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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And behold! A youth was crying. (2:6)

The Baal HaTurim writes that the youth was none other than Aharon, Moshe's brother. Miriam had placed him near the basket to watch his infant brother, Moshe. When Aharon saw that Moshe was crying, he was also moved to tears. This is a lesson for all of us. When another Jew is crying, it is reason for each and every one of us to cry. That is the meaning of empathy. To feel someone's pain means to be moved to express the same emotion that our friend is compelled to express. Children are like that. They feel for one another. Regrettably, as we mature and become independent, this is an automatic emotional response that we grow out of. Aharon HaKohen never did. He always empathized with other Jews. He became the individual appointed to wear the Choshen with the names of the Shevatim over his heart, because his heart beat with the pulse of the Jewish People. When he aged, his caring heart stayed young.

Horav Shalom Dov Ber,zl, m'Lubavitch, was deeply engrossed in study as his young son was sleeping in his crib in a nearby room. The infant began to cry, but his father was so involved in study that he did not hear him. The child's grandfather, the Baal HaTanya, lived one floor above them. He was also studying Torah. Yet, he was able to hear his grandson's cries. He went downstairs and discovered that the infant had fallen out of the crib. He picked up the infant, soothed and placed him back in his crib. Afterwards, he went over to his son and said, "Torah study should not be an excuse for not hearing the cry of another in need. Regardless of his age, you must hear their cries and reach out to him."

I wrote the following story a number of years ago, but I am taking my writer's prerogative to cite it once again as a springboard upon which to expound. The story is about Joseph Beyda, zl, one of the primary founders and directors of the Sephardic Bikur Holim, and it relates how he became involved in its incredible work. The story took place at a meeting of volunteers that Joseph came to meet in order to motivate and inspire the people who had been doing so much. He began by asking, "Why do we do what we do? Why do we stay at meetings until the wee hours of the morning, trying to help the poor and less fortunate? Let me share with you an experience that I had last week.

"I went on a visit to a young woman who had cancer. Her husband had left her. One of her children was autistic. As I sat with her, she held her young, autistic child in her loving arms, poignantly describing her nightmare of a life to me. During this time, her healthy three-year old daughter began to cry. I thought to myself, 'Why is she crying? Is it because her mother is spending so much time with her son? Is it because she knows her mother is gravely ill and might not live? Is it because she misses her father who will probably never return? Or is she simply hungry or tired?' I did not know why she was crying, but I knew one thing for certain: her mother was incapable of helping her. Her mother's hands were more than full. I attempted to calm this beautiful, helpless little girl by telling her, 'It will be all right.'

"But I realized that I was lying. It would not be all right. Her mother was sick; her father was gone; her brother needed constant attention - and she was hungry and tired.

"I went to bed that night, but I could not sleep. That little girl's plaintive cry kept me awake. I could not get her out of my mind. I could not help hearing those cries and seeing those bitter tears. I decided then that I had to do something to help her, to alleviate her pain in some way. Then I began to cry. I cried for her and for all the other little girls like her.

"This is why all of the other volunteers and I do what we do: We hear the cries! Perhaps others can turn down the sound and go about their daily routines. We cannot ignore the cries. As long as we hear the cries, we will continue to reach out to help."

The bottom line is: How can we ignore the pain of others? This empathy should be one of the overriding concerns of our lives. When someone else hurts, we hurt. What about those, however, who do not cry out loud, who whimper or put on a smile to conceal the hurt and suffering that they are experiencing? What is it going to take for us to listen beyond what we can hear, and see beyond what appears before our eyes? There are people in our respective communities who are weeping silently. Some need parnassah, livelihood. For others, it might be a shidduch, matrimonial match, while for others it might be a problem with a child or a health issue at home. There are those who are simply unhappy. They feel that their lives are one big dead end, and, in some cases, for various reasons, it is.

The following story, related by Rabbi Yechiel Spero in his book, "One Shining Moment," portrays the attitude we should manifest towards others. Horav Shmuel Salant,zl, was the venerable Rav of Yerushalayim in the middle to latter part of the nineteenth century. He was known as an uncompromising halachist, who meticulously followed the law to the finest detail. As rav, he carried the concerns of his community on his shoulders. The story takes place in a shivah home, a home struck by tragedy as a young father, a Torah scholar, suddenly took ill and died shortly thereafter. There were no words to describe the tragedy and pain, the misery and the sorrow, that the family was experiencing. The young children had no idea how to react or to whom they should turn. Regrettably, neither did anyone else. People came by and just sat there waiting for the mourners to speak. This is consistent with halachah, which demands that the aveilim, mourners, commence the conversation. Since the mourners hardly ever spoke, the entire room remained uncomfortably silent.

When Rav Shmuel entered the house, the crowd immediately moved to the side to allow the elderly sage to enter. He sat down in front of the young aveilim. The contrast in age was almost palpable. Here was a Torah luminary who was three quarters of a century older than the young aveilim who were not yet bar mitzvah. The room remained quiet; no one spoke.

Rav Shmuel waited a moment before initiating a conversation with the young boys. As if a dam had burst, the young mourners opened up and began to share their emotions with Rav Shmuel. The rav described to them who their father was, portraying to them the kind of an exceptional talmid chacham, Torah scholar, he was. He described the "place" where his neshamah now reposed. Their father would always love and watch over them, the rav explained. Soon their sorrowful faces even began to display small smiles. After about an hour of animated conversation, Rav Shmuel rose and prepared to leave. The family had now begun the difficult road to closure and healing.

As Rav Shmuel walked out, accompanied by his closest disciples, one of them queried him why he had initiated the conversation with the aveilim, bypassing the halachah that required the aveil to speak first. The sage stopped suddenly, looked at his student incredulously, and asked, "Did you not hear them?" He was indicating that he had adhered to the halachah and that, indeed, the aveilim had initiated the conversation. The talmidim all looked at their rebbe with shocked eyes, since they had not heard the aveilim say a single word to begin the conversation.

Rav Shmuel continued, "I cannot believe that you did not hear their cries of pain. The moment I walked into the house I heard the children crying out in sorrow, in pain, in misery. How could you not have heard it?"

We understand what had occurred. Rav Shmuel's ability to hear was very acute. He could hear a silent cry, because he listened with his heart - not with his ears.

I have indeed seen the affliction of My People…I will descend to rescue it…and bring it up to a land flowing with milk and honey…Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve G-d on this mountain. And they say to me, "What is His Name? What shall I say to them?" (3:7,8,12,13)

If we peruse the pesukim carefully, we will note that Hashem actually presented Moshe Rabbeinu with three reasons that he should accept the leadership of the Jewish People in order to lead them from Egypt. Regarding the first two reasons or purposes of the geulah, Exodus, Moshe responded in the negative, by employing a powerful excuse that precluded him from leadership. When Hashem stated the third reason, Moshe once again demurred, but, this time, it was not in principle. It was for a technical reason. In principle, he was willing to lead them from Egypt. How are we to understand this dialogue and the underlying reasons for Moshe's reluctance to lead, both in principle and for technical reasons?

Horav Eliyahu Schlesinger, Shlita, analyzes this dialogue and derives a powerful message from it concerning the foundation and purpose of life in general and life in Eretz Yisrael in particular. The first time Hashem spoke to Moshe, He said, "I have, indeed, seen the affliction of My people…and I have heard its outcry (3:7). He then added, "I shall descend to rescue it from the hand of Egypt and to bring it up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey." (3:8) Moshe's reply was simply, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, that I should take My People of Yisrael out of Egypt?" (3:11)

Hashem presented Moshe with the reasons for redeeming Klal Yisrael. First, it was their affliction and pain. Their cries had reached the Heavenly Throne, their pain was intense. Second, Hashem wanted to bring them to Eretz Yisrael, their ultimate homeland. Hashem wanted Moshe to assume the leadership of this nation for these two reasons. In response to these two reasons, Moshe replied with a principle, "I am not the one for the job. It is just not me."

It was then that Hashem countered with a third reason for Yisrael's redemption. And He said, "For I will be with you…when you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve G-d on this mountain." (3:12) Now it was a different story. Klal Yisrael was to receive the Torah, something that could never take place in Egypt. Moshe no longer refused out of principle. Now it was for technical reasons: How was he to describe who had sent him? He did have a speech impediment that might undermine his ability to present the issues to the people properly. Moshe's earlier reason for refusal, his unsuitability to lead them, no longer played a role. Now it was a reason that might undermine his effectiveness in convincing the people and Pharaoh of his mission.

Rav Schlesinger explains that Moshe is teaching us an important principle concerning life. Moshe felt that the plague of yetzias Mitzrayim, the Egyptian exodus, could not be simply to alleviate Jewish pain and misery, so that they could now live a pain-free life without any spiritual restraints. To be liberated from slavery for the purpose of achieving freedom, so that one can now do whatever his heart so desires, is not a valid reason for liberation. Likewise, to be freed so that one can now go to Eretz Yisrael to live a lifestyle without spiritual restrictions, is similarly not a valid reason for freedom. To be freed from one misery, so that one could succumb to spiritual infamy, was also no reason for deliverance. It was only after Hashem indicated that the goal of the Exodus was that the Jewish People could come to Har Sinai and accept the Torah; the Torah which would be a vital and active part of their lives; the Torah that would guide and inspire them spiritually, that he no longer demurred in principle. He only had certain technical issues that needed to be addressed.

Leaving Egypt for Eretz Yisrael is an unparalleled spiritual opportunity. The significance of this move, however, is overshadowed when the people do not live a life of adherence to Torah and mitzvos. The purpose of Jewish life is to serve Hashem. To live in Eretz Yisrael and ignore the real purpose of this life is to defame the very principle by which life in this country is granted to us. When Moshe heard that the Jewish People would leave Egypt to accept a Torah which would then become part of their lifestyle in the Holy Land, he no longer had issues in principle regarding his participation in their liberation.

This is why we say on Pesach, when we recite the Hagaddah, "Had He given us the Torah, and not brought us into Eretz Yisrael, Dayeinu, it would have been enough." Interestingly, it does not say, "Had He brought us into Eretz Yisrael and not given us the Torah, it would have been enough," because this would not have been enough. To be brought to Eretz Yisrael without the Torah would have served no purpose, for a life without Torah-- even in Eretz Yisrael-- is of little value. A life subjugated to the will of one's yetzer hora, evil inclination, a life of complete hefkeirus-- without control, values and morals-- is not considered truly living in Eretz Yisrael. Indeed, living in Eretz Yisrael demands even greater spiritual integrity.

Afterwards Moshe and Aharon came and said to Pharaoh, "So said Hashem, the G-d of Yisrael, "Send out My People." (5:1)

After much preparation, Moshe Rabbeinu stood before Pharaoh and demanded that he allow the Jewish People to leave the country for a short excursion into the desert. This preceded the plagues and the ultimate liberation of the Jewish People from Egypt. Moshe did not become Klal Yisrael's leader overnight. It was a process that evolved over time, a process that is worth studying for the lessons it imparts concerning leadership and endeavoring on behalf of a community. Horav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Shlita, points out that Moshe worked for, his position. He worked his way up from helping the individual, to reaching out to the community, until that auspicious moment when he stood before Pharaoh as Klal Yisrael's designated leader, demanding their release from bondage.

Let us trace his stepping stones to leadership. We first find Moshe going out to his brethren, seeing their toil and empathizing with their pain and misery. He did whatever was in his power to alleviate some of their hardship, but it was only partial assistance. Full liberation was a far-away dream. This did not, however, deter his efforts on behalf of the individual. He was overwhelmed neither with how much had to be done nor with his partial success. He did what he could, and he continued to do. He lent a shoulder to the individual, helping wherever he could. He encouraged and gave solace. This was his first step on the ladder of leadership: the individual.

After awhile, he ascended to the next rung and presented himself before Pharaoh with a practical suggestion: "Pharaoh, do you realize that the Jewish slaves are not allowed a day's rest? Surely, you understand that a slave who does not rest one day a week will die from exertion." When Pharaoh heard this, he said, "You are right. Give them a break for one day each week." Moshe, of course, selected the seventh day of the week, Shabbos Kodesh, as their day of rest. It worked. The Jews rested and studied on Shabbos. It rejuvenated them and gave them the fortitude to continue. Moshe was now endeavoring on behalf of the public, but he had still not reached his zenith, the leadership of Klal Yisrael.

There was a time lapse between the moment he went out to the individual Jew until he actually took the people out of Egypt. During this entire time, he empathized and worked on their behalf. He did not sit back simply because he did not have the exalted position of quintessential leader. Moshe's actions went beyond what his wisdom dictated was feasible. Yet, he surged forward and did what he felt had to be done, even if it might not be compatible with his seichal and hegyon, common sense and intellectual acumen. His actions superseded his wisdom.

In Pirkei Avos 3:12, Chazal teach us: "A person whose deeds exceed his wisdom shall have enduring wisdom, but one whose wisdom exceeds his deeds shall not have enduring wisdom." This means that one who refuses to act, to undertake an endeavor, to "step up to the plate" unless his intellect does a feasibility survey, until he comprehends every aspect of his deed and deems it within his capability to succeed, will not succeed in his growth, both from a mundane and a spiritual vantage point. The Jewish People stood at Har Sinai and accepted the Torah with a resounding declaration of, Naaseh v'nishmah, "We will do and we will listen." This meant that even if they did not yet understand the Divine reason for the commandments, they would not make the fulfillment of mitzvos contingent upon their comprehension. This important principle has been a by-word for our People since that great moment. We do what must be done, regardless of whether we understand the reason. Likewise, if there is something to be done for another Jew or for the betterment of the community, we do not stop to think and weigh the chances for success or the political correctness of our endeavor. We act! Moshe taught us the way. We do not stop because something is difficult. We do not stop because it might not be acceptable. We do not stop because it seems unfeasible. We do; Hashem assures the success of our actions.

Hodiu ba'amim alilosav.
Make His deeds known among the peoples.

The very fact that the Jewish People still exist and thrive is in itself the greatest miracle. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, feels that this is especially important with regard to our Holocaust remembrance. While we certainly mourn the cataclysmic destruction that occurred, we should also focus on the miracle of our survival. All too often, we become bogged down with mourning and depression, failing to emphasize that we have survived and we must offer our gratitude to the Almighty for this. Individuals who have been in extreme mortal danger should never forget the miracles connected to their survival. The nation as a whole should constantly remind itself and proclaim its miraculous survival to the world. The indestructibility of the Jewish nation should be universally emphasized. This will not prevent modern day anti-Semites from acting in accordance with their heritage of persecuting and harassing Jews, but it is important for us to remember and proclaim it, so that it remains fresh in the eyes of the world.

The Gaon zl, m'Vilna, interprets alilosav, deeds, as referring to the tremendous chesed, kindness, of the Almighty ,who, first grants us good fortune and then removes it as a form of providing a remedy for one's illness. Rather than penalize a person with new punitive measures, Hashem simply deprives him of the good fortune which he has enjoyed until now.

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

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