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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


It happened at the end of two years to the day: And Pharaoh was dreaming. (41:1)

Too many of us wait for the last possible moment before we examine our lives and arrive at the realization that the path which we have chosen to take is far from acceptable and certainly not one that will earn us any merit Above. We often ask ourselves, "Where did the years go?" The answer, regrettably, is one which we are ashamed to countenance. Horav Meir, zl, m'Premishlan interprets this idea into the pasuk: "It happened at the endů" A person reaches the twilight years of his life - "two years." It seems as if it flew by so quickly. An entire lifespan of seventy, eighty years seems like nothing: like two years. The reason for this is, sadly, very simple: When one does not accomplish anything worthwhile during his life, then his life seems to have flown by like nothing, because that is exactly what he has done with his life: nothing! One who has devoted himself to a life of the spirit-- who has made timely "deposits" in his bank of eternity-- has truly lived a long, fruitful life. His achievements reflect much more than "two years" of life.

Horav Yechezkel Levenstein, zl, once remarked, "One who lives a simple life dies a simple death." In other words, it is difficult for an individual to change once he has reached his twilight years. It is likely that the way in which he has spent his entire life, he will continue in a similar manner when he is old. Change is hard; when one is old, it is even more difficult. Nonetheless, as long as the candle is burning, one can correct himself. It is never too late. It all depends upon his attitude.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, relates that during a recent visit to the Maanyei HaYeshua hospital in Bnei Brak he met such an octogenarian. He chanced upon an old man in a wheelchair who was hooked up to a ventilator, obviously unable to breathe on his own. The man was sitting at a table which was covered with seforim, and he was writing. Page after page of script flowed from his pen. Rav Zilberstein wanted to know what he was writing.

"I am writing my chidushei Torah", novel interpretations, the elderly man replied. He immediately added, "I am, thus, following the directive of the Maharasha in his commentary to the Talmud Bava Basra 10B." The Talmud says, "Fortunate is he who comes (to Heaven) and his Talmud (learning) is in his hand." Why do Chazal say that his learning is in his "hand"? It should be in his head or in his mind. Why in his hand? The Maharsha explains that one achieves primary learning through writing. When he records his knowledge on paper, he makes an indelible impression. He indicates that the learning has influenced him, so that he writes it down. The chachamim, wise Torah scholars throughout the ages were called sofrim, scribes, because they wrote everything down.

For some, old age is not a deterrent; it is, rather, a motivator. Reb Binyamin Wilhelm, zl, was neither a rav nor a rosh yeshiva. He was an "ordinary" baal habayis, layman, who realized, at a time when others did not, that a neighborhood without a yeshivah is not a place to raise a Jewish family. He proceeded to establish Mesivta Torah Vodaath; he was instrumental in founding the Bais Yaakov; and he was a koach, force, in the dissemination of Torah in America at a time when Torah was not recognized as the commodity that it presently is. Horav Yaakov Kaminetsky, zl, said of him, "We can thank Reb Binyamin Wilhelm for two-thirds of the Torah in America."

Yet, in his old age when he "retired" to Eretz Yisrael, he continued to toil for Klal Yisrael. Peace did not reign in his life when Jewish children were in need of a Torah education. He established an organization for Sephardic youths to help them retain the fervor of their rich heritage. He named the organization Mifal Torah Vodaath, because all that he did was inextricably connected to the yeshivah that was so integral to his life. His life was a living legacy of action on behalf of Torah. He did not retire. When you think about it, he never really aged. Even in his nineties, he continued to toil vibrantly on behalf of Torah, because he understood that age should not limit one's desire to "do."

And it happened at the end of two years to the day: Pharaoh was dreaming that behold - he was standing over the River. (41:1)

There are dreams, and there are dreams. Someone once commented to Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, father of the mussar, ethical development, movement that "life is but a dream." Rav Yisrael countered, "It is a dream only to those who are sleeping." Some other individuals view life as a nightmare and attempt to escape it. It all depends upon: who you are; your perspective; and how you live. Ultimately, one's dreams will be an expression of himself. Yaakov Avinu dreamed; Yosef dreamed. Their dreams were dreams of substance, which carried profound messages. The Chief Chamberlain and Chief Baker also dreamed, as did Pharaoh. They, too, had dreams which carried messages, but they did not know the deep meaning of their dreams; they were unable to discern the messages.

Let us delve into Pharaoh's dream and attempt to extract some of its lessons. He dreamed that the seven scrawny cows had swallowed the seven healthy cows, such that the healthy cows literally disappeared within the scrawny cows. It was as if it never had happened. No physical alteration whatsoever occurred in the appearance of the scrawny cows. Two anomalies about this dream surely bothered Pharaoh. Of course, he had no idea how to discern the meaning of the dreams. First, cows are not carnivorous. Thus, it is not likely for the scrawny cows to swallow the healthy cows. Second, the fact that no physical change transpired in the scrawny cows leaves us wondering.

We can understand why Pharaoh was so disconcerted. Yosef interpreted the dream to Pharaoh's satisfaction. A hunger would occur that would be so unnatural that it would "swallow" up the years of plenty, to the point that they would be completely forgotten. We can derive another worthwhile lesson from the scrawny cows' post-swallowing appearance. The Sfas Emes gleans from here that within the forces of evil exist forces of good. Without the good embedded within, the evil would be unable to exist even for a moment. True, we do not always see the good within the evil. Indeed, the evil is so intense that it is impossible to believe that amidst this evil good is concealed. That is, however, the lesson of the scrawny cows. Their physical appearance defied the human eye to notice the healthy cows within, but they were present.

This lesson has a practical application for us. At times we stand in wonderment, stupefied by the success and triumph of evil. The feeble-minded even begin to believe that it is all over; evil has triumphed. In with the bad; out with the good. Those who are astute, who are guided by their deep-rooted belief, understand that the truth can never be abrogated. Often, it is concealed under many layers of falsehood, but it is buried underneath. On the contrary, the truth is what sustains the evil and falsehood without!

Pure falsehood has no leg to stand on. In order for sheker, mendacity, to thrive, a little truth must be mixed in. All of the bogus ideologies-- the philosophies of deception and misrepresentation of the facts-- are able to exist only with the support of the little good embedded within. If we take the time and make the effort to analyze these perverse credos, expounded by individuals who take hypocrisy to a new nadir, we will see that they exist only because there is some inherent good or truth within the foundations of their belief.

So Yehudah said, "What can we say to my lord? How can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? G-d has uncovered the sin of your servants. Here we are: We are ready to be slaves to my lord both we and the one in whose hand the goblet was found." (44:16)

We see what seems to be a contradictory pattern of behavior in the way the Shivtei Kah, twelve tribes, were acting. Initially, with Yehudah at the helm, they seemed to be acting almost obsequiesly. They were taking the blame for everything, protesting that they were at fault and that they had been sinners. Suddenly, Yosef stated, "I cannot do that. The man who stole the goblet is the one that will be held responsible, and he will be punished - no one else." As soon as Yosef made this declaration, Yehudah, the king of the brothers, stepped forward, faced off against Yosef, and began to speak harshly with him. He threatened to destroy all of Egypt, including Yosef. What happened? What aspect of Yosef's statement caused such a transformation?

Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, refers to the execution of the Asarah Harugei Malchus, ten sages who died martyrs' deaths at the hands of the Romans. Chazal tell us that before they accepted death, they requested that Rabbi Yishmael ascend to Heaven and discern if this gezeirah, decree, was Heaven-sent or the natural reaction of an anti-Semitic king. The question that glares at us is simple: What difference did it make?

Rav Elya explains that had the sages discovered that this decree had not originated in Heaven and that it had been purely the work of an evil Emperor, they would not have accepted death. They would have fought the Romans. With the same esoteric power that permitted them to ascend to Heaven, they would have overpowered the Romans. This is possible when the decree is not from Heaven. When it is clear that the Heavenly Tribunal has declared that they be executed, there is nothing to discuss. Hashem has spoken. We listen, and we accept.

The Shivtei Kah had a similar reaction. They were not aware of any sin on their part which would have caused them to be deserving of such ghastly treatment by the Egyptian viceroy. The only slight infraction that gnawed at them was the incident concerning Yosef. They immediately accepted the consequences, even though they had not stolen the silver goblet. They accepted it as their retribution for selling Yosef: "Hashem has discovered the sin of your servant." They believed that Hashem wanted them to become slaves as punishment for an earlier sin on their part. They asserted: We will, therefore, all become slaves, because we are all responsible.

This was all satisfactory until Yehudah heard that only Binyamin would remain as a slave. They immediately recognized that this was not a Heavenly response to their sale of Yosef, because Binyamin had not been involved in that episode. They were the ones who had sold Yosef, and, therefore, they should be the ones to be sold - not Binyamin, who had not even been there. It was at that moment that it dawned on them that Yosef was simply a wicked man out to satisfy his evil tendency. They would not tolerate this. If they were innocent, they would not accept punishment. This is when Yehudah stepped in and threatened Yosef.

How fortunate is he who lives in such a manner, who accepts Hashem's decree, because he is willing to acknowledge that he is not perfect. How much greater is he who can say unequivocally, "I have done no wrong."

Chazal further elaborate this idea when they relate the conversation that took place between the executioner and Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon. Apparently, money that had been set aside for Purim and money that had been designated for tzedakah were mixed together. Rabbi Chanina became aware of this, and he remarked, "Woe is me, perhaps I became liable for Heavenly excision." It was precisely at that moment that the Roman executioner knocked on his door to notify him that he was being summoned to the executioner's block: "Rabbi, it has been decreed on you to be wrapped in your Torah and burned together with it."

The time arrived, and the executioner wrapped Rabbi Chanina in the Torah, setting fire to the pyre that had been placed at his legs. The fire consumed the wood, but miraculously it did not touch Rabbi Chanina. This brought the executioner to wonder if he had the right man. "Perhaps you are not Rabbi Chanina," he queried.

"It is I," answered Rabbi Chanina. "You have the correct person." "Why does the fire not consume you?" the executioner asked. "I made a vow that the fire would not harm me until I confirmed that this was a Heavenly decree. Wait a moment, and I will inform you whether my death has been decreed by Heaven" was Rabbi Chanina's matter of fact reply. The executioner was in a quandary. Individuals who had the ability to decree death on themselves were clearly beyond the jurisdiction of the Roman Emperor. How is it that the Emperor's decree would have an effect on them? At what point are they under the rule of the king, and when are they in charge of themselves?

He turned to Rabbi Chanina and said, "Rebbe, run quickly, and I will take your place. Whatever the king had in mind to do to you, he can do to me in your place. I will be your surrogate."

Rabbi Chanina looked at him incredulously, exclaiming, "Simple man! If Heaven has issued a decree against me, where can I run? Do you think that Hashem has no other agents to do His bidding? Is there a shortage of lions, bears and vicious wolves? You should know that I will die regardless, because that is the Almighty's decree, but do not think for one moment that Hashem will not exact punishment from you for your complicity in this act of murder."

The executioner was shaken by these words, and he immediately acted upon inspiration by jumping into the flames, crying out to Rabbi Chanina, "How you will die, I will die, and there I will be buried; and as you will live (in Olam Habah), so I, too, will live." Immediately thereafter a Heavenly Voice was heard, "Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon and his executioner are both prepared to enter into eternal life in Olam Habah."

We now understand the depth of the brothers' acceptance of the Heavenly decree - as long as they felt it had been issued from Heaven. Once they discovered, however, that it was all the work of the "evil" viceroy, they took issue and were prepared to battle the entire country. They had not sinned. Thus, they refused to be fodder to satisfy the arbitrary evil whims of the Egyptian ruler.

G-d has uncovered the sin of your servants. (44:16)

One of the most poignant and intriguing prayers of Yom Kippur Mussaf is the elegy which recounts the tragic and brutal deaths of the Asarah Harugei Malchus, ten sages executed by the Romans. Chazal teach us that they were killed in "penance" for the brothers' sale of Yosef. The payton, composer of the prayer, relates that the Roman ruler summoned the sages and queried them concerning the Torah's law for kidnapping a fellow Jew and selling him as a slave. They responded that the halachah is clear: the kidnapper is executed. When the Emperor heard this, he mischievously exclaimed, "Where are your forefathers who sold their brother, Yosef, to a caravan of Yishmaelites? You must serve as their proxy and accept the punishment which is rightfully theirs." The sages were prepared to accept this decree, providing it was from Heaven. They, therefore, asked for three days time to confirm that this decree had originated in Heaven. Rabbi Yishmael, the holy Kohen Gadol, ascended to Heaven where he was told that they should accept this decree. Each of the ten sages, Klal Yisrael's greatest leaders, suffered a terrible and violent death.

Rabbeinu Bachya quotes another Midrash that recounts the course of events with a totally different conclusion to the story. He writes that from the moment Chazal accepted the decree, it was considered fulfilled, as if the sages had actually been killed. There was no longer any need for their physical deaths. Indeed, the Midrash continued that ten other people, Caesar among them, were mistaken for the sages and killed in their stead.

This is an incredible statement which should inspire everyone to stop and think. Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, explains that the potency of accepting Hashem's decree is awesome. It is so compelling that the mere acceptance often has the power to avert the decree from achieving fruition. Rabbeinu Yonah cites this concept in his Shaarei Teshuvah. He writes: "If a court of law sentences someone to death, yet, for some reason, the verdict is never carried out, we nonetheless view the condemned man as having received the punishment, for he experienced the fear of death."

The Rosh Yeshivah cites the Talmud in Makkos 11b to substantiate this idea. The Torah in Bamidbar 25:33 commands a rotzeach b'shogeg, inadvertent murderer, to flee to the arei miklat, city of refuge, to protect himself from the wrath of the go'el ha'dam, redeemer of the blood, a close relative who seeks to avenge the victim. The rotzeach must remain in exile until the death of the Kohen Gadol. The Mishnah discusses a circumstance in which the Kohen Gadol dies prior to the murderer's reaching his destination. Does he go free, or is he relegated to wait for the passing of the next Kohen Gadol? Chazal teach us that the murderer is a free man. The Meiri offers an intriguing rationale. When the murderer hears the verdict sending him to exile, to leave his family and friends and live as a sort of pariah, he does not have to actually be in exile to feel the torment associated with such an experience. When the gavel comes down, he is already in exile. He is there. The rest is an extension of his sentence. This emotion, coupled with the Kohen Gadol's death, serves as penance for his inadvertent act of murder.

It all depends upon one's attitude toward Divine decree. When something out of the ordinary occurs, do we say it is Hashem speaking to us and accept it as such? If so, our positive reaction may be incorporated into our atonement process. If, however, we seek any excuse to explain the occurrence as something natural-- not out of the ordinary-- or if we take a negative attitude and complain, then the experience will not have a therapeutic effect. Perhaps this is part of the idea behind Tziduk Ha'Din, acceptance of Divine judgment. Our acceptance actually lessens the pain, because our acceptance is an intrinsic part of the pain.

The recitation of Kaddish is our expression of vindication of Hashem's judgment. Despite our suffering, we exalt and sanctify Hashem. Sadness is acceptable; despair is not. Weeping is necessary; self-mortification is not. Not to cry is to smother one's nature. Avraham Avinu and Yitzchak Avinu cried at the Akeidah. That was the normal response. The Yalkut Shimoni, Iyov 23:3 comments: "Fortunate is the person who, although he is plagued with suffering, does not complain about Hashem's Attribute of strict justice." This means, explains Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, that although a person may feel that his suffering is unjust, he nonetheless does not complain, but accepts it as the will of G-d. The human being has been endowed with a questioning mind, and one should employ his intelligence to try to understand, to somehow rationalize Hashem's purpose in making him suffer. At no time, however, may he complain. That is counterproductive.

Rav Schwab adds that if a person is stricken with extreme pain, or is overcome with great fear and anxiety, it is a manifestation of Hashem's Presence. This is similar to a dark thunderstorm which gives way to a bright sky. Regardless of how great the storm, no matter how obscured Hashem's Presence seems to be by the clouds of suffering, never doubt, he is there during all the times of trouble and oppression. When Hashem afflicts a person, He does not destroy everything within him. There is always something remaining to remind him, "You are not alone. I will never forsake you."

Hashem has given us a wondrous gift: life. However, it is finite, and, like all good things, must come to an end. We should not regard it frivolously. Indeed, we should treasure every moment granted to us by trying to fulfill our life's mission the best we can.

Va'ani Tefillah

Karov Hashem l'chol kor'av l'chol asher yikreuhu b'emes.
Hashem is close to all who call upon Him; to all who call upon him sincerely.

Hashem is close to everyone, but His closeness is achieved through sincerity. Routine prayers have minimal efficacy, because they do not represent much sincerity. Hashem hears everyone's plea, but the Shechinah rests only on those who are sincere. Closeness with Hashem can be achieved only through sincerity. What does it mean to "call out in truth/sincerity"? Who does not call out in truth? Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, explains that "calling in truth" has four distinct parts: 1.) The caller must truly desire that which he requests of Hashem. This means that he indicates by action and effort that he really desires this. This requires endeavor on the part of the supplicant. 2.) The supplicant must be convinced that it is only Hashem who can answer his plea. He must act accordingly, indicating that he realizes that his own efforts are powerless to effect the result. He can just be mishtadel, endeavor, sort of going through the motions; 3.) The caller is willing, and he obliges himself to do whatever it is Hashem asks of him. This means adhering to His command and precepts; 4.) The fourth and lowest aspect of "calling in truth" is one who articulates the prayer without thinking of its meaning. This is a person who supposedly prays for the welfare of Klal Yisrael without thinking what he is saying. He has no interest in helping the righteous or in seeking their company. We see from here that "calling in truth" is not as simple as it may seem.

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