Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And she went to inquire of Hashem. (25:22)

Rivkah Imeinu went to the bais ha'medrash of Shem, who was a navi, prophet, to inquire of Hashem the reason for - meaning of - the travail she was undergoing. Clearly, Shem was a great man, a spiritual giant who headed a yeshivah which catered to the people of that era who were actively seeking the word of G-d. Among the distinguished alumni of this yeshivah was none other than Yitzchak Avinu. Targum Yonasan teaches that, following the Akeidah, the Heavenly angels took Yitzchak to Shem's bais ha'medrash, where he studied for three years. After Shem, Ever, his grandson, assumed leadership of the yeshivah. Among his distinguished students was Yaakov Avinu. At the age of sixty-three, after leaving home with Eisav in pursuit, Yaakov went to Ever's yeshivah and spent fourteen years there studying diligently. The mere fact that the "institution" was referred to as the bais ha'medrash of Shem and Ever indicates that it was probably the preeminent makom Torah at the time. If so, we wonder what happened to the members of its student body? They did not all die out. They could not all have disappeared. Why did the Torah teachings of Shem and Ever not endure?

The answer may be found in the word, bais ha'medrash, in contrast to the word, yeshivah. The latter implies something of an organized nature, an institution with an established framework, in which the mentor and the student each accepts responsibility toward the other. A student in a yeshivah conforms to the policies of the institution. Thus, he develops a reciprocal relationship with his mentors. One does not simply visit a yeshivah, popping in and out. Enrolling in a yeshivah is a commitment; it creates an everlasting bond between student and mentor, and vice versa. In a bais ha'medrash, the mentor teaches; those who attend his lectures will listen; those who do not care to listen, will simply leave. No commitment - no relationship. Not so with a rosh yeshivah, whose relationship is so powerful that he becomes like a father to the student. Shem and Ever were great men who taught many things to a pagan world. Because they made no demands, however, they had few adherents. Those, like the Avos, Patriarchs, who committed themselves to them and their teachings, developed spiritually through teachings that endured. A rebbe who is not like a parent is not really a rebbe. The bond has just not been established.

Horav Simchah Wasserman, zl, the quintessential rosh yeshivah, once pointed out this idea to a secular professor - who considered himself to be a successful mentor until he met Rav Simchah. The man had been head of the history department in a large American university for fifty years. Visiting the yeshivah one day to recite Kaddish, he began to talk to Rav Simchah. This was a common occurrence, due to the rosh yeshivah's warm personality and happy countenance.

"Rabbi, I am a lonely man at this point in my life."

Rav Simchah was surprised, "Why?" he asked. "How many students did you teach in your life?"

After a short accounting, the man replied, "About 30,000."

The rosh yeshivah asked him, "Out of those 30,000 students, how many invited you to their weddings?"

The professor responded. "None - not a single one."

Imagine asking this question of a rosh yeshivah. Probably not a single student would ever think of getting married without inviting his rosh yeshivah, his rebbe, to the wedding. The thought of not inviting one's rebbe is absurd! This is because Torah is taught with love. A rebbe is like a father, and the love he should manifest towards his student is similar to the love a father shows his son. Only Torah creates such a relationship. This is precisely what was lacking in Shem and Ever's yeshivah: relationships.

And Eisav became one who knows hunting, a man of the field; but Yaakov was a wholesome man, abiding in tents. (25:27)

One would think that, given the vast difference between Yaakov Avinu and Eisav, the Torah would have elaborated more in characterizing them. The Torah should have described Eisav as evil incarnate. Yaakov was a righteous, saintly person. Surely, the Torah could have said more than that he was "a wholesome man, abiding in tents." Targum Yonasan ben Uziel writes tova ulpan, "He sought Torah study." Yaakov just wanted to learn. He had no other interests. His raison d'?tre was Torah study. Yaakov had the koach ha'mevakesh, the quality of being a seeker. He thirsted for Torah.

Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, posits that everything which Yaakov achieved in life, that which characterized him best, which defined the origins of his distinction, was tova ulpan. Yaakov Avinu's exceptional ability to focus his entire being on one specific goal, studying Torah, was the reason that he became the Patriarch who built Klal Yisrael. He was the consummate mevakeish.

In a similar vein, the Torah characterizes Eisav as g'var nachshirchan, which Rashi translates to mean adam bateil, a man who is idle. Eisav sat around doing very little, with a desire to do even less. He wanted to be idle, vacant, with nothing to do. Eisav lived by inertia, without focus, without goals, without purpose. He just did not want to do anything. Thus, his miscreant behavior, every act of evil that he carried out, was the result of this idleness. His actions were all consequences of his koach ha'batalah, ability to waste time, to do nothing. Time is Hashem's greatest gift to mankind. To waste it is beyond foolish; it is evil.

Rav Yeruchem emphasizes the importance of considering the sibah, cause, origin, of every action. What we ultimately do has roots much earlier. Who we are and what we have become do not just happen. There are sibos, causes, moments traceable to our earlier life, activities, and friends, which all impacted our future. The ben sorer u'morer, wayward and rebellious son, is nidon al shem sofo, judged based on his end, on what he will ultimately do. What the ben sorer becomes is what he is now. The here and now is the sibah; the end is the consequence of the sibah. Both Eisav and Yaakov manifested distinct characteristics as youths. Over the years, these characteristics determined their future personalities.

Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, expands on this idea. One does not necessarily have to devote his entire life to idleness to become an ish ha'sadeh, man of the field. It depends on how he apportions his time, how he spends his daily endeavor. A man arrives home after a difficult day at work; he is tired and yearns for a rest. At that moment, he is an ish sadeh. He has free time and can spend it in a number of ways. How he spends his time determines whether he is an ish sadeh or a tam yosheiv ohalim. Should he go to the bais ha'medrash, join a shiur, study with a chavrusa, study partner, or waste his time pursuing the American way of life? His decision indicates his intrinsic values.

What was the reason for the difference in personality between Yaakov and Eisav? Why was Yaakov a mevakeish, while Eisav viewed himself as a complete person, needing no more perfection? He was it! Veritably, it is all in the names. Eisav implies asui, made/complete/finished. Eisav perceived nothing deficient in himself. From a spiritual standpoint, he had all that he needed. From a material standpoint, however, there was no end to what he sought. Wealth, power, fulfillment of his physical desires - these were areas in which he could pursue more "completion."

The name Yaakov implies anavah: modest, meek, deficient. As the Shem Mi'Shmuel explains, Yaakov is derived from ekev, the heel, reflecting lowliness, always seeking to find yet another way to plumb the depths of Torah, to elevate himself in his relationship with Hashem. These two brothers were different in nature; hence, they displayed disparate attitudes toward life.

The Yehudi Hakadosh of Peshicha earned his name as a reflection of the fact the he viewed himself as daily becoming a Jew over again; every day he approached his avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty, with a renewed vigor, as if yesterday he had been a gentile. "Yesterday" compared to "today" was, in his mind, analogous to a goy compared to a Yid. Hashem wants us to strive for completion, and, as soon as we achieve a new spiritual plateau, we continue onto the next rung of the spiritual ladder.

The need and desire to develop oneself, to seek greater spiritual ascendency to a point of greater consciousness and sensitivity, is a defining character trait. The Alter, zl, m'Kelm, states that the discrepancy in personality between Yaakov and Eisav determined their futures. The Alter draws an analogy to a baby calf, who is able to stand on its wobbly legs hours after its birth. Shortly thereafter, it begins to walk and run. A human infant is helpless at birth and develops very slowly, beginning to walk almost a year after he takes his first breath. The question is: Why did Hashem create such a disparity between human and animal? Man is the crown of creation; yet, he is born helpless. Without constant help, he cannot make it through infancy. Horav Yaakov Beifus, Shlita, explains that herein lies man's distinction. From his weakness, we are able to discern his greatness.

Man is to strive for greatness in ruchniyos, to develop his spiritual dimension. In order to achieve his objective he must study from others, following in the footsteps of those more advanced than he. In order to make it, he requires assistance. By relying on the help of others as an infant, he becomes accustomed to this phenomenon. Indeed, an infant learns more in his first two years of life than he does during the rest of his life. To master walking, talking, and eating is no small feat. The ability for a human being to learn from others is rooted in the fact that from birth he realizes that he is incomplete; he needs help.

Eisav was born complete. Hence, he saw no need to learn more, to develop himself further. He had arrived! He lived a life of complete abandon. Yaakov Avinu viewed himself as a Jew should see himself: incomplete, with a long way to go. Historically, this was always the case. The Jew was observant, meticulous in his mitzvah observance, careful to execute Hashem's command to the finest detail. The idea of a secular Jew was an anathema. It did not exist. One hundred and fifty years ago, the scourge of the Haskalah, Enlightenment, began to infiltrate the hearts and minds of Jewish men and women, first in Western Europe, then spreading to Eastern Europe. It was a disease like no other before it, claiming the finest young people as its victims. How did it occur? How was it nourished?

In his Chovas HaTalmidim, the Piaszesner Rebbe, zl, lays the blame on the Eisavian philosophy addressed above. The root of the evil reared its ugly head when the promoters of the Haskalah reached out to the youth, and, with great temerity, informed them of their new-found freedom: no more oppression; no more living as second-class citizens; no more religion. The filters that restrained them from living "life" like the rest of the world were removed. No longer would they have to seek their parents' guidance or approval. Bnei Yaakov were transformed overnight into Bnei Eisav. They were perfect! They needed nothing from anyone. The arrogance that accompanied the attitude of yesterday's youth has continued on this path to this very day.

Klal Yisrael has successfully reared generation after generation, founded in an adherence to the mesores ha'avos, traditions handed down from its elders. We display respect, admiration, and esteem for our forebears. It is what dignifies us and distinguishes us from the masses which comprise contemporary society.

The voice is Yaakov's voice, but the hands are Eisav's hands. (27:22)

The commentators feel that within the above statement of Yitzchak Avinu lies much of the attitude a Jew should manifest toward Torah. It defines what the Torah is to us. Yaakov Avinu's power is in his voice, his prayer, the sound of his Torah study. These are his weapons. This is his area of expertise. Eisav lives by the sword so, invariably, this is his strength. "Voice" is just not his "cup of tea."

Chazal teach: "When the voice of Yaakov sounds in the batei knesios and batei medrashos, then the hands of Eisav do not reign over them. Eisav's strength is nurtured by our weakness. When our commitment to Torah wanes, Eisav becomes stronger. This would imply that as long as Yaakov's voice is strong, Eisav's hands will be powerless. The two do not coincide. It is either one or the other. The pasuk, however, does not seem to agree with this perspective, since it states that the voice is Yaakov's voice and the hands are Eisav's hands. It would seem that they are both "working" simultaneously. The Gaon, zl, m'Vilna, explains this pasuk based upon the fact that the spelling of hakol, the voice, is missing the vav, making it appear as heikal, which, loosely translated, means the easing of (the voice of Yaakov). Thus, the Gaon interprets the pasuk: When the voice of Yaakov eases/wanes, the hands of Eisav become revealed. Eisav derives his strength from Yaakov's weakness. When Yaakov's voice reverberates from within the bais ha'medrash, when the shuls are filled with sounds of prayer, Eisav will not reign over us.

Horav Yerachmiel Kromm, Shlita, posits that this idea explains the disparate approaches utilized by Chizkiyahu Hamelech and Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, when they were each challenged with an extreme crisis five hundred years apart. At the end of Sefer Melachim I, the Navi details how Sancheirav, the King of Ashur, was poised to attack the Jewish People with an army of over one hundred and eighty thousand men. Chizkiyahu was "encouraged" to submit to the general's demands and not be obstinate. The Jewish king was resolute; he was not prepared to capitulate. He prayed for a miracle, and Hashem answered his prayers. Sancheirav returned home a broken person with no army to support him.

In a similar situation, five hundred years later, during the siege of Yerushalayim under Vespasian, there were those individuals who refused to bend. They were prepared to fight unto the end. People were starving. The city was about to fall. Rabbi Yochanan snuck out of the city and presented himself to Vespasian. He begged for Yavne v'chachamecha, the city of Yavne and its Torah scholars. Why did Rabbi Yochanan not follow the same course for which Chizkiyahu Hamelech had opted?

The distinction, explains Rav Kromm, is that while Rabbi Yochanan was acutely aware that one can aspire for supernatural salvation, as in the case with Chizkiyahu, he understood that the circumstances were different. Chizkiyahu's generation was a generation that excelled in Torah scholarship. Proficiency in Torah was commonplace. The common Jew was an erudite scholar. A generation in which the Kol Yaakov is so prevalent has the power to quell any efforts of Eisav's minions. Rabbi Yochanan's generation was not as fortunate. He understood that the sorry spiritual state of affairs that defined his generation would not engender a miracle. They simply did not warrant supernatural intervention. The kol Yaakov was barely a whisper.

Perhaps we may add a thought to the Kol Yaakov concept. I remember hearing Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, defining kol, voice, as an expression which is not accompanied by a reason or a command. For instance, a father states, "I am thirsty." The son immediately should understand that he has an obligation to fetch his father a drink. The father has neither issued a command nor given a rationale as to why he needs something. He has simply stated that he is in need of a drink.

Kol Yaakov is the response Yaakov gives to Hashem's mitzvah of limud haTorah, Torah study. Yaakov replies with a kol, a voice that does not make demands or excuses. He does not justify why he is learning; or what he is gaining by learning. He learns because it is the tzivui Hashem, Almighty's command. His learning is unequivocal, unambiguous, with no strings attached. It is a labor of love, a commitment for life, unaltered by life's tribulations. It is a "kol."

If that "kol" weakens - not necessarily in actual study, but in respect to its total conformity to Hashem's Will; if one's deference to Torah is not absolute, if it is not part of his life, then Eisav takes over the reins of leadership. One does not explain why he breathes. Otherwise, he will die! One does not have to justify learning Torah. Otherwise, he will also die!

Let me add that how one learns has a similarly powerful impact. When Yaakov and Eisav were yet in their mother's womb, they fought to leave that pristine environment. Yaakov wanted to leave when his mother walked by a yeshivah. Eisav felt the need to exit when Rivkah walked in the proximity of an idol. Why would Yaakov want to leave? We are taught that while the infant is in his mother's womb, he studies Torah with an angel. What could be more enriching than such Torah study?

Horav Betzalel Zolty, zl, comments that Yaakov sought ameilus baTorah, toil in Torah study. Sitting back comfortably and having the perfect mentor is wonderful, but it is not ameilus, toil. Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, comments that it is for this same reason, a lack of ameilus, that one is not obligated to rise out of respect for a pregnant woman. She is carrying a child that is fluent in kol haTorah kulah, the entire Torah. The child is potentially the gadol ha'dor, preeminent Torah scholar of the generation. He explains that Torah studied without ameilus does not make one a gadol, nor does it engender such reverence.

One who studies Torah with ameilus acquires the Torah as his very own. He retains it within him to the point that it becomes a part of his personal DNA. Torah studied with ameilus is Torah studied with love. The Klausenberger Rebbe, zl, personified ameilus baTorah. Although blessed with an exceptional mind, his overwhelming love for Torah engendered within him such a sense of devotion to it that he wanted to toil, to labor to his last ounce of strength to study Torah. The Rebbe once quipped to his shamas, aide, that, during his earlier years, he did not sleep in a bed for twenty-five consecutive years. He sat by his Talmud until he fell asleep and, immediately upon rising, would wash his hands and continue. He lived for Torah study.

The idea of learning Torah with ameilus goes even beyond life itself. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, quotes the Talmud Taanis 25a, which relates that when Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta had no provisions for Shabbos, he prayed to Hashem. A miracle occurred and a precious stone descended from Heaven, so that he would now have the necessary funds to purchase food for Shabbos. His wife, however, refused to have anything to do with the miraculous gift, claiming that it would "deduct" from their Heavenly reward in Olam Habba, World to Come. Rabbi Shimon countered that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, his revered Rebbe, said that if it was deducted, he would repay them from his own portion in Olam Habba. Once again, his wife stood resolute. She contravened that they would not meet one another in the World to Come.

How did she know this? What made her so certain that they would not meet Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi? Rav Zilberstein comments that there is a special place in Gan Eden designated for those who study Torah amid privation. The toil that they expend in this world is rewarded in the next. Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi was the Torah scholar par-excellence, codifier of the Mishnah, and leader of the generation. Yet, he was the Nasi, Prince, wealthy beyond anyone's imagination. Studying Torah under such circumstances warranted him a reward in a different section of the World of Truth.

Eisav saw that Yitzchak had blessed Yaakov and sent him off to Padan-Aram… he commanded him saying, "You shall not take a wife from the daughter of Canaan… Eisav saw that the daughters of Canaan who were evil in the eyes of Yitzchak, his father… Eisav took Machlas, the daughter of Yishmael…, in addition to his wives, as a wife for himself." (28:6,8,9)

Twice the Torah states the word, vayar, and (he) (Eisav) saw. First, Eisav saw that Yitzchak had blessed Yaakov a second time and instructed him not to take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. Yitzchak Avinu did not give such instructions to Eisav. Apparently, he did not care whom Eisav married, or he figured it would hardly make a difference, given the circumstances of Eisav's spiritual life. When Eisav saw that Yitzchak's spiritual legacy was being transferred to Yaakov Avinu, he must have been clearly upset. He was quite possibly upset with himself, realizing what he had just lost as a result of his errant behavior. Second, Eisav saw that his father disapproved of the Canannite women.

Let us now take this into perspective. Eisav noted that Yaakov is considered Yitzchak's spiritual heir. He also became aware of his father's disdain for Canaanite women. Apparently, their moral posture did not coincide with the Abrahamitic mission. Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, takes note of the respect Eisav showed for his father, despite the pain he must have felt with the rude awakening that for "some reason" his father preferred Yaakov as his spiritual heir. Eisav chose a wife who was the daughter of Yishmael, true yichus, pedigree, a granddaughter of Avraham Avinu. Eisav, however, never got rid of his Canaanite wives. He simply added Yishmael's daughter to his harem. Ramban notes that by failing to divorce his previous wives, he was deferring to his lustful desires, which obviously took precedence over his father's wishes.

This flawed behavior describes Eisav to a "t." Even though he fulfilled Kibud Av, honoring his father, to a great extent, he was not prepared to renege his previous behavior. He respected his father just so far. He did not mind doing "good," as long as he did not have to give up doing "bad." This perverted sense of values seems to be following us throughout time. How many of us think that by giving tzedakah, charity, we absolve some of our moral excesses? There are also those who view wonderful acts of social justice as a replacement for Shabbos, kashrus and the maintenance of the purity of Jewish family laws. It is not a trade-off. It is not enough to "add" the good wives to the bad ones. Selecting those mitzvos that make us feel good, while simultaneously ignoring - often with malice - the mitzvos that define man's relationship with Hashem, is as flawed as one can get. The question is, who is worse, more flawed or broken: The individual who performs some "feel good" mitzvos to justify the others which he rejects; or the one who does nothing? If we take into consideration that the former is the accepted approach of Eisav, the individual who is the archetypical evil incarnate, we have our answer. It all boils down to teshuvah, repentance. The individual who thinks he is doing some good, who justifies his evil with good, never repents. There is, however, hope for the one who knows that he has been wrong.

Va'ani Tefillah

Vayar Yisrael es hayad ha'gedolah…
Vayiru ha'am es Hashem, va'yaaminu.

Interestingly, the pasuk begins with Vayar Yisrael, "And Yisrael saw," and concludes with vayiru ha'am, "And the nation saw." Why does the pasuk commence with Yisrael and conclude with ha'am? The Nesivos HaKodesh distinguishes between the term Yisrael, which alludes to the "strong ones," the elite, the distinguished Jews, and ha'am, a reference to the common man, the average Jew. The Yisrael was clear in his commitment to Hashem. His emunah, faith, in Hashem was unambiguous. He saw Hashem's mighty hand in Egypt, and that was sufficient proof of the Almighty's Omnipotence. The "am," common Jew, needed more. He saw - he was certainly impressed, but in order to believe unequivocally, he needed Krias Yam Suf, the Splitting of the Red Sea, to clinch his emunah. Thus, the Yisrael saw the yad ha'gedolah, and that was enough. In order for the ha'am to reach the level of va'yaaminu, they believed they needed to see the miracles at the sea. They needed more.

l'zchus refuah sheleima
Rochel bas Sarah shetichye
b'soch she'or cholei yisrael

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