy, but what defines a woman's gadlus? The Chafetz Chaim was a gadol; so was the Chazon Ish. Does this mean that their wives were also distinguished? At first, Rav Shimshon posits that the term gadlus applies to men. Since the areas of women's involvement are limited, they are all great!

After hearing, however that the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna, had etched on his late wife's monument: Lo hinichah acharehah k'mosah, "She left over none other like her," we understand that apparently there is a concept of gadlus of a woman.

Now that we know of this concept - how does one earn the distinction? Let us face it. Men are in the public eye. Therefore, others view and scrutinize their actions. Thus, they have the ability to inspire others. What does the average person observe concerning a woman's avodas ha'kodesh, service to the Almighty? Imagine entering the home of the Gaon m'Vilna to find the sage in his study, deeply engrossed in a most difficult sugya, topic, in the Talmud. One observation is enough to tell us that we are privy to greatness. The Gaon's encyclopedic knowledge, brilliant mind, and exceptional diligence are all evident. Now, we pass through the house in search of the rebbetzin. She is in the kitchen preparing the Shabbos meal. To paraphrase Rav Shimshon, "Is her kugel better than anyone else's?" What determined the gadlus of the Gaon's wife? Clearly, if the Gaon made such a statement concerning his wife, it was true. Since her virtue was not prominent, however, how should we, who did not see or hear, define her area of distinction? This question applies to all women. Since tznius is their salient characteristic, how are we able to determine their gadlus?

Rav Shimshon quotes David Hamelech's description of a tzaddik and applies it appropriately to his female counterpart. The Psalmist says Tzaddik katamar yifrach, "A righteous man will flourish like a date palm" (Tehillim 92:13). The nature of a date palm is unlike that of other trees. It has a feature that is possibly due to its unusual height. Commensurate with the tree's height above ground are its roots below ground. In other words, if the tree is fifty feet high, its roots will spread fifty feet underground!

A similar idea may be applied to man and woman in their contrasting roles. They both ascribe to a concept of gadlus - but in different areas. The man distinguishes himself in the public arena, while the woman individualizes herself in an area hidden from the public eye. Tzaddikim are compared to the date palm, because its unusual height elevates it above all others. Thus, it may be detected from a distance. The righteous person stands out above the common man. He distinguishes himself in scholarship, piety, virtue and acts of loving-kindness. The woman does all of these, but her behavior is not brought to anyone's attention. Her distinction is privacy. This is her greatness. The Gaon m'Vilna was great. His wife was also great. His distinction was noticed by all, while her virtue was recognized only by those who had a discerning eye. When the Gaon said, "She left no one to replace her," he was reflecting his personal knowledge.

When we observe the awesome majestic height of a skyscraper, we seldom consider the depth of its foundation. Without a foundation that is very deep and extremely solid, the formidable structure would topple. Regrettably, no one takes notice of the foundation. They take it for granted. Undeniably, this reflects superficial shortsightedness, since the foundation is (at least) equally important.

Women are the foundation of Klal Yisrael. The proof: matrilineal lineage. A Jew's pedigree is determined according to his mother. She is the origin of his Yiddishkeit. She remains inconspicuous by nature. She does not need the public arena, because she is the daughter of the King.

And Avraham weighed out to Efron the silver… four hundred Shekalim of silver. (23:16)

Avraham Avinu is confronted with one of the greatest challenges of his life. Perhaps it was not a spiritual challenge as much as it was emotional in nature. His wife- his partner in life- the mother of Yitzchak Avinu, had just died. The Patriarch had to deal with the funeral arrangements. It was not easy. He wanted a specific burial site, one which had already been used by Adam HaRishon and Chavah. He was determined to obtain this specific site. Efron owned it, and he was asking an exorbitant sum of money for its purchase. Avraham paid. No problem. It was for his Sarah. End of story.

The Ramban relates the story of the sale and adds the following: "With the generosity of his heart," Avraham settled with Efron. How does "generous" apply to a business deal? Efron was ripping him off. Avraham was pushed against the wall. There was no dissuading Efron. The Patriarch had no other choice but to pay. Why call him "generous"?

Horav A. Henach Leibowitz, zl, explains that Avraham's generosity was expressed in the manner in which he paid for the burial site. It is not what he did, but how he did it. No haggling, no kvetching. Efron stated a price - albeit extortionate - Avraham paid with a smile. The Patriarch needed the Meoras HaMachpeilah. Thus, it was necessary to purchase it at any price. Efron was being a petty cheat by taking advantage of the aged widower, but, unfortunately, he had the keys. He could charge whatever he wanted. Avraham paid - and he did not complain. Efron's profit had no bearing on Avraham's decision to pay.

There are those of us who, when faced with a financial proposition, back out from laying out the money. This is despite the awareness that it is necessary, important - even profitable. We instead choose to be without it, because, although the price may be within reach of our ability to pay, we have a problem with allowing the "other fellow" to make such a profit. Avraham Avinu was not affected by this pinheadedness. He gave Efron the funds with a complete heart. This is the meaning of generosity - no holds barred, no attitude, pure and simple wholeheartedness in giving.

The Rosh Yeshivah derives from Avraham's approach what is to be the proper attitude we should maintain towards our material bounty. Money is a gift from the Almighty, but with strings attached. He wants us to use it properly to stimulate and enhance mitzvah performance. Thus, we have no right to spend foolishly, to live beyond our means. Money exists for a purpose. When the purpose emerges, we should spend the money with no qualms. The Chazon Ish once said that if we decide that it is necessary to purchase a certain object, then parting with one million dollars should be no problem. Likewise, we should be as meticulous in guarding every dollar that could later be used for a mitzvah performance. This explains why certain people whom we know are quite wealthy, at times come across as being miserly, when, in fact, they give tzedakah, charity, as if there is no tomorrow. They are just careful with their G-d-given gift. The Chafetz Chaim would say: "People say that time is money. I say money is time." Every penny a person earns represents precious time that he invested. Time/life is G-d's greatest gift. We may not squander a moment. Spending money frivolously reflects a callous attitude towards the gift of time.

The Rosh Yeshivah concludes with the notion that our financial success in life and our material wealth have no intrinsic value, other than the good deeds they enable us to execute. Having money and not spending it wisely undermines one's success. When we begin to fall in love with money, when it becomes something we hoard for its own sake, we become trapped in what will become a life of misery and dissatisfaction. It will never be enough. We will always want more and refuse to share. The obsession will drive us to the point that we will lose whatever relationships we have developed, because our money will supersede them. We will never have enough, as our desires far exceed our wealth. If we remain objectively aloof, however, detached from our money, realizing that, in fact, it is not our money, but Hashem's money, which He has lent to us to use for a specific purpose, then we remain its master - not vice versa.

Now Avraham was old, well on in his years, and Hashem had blessed him with everything. (24:1)

Avraham Avinu was the mechanech, educator, par-excellence. He taught a pagan world the truth of monotheism. He inspired as he taught, thus serving as the vehicle for promulgating belief in the Creator. As the first educator, he set the standard for excellence in education. His goal was not simply to teach his generation, but to set the parameters and lay down the rules for the most appropriate manner in which to inculcate one's beliefs in his students. When we study the educational approach of the first Patriarch, we are confronted with two questions which are pointed out by Horav Arye Leib Heyman, zl. These two questions serve as powerful lessons for the educator and parent - who is, in fact, a child's first - and often primary - educator.

Avraham had a servant who was also his primary disciple. Eliezer was entrusted with searching for and seeking out a wife for Yitzchak. This woman would be the next Matriarch, replacing Sarah Imeinu. As the wife of Yitzchak and, thus, progenitress of Klal Yisrael, she must be a special woman. Avraham detailed three criteria to which he expected Eliezer to adhere without fail. He exhorted Eliezer not to take a Canaanite girl for Yitzchak. They were a vile, immoral people, whose influence was passed down through the genes. If Yitzchak would marry a Canaanite, the bright future which was designated for him could quite possibly be precluded.

Second, Avraham demanded that Eliezer take a wife for Yitzchak from his own country and birthplace. The third request is the one upon which we will focus. Yitzchak was not permitted to leave the country. If we peruse the pesukim, we see that Avraham clearly spelled out the first two criteria. There are no questions, no grey areas that might mislead Eliezer. The third condition, however, was ambiguous in the sense that Avraham did not come out and blatantly say, "Yitzchak may not leave home to look for a wife." Rather, Avraham intimated this idea to Eliezer to the point that Eliezer questioned him: U'lai lo soveh ha'ishah laleches acharai el ha'eretz. "Perhaps (what if) the woman does not want to leave?" (Bereishis 6:5). Why did Avraham not come straight out with his request? Was it by design that he waited for Eliezer to pose the question?

Rav Heyman derives from here that a rebbe should encourage his students to think on their own. He should teach in such a manner that allows them to question what he says, and respond to his questions. Otherwise, they just sit there listening to his lecture without participating on their own. Their ability to digest the lesson and incorporate it into their own thought processes thereby becomes stunted. A rebbe should empower his students to think.

In Bereishis 15:2, Avraham's servant and disciple, Eliezer, is referred to as Damesek Eliezer. In the Talmud Yoma 28b, Chazal view Damesek as an acronym describing Eliezer's spiritual relationship with his rebbe Avraham. Damesek stands for, Doleh u'mashkeh, miToras rabo l'acheirim, "He draws out the Torah from his rebbe and gives others to drink." Rav Heyman gleans from here that Eliezer would toil to understand the profundity of Avraham's teaching, so that he could transmit it to others. How do Chazal know that Eliezer had this unique approach to study? From where do they derive that this is the meaning of Damesek?

The Rav suggests that it is specifically from the fact that Eliezer questioned Avraham concerning the girl's refusal to return with Yitzchak that we learn that Eliezer did not merely listen to the lesson and move on. Avraham encouraged questions. He empowered his students to think, to postulate, to theorize. Thus, Eliezer understood that he was to question Avraham concerning Yitzchak's leaving home in the event the girl refused to relocate.

We now address the second lesson to be extracted from Avraham Avinu's "manual" on education. These parshios address the first Patriarch's life - his relationship with people of all backgrounds, his students, his wife and extended family - but what about his most important student, his heir and successor? Nothing is mentioned of Avraham's relationship with Yitzchak Avinu. There is practically nothing - no lessons, no conversation, no dialogue, no message - nothing! In fact, the only recorded discourse between father and son is the fifteen words that passed between them at the Akeidah. What educational lesson can we learn from the "unrecorded" conversations between father and son?

Rav Heyman explains that we adduce from here that, Gedolah shimushah shel Torah yoser mi'limudah, "Greater is the service of Torah than its (actual) study" (Berachos 7b). The dugma, example that a rebbe personally portrays to his students is of greater and more enduring value than the lesson he gives them. The impression which affects the student most strongly is the one that is imparted daily by observing his rebbe's venture, his reaction to success, his ability to confront challenge, to remain stoic under moments of duress and strong during periods of travail. Avraham's lesson to us is if one wants to teach his son the mitzvah of tzedakah, it is best transmitted to the son by having him observe his father/rebbe executing the mitzvah. This applies across the board to all aspects of Torah. True, we need explanations and dialectic, but the primary lesson is best taught by role models.

His sons Yitzchak and Yishmael buried him. (25:9)

Rashi quotes Chazal in the Talmud Bava Basra 16b, who derive from the above pasuk which places Yitzchak before Yishmael that Yishmael repented his ways. The errant son told Yitzchak to precede him. This display of respect is an indicator of Yishmael's spiritual well-being, resulting from his repentance. Apparently, the fact that Yishmael had come from a distance to attend the funeral was not a strong enough indication that he had changed. It was the fact that he allowed his younger brother, the one who "replaced" him as Avraham Avinu's "son," to precede him that serves as a proof of his repentance. Does a Yishmael change his stripes due to a single act of mentchlichkeit, human decency and respect?

A similar question may be asked a bit later on in the Patriarchal saga. Eisav came in from the field "tired and hungry." Yaakov Avinu had just returned from Avraham Avinu's funeral. Eisav wants some of Yaakov's porridge. The future Patriarch traded the soup for the rite of the firstborn. Eisav could care less. Chazal tell us that the day in question was not one of Eisav's better days: "That rasha, wicked one (Eisav), transgressed five sins on that day: He cohabited with a betrothed woman; he killed a man; he denied the existence of G-d; he denied Techiyas Ha'Meisim, the Resurrection of the dead; he degraded the bechorah, rite of the firstborn." Pretty bad day for Eisav, but what does degrading the bechorah have to do with the other four sins? Once it has been established that Eisav had committed heresy, killed a man, denied the Resurrection, violated a betrothed woman, what was there to add? Is there anything worse than an agnostic?

Yishmael allowed his younger brother to precede him - obviously he had repented. Eisav denigrated the bechorah - obviously he was a rasha. Hadn't that already been confirmed by his heretical activities? It is almost as if we are "nickel and dimeing," picking up on what seems to be minor activities and infractions, while ignoring blatant sinful behavior.

There is more. Let us see how our sages defined rasha, wicked. Clearly, when we see what they feel determines wicked, we will have an idea concerning the barometer for determining righteous. The shidduch, matrimonial match, of Yitzchak to Rivkah was proposed by Eliezer, Avraham's servant. Lavan and Besuel - son and father - replied, "Vayaan Lavan u'Besuel va'yomru mei Hashem yatza hadavar, "Then Lavan and Besuel answered and said, 'The matter stemmed from Hashem'" (Bereishis 24:50). Chazal note that Lavan, the son, preceded Besuel, the father. Why? In his great insolence, Lavan rushed to speak up before his father, an indication of his wickedness.

Horav Michoel Peretz, Shlita, observes from the above three Torah lessons that respect and its various derivatives play critical roles in determining a person's moral posture, with which its ripple effect on his spiritual nature are equally compelling. The root of Eisav's spiritual descent to total infamy was his denigration of the bechorah. If the bechorah had no value, then mitzvos in general had no significance to him. This disdain regressed further, to the point that he denied the Resurrection and ultimately became an apostate, denying that G-d is in control of the world. Such a person has no qualms concerning taking a human life or violating a woman betrothed to another man. Man's actions coincide with his values and beliefs. If there are no mitzvos, then there is no Afterlife and, ultimately, there is no G-d. Killing becomes a minor infraction. It all begins, however, with a disdain for the spiritual. If the behavior means nothing - so it goes with everything else.

Likewise, if Yishmael had demonstrated respect for Yitzchak, it would have indicated that he respected what Yitzchak represented: spirituality, morality, ethics and belief in Hashem. Yishmael's display of respect for Yitzchak, was not merely a demonstration of his good manners. It shows that he had changed; he had repented and now embraced what Yitzchak symbolized to him.

A great man shows respect to everyone - even those who are clearly on a lower echelon than he is. A great man respects everything that he is asked to do. Nothing is beneath him. Everything has value. The small-minded, insecure person hides behind a cloak of arrogance, and impugns the integrity of anyone who might pose a threat to his self-generated pedestal. He presents the greatest threat to society. Only one who has self-respect can give respect to others.

V'sein b'libeinu… v'ha'er eineinu b'sorasecha. And place in our hearts… and illuminate our eyes in Your Torah.

At first glance, this prayer seems repetitive. We ask Hashem to imbue our hearts with His Torah, so that we may learn, teach, guard and observe His mitzvos. Then we ask that our eyes be illuminated in His Torah. We have just concluded learning, teaching, guarding, observing, seeing to it that others also observe Torah and mitzvos - now - we are once again asking to have Torah be a part of our lives. Is that not where it has been until now? Horav Shmuel HaLevi Wosner, Shlita, explains that while the primary study of Torah precedes one's mitzvah observance, for if one does not know, he cannot properly execute the mitzvah; nonetheless, mitzvah performance catalyzes a more profound understanding of the mitzvah. When one observes, he develops a deeper respect for the mitzvah as he realizes its intrinsic value. This is the meaning of Naase v'nishma, "We will do and (then) we will listen." Once we carry out the mitzvah, we are able to better comprehend and appreciate it. Therefore, we ask Hashem to place in our hearts the ability to learn, understand, teach, guard and observe. Now that we are able to understand the depth of the mitzvah, our eyes will be illuminated in Hashem's Torah.

In memory of
Rabbi Justin Hofmann
Harav Yekusiel ben Yosef z"l
Beloved husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather
niftar 25 Cheshvan 5770
Sofie Hofmann and family

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.

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