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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And Lot when with him. (12:5)

Avraham Avinu's nephew, Lot, demonstrated total commitment to his esteemed uncle by joining him in leaving his comfortable home in Charan in order to follow Hashem's directive to move to Canaan. It was a difficult journey, but Lot was an exemplary student. Where the rebbe goes, the student follows suit. Later, when Avraham was compelled to leave Canaan to go to Egypt as a result of the bitter famine that was devastating Canaan, Lot, once again, joined his uncle on the journey to Egypt and, later, on his eventual return to Canaan. In describing Lot's accompanying Avraham on his return trip, the Torah chooses a different terminology, "Avraham went up from Egypt with his wife and all that was with him, and Lot was with him" (Ibid 13:1). Interestingly, in this instance, instead of using the standard ito, with him, the Torah writes imo, which also means "with him." While both of these words basically have the same meaning, there is a subtle difference, as we shall soon see - one that must be addressed.

In his publication "Forever his Students," a compendium of inspirational lessons from Horav Yaakov Weinberg, zl, Rabbi Boruch Leff explains that while both words mean "with him," there is a definite difference in the relationship between two people implied by the two variant terms. The root of ito is es, a word used to precede a subject, in order to emphasize that subject. Es, in its very essence, is a word that is subordinate. Imo does not have this character. It reflects an equality when joining two subjects together. In other words, ito indicates Lot's subservience to Avraham, while imo connotes his seeming equality. Having distinguished between the two terms, let us return to the source in order to view Lot and his relationship with Avraham in this context.

When Lot first left Charan with Avraham, he was clearly a student. His material resources were not great. He relied on his uncle, his rebbe, his father figure. Upon his return to Canaan, the financial situation of both Avraham and Lot had changed. Both had achieved great wealth and independence. Indeed, after a dispute arose between Lot's shepherds and Avraham's shepherds over the land for grazing their huge herds, Avraham told Lot that they could no longer live together. They must separate, so that there would be sufficient grazing land for their respective flocks.

The fact that Lot accepted this separation without making any kind of amends is striking. Avraham was his rebbe, his mentor in life. Did it not bother him to be told to separate, to move away? Why did Lot not try to work things out so that he could remain in close proximity to Avraham? Furthermore, later on, when Avraham rescued Lot from captivity during the war of the Nine Kings, we do not find Lot offering any kind of gratitude, any words of appreciation. What happened to Lot that transformed him?

Rav Weinberg explains that success in life is commensurate with one's ability to know himself: his character, his talents, his ability, his prowess, his limitations. A corporal in the army who thinks that he is a general can undermine the most thought-out tactical plans and destroy his platoon. Likewise, a nurse who thinks she is a neurosurgeon can destroy a patient's life. Everybody has his unique role to play in life, a role based upon the individual's personal strengths and weaknesses. When one attempts to step outside the parameter of his individual role, he fails in two areas: his idealized role and the role in which his talent would have shined.

At one point, probably when he had amassed great wealth, Lot decided that ito, subordination, was not for him. He was now an equal, imo, with Avraham. He no longer viewed himself to be ancillary to Avraham; he was his equal. Lot's power and wealth distorted his perspective. At his first opportunity, he separated from Avraham. He no longer needed his guidance. As an equal, he felt that he could give direction to others. When Avraham risked his life to save Lot from captivity, Lot still could not bring himself to pay gratitude, since this would have reflected a subtle endorsement of his weakness in light of Avraham's strength.

We should ask ourselves: How often do we act like Lot? How often are we stubborn, refusing to subordinate ourselves to those who are wiser and more experienced? We defer to our ego, rather than use our G-d-given ability to think properly. Everyone wants to be a leader, but not everyone has the talent, ability or stamina to achieve success. A true leader knows when to lead and when to be led. The mistake is to think that the only hero is the leader. This is wrong. If one fulfills his potential and acts out the role in life predestined for him, he is a hero. Hashem demands that we be ourselves - not someone else.

From there he relocated to the mountain east of Beth-el and pitched his tent, with Beth-el on the west and Ai on the east. (12:8)

Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, makes a powerful observation on the text. Beth-el and Ai were not mere villages. They were large cities, metropolises which were ruled by distinguished kings. Yet, the Torah records them only as having secondary geographical significance in regard to Avraham Avinu's famous tent. The Torah says that the tent was situated with Beth-el on one side and Ai on the other, as if to say that their entire significance was their proximity to the tent and not vice versa.

Indeed, this is really the way it should be. Avraham's tent was the spiritual center of the world. The foundation for monotheistic belief was established there and disseminated throughout the world. The genesis of the Jewish nation, Avraham's descendants, was in this tent. The great cities of Beth-el and Ai have been lost to antiquity, while the Jewish People thrive, becoming stronger in their conviction and belief in Hashem. In fact, even when these cities were in their full prime, what were they? Anything that is not founded in spirituality lacks a stable foundation. Avraham's tent symbolized the eternity of Torah, its precepts, values and lessons. The enduring nature of the Torah has sustained the Jewish People throughout the millennia. No, this was not merely a tent. This was the bedrock of Torah civilization.

That it may go well with me for your sake. (12:13)

Simply, this means that if the Egyptian nobility were to shower Avraham with gifts in order to win his "sister's" hand, the rest of the people would respect him and be afraid to harm him, thereby assuring Sarah Imeinu's safety. The commentators question Avraham Avinu's statement. First, as Shlomo HaMelech declares, Sonei matanos yichyeh, "One who hates gifts will live." In other words, the Torah frowns upon one who is beholden to others for their favors. Second, why was Avraham inclined to take gifts from the king of Egypt, while he refused to accept even the slightest courtesy from the king of Sodom?

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, gives a pragmatic, but profound, response. Avraham's purpose in life, his raison d'etre, was to disseminate the Name of Hashem throughout the world. He would seize any opportunity that was availed to him. He taught the world that following the path of Hashem, believing in Him and cleaving to His precepts, would only engender benefit and good fortune.

Chazal teach us that one should be meticulous in giving proper honor to his wife, for she is the source of all good fortune in the home. They substantiate this statement by noting that, according to the Torah, Avraham was the recipient of great benefits because of Sarah. The Talmud adds that Rava told the people of Mechuza, "Learn to appreciate and value your wives. As a result, you will become wealthy."

Avraham accepted Pharaoh's gifts, so that he could proclaim to the world that his success and wealth were because of his wife. She was his source for fomenting blessing in their home. This is what Avraham means when he says, "That it may go well with me for your sake." He used this as an opportunity to teach others that the woman is the source for blessing in the home. Avraham did not care about gifts. He sought an opportunity to teach the world a lesson. If that opportunity availed itself as a result of his taking gifts from the Egyptian king - so be it. This would inspire others to cherish and appreciate their wives. Avraham's overwhelming love for Hashem stimulated him to do whatever was in his power to publicize the daas Torah, wisdom of Torah, that he who is good to his wife, who appreciates her, will reap great material benefit.

Avraham had no reason to accept a gift from the king of Sodom, since there was no objective to be derived from it. He did not believe in taking presents from anyone, unless a greater good was to be taught as a result.

Then there came the fugitive and told to Avram, the Ivri. (14:13)

The Midrash identifies Og, the king of Bashan, as the fugitive who came with a malevolent intention to spur Avraham to battle, in the hope that he would be killed. This would free Sarah, so that Og could marry her. Og was rewarded with longevity for his positive actions, but was punished for his wicked motive in that he ultimately met his fate at the hands of the descendants of Avraham Avinu.

When Moshe Rabbeinu was confronted with having to battle with Og, he was concerned lest Og's merit would protect him. This fear was realistic, despite the fact that Og's positive action was clouded by a nefarious motive. This should inspire us. For, if Moshe and all of Klal Yisrael were concerned with Og's zchus, merit, despite his malevolent motives, how much more so should we take into consideration the incredible reward which is stored away for us when we perform a mitzvah with the correct and proper intentions.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, relates that he heard a similar thought from Horav Meir Sonnenfeld, Shlita. In the Talmud Rosh Hashanah 33b, Chazal derive the obligation to blow one hundred tekios, sounds with the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, from the mother of Cisro, the general who fought with Klal Yisrael. When she saw that her son was late in returning from battle, she became disconcerted and moaned one hundred times. In order to "balance the scale," we blow one hundred tekios on Rosh Hashanah. The question that confronts us: Who was counting? Who is really concerned with how many times his mother moaned? After all, we are talking about the mother of a wicked person who was late in returning from pillaging Yerushalayim and murdering its inhabitants. She was probably comforted with the claim that Cisro was late because he discovered more Jews to murder. The answer is that a special angel is assigned to count every moan, every bit of suffering that a person sustains - even if she is the mother of a wicked person. A mother is a mother, and her moans are meaningful sounds.

Let us now take stock of this. If Hashem appoints an angel to count a mother's tears, even if it is for a son who is evil, how much more so does He count each and every tear shed by a Jew who weeps for kavod Shomayim, Hashem's Glory, for Moshiach Tzidkeinu, may he come soon. Do we have any idea of the value of these tears and the merit that they engender? Everything that we undergo or give up in order to perform a mitzvah is counted in our favor.

Then came the fugitive and told to Avram, the Ivri. (14:13)

The Midrash says that the fugitive was Og, the future king of Bashan. They add that he was called Og because when he came to Avraham, the Patriarch was busy making ugos, little cakes of matzah, for Pesach. He is therefore called Og because of the ugos. The Sifsei Tzadik wonders why a person should receive a name based upon something he saw. What relationship is there between Og's witnessing matzah baking and his name? He explains that when Og saw Avraham preparing matzah with extreme devotion and great fervor, he himself became so inspired that this experience was engraved in his psyche. It became an intrinsic part of his personality. Hence, the Torah calls him Og as a result of this experience.

Veritably, comments Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, this is the responsibility of every ben Torah, to inspire others with his behavior and demeanor. He relates a powerful story in which Rav Shimon Galei, who was critically injured in a traffic accident, was able to influence a young couple - who were not Shabbos observant - to change their lifestyle. While he was crossing the street one afternoon, Rav Galei was struck by a car whose driver had lost control. Lying on the ground in extreme agony and bleeding profusely, he was approached by the driver of the car who happened to be a policeman, "What can I do to help you?" asked the driver, as they waited together for the emergency medical services to arrive. Amidst the overwhelming pain, the rav turned his head toward the driver, looked into his eyes, and said, "If you really want to help me, then take it upon yourself to observe the Shabbos."

Incredible! All he cared about was how he could influence another Jew to observe Shabbos! At the time of the accident, a young, not-yet-observant couple was walking by and witnessed the accident and the ensuing interchange between the driver and the rav. They were so taken aback by the rav's response that it planted a seed of spiritual inspiration within them. So great was the impression, that they felt compelled to visit the rav in the hospital and to follow up on the conversation which was subtly impacting their spiritual perspective. Standing there at his bedside, they could not utter a word. It was difficult for them to believe that a person could be so selfless that his only concern, even at a moment of extreme personal pain, would be the spiritual welfare of another Jew. They finally spoke in what was to become an ongoing dialogue that eventually led to their adopting an observant lifestyle. Their exposure to a ben Torah left an enduring impression, one that changed their lives dramatically.

He said to him, "I am Hashem Who brought you out of Uhr Kasdim." (15:7)

Nothing is really mentioned in the Torah concerning Uhr Kasdim and Avraham's being miraculously saved from the fiery furnace. In contrast, the story of Akeidas Yitzchak takes up a significant chapter in the Torah. One would think that walking into a fiery furnace, being prepared to give up one's life for his convictions, deserves a little more space than was granted. Uhr Kasdim occurred when Avraham was still young, at the beginning of his spiritual awareness. He was alone in his belief in Hashem, alone against an entire world obsessed with pagan ritual. The Akeidah, on the other hand, took place when Avraham was at an advanced age, distinguished, and had a multitude of followers. Last, the Akeidah involved Yitzchak Avinu, while Uhr Kasdim involved only Avraham. Why does the Torah not record this miracle in greater detail?

Horav Yechezkel Levinstein, zl, teaches us an important lesson to be derived herein. Avraham Avinu acted on his own commitment at Uhr Kasdim. He was not commanded by Hashem to give up his life. He went forward solely on his own sense of conviction, based upon his personal recognition of Hashem as the Creator of the world. Every person is prepared to sacrifice himself for his beliefs, for what his mind cogently deduces and believes. The Akeidah, however, was irrational. It was totally incongruous with reason and rationale. Avraham went forward and displayed a willingness to sacrifice his son for his belief, although it was against anything he had previously believed.

In an alternative explanation, the Shlah Hakadosh comments that one should not "seek" the opportunity to be moser nefesh, sacrifice himself. Self-sacrifice reflects an incredibly high level of service to Hashem. It is reserved and available to anyone who is under duress and forced to comply. Otherwise, a Jew should seek every opportunity to live Kiddush ha'chaim, sanctifying life, as this is the way a Jew should serve Hashem. Mesiras nefesh is part of the Jewish psyche, but it is something we are prepared to do only when we are compelled to do so. Had the Torah written a significant commentary on Avraham's rescue from Uhr Kasdim, there might be those who would misconstrue that this is an acceptable way of life. Thus, it is downplayed and to be viewed as a last resort for the Jew.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'harchikeinu me'adam ra u'me'chaver ra. Keep us away from an evil person and an evil associate. Siyach Yitzchak distinguishes between an evil person and an evil associate. An adam ra is a person who, by his very nature, is evil. His character traits are evil, and his behavior leaves much to be desired. An evil associate, on the other hand, does not necessarily have to be an evil person. On the contrary, he could be a fine, decent human being. If he is a harmful influence, however, if his hashkafos, religious philosophy, does not coincide with Torah-true thought, he is a chaver ra that can impact negatively on one's religious observance. Such a person is far more dangerous than the adam ra. One distances himself from someone who is uncouth and evil. When he presents himself as a good friend, with middos tovos, fine character traits, it is very difficult to draw the line. Indeed, the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna, notes that the majority of those who sin against Hashem are meticulous in their observance of mitzvos bein adam l'chaveiro, mitzvos that deal with interrelationships among people.

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