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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


There was a famine in the land. (12:10)

The Midrash enumerates ten famines throughout history. The first occurred during the days of Adam HaRishon; the second was during Lemech's life; the third struck during the time of Avraham Avinu. The last and most severe famine will precede the advent of Moshiach Tzidkeinu in the "end of the days." This will not be just another famine. It will be, as the Navi describes, "Not (a) hunger for bread; nor (a) hunger for water; but (only) to listen to the word of Hashem." It will be a spiritual famine when people will be spiritually languished, craving for the word of G-d. We must ask ourselves: Is this a curse, or a blessing? Is there a greater blessing than having people thirst for Torah? The Ponevezer Rav, zl, gives a practical response which has profound meaning in contemporary times. During a famine, people begin to settle for less. Overnight, a slice of bread, a piece of vegetable, a drop of soup becomes an entire meal. In order to survive a famine, one conditions his body and mind to expect less. Suddenly, drops and crumbs are sufficient; anything is enough. Even quality control becomes a figment of the past. Regardless of the food's condition, its size and physical state, even if it might pose a health hazard - it is food.

Regrettably, during a spiritual famine the circumstances are much the same. Everybody wants to learn, but do they care what they learn, from whom they learn, where they learn and how much they learn? Suddenly, a quick vort, a short Torah thought, becomes a shiur, lesson. A tape is a lecture, regardless if one listens to it in the car, while jogging, or in places that are inappropriate. No longer is quality a concern; profundity is a word of the past; the source, however questionable, has no significance. As long as there is Torah, the standards of quality, purity and source are of no consequence. Yes, this is the result of a spiritual famine. Now, let us ask ourselves, "Is this truly a blessing?" It seems as if the Navi might have had a different insight into the effect of a famine.

There was a famine in the land, and Avram descended to Egypt to sejourn there for the famine was severe in the land. (12:10)

Anyone who comprehends the virtue of Avraham, his greatness, kedushah, holiness, and devotion to the Almighty would never critique his actions. We would never question his going down to Egypt, or his claim that Sarah was his sister, because we understand who Avraham Avinu was. The Patriarch was the paradigm of devotion to Hashem. Certainly, everything that he did was thoroughly thought-out and carefully weighed. He would never do anything that might be inappropriate. Yet, the Ramban clearly states that Avraham Avinu "chatah chait gadol," inadvertently sinned a great sin, by bringing his wife into a situation of sin. He should have trusted that Hashem would save him. Furthermore, the Ramban critiques Avraham's desertion of the land during a period of famine. Once again, he should have relied solely upon Hashem. As a result of Avrahamís actions, Hashem decreed the Egyptian exile upon his descendants.

The Ramban's critique is nothing short of frightening! We are referring to a giant of spiritual giants, Avraham Avinu. At the tender age of three, he recognized that there is an Almighty Supreme Being that created and rules the world. He determined that it was halachically and morally correct to descend to Egypt. Yet, the Ramban not only critiques his actions, but even claims that he performed the transgression for which we were exiled! How are we to understand this?

Horav Yehudah Leib Chasman, zl, comments, that the Ramban's critique notwithstanding, we derive a profound lesson from this incident. Even if logically and halachically a certain approach appears to be correct, one may not paskin, decide, for himself. We must be objective in every decision. While Avraham Avinu ostensibly thought out his decision carefully and meticulously, he was still rendering a decision for himself. He lacked the degree of total objectivity that is essential in every rendering of Jewish law and perspective.

There is a story told concerning the Shach, one of the most respected and accepted poskim in halachah, who once had a litigation with a distinguished member of the Vilna community. They decided to travel to Novaradok to Rav Avraham Abba, the rav of that community, who was a great saint and brilliant Torah scholar, to adjudicate their dispute. No one outside of Vilna knew the Shach by face, although his reputation certainly preceded him. Before they departed, the Shach went through the various poskim, Shulchan Aruch, and Rambam to determine what was the law in regard to his dispute. He came to the conclusion that the law sided with him.

After they presented their claims before Rav Avraham Abba, he excused himself and went to his study to determine the law. After awhile, he came out and rendered his decision - in favor of the other party. The Shach was shocked, to say the least. He immediately questioned the rav about the reasoning that led to this conclusion. Rav Avraham Abba went to the bookcase and selected a volume on Shulchan Aruch entitled, "Sifsei Kohen," i.e.; Shach, and pointed to a similar decision rendered by the "author." When the Shach saw this, he turned to the rav and said, "I am the author of this volume. I now understand what Chazal mean when they say, "A man cannot see anything to his own disadvantage" (Shabbos 119a). I did not have the necessary objectivity to render this decision when it affected me personally." As a post script, this idea applies to all of us regardless of the area of dispute. One cannot see clearly if he has a personal interest in the decision.

He retraced his route from the southland through Beis El as far as the place where his tent had originally been. (13:3)

Rashi says that Avraham returned to the places he had stayed during his original trip to pay the bills he had incurred. Rashi indicates that the Patriarch was in dire financial straits when he left, a situation which is not suggested either by the text, or the commentators. Furthermore, who would give credit to a fugitive? Perhaps, he might have found one or two "decent" innkeepers to help him, but it seems something more had occurred.

Horav Yechezkel Mi'kozmir, zl, takes a different approach towards understanding Rashi's remark. Avraham Avinu devoted his life to Hashem. Wherever he went, with whomever he spoke, "Hashem" was on his lips. He proclaimed the power of the Almighty, His creation of the world, and His constant supervision of its every movement. He reached out to a pagan world, calling its inhabitants to come together to serve Hashem. Many seized the moment and followed Avraham. Others, however, were bothered by the fact that Avraham was a nomad. Why does a merciful G-d let his faithful servants suffer endlessly? Why does He not reward them with happiness, peace and rest? Avraham could not really have explained to the people that his constant wanderings were actually a test to determine his faithfulness. How could he have explained to pagans that Hashem's tests constituted an act of love, tempering his faith in the Almighty? So, Avraham remained "in debt" of his fellows. He owed them an answer. He returned to the land wealthy, powerful, distinguished, world-renowned, as a result of his incident with Pharaoh. He was now able to "compensate" his detractors. He was in a position to demonstrate to them just some of the reward Hashem has in store for his faithful servants.

It is not really much different today. People question why many of Hashem's dedicated ones live in abject poverty; why they suffer; why they lack many material comforts. Can we explain to them this is Hashem's way; it is His test of faith, His tempering the faith of His devotees? In truth, we are not obligated to provide a response. Indeed, for the scoffer and skeptic, no answer will suffice. We will just have to wait for that glorious day when Hashem will enable us to "pay back our debts."

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...And Lot journeyed from the east; thus they parted one from his brother. (13:7, 8,11)

Rashi cites the Midrash that interprets the word "kedem" as a reference to the "Ancient One." Chazal comment that by leaving Avraham, Lot was actually distancing himself, "miKadmono Shel Olam," "from Hashem, the Ancient One of the world," saying, "I want neither Avraham nor his G-d!" These are strong words. Let us analyze what this pasuk relates about Lot. Here is a man who was not only related to Avraham, he was also his close disciple. He did not leave Avraham on his own volition; Avraham told him to leave! On the contrary, he had learned so much about chesed, kindness, and inter-personal relationships from Avraham, why would he want to leave him? Moreover, he considered himself to be Avraham's physical and spiritual heir. Even after he left, he continued to observe and maintain Avraham's legacy of chesed. How do we disregard Lotís positive traits and attribute such apostacy to him?

Horav Gershon Liebman, zl, explains that the Torah delves into one's personality and writes the truth. The Torah does not necessarily present what we see, but rather the reality of one's true nature. Lot truly followed Avraham and conformed to Avraham's code of behavior and religious observance. This was, however, only an external display. His true character was not like that of Avraham. When Avraham told him to separate, Lot should have refused! How could he leave his rebbe, the wellspring of his spiritual sustenance? How could he be such an ingrate to Avraham? Everything he possessed was the result of his relationship with Avraham. If he had been a real mentch, he never would have left. When his herdsmen complained to him, he should have immediately silenced them. He did not, because he had no gratitude. He just took and took. Instead of begging Avraham's forgiveness for the inappropriate behavior of his herdsmen, he said he would leave. Does this sound like a mentch?

Chazal tell us that the source of Lot's attitude toward Avraham was his attitude towards Hashem. One does not become an ingrate overnight. Lot had already distanced himself from Hashem. He had no interest in developing his spirituality. We can see this from his choice of places to move - Sodom, a city that exemplified evil incarnate. This is the place to which Lot gravitated. Does this sound like an individual who cared about his spiritual growth? The Torah depicts people as they really are.

Accordingly, Sforno offers a similar explanation in his commentary to the incident with Hagar, Sarah's maidservant, and the angel who confronted her in the desert as she ran from Sarah. The angel asked her, "Where have you come from, and where are you going?" She responded, "I am running away from Sarai, my mistress." The angel thereupon told her, "Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her domination." What dialogue ensued between Hagar and the angel? Did not the angel know from whom she was running? Sforno explains that the angel was actually admonishing her for leaving a home that was so replete with kedushah u'taharah, holiness and purity. "How could you leave such a holy place - to go to Egypt, a country infamous for its immorality and evil?" She responded in the same manner as Lot did: "I did not leave willingly, I am running away." The angel told her to return because, regardless of the conditions, the home she was leaving was well worth the extra hardship she might have to endure.

Lot did not go back - because he did not want to go back. He looked for excuses to justify going to Sodom. Hagar did not have the complete proper attitude, the humility necessary to absorb the kedushah and spiritual refinement that permeated Avraham Avinu's home. While she did return to Avraham's home, she had no qualms about sending Yishmael to Egypt to seek a wife. In order to become inspired, in order for the educational process to work, the student must have the correct attitude, a willingness to acquiesce to his spiritual mentor. Lot did not have this attitude. Hagar's positive attitude was superficial. Need we say more?

And Sarai afflicted her, so she fled from her. (16:6)

The Ramban comments that Sarai's seeming ill-treatment of Hagar was held against her, to the point that Hagar was rewarded with having a son, Yishmael, to compensate for her suffering. When Hagar heard that she would have a son who would be a wild, uncontrolled person, she was willing to return, even to suffer under Sarai's domination, just to have her own son. We glean from here an incredible and frightening thought. Hagar went back b'mesiras nefesh, with self-sacrifice, just to have a son that will persecute Jews. Is it any wonder that until this very day we suffer so much from the ruthless Arabs. Their grandmother's gratitude bequeathed them a legacy of mesiras nefesh. This mesiras nefesh, however, was based upon sheker, perfidious intentions.

It can, therefore, never succeed against one who battles them with the power of emes, truth. In contrast, we have been bequeathed a legacy of mesiras nefesh - one founded in emes, nurtured and sustained in emes. Yishmael cannot triumph against emes. Regrettably, emes is not always the primary focus in this constant battle.


1. Which famous mountains did Hashem show Avraham?
2. What did Avraham and Lot physically have in common?
3. What magnified the evil perpetrated by the people of Sodom?
4. Who was Amrofel?
5. What did the deep darkness which came over Avraham represent?
6. Which two relatives of Avraham repented before they died?
7. How old was Sarah when her name was changed?
8. Did Avraham believe he would have a son?


1. Har Gerizim and Har Eival.
2. Their facial features were similar.
3. They knew about Hashem, and they nonetheless chose to rebel against Him.
4. Nimrod.
5. It represented the persecutions and sufferings of the dark galus, exile.
6. His father, Terach, and his son, Yishmael. 89 years old.
8. Yes.


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Robert Epstein
in loving memory of my dear wife
Rose - Rachel bat Avraham
on the occasion of her second Yahrtzeit.
5 cheshvan 5758


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