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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And I will make of you a great nation; and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. (12:2)

In an alternative explanation, Rashi says, "'And I will make you a great nation" is a reference to the words Elokei Avraham, G-d of Avraham, which is recited in the beginning of Shemoneh Esrai. Vaavarchecha, 'and I will bless you,' refers to Elokei Yitzchak; and Vaagadlah shemecha refers to Elokei Yaakov. While I might think that they conclude the blessing of the Avos, Patriarchs, with all three of them, the pasuk states Ve'heyei b'rachah, 'And you will be a blessing,' Becha chosmin, v'lo bahem, 'With you, Avraham, they conclude the blessing, and not with them.'"

A well-known exposition is attributed to Horav Elimelech, zl, m'Lishensk, author of the Noam Elimelech, who explains the concept of Becha chosmin, "With you they will conclude." This applies to the chasimas hagalus, conclusion of the exile, prior to the Geulah Haasidah, Future Redemption, with the advent of Moshiach Tzidkeinu. The end of our long galus will be realized through the merit of Avraham's middah, attribute, of chesed. Each Patriarch had a unique quality which personified his specific avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty. Clearly, each Patriarch exemplified all middos tovos, good character traits, but each one had a specific attribute upon which he focused more so than on others.

Avraham Avinu was the amud ha'chesed, pillar of kindness. His life was devoted to reaching out to people of all stripes and persuasions, with acts of kindness. This endeared him to them; hence giving him the opportunity to draw them into conversation about Hashem. He used the attribute of kindness as his vehicle for reaching out. Yitzchak Avinu represents the middah of avodah, service to Hashem through intense prayer and profound devotion. Yaakov devoted himself to Torah study. Thus, the attribute of Torah is connected with him.

Becha chosmin, "With you they will conclude," means that, at the End of Days, our People will be in great need of zchusim, merits, by which we may be worthy of redemption. Our davening, prayer, will sadly not be up to par. Our shul attendance, minyan three times daily, something to which every European Jew adhered, will be but a memory. Torah study will be relegated to the yeshivah student, while we will rely on tapes, cds and mp3s for our shiurim and Torah study. The days of spending a few hours in the bais hamedrash on a nightly basis will be something of the past. The only area in which we will still remain strongly committed will be chesed, kindness. It will be our multifold acts of kindness, following in the footsteps of our Patriarch Avraham, which will, hopefully very soon, allow us to see the conclusion of our galus.

Another point which the Chidushei HaRim expressed concerning Becha chosmin focuses on the inextricable bond which every Jew - regardless of how far-removed he may be from religious observance - maintains with Judaism. We have seen this throughout the generations as Jews who reneged everything-- who turned their backs on G-d and His People, who assimilated themselves, so that they were completely indiscernible from the non-Jews -- have returned, have come back and embraced their heritage. What keeps them connected? What impels them to return? The Pintele Yid? The Jewish Spark? But what is the Pintele Yid? From where is it derived? What gives it the strength to survive generations of assimilation and self-loathing?

The strength is derived from the blessing, Becha chosmin, "with you they will conclude." We conclude the Bircas ha'Avos with Magen Avraham, the Shield of Avraham; the protective shield of our Patriarch has protected us throughout time. Yitzchak and Yaakov descended from worthy and holy lineage, imbued with a passion and love to serve the Almighty. Avraham did not. He discovered it all by himself, nurturing it and bringing it to the point of unshakeable faith in the Almighty. Hashem has infused every Jewish soul with the Avraham Avinu factor, a unique strain of belief that: transcends time; withstands the vicissitudes of various physical and emotional adversities; triumphs over assimilation and self-inflicted loathing of everything connected with religion-- so that when the Pintele Yid breaks through, he can come back. Becha chosmin: the Shield of Avraham is our "seal" of protection.

Horav Zev Weinberg, Shlita, takes this idea one step further. In the blessings following the Haftorah, we recite the blessing, Magen David, the Shield of David. He suggests that this blessing implies that Hashem protects the future, such that no stranger will sit on his throne (Davidic dynasty). In other words, our people will continually yearn for Moshiach Tzidkeinu. It will remain a tennet of our belief and another unbreakable bond with the Almighty. Indeed, throughout our persecution, and despite all of our trials and sufferings, we have maintained a strong belief in Moshiach. Thus, we have two magens/shields: Magen Avraham, which heralds back to the past; and Magen David, which represents our hope for the future. Together, they work to keep our people focused, regardless of how far they may stray.

Avram took his wife Sarai… and all their wealth that they had amassed, and the souls they had made in Charan. (12:5)

Rashi explains that the nefesh, souls, which they made in Charan, is a reference to the many people who Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu were able to pluck from the grasp of the pagans and inspire with the monotheistic belief. These converts to Hashem followed the ones who had "made" them. Avraham's raison d'etre in life was to promulgate the belief in Hashem. To teach the truth was not enough if he did not convert the people. A successful teacher is one who impacts the lives of his students. This was our Patriarch's goal, his life's work. Indeed, every endeavor that he undertook was for the specific purpose of enhancing the glory of Heaven and disseminating the concept of a life of service to the Almighty.

It is, therefore, surprising that Chazal (Talmud Nedarim 32a) say that Avraham was punished-by his descendants being enslaved in Egypt for two hundred and ten years, because, when the King of Sodom asked him to return his citizens (whom Avraham had saved from invading kings), he agreed. The King of Sodom said, Ten li ha'nefesh v'ha'rechush kach lach, "Give me the people and the wealth take for yourself" (Bereishis 14:21). In his commentary to the Talmud, the Ran writes: "Had Avraham kept the people (that he had rescued), he would have brought them under the wings of Hashem." Rashi writes that he should have converted them. In any event, our Patriarch, who gave his life for Jewish outreach, is chastised for returning the citizens of Sodom. Because he did not insist on keeping them and eventually converting them, his descendants suffered the brutal shibud Mitzrayim, Egyptian enslavement.

How are we to understand the reason for the punishment of our Patriarchs - and us? A man who devotes his entire life to seeking out the truth and teaching it to a world of pagans - was held to task for missing a few? Our Patriarch went to great measures to achieve success, traveling from place to place, at great personal affliction, all because he wanted to glorify Hashem's Name. He feared no man, risking his life and possessions for his faith. Yet, just because he missed a few, he was punished with the knowledge that his children would suffer the pain of enslavement in an environment steeped in moral depravity - for two hundred and ten years! Is this fair?

In my very first dvar Torah, in the inaugural edition of Peninim some twenty-four years ago, I quoted my Rosh Yeshivah, Horav Chaim Mordechai Katz, zl, who derived from here that the responsibility to reach out to all Jews is compelling and ceaseless. No Jew should be left behind, and no person should be relegated to walking blindly in the spiritual darkness that envelops so much of contemporary society. Regardless of how much a person has achieved, it is never enough. We have no room for complacency or respite in this endeavor. This explanation personifies the Rosh Yeshivah, whose fiftieth yahrtzeit is this year. Despite ill health and having suffered the tragic, brutal murders of his family and the destruction of the Telshe Yeshivah in the European Holocaust, the Rosh Yeshivah was relentless in the execution of his responsibility to sow the seeds of Torah in America. He was a beacon of light in a sea of confusion, the captain of the ship who never left his post, who never wavered from his course, who never rested, because he never felt that the job had been completed.

At that time, I assumed that the responsibility for outreach is based on the importance and inestimable value of each and every Jew. As a result, I was still bothered by the explanation. After all, if one reaches nine out of ten Jews, it is still considered a success. Concerning everything else we go according to the numbers, the percentages. That Avraham did not achieve one hundred percent should not have marked him for censure and punishment.

Reading the shmuess, ethical discourse, once again, I realize that the Rosh Yeshivah meant something else. As Torah Jews, we have a responsibility to reveal and enhance the glory of Hashem in the world. It is not about how many people we reach. It is about how much we have increased kavod Shomayim, honor of Heaven, in the world. Each individual who has been exposed to the greatness of Hashem, and the way of life His Torah instructs him to live, adds to kavod Shomayim. Thus, this is not about one more person or one less person. It is about raising the banner of Heaven higher and increasing the knowledge of Hashem.

Avraham Avinu truly did so much, but we are helpless in measuring kavod Shomayim. It is measured by a scale whose barometer is spiritual in nature. We have no idea concerning the value of "more" kavod Shomayim.

And there was a quarrel between the herdsmen of Avram's livestock, and the herdsmen of Lot's livestock. (13:7)

Avraham Avinu's cattle went out with their mouths muzzled, specifically so that they would not eat what did not belong to him. Lot did not seem to maintain this stringency. His animals ate whenever and wherever they pleased. This caused friction between the two. As a result, Avraham asked Lot to separate from him, to choose any area that he pleased, and he would go elsewhere. This way they could remain "friends," and Lot could do as he pleased without suffering the pain and rebuke. Rav Yosef B'chor Shor explains further that Avraham was concerned, "What would the neighbors say when they saw two close relatives quarrelling with one another?" This would create a chillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem's Name, that such a devotee of Hashem as Avraham could quarrel. It just did not look good.

What was Avraham's concern? Anyone who knew Avraham and Lot was well aware of the intrinsic differences between the two. Furthermore, everyone was aware that Avraham's animals were muzzled, and Lot's were not. Why would anyone remotely think negatively of Avraham? Furthermore, Avraham Avinu had an inn that functioned 24/7 to welcome and assist travelers and anyone who was in need. Who would think that a person of such elevated moral standing would steal? Clearly, Lot would be considered the "bad guy" in this dispute.

Horav Yaakov Galinsky, zl, posits that human nature always veers to the negative. Thus, while they all knew that Avraham was righteous, an individual of impeccable character, if there was a vestige of negativity about him - however remote - they would believe it. Rav Galinsky quotes the Yerushalmi Yoma 2:2, which teaches that Rav Yanai was compelled to do some work in his vineyard during Chol Hamoed, the Festival Intermediate Days, because it was a davar ha'avud, something which would otherwise be lost. Everyday labor is prohibited during the Intermediate Days unless it is for a davar ha'avud, which incurs a loss. Any thinking person would realize that, if Rav Yanai was working on Chol Hamoed, it was a davar ha'avud. Nonetheless, everyone who observed this act of labor immediately went to work in their own vineyards. After all, the Rav was doing it - why not I? The following year, he made his field hefker, relinquished ownership, so that there would not be any misunderstandings. Then, no one questioned his actions. Why? Yalfi mikalkalta v'lo yalfi mitakanta, "People (choose to) learn from the misconduct and not from the repair." In other words, people tend to look for the negative; it is what they want (or, at least, have no problem) to believe.

A young father attending the private minyan of the Chazon Ish, became very cross with his young son who was making noise during davening. The Chazon Ish later told the father, "Your son learned two lessons from you today: one should not make noise during davening; it is permissible to lose one's temper and become angry. Which one do you think he will remember?" Indeed, the Chazon Ish writes (Emunah u'Bitachon) that, if a rebbe has inappropriate middos, character traits, the students will be influenced by them - despite all of the other wonderful lessons he teaches them.

This is a powerful lesson for all of us. No one remembers the hard work, dedication, long hours, generosity and all of the positive contributions that a person has made - if it comes in contrast with one (albeit minor) error. Human nature is not perfect, and neither are people. Nonetheless, human nature tends to focus on the imperfection. It always makes a person feel good that he is better than someone else. This is especially true of those who only seek out the negative attributes in others, precisely because they realize that they have nothing positive to manifest about themselves.

And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Avram's livestock and the herdsmen of Lot's livestock… so Avram said to Lot, "Please let there be no strife between me and you… please separate from me." (13:7, 8, 9)

Avraham Avinu spent a lifetime reaching out to the uninitiated, regardless of their beliefs. To Avraham, the most entrenched pagan was a person who could, and should be reached. Together with his wife, Sarah Imeinu, they converted thousands to monotheism. If so, why is it specifically his nephew, Lot, a person for whom he cared, that Avraham asked to leave his presence? What was Lot's transgression? Petty theft from the fields of others was without a doubt inappropriate behavior, but did it warrant a complete break in their relationship? What about teshuvah, repentance? Avraham made the attempt to convince everyone else. Why not Lot?

Horav Reuven Karlinstein, Shlita, explains that, indeed, Avraham made the attempt to speak with Lot concerning his shortcomings. He pointed out to him that it was wrong to steal from people's fields - even if it was only some grass. One does not cross over the boundary of someone else's property. Had Lot replied with an excuse-- such as: they needed the feed, the sheep were starving and there was nothing else readily available-- Avraham would have pointed out that need does not acquiesce theft. Wrong is wrong, regardless of the circumstances. Need does not justify the evil.

Lot, however, did not attempt to excuse himself by saying that he needed what was readily available. Instead, Lot came with a taanah, a rationalization, of entitlement. It really was not theft. After all, Hashem had promised to give the entire land to Avraham. The Patriarch was getting on in years, and he had not been blessed with children. Thus, Lot felt that, since he would ultimately inherit the land from Avraham, he had a right to it now. Why wait for something that he would soon have anyway? He might as well enjoy it now.

When Avraham heard Lot's lomdus, analytical presentation, his baseless halachic dispensation in order to justify his theft, he decided that he would not waste his time arguing with tzaddikim, righteous individuals, who justify their miscreant behavior with loopholes or perverted interpretations of halachah. Such a person does not repent. Why should he? In his own eyes, he did nothing wrong! Avraham would rather deal with pagans, who knew nothing, than deal with those who knew enough to justify their deficient behavior.

There is nothing worse than a "little" learning, whereby the person thinks that now he knows something and he can even dispute others who are much greater and possess much more knowledge than he. One who does not know will invariably say that he either did not care or had no alternative; he was "driven" to act in the manner that he did. The individual who has learned somewhat-- received a decent high school education, followed by a "dip in the pool" of learning a some post high school bais hamedrash; who has picked up some of the modern day lingo espoused by those who seek every opportunity to undermine Torah Judaism so that it coincides with contemporary society-- he is dangerous. The danger does not lie in the influence he might have on Torah Jews. They do not bother listening to him. It is the unknowing and the ones who are looking for a way out, for a way to act like Zimri and still demand the reward reserved for Pinchas, on whom the Lots of this world have the strongest impact. Our Patriarch taught us how to act when they want to partner with us: Hipared na mei'alai, "Please separate from me."

The King of Sodom said to Avram, "Give me the people and take the possessions for yourself..." If so much as a thread or a shoe strap; or if I will take from anything that is yours! So you shall not say, "It is I who have made Avram wealthy." (14:21,23)

Avraham Avinu was the victor in the war, and to the victor go the spoils. The king of Sodom agreed to give him whatever material booty he requested, as long as he left the people. Avraham replied that he could keep his money: "Hashem has promised to make me rich." As Rashi explains, "I do not need you to sustain me. Hashem takes care of His own. It is a nice speech, a wonderful and magnanimous gesture on the part of the Patriarch, but he was not receiving a gift from the king of Sodom. He was receiving the spoils of war, which, as victor, were rightfully his. The king was not making Avraham wealthy. The spoils belonged to Avraham by right. Indeed, the property no longer belonged to Sodom. The king lost it when he lost the war.

Horav Gamliel Rabinowitz, Shlita, explains that Avraham is teaching us what should be the Jewish perspective on wealth - or any material bounty which we obtain. Avraham wanted that whatever he possessed would be derived directly from Hashem. This was Hashem's promise to him. Thus, anything that remotely appeared as if Avraham had received it by force, as the victor of the war, no longer appeared as if it were coming directly from Hashem. This is despite the fact that, at every juncture, at every step of the war, Hashem had performed boundless miracles which allowed Avraham to have the upper hand and emerge triumphant. Nonetheless, Avraham only wanted that no one could ever conjecture that he had personally played a role in procuring this great fortune for himself. It had to be clear to every observer that it was Hashem's doing - in fulfillment of His promise to Avraham.

From here, we glean insight into Avraham's mesiras nefesh, dedication to the point of sacrifice. The king of Sodom was prepared to give him everything. At least he would have gladly remunerated him for his help in achieving victory. Yet, Avraham felt that by taking money from him, he would be minimizing the glory of Hashem. If Hashem had promised to make him wealthy, Avraham wanted to have this promise fulfilled in a revealed, overt manner, so that the entire world would recognize and acknowledge that it was all from G-d. If Avraham would have "participated" in the venture, if he would have performed the slightest endeavor, he felt that he would have detracted from Hashem's glory. Now, everyone would see that Avraham's wealth came - not due to Sodom; not due to Avraham - but only due to Hashem. I must add that Avraham was acutely aware that receiving money from the king of Sodom was concomitant to receiving it from Hashem. The money was just another of the Almighty's many vehicles for processing His will. The people around him would not see it that way, and this is what concerned the Patriarch. He needed no instruction in believing in Hashem; the people, however, did.

Furthermore, Rav Gamliel notes the small-mindedness of the people of Sodom. Clearly, their victory was a miracle. Without Avraham, they would have lost everything - people and wealth. Yet, Avraham feared that if he were to take anything from Sodom, it would diminish kavod Shomayim, the honor of Heaven. This teaches us a crucial lesson: man cannot confront-- and certainly not concede to - his afsius, insignificance. Man's self-imposed arrogance does not allow him to see the achievements of others - especially when they are on his behalf.

An important practical lesson is to be derived from here. How often do we hear a benefactor boast about how he helped a poor fellow/family in need? It does not even have to be from a financial perspective - assistance of any kind which someone required, and he was there to help. The immediate attitude on the part of some (especially those who are seriously insecure or possess a high deficiency of self-esteem) is, "I helped so and so, I gave him his first start! I believed in him." This is a Sodom-based attitude, in which it is all about "I." A Torah Jew must realize that he is but a mere vehicle, an agent of Hashem, selected to be the medium for helping others. The wealth that he has accumulated is a Heavenly deposit until that time at which he is asked to share it with others. He should be filled with joy that Hashem has selected him for this mission. When we think it is all about us, we become like the people of Sodom - and we all are well aware of what eventually happened to them.

And he trusted in Hashem, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. (15:6)

Rashi notes that, concerning Hashem's promise to Avraham that he would be blessed with offspring, the Patriarch did not ask for a sign. Concerning the promise that he would take possession of Eretz Yisrael, Avraham Avinu asked, Bama eida, "Whereby shall I know?" requesting a sign from Above that he would inherit it. Why did the Patriarch ask for affirmation regarding the Land and not regarding the offspring?

Horav Yitzchak Volozhiner, zl, explains this with an analogy that goes to the very crux of the issue which continues to haunt us until this very day. A king was once traveling on the road when he chanced upon a poor person begging for alms. Something about this poor man impressed the king. He invited him into his carriage and gave him a large quantity of money, enough to solve his financial problems. The king continued along with his travels. Sometime later, he came upon a drunkard lying in a pile of garbage, yet covered with a fur coat. The king saw this and instructed his driver to remove the fur from the drunk and give it to the poor man.

The poor man accepted the coat gladly - as he did the money which he had received earlier. He did have one request of the king, 'My lord, I humbly request of his honor a letter stating that I received the fur from his honor as a gift." The king acquiesced, but was stymied that the poor man wanted a letter to cover the coat, but not regarding the money that he had given him. Certainly, the money had greater significance than the coat. The poor man replied, "No one will question me concerning the money, since it came from the king. Everyone will believe that I was the recipient of good fortune from a benevolent king. The fur, however, belonged to another man, albeit taking it was well within the king's purview. Nonetheless, I am afraid that, if and when the drunk sobers up, he might come with a claim that I stole his fur. He will not believe that his highness gave it to me. Thus, I request a letter confirming my right to the fur."

The nimshal, resemblance, to the blessings Avraham received from Hashem is clear. Concerning the blessing of children, he did not require affirmation, because no one would complain if the elderly Avraham were to be blessed with offspring. Regarding the promise of the land, there was an issue. It was presently inhabited by nations who felt that it belonged to them. The fact that Hashem created the world and gave Eretz Yisrael to His People would not seem to sway them. Avraham would need some assurance, Bama eida, that it would revert to him.

Until this very day, there are those who feel that they have a right to contest our gift from Hashem. Reading about it in the Torah does not seem to impress them. One who peruses history will note that, during the periods that Klal Yisrael did not inhabit the Holy Land and it was instead inhabited by Christians and Muslims, it was not agriculturally productive. The land will only "work" for the nation to whom it was gifted. Eretz Yisrael has maintained its fidelity to Am Yisrael. We should reciprocate.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'lo sasuru acharei levavchem v'acharei eineichem.

The pasuk teaches that the heart starts the process of deviation from observance. The heart desires; the eyes follow suit. Should it not be the other way around? The eyes see, and then the heart desires. Simply, the eyes see what the heart wants them to see. Thus, even though it appears that it was the eyes that started the process, without the input of the heart the eyes would not be looking at anything inappropriate. In a derashah, speech, concerning the breakdown in tznius, modesty in dress, in Europe prior to World War II, Horav Yehudah Leib Fine, zl, explained that the heart and eyes do not belong to the same person. Indeed, the "heart" refers to one who dresses inappropriately because her heart wants to dress in such a manner that she will be noticed. The heart desires the garb and the various appurtenances which will succeed in calling attention to the wearer. Then the "eyes" of the individual who takes notice kick in to look where they should not. V'lo sasuru acharei levavchem: The heart desires to be noticed by the eyes who should not be looking. It takes two to sin: one person's heart; and the other person's eyes.

In loving memory of our dear husband, Abba and Zeidy,
on his first yarzheit
Mr. Zev Aryeh Solomon
R' Zev Aryeh ben Yaakov Shmuel z"l
niftar 8 Cheshvan 5774

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