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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


"Behold, Bnei Yisrael have not listened to me, so how will Pharaoh listen to me? And I have sealed lips!" (6:12)

Moshe Rabbeinu raises the issue of his speech impediment. He feels that, as a result of his inability to speak eloquently, he is not qualified to serve as Hashem's spokesman to Pharaoh. Furthermore, if the Jewish people had not listened to him, how could Pharaoh be expected to listen? Rashi cites the Midrash which notes that this is one of the ten kal v'chomer, a fortiori logical arguments, in the Torah. A kal v'chomer reasons: If a rule or fact applies in a situation in which we have limited reason for it to apply, certainly it applies in a situation in which we have clear reason for it to apply. The Jews should have absorbed every word that emanated from Moshe's mouth. He was addressing the long-awaited concept of liberation from bondage. Surely, this was an idea upon which they should have fully focused. Regrettably, they did not. Apparently, the people were not in a listening mood. If they, who wanted to leave, were not listening, what should be expected of Pharaoh, who clearly wanted them to stay? He would surely ignore Moshe's request.

This kal v'chomer is fraught with difficulty. The issue to be resolved is: The Jews did not listen due to their kotzer ruach, shortness of breath, and avodah kashah, hard work (ibid 6:9). They were physically and emotionally spent. A wasted person has great difficulty believing that all of his troubles are coming to an end. The commentators - each in his own inimitable fashion - offer their explanations. In his Shemen HaTov, Horav Zev Weinberg, Shlita, suggests a practical explanation for Moshe's argument. First, he explains that Moshe's counter-response of va'ani aral sefasayim, "and I have sealed lips," is not to be viewed as the sibah, causative reason, for the Jews' lack of attention to Moshe, but rather, it is the mesovev, effect, consequence, of their not listening to his words.

Moshe was telling Hashem that he had become aral sefasayim, closed-mouthed, as a result of the Jews' ignoring him. A shliach's, agent's, ability does not extend further than that of the meshalei'ach, sender. If Moshe sought to present the Jewish case before Pharaoh, they first must believe in themselves, their ability to become free men, and to trust and have faith that Hashem will redeem them. If they lacked faith, then Moshe could not effectively present their case. He could have been the most prolific orator, with a mouth of gold that spewed forth diamonds, and it would have made no difference. If the people he was representing did not believe, then he was tongue-tied. The greatest shtadlan, intercessor, is as good as those who send him on the mission. They must believe in their own potential success or their agent will fail.

The story is told that Rabbi Akiva Eiger, zl, Rav of Posen and one of the most illustrious scholars of all time, refused to send an individual who himself did not have a beard, to represent the Jewish community before the gentile government to lobby to abolish their decree that all Jewish men be ordered to shave their beards and peyos. The Rav asserted his ruling, despite the man's amicable relationship with the powers that be and his own distinguished service to the crown. He cited the pasuk in Sefer Tehillim 146:3, Al tivtechu bi'nedivim b'ven adam she'ein lo seshuvah, "Do not rely on nobles, nor on any human being, for he holds no salvation." He interpreted the pasuk in the following manner: "If the messenger sees no success in his mission; if he does not feel certain of his success, then his words will have no efficacy." One must believe in what he is doing. This applies across the board to any endeavor he undertakes. He must believe in what he is doing; believe in the organization he represents; believe in the tzedakah, charity, for which he is collecting - or he will fail in his mission.

The Noam Elimelech applies a similar thought in his explanation of Hashem's statement to Moshe and Aharon describing the scenario in which Pharaoh asks them to present a miracle which demonstrates Hashem's supernatural powers: "When Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, 'Provide a wonder for yourselves'" (Ibid 7:9). The word lachem, "for yourselves," seems to be out of place. The miracle is to impress Pharaoh and his people - not Moshe and Aharon. Rebbe Elimelech explains that, indeed, Moshe and Aharon had to be impressed. They must see and appreciate the wonders, or they will not be able to imbue others with this belief. Tenu lachem, "provide for yourselves," it is important that you believe, or else Klal Yisrael- and certainly Pharaoh- will never believe.

This is a powerful statement. How often has a person attempted to convince someone to join in an endeavor, be it a spiritual venture, financial venture, or communal venture, only to fall flat on his face? It is because he is not certain of its success. His own belief in the endeavor is, at best, shaky. Such circumstances comprise a recipe for disaster.

These were the heads of their fathers' houses. The sons of Reuven… the sons of Shimon… these were the names of the sons of Levi. (6:14,15)

Is there some distinction to the names of Levi's sons? Apparently there must be, since, concerning Reuven and Shimon, the Torah merely says, "the sons of," without mentioning their actual names. Why does the Torah not emphasize the "names" of Reuven and Shimon's sons? The Shlah HaKadosh, zl, explains that Shevet Levi was unique among the brothers in that they were not enslaved together with the others. This troubled them, since they wanted to share in their brothers' pain and empathize with their plight. What did they do? They gave their sons names in a manner which brought the bitter exile to mind: Gershon, for they were strangers in a land which was not theirs; Kehas, because the Jews' teeth were blunted as a result of their slavery; Merari, to be reminded that the Jews' lives were embittered by the Egyptians. The Shlah concludes with the idea that we should derive from here that it is essential that every Jew empathize with and be sensitive to the affliction of his fellow. No Jew should be left to suffer alone.

Many stories highlight the attitude of our gedolim, Torah giants, to the plight of their fellow Jew. These stories address physical pain which affects a person and the empathy of others towards them. The following episode, however, presents us with a completely different ordeal, one in which the "sufferer" does not recognize his tribulation and probably does not even care. Yet, a Torah giant empathized with the situation in a telling manner, indicating his unusual sensitivity to the spiritual and physical status of all Jews.

Horav Menachem Tzvi Berlin, Shlita, related that he once visited Horav Eliezer M. Shach, zl, following Shacharis. The Rosh Yeshivah had just returned home. The Rav was, thus, surprised that Rav Shach was not eating breakfast. He inquired of his revered Rebbe why he was not eating breakfast. He added that he would wait to discuss his issue until after the Rosh Yeshivah had eaten.

Rav Shach said that he did not eat between 8:00 and 8:30am. He had accepted upon himself not to partake of food during these thirty minutes, because this is the time when hundreds of thousands of Jewish children begin school in Eretz Yisrael's secular institutions, starting their day without even reciting Krias Shema. He felt the pain of their neshamos.

Do we feel the pain experienced by the neshamos of our alienated brethren? Do we even think about it? I guess that is the hallmark of a gadol: perceiving the pain that no one else senses. Their perspective dwarfs the way we look at the world.

But I shall harden Pharaoh's heart. (7:3)

Anyone who peruses the text might think that Pharaoh was some kind of lunatic. He constantly changed his mind. One moment, he was entreating Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen to rid Egypt of its frogs. The next moment, he had reverted to his usual arrogance. The same scenario played itself out once again concerning makkas arov, pestilence. Every time that he was down, he begged forgiveness, appearing to be sincere. As soon as the plague disappeared, he reverted to his old self. This is behavior suited for an animal - not a rational human being. An animal cannot change its stripes. It is what it is. Born with natural proclivities, it has no control over its life. An animal has no seichal, mind. Cognition does not apply to an animal; only instinct does. Pharaoh was a human being - a vile human, but a human nonetheless. Why was he acting like an out-of- control animal?

Horav Arye Leib Bakst, zl, quotes the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah who explains that a person can sink to the nadir of sin, such that he ultimately loses his koach ha'bechirah, ability to choose between right and wrong, good and evil. At times, the sin has reached a level of depravity so deleterious that the option for repentance no longer exists. He literally has blown it, and he is relegated to die as an unrepentant sinner: no parole; no commutation; maximum sentence. Some transgressions are so heinous that they carry the ultimate punishment: no option of forgiveness. Thus, Hashem writes in the Torah, "But I will harden Pharaoh's heart," in order to demonstrate that Pharaoh's sin had gone too far. The chance for return was no longer an available option. He would die a sinner.

The Rosh Yeshivah expounds on this idea. Man thinks that he is always able to turn things around, to change his life, to achieve great things. It is all up to him, whenever he is in the "mood." He thinks that the reason that he is resistant to change is his own obstinacy, his own reluctance to live a moral, ethical life of spiritual obedience. Whenever he decides to become a practicing Jew, he will do so. The Torah is teaching him otherwise. It is possible that, through one's iniquitous actions, he can sink to such a base level that he is no longer able to return. Just like Pharaoh, he has blown his options. We attempt to convince ourselves that it is all in our hands. Whenever we decide to repent, we will. We have no guarantees. At a certain point, Hashem may remove the option, and we will be stuck in our spiritual low, relegated to a life of moral and spiritual bankruptcy. We will be forever floating in a maelstrom of evil, with no avenue for escape.

Since teshuvah is not coercive, but rather something which we desire, we ask Hashem to facilitate our quest to return to Him. We entreat Him, so that our sins not distance us from Him, preventing our ultimate return. Nothing should be taken for granted.

In conclusion, it is not what it seems or what we would like to convince ourselves. It is not that Hashem's "patience" wears thin; rather, it is our sinful behavior that exhibits such impudence that the appropriate punishment is a loss of favor and teshuvah is no longer an option. Sometimes, the door to the house is locked. We have reneged our right to return.

The frogs will depart… only in the river shall they remain. (8:7)

Moshe Rabbeinu's prayer to Hashem requesting that the frogs be removed and the plague come to a halt was effective. The frogs returned to the river where they belonged. In Parashas Chukas (Bamidbar 21:4), Moshe also prayed to Hashem that He remove the fiery snakes that were wreaking havoc in the Jewish camp. His prayer was not effective. It only worked after Hashem advised Moshe to make a fiery snake out of copper and place it on a pole. Anyone who had been bitten by the fiery snake and looked at Moshe's snake was spared. Chazal ask, "Does a serpent cause death or life? Rather, when they looked upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven they were healed. If not, they died" (Rosh Hashanah 29a).

The Chafetz Chaim, zl, wonders why Moshe's prayer had been effective in ridding Pharaoh of the frogs, yet he could not do the same for the Jews who were dying from the fiery snake bites. Surely, Moshe prayed as hard, if not more so, for his own brothers. He explains that everything has an antidote; every sin has a penance through which one can seek atonement - except for the sin of lashon hora, evil speech. The mekatreg, prosecuting agent, created by lashon hora is not easily removed. It stands and prosecutes, finding fault with the individual who has slandered his fellow. Similar to the sin which is executed by word of mouth, the prosecuting angel cannot be silenced. He continues with his condemnation of the slanderers. Since the sin which catalyzed the punishment of the fiery serpents was that the nation spoke contemptuously of Hashem and His chosen leader of the people, Moshe, our leader's prayer was ineffective in silencing him.

Likewise, one who goes to great lengths not to speak lashon hora will merit great reward. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, relates an incredible story which supports this idea. One evening, Rav Zilberstein visited his brother-in-law Horav Chaim Kanievesky, Shlita. During his visit, the Rebbetzin returned home from a chasunah. She was effusive in her excitement about this wedding. She maintained that this was a wedding that was clearly a testament to Hashem's miraculous intervention. It was a wedding that should not have been, but- due to a special merit- it had taken place.

Apparently, four years earlier, the kallah, at the time a teenager of fifteen years old, was in a terrible car accident which left her critically injured and comatose. She lay in her hospital bed, oblivious to her predicament, for two full weeks. Her parents approached Rav Kanievsky and his Rebbetzin, asking them to pray for their daughter. Hashem listened to their heartfelt pleas, and their daughter woke up. She immediately began to speak. Indeed, the first words she said were a question. "Imma, how long was I in a coma?"

"It is not important," replied her mother. "For what reason must you know?" she asked. The teenager's response should frighten us all, "A number of months prior to the accident, I accepted upon myself to study two halachos, laws, from the Sefer Chafetz Chaim concerning the laws of lashon hora every day. I had never missed a day - until the accident. I must know how long I was out. It is essential that I study the halachos for each day that I was in a coma."

Imagine, this was the first question she asked her mother. This was primary on her mind. When the incident was related to Rav Kanievsky and his Rebbetzin, they both understandably responded with great emotion. At the time, Rebbetzin Kanievsky visited with the parents and promised them that she would dance with their daughter at the girl's wedding.

At the time, this assurance was far-fetched. While she had woken up from her comatose state, she had much to mend, with a number of surgeries already scheduled. Truthfully, even after she went through the surgeries and ensuing therapy sessions, her body would still be a mess. She would not be a prime "catch" for a shidduch, matrimonial arrangement. Who would want to marry a girl who had gone through so much? Wonder of wonders, the girl survived all of the surgeries and passed with flying colors. In fact, other than the fact that some people knew what she had gone through, most people would be hard-pressed to believe that this girl had been in such a horrific car accident and had not only survived, but thrived.

She became engaged to a budding young Torah scholar from a wonderful home. Rebbetzin Kanievsky attended her wedding and kept her word as she danced with the kallah.

In conclusion, Rav Zilberstein attributes her miraculous recovery to her earlier kabbalah to study the laws of lashon hora daily. Who knows the incredible reward in store for one who controls his tongue!

"This time I have sinned: Hashem is the Righteous One, and I and my people are the wicked ones." (9:27)

The plague of hail brought Pharaoh to his knees - at least momentarily. He openly conceded his iniquity and lauded Hashem's righteousness. This seems like a formidable confession coming from the archetypical man of evil, the Pharaoh of Egypt, a country steeped in spiritual bankruptcy, licentiousness, and evil. This vidduy, confession, does not seem to coincide with Chazal's maxim in the Talmud Eiruvin 19a: Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish says, "The wicked, even when standing at the gates of Gehinnom, Purgatory, refuse to repent." How are we to reconcile Pharaoh's statement with Chazal's acknowledgement of the weakness of a rasha, wicked person?

Horav Pinchas Friedman, Shlita, quotes Horav Shimon, zl, m'Ostrapolia, who asserts that, even in Pharaoh's supposed confession, there lay concealed an insidious undertone reflecting Pharaoh's true intent. The Chassidic Masters explain that, on an esoteric level, the sins we commit while we are in exile continue to create a barrier within Hashem's Name. Yud- Kay- Vav- Kay. Our galus, exile, will conclude when there is complete unity, when the letters of Hashem's Name are unified and His Name is whole.

This idea is alluded to by Pharaoh's declaration: Hashem Ha'Tzaddik - "Yud, Kay" - Va'ani V'ami Ha'reshaim - "Vav- Kay." Five words - two on one side, connoting the first two letters of Hashem's Name, with the word Ani, I, referring to the evil Pharaoh, serving as a separation to the second set of letters, designating the Vav-Kay, last letters of Hashem's Name. In other words, Pharaoh's statement was anything but a confession. It represented the nadir of arrogance. He proudly proclaimed that Ani! "I," am preventing the unification of Hashem's Name, and, thus, the end to the exile. Pharaoh, like so many other evil people, hid his poison deep within his most meritorious statements. A snake is a snake, and the truly wicked do not repent, even at the gates of Purgatory, where there is no hiding from the punishment. While the concept of pirud, creating a fissure, within Hashem's Name and its ensuing effect on our exile has profound mystical commentary, Rav Friedman attempts to render a pragmatic, "down to earth" elucidation. Prior to performing a mitzvah, we recite a preparatory prayer, L'Shem yichud, "For the sake of the unification," which concludes with the words: l'yacheid Shem Yud- Kay-Vav- Kay, b'yichuda shlim b'shem kol Yisrael; "To unify the Name - yud-kay- with Vav- Kay - in perfect unit, in the name of all Yisrael."

In order to understand the underlying meaning of this prayer, which seems to be a sort of motif concerning mitzvos and their observance, Rav Friedman cites Horav Yissachar Dov, zl, m'Belz, who explains Moshe Rabbeinu's dialogue with Pharaoh concerning who was to leave Egypt for their three-day religious experience. Pharaoh asked Moshe, Mi va'mi ha'holchim? "Which ones are going?" Moshe responded, "With our youngsters and with our elders shall we go, with our sons and with our daughters." Pharaoh's response was, "Not so; let the men go" (Shemos 10:8-11).

We see from their interchange that a sharp difference existed between Pharaoh's perspective on who should leave to serve Hashem and that of our leader, Moshe. The Belzer Rebbe explains that one of the primary foundations of our continued existence is chinuch ha'banim v'habanos, the education we provide our sons and daughters. Otherwise, they will become estranged from Hashem, His Torah, and His mitzvos. Without Torah chinuch, Klal Yisrael has no future. Understandably, the yetzer hora, evil-inclination, and its corporeal assistants, the reshaim of every generation, seek every way to create a pirud, split, between the generations. If parents are unable to transmit Torah to their children, religious observance will soon dissipate, and the Jewish People will become one more nation that has disappeared into historic oblivion.

Thus, Pharaoh insisted that only the men leave Egypt. If the children had remained in Egypt, the parents' experience would have had little impact on their lives. Moshe replied that it does not work that way. In the Jewish perspective, children have greater precedence concerning education than their parents. They are the future. Thus, they must share with their parents in the religious experience.

There is one more ingredient to be added to this thesis. In his commentary, Likutei Shas, the Arizal explains why Halachah concurs with the opinion of Bais Hillel (Yevamos 61b) that in order to fulfill the mitzvah of Pru u'revu, "Be fruitful and multiply," one must father a boy and a girl. Ish, ishah, ben, bas, four words - esoterically allude to Hashem's Name. Therefore, one who has a son and daughter has merited to unify Hashem's Name.

We now understand why, even after Pharaoh conceded Hashem HaTzaddik, Hashem is righteous, he added the Va'ani, "And I," in order to breach Hashem's Name. This is why he refused to allow the children to leave Egypt. He was intent on maintaining the pirud, gap, between the generations, so that Hashem's Name not be unified.

We are engulfed in a battle with the yetzer hora and its minions, with our children, the focus of our fight. Judaism that is not transmitted to the next generation has failed. We must recognize the various ploys that the yetzer hora employs in its battle to engender a generation gap, to turn the next generation off. Our goal must be to provide and make use of every opportunity to avail ourselves and our children closer ties, a deeper bond, so that Hashem's Name be unified, and that the galus in which we live will finally come to an end.

Concerning the often quoted pasuk in Devarim (29:20), Hanistaros l'Hashem Elokeinu, v'haniglos lanu u'levaneinu, "The hidden (sins) are for Hashem, our G-d, but the revealed (sins) are for us and our children forever," the Arizal explains nistaros, hidden, as reference to our relationship with Hashem that is covert: yiraah, fear; ahavah, love. Only Hashem knows our true love for and fear of Him. The niglos, active mitzvos which we practice overtly are the legacy we bequeath our children. The Admorim of Belz applied this Arizal as an exhortation to perform mitzvos openly, proclaiming our faith and commitment, so that our children will see, learn and emulate. The nistaros are for G-d. The niglos are for our children. They ensure our future.

Returning now to the preparatory prayer of L'Shem yichud, we apply the above. The purpose of kiyum ha'mitzvos, mitzvah performance, is to actively, openly, display our allegiance to Hashem. By doing this, we are maintaining and strengthening the chain of the generations, the chain that heralds back to Sinai. Thus, we are me'yached, we unify, the Shem, Name, of Yud-Kay- which represents man and woman/father and mother - with the Vav-Kay, the letters representing son and daughter, the next generation of Jews, so that we will one day see an end to this bitter exile.

V'chulam mekablim aleihem ol malchus Shomayim.
Then they all accept upon themselves the yoke of Heavenly Sovereignty.

When we refer to the "yoke" of the Heavenly kingdom, it is a term that, under most circumstances, implies negativity. A yoke is something heavy, constricting, almost demeaning. Certainly, this is not our attitude towards the Heavenly kingdom. It is our privilege to serve Hashem. Why is it referred to as a yoke? In his Baruch She'Amar commentary to Pirkei Avos, Horav Boruch Epstein, zl, asks this question concerning the various yokes placed upon us: The yoke of Torah, of mitzvos. Furthermore, we say in the Aleinu prayer Ol malchuso, "the yoke of His kingdom." How are we to understand this?

He cites Rabbi Alexander's request, quoted in the Talmud Berachos 17a. After he concluded his prayers he would say: "Master of the Universe. It is revealed and known to You that it is our will to do Your will; what prevents it from taking place? Se'or she'bi'issa, "the leavening agent in the bread [which is a nom de plume for the yetzer hora - evil-inclination]. May it be Your will that You save us from its hands, so that we return to perform Your will with a complete heart."

We derive from here that, despite our good intentions to carry out Hashem's commands, we fall prey to the trap set by the yetzer hora. In order to overcome its powerful hold, we must gather our strength and- with resolution and fortitude - overcome his wiles. This is what is considered our "yoke." The fight against the yetzer hora is difficult and demanding. It is not a heavy weight on us - because we are doing it in order to pursue holiness. Serving Hashem is not a yoke. Fighting the yetzer hora is.

l'zechar nishmas
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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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