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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of the first was Shifrah, and the name of the second was Puah. (1:15)

Rashi cites Chazal who say that Shifrah and Puah were none other than Yocheved and Miriam, Moshe Rabbeinu's mother and sister, respectively. Shifrah was given this name because she was meshaper, had beautified the newly-born infant. Puah, Miriam, was given her name, because she was poeh, had spoken soothingly, calming down the infant. We note that up until this point Yocheved and Miriam had not been mentioned by their real names. The only names by which we know them are names describing their interaction with the infant. One would think that such elementary and natural activity, something which is commonplace among women, would not draw attention to the extent that it be worthy of acknowledging with a name.

Horav Yerucham Levovitz, zl, the venerable Mashgiach of pre-World War II Mir, explains that names are important, playing a critical role in describing a person's essence. Therefore, when the Torah refers to Yocheved and Miriam as Shifrah and Puah, it is indicating that these names characterize them. A simple, everyday activity has the power to convey the essence of a person. This teaches us that in This World there are no minor actions or major actions. It is all based on the individual who carries out the activity. A great person lives and acts with greatness. Every activity is an indication of his distinctiveness. A small person, on the other hand, can take the most distinguished activity and trivialize it, thereby distorting its significance. A great person earns a place in the Torah for the manner that she communicates with an infant. It becomes her benchmark, her signature.

We derive from here that the man defines the activity, rather than the action defining the man. Horav Chaim Kamil, zl, would cite from Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, that those who eulogize great Torah leaders by relating their everyday activities as stories and episodes in their lives - err greatly. These incidents are not just merely episodes; they were defining moments, which characterize the preeminence of these individuals. He cited the interaction in the Talmud Moed Katan 28a that occurred between Rabbi Chiya and the Angel of Death. The Angel of Death could not find a means of gaining access to Rabbi Chiya. One day, the Angel of Death appeared at Rabbi Chiya's door as a poor man asking for a slice of bread. Rabbi Chiya gladly gave him some bread. The Angel then asked, "The master has compassion on a poor man. Why does he not have similar compassion on "that man standing outside the door"? At that moment the door was opened and the Angel of Death displayed his fiery rod, thereby revealing his true identity, so that he was able to carry out his mission of taking Rabbi Chiya's life.

This story is mind-boggling. What similarity is there between giving a poor man a piece of bread and giving up his life to the Angel of Death? Evidently, when Rabbi Chiya gave a slice of bread to a poor man, it was more than a simple, kind gesture. He was giving a part of his life to the man. This is the level of sensitivity he manifest upon giving charity. Rav Chaim would add that to portray Rabbi Chiya as a man who was openhearted and gladly gave bread to the poor would be a grave error. He did not just give bread; he gave his life!

We now understand the profundity of Rav Yeruchem's statement: The individual defines the action. Rabbi Chiya transformed the act of sharing a slice of bread with a poor man into a lofty gesture. He gave with his heart and soul, tantamount to giving up his life. Likewise, one woman can "pooh pooh" an infant, and the act has little or no meaning, while another woman can do the exact same act; but it is an act of spiritual ascendancy that defines her character.

Pharaoh's daughter went down to bathe by the river… she saw the basket… and she sent her maidservant, and she took it. (2:5)

The effect of one little gesture can be outstanding. Bisyah, the daughter of Pharaoh, stretched out her hand to an infant in the water. Did she have any idea who this infant was? Did it cross her mind that this infant would lead the Jews out of hundreds of years of slavery to her father? Did she know that this infant would become the quintessential rebbe of our People and the father of prophecy? Did she realize that, as a result of this gesture, she would be eternally famous, earning the gratitude of every Jew throughout the millennia? She certainly knew nothing. She acted because it was the correct thing to do. A baby is in the water: you save it. She would deal with the consequences later. Can we imagine what might have occurred, how history would have been transformed, had Bisyah not stretched out her hand to save Moshe? Certainly Harbei shluchim laMakom, "The Almighty has many agents," and His Divine plan will always succeed in being carried out. Bisyah, by her small gesture, became one of those fortunate agents.

Every Jewish child is a potential Moshe. We have no clue what his future might be, if given the proper environment and education. If the opportunity arises, as it did for Bisyah, one should follow her example and respond accordingly. While some sit around and call meetings or convene committees, others move forward and act. They will make the difference. The Chafetz Chaim, zl, would relate the following narrative to demonstrate the significance of early and immediate intervention. The Maggid, zl, m'Dubno was once walking down the street when he chanced upon a poor blind man, dressed in tattered, old clothes, being led by a young boy. The average person would turn his head away from this despairing sight. The Maggid was not the average person. When he saw pain, he felt pain. While another person might have bemoaned the anguish that others sustained - and even have expressed his own gratitude to the Almighty for providing him with healthy eyes and a basic livelihood - the Maggid was not just "another" person. He immediately went over to the poor pair and queried them, "My brothers, where are you from, and where are you going?"

The blind man was too depressed to respond. He had had enough of "do-gooders" who eased their consciences with friendly salutations. He needed much more than a "good morning" greeting. The young boy, however, looked up to the Maggid with pleading eyes, explaining that his father had been sick for a while. He had lost his vision. His mother had recently succumbed to a grave illness. The hapless pair were alone in the world, with the young boy left to care for his father. The father was becoming agitated. "With whom are you speaking?" he asked his son in an aggravated tone. "Come, we must move on."

It was the Maggid who replied to the father's query, "Please, my friend, you will go soon. Tell me. Have you eaten yet today?" "No," answered the boy. "I am taking my father to the community soup kitchen, so that we can eat something, and then we will return home."

The Maggid said, "Come with me. I will prepare a meal for you that will be far better than anything you could get at the soup kitchen." The young boy's eyes began to tear with gratitude. The mere thought of a filling meal, a kind word, a smile from a benevolent rav was overwhelming. Even his father acquiesced gracefully to the Maggid's invitation. After the meal, when everyone was relaxed, the Maggid asked the pair, "Would you care to remain in my home as permanent guests? I will provide you with a warm, clean room, three nourishing meals a day - all for free. Moreover, the young lad will be enrolled in the local cheder, where he will study Torah in an environment that is best suited for him, both socially and spiritually."

The father was in a quandary. No one had ever been so nice to them. True, there had been individuals who were kindhearted, to a point. To be so selfless, however, to offer so much for nothing, this had never before occurred. The young boy was delighted. He thrived and began to smile again. With a brilliant mind and an insatiable desire to study Torah, he quickly excelled in his studies and rose above his peers. His father eventually succumbed to his many ailments, but left the world knowing that his ben yachid, only child, was provided for.

The young boy matured and become an erudite Torah scholar. His fame as a posek, halachic arbitrator, spread throughout the region. He accepted the distinguished rabbanus, rabbinic pulpit, in the city of Brodie. Yes, this young boy was none other than the saintly Horav Shlomo Kluger, zl. The Chafetz Chaim would conclude the story, "Can you imagine if the Maggid would not have made the gesture of inviting them to his house? Had he been just like everyone else, we might not have had a Rav Shlomo Kluger!"

Moshe grew up and went out to his brothers, and he observed their burdens. (2:11)

From the reading of the pasuk we may deduce that Moshe's "growing up" meant to leave the splendor of his palatial surroundings and enter into the world of responsibility, the world of sharing the pain with his fellow Jews. Rashi teaches us that Moshe's shouldering responsibility meant to "see their suffering and grieve with them." It was not enough to simply be aware of their pain. Raising awareness was not enough for Moshe Rabbeinu. Feeling their pain would motivate action. The Alter, zl, m'Kelm says that Moshe pictured in his mind the images of their slavery, to the point that he felt that he was with them, suffering from their pain. Moshe hurt so much that when he complained to Hashem, he said, "My Lord, why have You done evil to this people?" (Shemos 5:22). How does one talk like this to Hashem? Indeed, Chazal tell us that the Middas haDin, Attribute of Strict Justice, wanted to strike Moshe, but Hashem intervened, saying, "Leave him be; he speaks for the pain of the Jewish People."

This was Moshe Rabbeinu. He felt their pain to the point that he complained to Hashem. Chazal tell us that his criticism was worse than the sin of mei merivah, striking the rock instead of speaking to it. Yet, Hashem overlooked Moshe's infraction because he spoke out for the Jewish pain. He reacted to the pain because he hurt. We derive from here that what might be viewed as a sin for a great person might actually be considered a laudatory act for someone who is spiritually less distinguished. Horav Yaakov Neiman, zl, explains that an individual who is on a lower spiritual plane will invariably act in a manner commensurate with his spiritual proclivities and with his understanding of right and wrong. Thus, what he considers a praiseworthy endeavor may, in fact, be regarded for someone on a much higher spiritual plateau to be sinful. He interprets this into the Tefillah which we recite for geshem, rain, on Shemini Atzeres. We entreat Hashem in the merit of Moshe Rabbeinu who "hit the stone and water came forth." This is difficult to understand, considering that Moshe's act of striking the stone was viewed by Hashem as a grave sin, which ultimately was the basis for barring Moshe from entering Eretz Yisrael. How can Moshe's action be used as a merit for us?

Rav Neiman explains that while striking the stone was an error on Moshe's part, it was viewed negatively only in the context of his elevated spiritual status. For us, or anybody else, however, that action might have constituted a mitzvah! Klal Yisrael was famished. They needed water. Moshe responded accordingly, because when they hurt, he also hurt. Moshe's error was the result of an overwhelming love for - and sensitivity to the needs of - each and every Jew. For him, this act was tainted ever-so-slightly by a vestige of sin. For us, it would be a mitzvah. In that merit, we supplicate Hashem for water.

He saw and behold! The bush was burning in the fire but the bush was not consumed. Moshe thought, "I will turn aside now and look… why will the bush not be burned?" And Hashem called out to him from amid the bush. (3:2,3,4)

Moshe Rabbeinu's first prophetic vision consisted of a strange fire that was burning in a bush, yet the bush was not being consumed. His curiosity was piqued and he investigated this wondrous sight. Hashem then "introduced" Himself from amid the burning bush. Obviously, there is so much to be derived from this encounter. We will focus on a few of the lessons. The thorn bush is the lowest, the least distinguished of the various forms of vegetation that grow in the wilderness. Yet, Hashem chose to reveal His Glory through a burning flame in a lowly thorn bush. This conveyed a message to Moshe: Imo anochi b'tzarah, "I am with him/them in his/their anguish." Even when the nation has fallen to the nadir of depravity, to the lowest of the forty-nine gates of tumah, spiritual impurity, the people can rise up and merit Divine Revelation. The Jew, regardless of how far and how deep he has fallen, can always come back. The "light" is always on.

Conversely, there is another lesson to be derived from considering another perspective of this revelation. The greatest individual, one who has even risen to the point that he has been granted Gilui Shechinah, Divine Revelation, must know that he is still nothing more than a lowly thorn bush, who can just as easily sin with a golden calf. Did this not happen with Klal Yisrael? They experienced the miracles which catalyzed yetzias Mitzrayim, our liberation from Egypt. They stood at the foot of Har Sinai and received the Torah amid the greatest Revelation to ever occur. Yet, they quickly fell into the abyss of sin and worshipped the Golden Calf.

Chazal teach us in the Talmud Berachos 57a, that poshei Yisrael, Jewish sinners, are filled with mitzvos, like a pomegranate is filled with seeds. Even the Jews who are lowest on the spiritual totem pole, those who are referred to as a poshei Yisrael, still can perform mitzvos in order to achieve the status of a burning bush. Furthermore, as Horav Avraham Yaffen, zl, infers, one can be aflame with the fiery enthusiasm of Torah, he can be a sneh boeir baeish, fiery thorn bush, but still remain a bush. The lowly bush within him does not become consumed. Some, however, are able to pull themselves out of the muck and rise up out of the thorn bush.

The fiery bush that does not become consumed conveys another message. The Midrash says that the bush signifies Klal Yisrael; the fire represents Egypt. The lesson is: the Egyptians can burn us, but they cannot consume us. Klal Yisrael suffers throughout the millennia, but we are still here. We will not be consumed. The Alshich HaKadosh wonders why the Jewish People are compared to a lowly thorn bush? Is this metaphor not more applicable to the gentile world?

The Alshich explains that in Egypt, there was no distinction between Jew and Egyptian. The Jew had descended to the forty-ninth level of impurity. It reached the point that the Heavenly Angels could not discern between the two. "They are both idol worshippers," they said. There is, however, a distinction. Regardless of the Jew's descent into depravity, he is still a thorn bush. The thorns are part of a bush. They have roots. They connect to something, to a source. The inhabitants of the gentile world are like thorns - plain, loose thorns that become consumed in the fire. The Jews are a burning bush that continues to live. It burns, but it does not burn out. We have roots in our unique ancestry. We are firmly rooted in a foundation of holy Patriarchs and righteous forebears. Yes, we might have become like thorns, but we are still connected to the bush. We always have hope.

In support of these ideas, we find in the Midrash that Chazal relate that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha was once asked by a gentile why Hashem appeared to Moshe in a thorn bush. Rabbi Yehoshua immediately responded, "If He would have appeared in a date palm or a sycamore, you would have the same question." In other words, some people just want to ask questions. They are not interested in the answers. Regardless of this, Rabbi Yehoshua explained that the Almighty wanted to convey the lesson that every place, its lowliness notwithstanding, is filled with the Shechinah. There is no place anywhere in which the Shechinah is not to be found.

The Maharal m'Prague adds that this idea applies equally to people: there is no person that is not suited for Divine Revelation. As noted before, Klal Yisrael had descended to the forty-ninth level of tumah. Yet, they experienced the mora gadol, awesome power, which the author of the Haggadah interprets as Gilui Shechinah, Divine Revelation. This was the precursor to accepting the Torah. Every Jew, despite how low and how far away he might have fallen, can be privy to Divine Revelation.

Last, I recently saw an inspiring thought. In the Mechilta D'Rashbi, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says that there was another interesting phenomenon connected with the thorn bush. It had flowers blooming on it. Now, let us peruse our tumultuous history. There have been fires: the Romans; the Crusades; the Inquisition; the pogroms in Europe; the Cossacks; the Holocaust. Yet, throughout all of these infernos, the Jewish attitude towards our Torah and its study and dissemination never waned. In fact, it bloomed. Amidst the flames, the Torah, our lifeblood, kept coursing through our nation. It never stopped, and it never will.

Va'ani Tefillah

Kol davar she'hayah b'klal v'yatza min ha'klal l'lameid. Anything that was included in a generalization, but was then singled out from the general statement in order to teach something.

When a law that should have been included in a general statement is isolated for the purpose of teaching us a halachah, we do not view it as being singled out to teach only about itself, but to imply a lesson concerning the entire general law. For example, there are thirty-nine categories of labor that are prohibited on Shabbos. The Torah, however, distinguishes one of them: the law of havarah, lighting a fire. This was done to teach us that in regard to the general law of prohibited labor on Shabbos, each and every melachah, form of labor, is forbidden in its own right - individually. Thus, if one were to act b'shogeg, unintentionally, and transgress a number of melachos, he must offer a Korban Chatas, Sin-offering, as penance for each and every melachah that he had performed. The melachah of havarah was l'lav yatzas, taken out to emphasize that each melachah stands alone as a lav, negative commandment, and incurs its own individual punishment. In this case, the prohibition that was originally included in the generalization was singled out to teach a lesson concerning the entire generalization.

In memory of Mrs. Toby Salamon

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