Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Yosef saw his brothers and he recognized them, but he acted like a stranger towards them. (42:7)

Yosef apparently wanted to conceal his identity from his brothers. He wanted them to think that he was the Egyptian viceroy, a pagan, not a Jew, and certainly not their long-lost brother, Yosef. Why? A practical, insightful explanation for Yosef's behavior is rendered by Horav Moshe Yaakov Ribicov, zl, the holy man known as the Der Shuster, HaSandlor, the Shoemaker. Let me first digress from the subject and introduce the reading audience to this holy man. The Sandlor lived in Tel Aviv, and the Chazon Ish considered him to be rosh ha'lamed vov tzaddikim, the head/leader of the thirty-six righteous Jews, in whose merit the world is sustained. These men are, for all public purposes, simple Jews, not on rabbinical boards, honorees at dinners, Roshei Yeshivah. They keep to themselves and conceal their righteous activity. It takes another holy Jew, of the caliber of the Chazon Ish, to recognize the greatness of such an individual. The Rosh Yeshivah of Ponevez, Horav Yaakov Edelstein, Shlita, was very close with him.

I present one short vignette (among many) to demonstrate his saintliness: The Sandlor was once invited to attend a Bris Milah, circumcision. Upon entering the room, he raised up his head, looked around and yelled out, Ich zeh em nisht! Ich zeh em nisht! "I do not see him! I do not see him!" He immediately left the room. He was referring to Eliyahu HaNavi who attends every Bris.

The Sandlor's reference to not seeing Eliyahu HaNavi made everyone anxious - enough to delay the Bris, while they investigated why Eliyahu HaNavi would not attend this Bris. A number of hours went by, and the matter was resolved. The original child who was supposed to have been circumcised had been somehow switched at the hospital and exchanged for a gentile child. The parents had been clueless, and the error might have gone undetected for some time. Once they brought the true Jewish-born child to the home, they called the holy Sandlor to attend the Bris. When he entered the home, his face lit up as he announced, Ah, yetzt zeh ich im, "Ah, now I see him." The Bris took place in the presence of Eliyahu HaNavi.

Having said this, we return to our original question: What lesson is the Torah teaching by informing us that Yosef made a point not to identify himself to his brothers? The Sandlor explains that Yosef did this due to his righteous nature. He originally had dreamt that he would achieve a position of distinction, as a result of which his brothers would bow down to him. They, of course, did not acquiesce to Yosef's dream and, indeed, were quite adamantly against any thought of their bowing down to Yosef.

Under normal circumstances, when one wins a debate, a dispute with someone, the victor might act presumptuous, often displaying a sense of pomposity in the presence of the loser. The individual who had not emerged successful is, likewise, ill at ease when he confronts the person who defeated him. This is only if he is aware of the victor's identity. If, however, the victor's identity is concealed, then the individual who lost has no undue feelings of shame, since no one is aware of his defeat.

When the brothers bowed down to Yosef, it was his moment of triumph. The dreams that they attempted to squash were, in effect, a prophecy that came true! Imagine if Yosef had revealed himself to them; it would have been devastating. In order that his brothers not feel bad that all this time they had been wrong and Yosef had actually been destined to become royalty, a person to whom they had to bow down to, he covered up the truth; so that they would not recognize him.

The desire to vindicate oneself before those who had suspected him of impropriety is all-consuming. Imagine, all of those years Yosef was reviled as the usurper of the Patriarchal legacy, a man who sought to undermine his own brothers and lord over them. His brothers had reached a halachic conclusion that Yosef was a rodef, pursuer, who sought to destroy them. For this, he warranted death. In the end, they compromised by selling him instead. When they sold him, it was good riddance; they were finally free of his maligning mouth and arrogant dreams. For years, this had been their impression of Yosef. Now, at this moment of vindication, Yosef could have easily (and many of us would have gloated to put our detractors in their proper place) revealed the truth. He did not, because it would mean hurting his brothers' feelings.

What about Yosef's feelings? What about all of those years of separation from his father, from his home? Rejected and left to die, then sold to the Ishmaelites on their way to Egypt, one would think that Yosef had every reason to gloat, but he did not, because to hurt another person, especially his brothers, despite their animus toward him, was the farthest thing from his mind.

A great person does not minimize himself over petty and sometimes not so petty occurrences, which have offended or hurt him. He rises above the pain and reimburses good for the bad that was done to him. A great person empathizes with the pain of others, even if it is self-inflicted, or if they are personally responsible for their own downfall. Furthermore, a great person does not gloat when Hashem pays back the individual who hurt him. He understands that it is all part of a Divine plan. He was destined to suffer, and the other person was the tool Hashem used to inflict him with that suffering.

Caring for the feelings of a fellow Jew is the hallmark of greatness. Stories abound about the lives of our Torah leaders and the love they manifested for each individual Jew. They felt the pain of every Jew and, likewise, shared their joy. This is because a Torah leader does not live for himself. He lives for Klal Yisrael. Horav Avraham Pam, zl, was once asked by a man for the Rosh Yeshivah's assistance in helping him resolve a serious financial crisis. Rav Pam listened intently and then wrote the man a check. The Rosh Yeshivah's financial portfolio was far from great, yet he did his utmost to help the man. The man began to weep profusely. Apparently, he wanted more than the Rosh Yeshivah's check. He was seeking his help in soliciting his talmidim, students, who were financially successful and who could spare some money to help him. Rav Pam apologized and said that he could not possibly call upon his students to give money generously - again. He had just turned to them concerning another matter. There is a certain point at which the well goes dry.

The man understood - accepting the Rosh Yeshivah's explanation. Later that day a talmid visited the Rosh Yeshivah and noticed him going through a box of index cards - and crying. "Rebbe, what is it about the index cards that provokes such weeping?" the talmid asked.

"I just turned a man away empty handed because I could not help him," the Rosh Yeshivah said. "He asked me to call my well-to-do talmidim and ask them to help. I told him that I could not do it. He understood but, nonetheless, left my house crying. I just went through my index cards to see if there might be someone whom I missed, someone who could help this man. Alas, I could not find anyone."

"I understand," the talmid said, "but why is the Rebbe crying?"

"I am crying because he is crying. How could I not cry, if another Jew is in pain?"

In order to achieve the Torah-mandated level of love for a fellow Jew, one must acquire the middah, character trait, of humility. Without humility, one neither can achieve achdus, unity, nor can he truly empathize with his fellow. In his Sefer Yismach Yisrael, Horav Yisrael Chortkover, zl, writes: "One of the most important aims of the derech ha'chassidus, the Chassidic approach toward serving Hashem, is achieving the goal of true harmony and love among Yidden. The Baal Shem Tov and the Mezritcher Maggid constantly stressed the need for their talmidim, disciples, to live together in achdus.

In order to achieve a supreme level of achdus one must, however, first acquire the trait of humility. As long as a person maintains pride and arrogates himself over others (because he considers himself better/higher than they), he will remain unable to live together with them in harmony."

In a second dvar Torah, the Rebbe makes the following observation: "The mitzvah of V'ahavta l'reiacha kamocha, to 'Love your fellow Jew as (you love) yourself' is comprised of two parts. The first half is to 'love one's fellow Jew,' and the second half is to love him 'as oneself.' It follows that someone who has an inflated opinion of himself will find it difficult to honor his friends properly. He will never be able to love them (properly), 'as himself,' for he is (has) convinced (himself) that he is far superior to them all."

This is a basic insight whose veracity and simplicity penetrates the core principles of Judaism.

Did I not speak to you saying, 'Do not sin against the boy,' but you would not listen! And his blood as well- behold - is being avenged. (42:22)

Reuven cast the blame for Yosef's debacle on his brothers, claiming, "I told you so." Veritably, they did not shed Yosef's blood, but, since he had been held in captivity all these years, anything could have happened. If something actually had happened to Yosef, the brothers needed to be aware they were responsible. The Yalkut Chamishai quotes the Gerrer Rebbe, zl, the Bais Yisrael, who employs this pasuk as a remez, allusion, that the one who sins with regard to a child is guilty of a grave sin. A child is unable to protect himself, and, thus, he is susceptible to the reprehensible actions of adults who abuse him - be it physical, emotional or spiritual abuse. Whether the abuser is a stranger, a mentor, or even a parent, the innocent child is a victim, and the adult is guilty of an unpardonable sin.

Sadly, there are those who still think that their innocent children are their personal property, so that they are permitted to do what they want, especially concerning the children's education. They forget that Judaism is not a culture to which one either acquiesces -- or ignores. Furthermore, it is more than a religion, which one may feel that he has the option of modifying to his comfort level. Judaism is the Jew's life, without which he is not alive; he may exist - but this is not living. Moreover, we have no exit strategy for Judaism. One who is born a Jew will die a Jew, regardless of what he has convinced himself.

The Sefer Marbitzei Torah u'Mussar relates an incident that took place in the city of Slutzk, Poland, which was then under the rabbinic leadership of Horav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, zl, later Rav of Brisk, patriarch of the Brisker dynasty, and author of Bais HaLevi. Rav Yosha Ber was told that a group of parents had decided to send their children to secular schools, called gymnasiums, where there was no semblance of Judaism - either contained in the curriculum or represented by the teachers. These were wealthy members of the community who really did not listen to reason. Their financial portfolios determined their mindsets and spiritual leanings. The Rav called each of the parents in separately to discuss the issue and to impress upon them that what they were doing was not only harmful to their children, but devastating to their family's Jewish future. Alas, the great Rav's pleas fell on deaf ears.

Seeing that subtle persuasion was insufficient to warm up their cold hearts, the Rav convened a community gathering in the main shul. He announced that he would address the community on an issue of grave significance to the future of Jewish Slutzk. He began his lecture by citing the Talmud Kesubos 54a, which states that a widow is supported from the estate of the orphans. For the duration of her widowhood, if she demonstrates signs (such as dressing differently, applying makeup, etc.) that she is seeking to move on and remarry, she is no longer sustained by the estate. She is thinking forward; her mind is no longer preoccupied with the memory of her late husband.

"Knesses Yisrael is quite like the widow who is supported from the proceeds of the estate. Hashem supports the Jewish People because they maintain fidelity to the memory of their earlier lives when we had a Bais Hamikdash, and we all resided happily in Eretz Yisrael. When we begin to apply makeup, to color ourselves both in dress and action like our gentile neighbors; when we are willing to destroy the lives of our children, so that we may gain admittance into their cultural hedonistic sanctums; when we beg to be accepted by them as one of their own - by our actions, we indicate that we are prepared to move on from Hashem. Then, there is no longer any reason for Him to continue to sustain us. We want to be on our own - so be it! We will be rejected and compelled to subsist on our own!"

The Rav's words had a powerful impact on his community. (How things have changed. In those days, they actually listened to a rav.) Our children's future stands at the forefront of our nation's agenda. Nothing takes precedence over the education of our children, our People's future. We have no room for negotiation, no option of compromise when it involves the purity, propriety and excellence of our children's education. A rebbe, who apparently was not cut out for this vocation, was performing poorly in the classroom, and, as a result, he took out his frustrations on his students. In response, he was dismissed from his position. Understandably, no Torah institution would make such a decision without consulting with daas Torah, a Torah leader who personifies and possesses an uncanny wisdom inspired by his total immersion in the sea of Torah erudition. They consulted with Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zl, the Rav of Yerushalayim and the preeminent Torah leader in the Holy Land. The rebbe came and complained to Rav Yosef Chaim, accusing the board, and, by extension, the Rav of cutting off his children's food supply. If he does not work, how will he support his family?

Rav Yosef Chaim replied, "Would his honor rather eat Jewish children?!" This is how gedolei Yisrael viewed abuse.

Their hearts sank, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, "What is this that G-d has done to us?" (42:28)

Any intelligent, observant Jew knows that life is neither lived randomly, nor lived in a vacuum. Life is filled with meaning and purpose, much like a roadway with signs warning the driver to slow down for a construction site, a children's crossing, traffic jam, bad weather. The intelligent driver takes heed and makes the necessary changes in accordance with the messages that he sees. The driver who ignores the messages and is too preoccupied to take notice - or cannot read the language - will either luckily avoid an accident or fail to negotiate a problem area properly and hurt himself or - even worse- injure others.

On the road of life, we are provided with a powerful message machine, compliments of Hashem, Who wants us to have a smooth, uneventful and successful sojourn. Often the messages that He sends us do not reach our cognitive control center until after it is too late. We failed to negotiate the speed bump placed for our protection and, not only were we hurt, but our error also ruined the trip for others.

Let us take a point in question. The Shivtei Kah, tribes/sons of Yaakov Avinu, the progenitors of our nation, were confronted with a series of messages concerning their relationship vis-?-vis Yosef, their sale of him, and their past and present attitude concerning their ignominious opinion of his moral and ethical character. Yet, message after message seemed to have fallen on deaf ears, myopic vision, closed minds. Why? These individuals stood at the summit of spiritual leadership of our future people. They comprised the link between the Patriarchs and the future generations. How did these messages seem to just go over their collective heads? How did they not see that everything which was taking place in Egypt was a blatant message to "wake up and smell the roses"; something was wrong.

Indeed, they did interpret the messages they received, but they always seemed to err in their interpretations. We find that Yehudah was demoted from his exalted leadership position when the brothers saw their father's pain. They said to Yehudah, "You told us to sell him (Yosef). Had you told us to return him, we would have listened." They ignored the fact that selling Yosef was in and of itself wrong. Their concern was only over the fact that they had caused their father pain. Rashi teaches that when the brothers went down to Egypt to purchase food, they had also intended to ransom Yosef - if they could locate him. They figured that the pain they had caused was too great, and now they wanted to correct their misdeed. It was not about Yosef; it was about the pain that his absence had catalyzed.

When the brothers were subjected to a three-day prison stay in Egypt they introspected, realizing that this punishment was the result of their lack of compassion for Yosef when he begged them to release him. Once again, they saw nothing wrong with the actual sale, just the lack of compassion. Even when they discovered money in their sacks, they wondered, "What is this that G-d has done to us?" They were in a state of fear; they knew that something was amiss; yet, they were clueless to the fact that it was all about the sale of Yosef.

What was it about the Shivtei Kah that impeded their ability to "get" the message? Here were ten great men, the greatest men outside of the Patriarch himself; yet, they did not pick up on Hashem's messages to them. Obviously, the same force that hindered their cognitive ability to see through the maze before them will certainly leave us fettered and handicapped when we must discern Hashem's messages to us. Horav Noach Weinberg, zl, cited in Wisdom for Living, a collection of his Torah thoughts, explains that had the brothers just asked themselves this question [could they have been wrong about Yosef?], they would have deduced that, if the dreams had been prophetic and they were destined to bow down to Yosef - could it be possible that the Egyptian viceroy was indeed Yosef?! All the pieces would have suddenly fit together; all of the questions that kept gnawing at them would have found perfect answers! They would have understood why Shimon, out of all the brothers, had been incarcerated. It was because of his starring role in casting Yosef into the pit. All the false accusations leveled at Yosef would now be clarified as blatantly false - even ludicrous. He was not evil - he was a tzaddik, righteous!

Had they only reconsidered their opinion of Yosef. Had they not been obstinate, and had they reviewed the facts entertaining the possibility that Yosef was not an usurper, but actually an innocent young man who truly wanted what was best for them. "We woulda; shoulda; coulda" - but we did not! Their core mistake can be attributed to reluctance on their part to reevaluate their original hypothesis. They rendered judgment and refused to change their position. Their appraisal of the situation became their downfall. They had established an immovable, impenetrable edifice that blocked their view and stunted their ability to think rationally. Regrettably, their cognitive inflexibility resulted in a myopia that left them blind to Yosef's true character.

He searched; he began with the oldest and ended with the youngest; and the goblet was found in Binyamin's sack. (44:12)

Stealing represents a character defect - if the thief is an adult. The mere fact that a person is not affected by the pain he inflicts upon another person is in and of itself an indication of a flawed, even perverted, personality. When the thief is a young child, it is usually an indication of a lack of ethical values which were not inculcated in him by a responsible mentor. We will soon discern exactly who the responsible mentor is. While I often include a story only for the purpose of buttressing the lesson which the dvar Torah teaches, in this instance, the story is so compelling and the lesson so powerful, that I take the liberty of quoting it without an accompanying dvar Torah.

The story is quoted by Horav Shlomo Levinstein, Shlita, in the name of Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita. Horav Avraham Pam, zl, venerable Rosh Yeshivah of Torah Vodaas, was asked to be mesader kedushin, perform the marriage ceremony, for a young man. (The story does not mention if the chassan, groom, was a student of Rav Pam.) Shortly before the chupah, the chassan broke down in bitter weeping. Rav Pam asked everyone to leave as he spoke softly to the young man. "Tell me, what is wrong?" the Rosh Yeshivah asked. "What provoked your sudden outburst of weeping?"

The chassan related the following heartrending story: "I was fourteen-years-old and studying in elementary school. One of the boys in the class had a trinket to which I helped myself. The victim of the theft was noticeably upset and complained to the rebbe. The rebbe immediately closed the door, not permitting anyone to leave, and then began to search everyone's pockets. I was quick with my hands, and I placed the trinket in the jacket pocket of another student. A few minutes later, the rebbe discovered the lost trinket in the pocket of the "innocent" student and declared him to be the thief!

"The rebbe did not leave well enough alone by simply sitting down with the student and talking about his lamentable disregard for another person's property; rather, he proclaimed that this student was a thief, mercilessly shamed him before the class, called his parents, and took him to the principal. The parents were devastated and terribly angry, refusing to believe their son's claim of innocence. Sadly, the cards were stacked against the boy. No one believed his innocence. After all, the trinket had been discovered in his possession. The strong punishment which the boy received, coupled with the horrible humiliation that he experienced, catalyzed a downward spiral in his mitzvah observance. He was angry that no one believed him, disappointed by the behavior of frum, observant, people, who should have been serving as an example for others to emulate. Eventually, he left Yiddishkeit and now is about to marry out of the faith! All of this is my fault. How can I go to the chupah knowing that I am the cause of another Jew marrying a gentile?"

Rav Pam looked the chassan in the face, and -- in his calm, soothing voice -- said, "There is no doubt that you committed an act of theft, which is no simple matter. It is a maase chamur, egregious (sinful) act. You may not blame yourself, however, for the spiritual demise of your friend. The primary guilt lies squarely on the shoulders of his parents and rebbe for not believing him when he claimed innocence."

Veritably, what kind of parent turns a deaf ear to a child's plea of innocence? How can a person call himself a mechanech, educator, if he acts so heartlessly and does not attempt to ferret out the truth? When a child cries out, we should at least lend a compassionate ear and look for a reason to believe him. Otherwise, we are not worthy of the lofty title of parent or rebbe!

Va'ani Tefillah

Hashem sefasai tiftach u'fi yagid tehilasecha

A man stands before G-d and entreats Him to "open my lips so that I can say Your praises." Prior to making this request, he must consider the manner in which he has used his mouth, articulating those forms of speech which are by the very nature of their negativity prohibited to leave his mouth. The Chafetz Chaim, zl, compares this to a servant who presents the king with a diamond ensconced on a gold brocade velvet pillow. Surrounding the diamond, however, is a foul-smelling piece of spoiled swill. Not only does this detract from the gift, but it is also considered impudent and subject to punishment. Likewise, a man with a foul mouth should think twice prior to uttering the verse: Hashem sefasai tiftach.

The Chafetz Chaim underscores this with another mashal, parable. A man opened up a fancy restaurant. He included all of the external accouterments to enhance the ambiance of the establishment: the finest china; flatware made of silver; glassware of pure crystal. He hired an outstanding chef whose reputation was without peer. He outfitted his kitchen with the latest kitchen appliances, and he ordered the freshest and most expensive cuts of beef, fowl and fish. He advertised in the most distinguished periodicals and was prepared for an onslaught of people who he was sure would become his regular customers.

The man was correct in his assumption, as the crowds flocked to his door. In the beginning, it was almost impossible to obtain a reservation. Prices were high, but well worth it. After a short while, the number of customers began to decrease, until he could hardly make ends meet. In a quandary, he set about to investigate. Nothing had changed. Why was he losing customers? After a thorough inspection, and after listening to the customers' grievances that following every meal a bad taste remained in their mouths, he discovered the source of his problem: the dishwasher was doing a poor job of removing the scraps from his plates! One little thing, one slight oversight, and all of the expensive preparations were for naught. When we daven to Hashem from a mouth polluted by evil speech, slander, and other forms of deficient language, we pray with rotten scraps on our plate; it leaves an offensive aftertaste.

Sponsored by

Dr. and Mrs. Herbert Taragin
& 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