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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)

Jewish enslavement did not occur overnight. The Egyptians could not have controlled the Jews had the Jews not willingly given up their sense of dignity and their sense of pride, essentially becoming "honorary Egyptians." Horav Tzvi Elimelech, zl, m'Dinov, explains that Pharaoh knew that the Egyptian midwives were not going to listen to his order to kill the Jewish male babies. Their high moral values would not have permitted them to commit such a heinous act. In that case, why did he bother?

The Torah tells us that the names of these women were Shifrah and Puah. Rashi teaches that they were none other than the mother/daughter team of Yocheved and Miriam, who just happened to be the mother and sister of Moshe and Aharon. Pharaoh knew that these women were too Jewish to comply with his murderous demands. It was, therefore, necessary to weaken their defenses. He had hoped that giving them Egyptian names would slowly assimilate them into Egyptian society. They would no longer feel like outcasts. They would become "one" with the Egyptians. This was Pharaoh's error. The women did not accept their goyish names. They retained their names, Yocheved and Miriam, regardless of what Pharaoh was calling them.

This tiny step for an individual Jew has been transformed into one large step for Judaism. The closer one gets to the goyim, the more he distances himself from Judaism: a gradual erosion of one's value system; a lessening of his commitment; a decrease in his ethical behavior. At first, it might seem to be entertaining. Regrettably, it is playing with the devil. A Jew's small increments of acculturation add up to larger and more emphatic assimilation, until he has strayed too far and has become too different to seek an avenue of return.

When Yosef ascended to the Egyptian monarchy, Pharaoh changed his name. He knew that this is how it begins. He plotted to initiate a few more not-so-subtle changes, like an Egyptian wife, and, before long, Yosef would be fully acculturated. This would lead to his assimilation into Egyptian society and ultimately the extinction of his spirit. Horav Elchonan Wasserman, zl, would say that in Shema Yisrael when the Torah speaks of "turning away" (v'sartem) to follow foreign gods, "turning away" does not mean that a Jew has gone so far as to embrace idols actively. The exhortation not to turn away is even more stringent, for indeed at the moment in which one begins to turn away from Torah, he is already attaching himself to foreign gods.

This is how it all began in Germany. In the eighteenth century, Jews - such as Moses Mendelssohn - craved a relationship with - and recognition from - secular society and its prevalent culture. He sought a way to submerge Judaism into a culture in which secular studies and culture dominated, and religious observance was nothing more than an adjunct to maintaining a separate identity. His creed of, "a Jew at home and a gentile outside," became the clarion call for the early assimilationists.

Haskalah, Enlightenment, was invested with an aura of intellectualism, making it fashionable and desirable. His marked shift from the centrality of Torah began his, v'sartem min ha'derech, "turning away from the path," on the road to complete assimilation. As a result, his disciples, even his own children, eschewed the Torah, apostatizing themselves and drinking from the baptismal font.

We have a mesorah, tradition, that has continued uninterrupted, in a chain that stretches from Har Sinai. Deviating from the words of the Torah, as interpreted by the sages of each and every generation, is the beginning of avodah zarah, idol worship. When Jews lose their self-pride as a result of their spiritual weakness, it results in "turning away" to foreign gods. This spiritual weakness was the backdrop of Orthodoxy in this country prior to, and immediately following, World War II. It was the European Roshei Yeshivah, survivors of the European Holocaust, who reshaped Orthodox thought in America, teaching the people that decisions and actions must always be contingent upon - and formulated in accordance with - Torah dictate.

The Orthodox community was, regrettably, neither recognized nor respected by the acculturated Jews. Thus, it had very little political and economic clout of its own, which compelled Orthodox Jewry to coalesce with the secular Jewish groups of the time. The gedolim, Torah giants, imbued that generation with a fiery zeal for Torah, charting a different course, setting Torah standards for the schools which they established and inculcating the next generation with a fierce pride in being labeled a Torah Jew. Within a short time, Torah perspective became paramount among Orthodox Jews. With renewed pride, they were able to stand resolute in the face of their adversaries, who correctly perceived the challenge to their decades of religious dominance in this country. We have never looked back.

And it was because the midwives feared G-d that He made them houses. (1:21)

Hashem rewarded the Jewish midwives with "houses." Rashi explains that this is certainly not a reference to bricks and mortar, but rather, to spiritual legacies which are, in fact, houses: the Houses of Kehunah and Leviah, descending from Aharon HaKohen; and the House of Monarchy, descending from David Ha'melech. We wonder why Chazal do not mention Houses of Torah, which have been exemplified by such leaders as Moshe Rabbeinu and Betzalel, architect of the Mishkan, descendant of Miriam HaNeviah.

Horav Eliyahu Mishkovsky, Shlita, notes a similar disparity in Sefer Tehillim (135:19,20), "Bais Aharon, the House of Aharon, blesses Hashem; Bais HaLevi, the House of Levi, blesses Hashem; Yirei Hashem, those who fear Hashem, bless Hashem." Apparently, "those who fear Hashem" do not warrant a "House." Why?

The Rosh Yeshivah explains that the term bais, house, intimates something concrete, stable, of an enduring nature; something that will exist forever. Concerning Kehunah, the Priesthood, which is dependent upon pedigree, if the father is a Kohen, so is his son; it can be viewed as eternal. As long as we have fathers and sons, we will have Kohanim. Likewise, Leviim transfer their pedigree from father to son. This is the reason that Kehunah and Leviah are represented by batim, Houses.

Torah, however, is not inherited. Just because one's father is a talmid chacham, Torah scholar, to whom Torah is a way of life, as characterized by his diligence and erudition, it is no indication, certainly no guarantee, that his son will be a scholar.

This is the beauty of Torah: It is available to all who seek it, to all who are willing to apply themselves to its wisdom. Stories abound of illustrious Torah scholars whose roots were, at best, quite ordinary. Their fathers were not roshei yeshiva, rebbeim, Torah leaders. They overcame mediocrity, ascending to the apex of Torah leadership. They were giants who built their own "Houses."

Probably one of the most well-known insights into "lineage" and its value is an anecdote about Horav Meir Yechiel HaLevi Haltzshtok, zl, the first Ostrovtzer Rebbe, whose father was a bagel maker. A group of scholars gathered, and all but one, the Ostrovtzer, was a scion of an illustrious lineage. As they went around the table, each Rebbe quoted a dvar Torah in the name of his father. When they finally reached the Ostrovtzer, the mood became slightly tense, since, after all, what could the Rebbe say in the name of his father? The Ostrovzer's reply has become famous. He said, "My father was a baker, and he taught me a very important lesson: Sometimes a fresh bagel is better than a stale challah."

She opened it and saw him, the child, and behold! A youth was crying. She took pity on him and said, "This is one of the Hebrew boys." (2:6)

What about the infant's cry indicated his Jewish pedigree? Do Jewish children cry differently than gentiles? All babies cry the same - or do they? Horav Mordechai Chaim, zl, m'Slonim posits that all babies do not cry alike. Something is unique and special about the way a Jew cries. A gentile weeps out of desperation, hopelessness, depression and disgust. A Jew's cry is one of hope. A ben Yisrael understands that, even at the moment when everything appears hopeless, it is all a fa?ade. Hashem can turn things around in the flash of a second. His cry is of a temporary nature. At present, it hurts; at this moment, the situation appears dismal. A Jew knows that even in the worst case scenario, he always has a tomorrow, a future. Some place, somewhere, the Jewish people will continue and endure. Moshe's cry was a cry of hope. He was clearly mi'yaldei ha'Ivrim, from the Jewish children.

Chazal teach us that today, the many gates to Heaven are closed. Well, all - but one. The Shaar Ha'Demaos, Gate of Tears, is still open. When one's prayer is expressed with tearful emotion, his tears penetrate Heaven. The question that glares at us is obvious: If the gates are always open, why bother with a gate? The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, explains that people form two types of tears. For instance, in an orphanage at night, one will not hear a sound. Despite the many young children living there, no one cries. We cry because we expect someone to listen. In an orphanage, no one is there to listen, no one is there to respond to the cries for help.

A Jew has an address for weeping: Hashem. He always listens. We may not necessarily acquiesce to His response, but He listens nonetheless. We cry to Him, and we throw ourselves at His mercy. He listens.

The other type of tears, however, does not effect a response. This is a crying which does not entreat Hashem's help. It is a weeping which implies that, Heaven forbid, we do not believe G-d can help us, or worse, that no one is there. These are the tears of yiush, hopelessness. The Gate of Tears exists to prevent the tears of hopelessness from entering. Such tears have no place in Heaven - or on Earth, for that matter.

It happened in those days that Moshe grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens. (2:11)

Although raised amidst the majesty and splendor of Egyptian hierarchy, Moshe Rabbeinu remained the son of Amram and Yocheved. Raised as an Egyptian prince, but cognizant of his Jewish roots, Moshe remained totally committed and sensitive to his Jewish brethren. When he matured, growing up into a position of responsibility, he made it a point to go out and see, to observe the plight of his brethren, to see their suffering and grieve with them. What is meant by "seeing" their suffering? Is it not sufficient simply to be aware of the misery? Does observing it firsthand make a difference?

If we were to go back to Sefer Bereishis, Parashas Vayeira, we note that, when Avraham Avinu had his encounter with the three angels in the guise of Arabs, the Torah (Bereishis 18:2) uses the word, va'yar, "and he saw," twice in one pasuk. "He lifted his eyes and saw. And, behold, three men were standing over him! He perceived, so he ran towards them." What does the second va'yar, "he perceived/saw," add to the pasuk? In his Shaarei Orah, Horav Meir Bergman, Shlita, observes that being a giving person is not merely having a kind, compassionate, sensitive heart. It requires the ability to sense an individual's needs, to perceive his hurt, his pain. To qualify as a baal chesed, an individual who performs acts of lovingkindness, one needs to perceive the other person's needs before he comes to your door to ask for assistance. Once the individual has to ask, our act of kindness towards him has been stunted. Asking for help can and does degrade many a person. Often, the asking is more demoralizing than the actual taking.

Chesed is built upon two premises: perception and execution. The benefactor must perceive the need before the beneficiary is compelled to ask. He must then open his wallet, dip into his wherewithal and share with an unfortunate Jew. Horav Yissachar Frand, Shlita, relates an incident which took place concerning the Rosh Yeshivah of Ner Yisrael, Horav Yaakov Weinberg, zl, which supports this idea.

A divorced mother with a family of young children called the Rosh Yeshivah shortly before Succos with a halachic question. She did not have much money - period. The added responsibilities of Yom Tov made her financial burden that much more difficult. Purchasing a succah was prohibitive, but she recognized that a mitzvah is a mitzvah. If she must have a succah, she would find some way to acquire one. Her question was: Since she was a woman and, thus, not obligated in the mitzvah of succah, and her young sons were also not obligated due to their tender ages, did she have to purchase a succah? In addition, as a result of the custody agreement, the boys would only be with her for part of the Festival. What should she do?

The Rosh Yeshivah replied that, based upon the Halachah, her presumption was completely correct. However, since she was an ishah chashuvah, distinguished woman, and this was something of which her children should be acutely aware, it was proper for that reason alone to have a succah. A Jewish home has a succah. An ishah chashuvah makes the home and, as such, should have a succah.

The very next day, a pre-fabricated succah was delivered to her door by an anonymous donor. The woman need not have been a "rocket scientist" to conjecture the identity of this donor. The Rosh Yeshivah perceived a need and acted accordingly.

This story is reminiscent of an episode conerning the Bais HaLevi: A Jew came before the Rav with a Halachic query: Since he could not afford the four cups of wine for the Pesach Seder, could he use milk instead? Halachically, one must use chamar medinah, a national beverage. Was milk a chamar medinah? The next day, the Bais HaLevi sent this man money with which to purchase wine and meat, as well. The Rav figured that if the person was able to drink milk at his Seder, apparently he was having neither chicken nor meat. This gesture indicated that a person should not just think with his heart, but also with his eyes. When we listen carefully to what the individual is not saying, we invariably learn much more about his needs.

And Moshe was shepherding the sheep of Yisro. (3:1)

Chazal teach us that Hashem tests a tzaddik, righteous person, in small areas, the little things, which so many of us gloss over. If the tzaddik passes the test, if he demonstrates an affinity to doing small things, to caring about the "little guy," the fellow whom no one seems to consider important enough to give his time, then the tzaddik can be a manhig, leader, of Klal Yisrael. Two of our greatest leaders stand out in this area, and Chazal underscore their acts of caring about small things.

Moshe Rabbeinu and David Ha'melech were both tested by how they shepherded the sheep entrusted in their care. Moshe ran after a stray sheep in the desert. When he found it, he understood that it was tired and had run away in search of water. Moshe then picked up the sheep and carried it back on his shoulders.

David would give the youngest sheep, the ones with the weakest teeth, the first blades of grass, because that grass was softest and thus easier to chew. He gave the oldest sheep the middle part of the grass, which was more difficult to chew. He reserved the toughest part of the grass for the middle-aged group of sheep, because they were the strongest. The future king of Yisrael related to the sheep, caring about each individual creature.

Both Moshe and David evinced true gadlus, greatness. Horav Shlomo Freifeld, zl, commented, "We often throw around the word gadol in reference to a Torah leader, a great spiritual individual. What really is a gadol? Our view is vertical in the sense that his distinction is based upon his scholarship and erudition. His profound knowledge, his familiarity with Shas, the entire Talmud Bavli, is what makes him rise above everyone."

"Chazal are teaching us that gadlus has to be horizontal as well as vertical! A gadol must be a gadol in every nook and cranny of his life - even in the small things. One who finds it difficult to interact with the "little issues "to deal with what seem insignificant, to be sensitive to the inconsequential, is ill-prepared to accept the title of gadol."

Rav Shlomo was once in an art museum, where he beheld a man copying a beautiful painting. Rav Shlomo said, "Indeed, the man was doing an excellent job of copying the artwork. The flowers in the copy looked exactly like the ones in the portrait. The coloring was stunning and matched perfectly. Indeed, the young artist had performed a yeoman's job of copying the piece of art. Nonetheless, something was missing. It was the small strokes that comprised the subtleties of the painting. These small things made a huge difference."

The Rosh Yeshivah's interpretation provides a profound commentary on his own life. He had a big heart with room for all people, regardless of their personal idiosyncrasies. They were his sheep, and he cared deeply for each one of them. Two addendums to the above. When Moshe followed the young, stray sheep into the wilderness, who was taking care of the rest of the pack? Yes, how did he allow himself to leave the entire flock unattended, while he occupied himself with one single sheep? We suggest that Moshe was teaching us a lesson. A group is comprised of individuals. A flock of sheep is composed of many single sheep. Each single sheep within the group has great significance. The shepherd who ignores one lone sheep, in effect, ignores the entire group.

Second, I am aware of another aspect to "small things" upon which we should touch. The story is related concerning Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, who was well-known, not only as a brilliant Torah scholar whose encyclopedic knowledge of Shas and Poskim was outstanding, but also as a warm, sensitive individual, who was an extraordinary tzaddik in whom ethics and emotions ran very deep.

One day, he was walking through the streets of Yerushalayim, as usual, with an entourage of students hanging on his every word. They passed a shoe store, which had a tiny pair of baby shoes displayed in the front picture window. The Rosh Yeshivah stared pensively at the shoes for a few moments, then turned to his students and remarked, "The Vilna Gaon cried on his deathbed," he began. "Do you know why the Gaon cried? He regretted leaving a world in which a few simple kopecks can purchase a pair of Tzitzis which can access such incredible merit. Look how easy it is to gain reward in this world! But, in the next world, we have no such opportunities. There, we collect what we have earned. This is why the Gaon cried. It truly is a good reason for expressing emotion.

"Well, I am not the Gaon," continued Rav Chaim. "When I die, I will not weep on my deathbed over a pair of Tzitzis, but I will cry over those baby shoes in the window. To me, they symbolize a mother's love of her children. I will cry because I will be leaving a beautiful world in which mothers love their children with all their hearts. That is why I will cry!"

Rav Chaim teaches us a profound insight into what many may consider inconsequential. Nothing is so diminutive as the individual who views something from Hashem as exiguous. It is all a question of perspective. There are no small things, if it comes from Hashem - only small people with small minds.

For the place upon which you stand is holy ground. (3:5)

Moshe Rabbeinu's curiosity was piqued when he beheld a bush on fire, which continued to burn without being consumed. Upon closer inspection, the phenomenon before his eyes became even stranger. Hashem spoke to Moshe, instructing him to remove his shoes, because he was standing on holy ground. Such was the custom in the Bais HaMikdash, in which even the Kohanim were not permitted to wear shoes. The relationship between man and the Exalted must be unimpeded. One's feet must be planted firmly on the ground. Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, explains Hashem's statement to Moshe concerning the exalted sanctity of the ground, "Rather than attempting to find out about a phenomenon that lies beyond your sphere of cognition, understand and devote yourself to the lofty destiny of the ground upon which you already stand."

Many of us are searching for something else, something different, something more challenging, something holier. All of the searching is nothing more than an excuse for not acting directly to address the mission that lies before us. We all have fantasies, but we are not cut out for the implementation of these fantasies. As a result, we end up doing nothing, while ignoring the matter at hand and dreaming about what we could have done.

The Chafetz Chaim, zl, explains this similarly, but from the perspective of another human failing. When an individual is asked why he did not serve Hashem better, stronger, with greater zeal, with a greater application of time, he will often give a slew of standard excuses: "I did not have time"; "I was not born with such great acumen"; "My livelihood is suffering, so I must spend every waking minute scrounging for sustenance"; "If I would be smart, I would study"; "If I were rich, I would have time to study and give charity." It is always, "If I were somewhere else, someone different, under different conditions." These are all excuses. Hashem does not want us to be someone - or somewhere - else. He wants us here and now: "For the ground upon which you stand (now) is holy." Specifically, this ground, this situation, under these circumstances; that is what Hashem asks of us - here and now!

The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, makes a similar application concerning the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos 2:5, "Do not say, 'When I am free, I will study,' for perhaps you will not become free." He explains that, shema lo tipaneh, "For perhaps you will not become free," is not a reference to a future occurrence, but rather a description of the individual's frenetic lifestyle. Some people never have time - neither now, nor at a later date. Thus, by virtue of one's lifestyle, he may never have time to learn Torah. This is an intolerable situation, which demands that one learn Torah - now. He should not put it off, because this is exactly what Hashem wants of him. This is his admas kodesh, holy ground. His primary challenge in life may, in fact, be to overcome all of his temporary distractions in order to study Torah.

Pinos Tzvaav kedoshim romemei Shakai.

The masters (officers) of His spiritual hosts, those Holy beings, are the ones who praise HaKadosh Baruch Hu as Shakai. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that only Heavenly angels have the ability to praise Hashem by His Name of Shakai. For they are the ones who comprehend the meaning of this Name. The Name is derived from the fact, She'amar l'olamo dai, "He announced to His world: 'Enough!'" Chazal explain that when the universe was created, it continued expanding until Hashem declared, "Dai! Enough!" and halted its further development. It is in this sense that Hashem is called Shakai.

We humans have only a limited perception of Creation. When we view the universe through a telescopic lens, we see what appears to the naked eye to be an ever-expanding universe, with galaxies moving away from each other. We are privy to only a fraction of the universe. Thus, to us, it appears to be expanding, as we see more and more. We are unable to see the completed universe. After Hashem said, "Dai! Enough!" only melachim, angels, were able to have this perception. Therefore, only they can praise Hashem as Shakai.

l'ilui nishmas ha'isha ha'chashuva
Rivka Tova Devora
bas R' Chaim Yosef Meir a"h
niftar 21 Teves 5760
Menachem Shmuel and Roiza Devora Solomon

In memory of Mrs. Toby Salamon a"h

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

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