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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Please place your hand under my thigh, and do kindness and truth with me - please do not bury me in Egypt. (47:29)

Yaakov Avinu insisted that his son, Yosef, promise that he will bury him in the Me'aras Ha'Machpeilah in Chevron. One would think that all a father has to do is ask, and the son will follow his wishes. Extracting a promise seems to be a bit excessive. This is especially true when the father is our Patriarch, Yaakov, and the son is none other than Yosef HaTzaddik. Yet, we find that when Yaakov was at death's door, making plans for his burial, these plans called for Yosef's promise -not simply his word - that he would not bury his father in Egypt. Yosef readily agreed. He gave his word, and then he made a promise. The entire incident seems perplexing. Did Yaakov suspect that Yosef, the righteous son, would violate his trust? Was his word insufficient that it had to be buttressed with a promise?

Further in the parsha, after Yaakov concluded his blessings to his sons, he reiterated his request that he be buried in Chevron. He did so after he had already spoken to and obtained a promise from Yosef. Why was Yaakov so anxious about his burial in Eretz Yisrael that he did not seem to trust his own sons?

In his anthology of Horav Yaakov Weinberg's discourses, "Forever His Students," Rabbi Boruch Leff cites the following explanation from the Rosh Yeshivah, zl. Our Patriarch was concerned with the inevitability of excuses. We make commitments; we make promises, but we find excuses - even valid ones- to prevent our carrying out our word. Surely, Yaakov knew that Yosef would never willingly renege on his word, but he was concerned about the possibility of a legitimate excuse, a bona fide reason for not fulfilling his commitment. Yaakov realized that Pharaoh would probably not be pleased with Yaakov's choice of burial plot. He was concerned that this might create an issue for Yosef. He might be the viceroy of Egypt, but he ruled by the whim of Pharaoh. If the king wanted to enshrine Yaakov, he might not allow his burial to occur outside of Egypt. Yaakov was not risking that eventuality. He certainly trusted Yosef. He did not trust the circumstances that might challenge his ability to carry out his word. Thus, he made Yosef swear to bury him in Chevron. Pharaoh would respect Yosef's oath. Indeed, this idea is supported by Pharaoh's statement to Yosef: "Go up and bury your father, since you swore to him." (ibid 50:6)

We now understand why Yaakov repeated his request to his other sons. If for some reason Yosef, as an administrator beholden to Pharaoh, could not fulfill his father's request, the responsibility would fall on his brothers. Somehow they must feel obligated to find a way to bury him in Chevron. It was imperative that he be buried with his ancestors. No excuse- however valid - would be acceptable.

Let us now take this lesson and apply it practically to our own lives. We all know that when we really want to accomplish something, nothing stands in the way. We do what we want, overcoming the most complex and formidable obstacles in order to get what we want. It all depends on how motivated we are to reach that goal. We do not allow for excuses. Why should Yaakov?

Having said this, let us analyze some of our most prominent, time-honored excuses. How often do we use "too tired" as a reason for not learning, not davening properly, not performing acts of chesed, loving kindness? Another popular excuse is "no time." We are simply "too busy." Do we apply these lame rationalizations when it concerns something that we really want to do? Can we honestly say that our diminished Torah study, our lackluster davening, our indifference to the plight of others is due to a deficit in time, an inordinate amount of work, or over-fatigue? Perhaps we are lacking in attitude. Alternatively, perhaps our desire for spirituality is not as strong as it is for other, more exciting, endeavors.

Yaakov insisted that Yosef promise to carry out his request. If a promise is what it takes to guarantee commitment, then perhaps that is the approach one must take. We made a promise at Har Sinai - or have we forgotten about that one? We made that promise to Hashem. When we delve through the excuse factor in our lives, we might take into consideration the viability of our rationalization of our feeble attempts at total religious observance. If we are not satisfied with what we see, surely Hashem has very little about which to be pleased. We can correct the situation. All that is necessary is a lifestyle without excuses, or we can take the phrase, "I will try," out of our personal lexicon. To try means to attempt to do something - if nothing else comes up to prevent us from carrying out our commitment. To try means to allow for excuses. A Torah Jew, by his very definition, does not look for ways to justify his lack of action. He acts!

Many great individuals have achieved their distinction specifically because they have refused to rely on excuses. They acted and moved forward, and we are their beneficiaries. When I think of an individual whose indefatigable determination to help another Jew was the guiding light and motivating force behind his exemplary endeavors on behalf of Klal Yisrael, the personality of Reb Yitzchak "Irving" Bunim, zl, comes to mind. A man whose soul burned for the Jewish People, he left no stone unturned and no opportunity wasted in his quest to save Jews, educate Jews, and build Torah in this country and in Eretz Yisrael. He labored timelessly and endlessly for Jewish unity - especially in the face of the challenges and adversity created by external forces.

A parable which he would often use sums up the principle that drove him all of his life, and, likewise, could serve as a motivation for all of us. The great tzaddik, Horav Zushe, zl m'Anipole, was wont to say that there was only one question which he feared. "If on the Day of Judgment, when I stand before the Heavenly Tribunal, I am asked why I was not as great as Moshe Rabbeinu, I will reply that I had neither the mind, the emunah, faith, nor the opportunity. If I am asked why I was not as great as the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna, I will ask in return, 'Who had such a mind as the Gaon?' After all, he memorized the entire Talmud forwards and backwards. But the one question I fear will be, 'Why were you not Zushe? Why did you not live up to your own capabilities and potential?' That is the question I cannot answer."

One thing is certain: giving excuses will certainly not help us achieve our potential.

Reuven, you are my firstborn, my strength and my initial vigor…water-like impetuosity - You cannot be foremost. (49:3, 4)

As expected, Yaakov Avinu began his blessings of the twelve sons who were the progenitors of Klal Yisrael by focusing on his firstborn, Reuven. After criticizing him for errors of the past, he informed him that his impetuosity has taken its toll on his future. While we all know that Reuven had not really sinned, appearances play a critical role in characterizing one's actions. For all appearances, Reuven's behavior gave a negative impression. Chazal tell us that Reuven was to have received three gifts commensurate with his position as the firstborn son. As a result of his error, Hashem took them from him.

As the b'chor, he had the right to the privileges due to the firstborn. He was also supposed to receive the Kehunah, Priesthood, and Malchus, Monarchy. Yaakov's message to his son alludes to these privileges. The Maharal m'Prague explains that the firstborn has a unique relationship with the children that follow after him. As the first child, he is in some way the cause of the other children in the family, for without him as the first, there would be no other children in the family. This makes the b'chor a sort of middle man, an intermediary between the father and the other children. By being the first, thereby allowing for the existence of the other children, he enables the father to transmit all of his intellectual powers and abilities to the other children.

The Kehunah manifests a similar type of relational trait. As an expression of da'as, knowledge, noted in the pasuk in Malachi 2:7, Sifsei Kohen yishmeru daas, "For the lips of the Kohen will guard da'as, and they will seek Torah from his mouth, for he is an agent of the G-d of Hosts."

Daas functions as a medium for conjoining the intellect with the emotions, connecting the physical and spiritual components of man. Malchus is also an expression of conjunction, as the king unifies a nation consisting of diverse elements, individuals of varied backgrounds and proclivities. He gathers them all together under one banner of nationhood into one cohesive entity called a nation. Indeed the Navi Shmuel (1:9:17) refers to the king as "the one who will reign over My people." Rashi explains the word used by the Navi - yatzor - to reign, as actually meaning "to store up." Thus, Rashi explains that this refers to the king's ability to unify the people and prevent them from forming factions. The Shem MiShmuel notes that the common denominator between these three gifts is that each is an expression of an individual's ability to harmonize some aspect of human life. Malchus is the ability to connect entities in the physical world; Kehunah in the emotional world, and; bechorah in the intellectual world.

With this in mind, we can understand why Reuven simply could not keep these three gifts. The Shem MiShmuel feels that Reuven became angry. This anger caused him to act impulsively. It all happened when Rachel died, and Yaakov moved his primary domicile to Bilhah's tent, completely ignoring the tent of Leah, Reuven's mother. Reuven reacted in a manner unbecoming his lofty position in the tribal hierarchy. He disturbed this arrangement, responding to what he felt was a slight to his mother. He became angry and acted out of character.

Anger is a character trait that directly contradicts the unifying character of Reuven's Heavenly gifts. Anger causes dissension, creates rifts, and severs connections. Did not Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon strike the rock instead of speaking to it, all because they had become angry? Anger and dissent cause disharmony and disunity. When Reuven displayed a failing in his temper, he indicated that he was unsuitable to be the recipient of bechorah, malchus and kehunah, which are the antithesis of anger and its consequences. Anger breaks our link with Hashem, our connection to people and our own emotional balance.

Reuven lost the three gifts. Hashem instead gave them to three individuals, each one unique in his ability to harmonize and unify: The bechorah was given to Yosef; the Kehunah to Aharon HaKohen; and the malchus to David HaMelech. Each of these individuals exemplified the quality inherent in the archetypical firstborn, monarch, Kohen. The Navi in Malachi (2:6) describes the consummate Kohen: "With peace and uprightness, he walked with me and turned many away from sin." Aharon was the ohaiv shalom v'rodef shalom, "lover of peace and pursuer of peace." The Ramban writes that Aharon never lost his temper. Never in his life did he become angry. This qualified him to assume the mantle of Kehunah.

Yosef was the quintessential tzaddik, the righteous man for whom the world exists. Having the power to sustain not only himself, but also his family, he served as the perfect conduit between the physical world and the Heavenly outpouring of goodness. His role in life was to serve as a conjunctive force, a nexus, between the higher and lower worlds and to prevent disharmony. He was a prime candidate to assume one of Reuven's lost gifts.

Last, it was David HaMelech who exemplified humility. His self-effacing character is noted from his attitude in Sefer Tehillim 22:7, "A worm and not a man, the derision of man and reviled by people." One who realizes how pitifully low he is in relation to the Almighty will never lose himself to anger. Anger is a reflection of an element of arrogance - something that David did not possess. Anger occurs when a person feels that things are not moving according to his plan. This means that he feels that he should be able to direct-- and possibly alter-- what will happen. He is upset that his will is not realized. This causes him to become frustrated and vexed, leading him to anger. When one realizes, however, how insignificant he is, and how limited his powers are, he will not have the audacity to expect to control events. Thus, when things go wrong - as they often do - he will not become angry, because, after all, he understands his place in the greater scheme of the universe.

Chazal teach us in the Talmud Pesachim 66b, concerning David HaMelech: "Anyone who angers, even if it is determined that he should receive distinction from Heaven, he will be removed from his position. We derive this from Eliav, who became angry with David."

This is a reference to Eliav, David's eldest brother, who became angry, and thereby lost the possibility of becoming king. Instead, Hashem gave the kingship to David. We derive from here the reason that David, a man who embodied peace and self-effacement, was selected as the ideal replacement for Reuven.

The lesson to be derived from here is very clear: Reuven had it all: Bechorah, Kehunah, and Malchus. He alone could have had what it later took Aharon, Yosef and David together to perform. This in itself indicates his awesome potential. One error, albeit trivial and certainly not intentional, however, cost him everything. He lost those incredible gifts because of the slight character flaw which he demonstrated. What should we say?

Yehudah - You, your brothers shall acknowledge your hand…The scepter shall not depart from Yehudah. (49:8, 10)

The blessings of Yaakov Avinu to his sons were eternal. Through his blessings he was establishing the future destiny and spiritual influence of each of his sons. He blessed Yehudah with monarchy: "The scepter shall not depart from Yehudah, nor a scholar from among his descendants." This pasuk describes Yehudah's destiny for the future of the Jewish People. It establishes his legacy, alluding to the qualities inherent in a monarch. What did Yehudah do to warrant this honor? Chazal tell us that it was Yehudah's ability to come forward to concede guilt in the incident with Tamar that earned him this privilege. The ability to denigrate one's self by confessing his error or indiscretion is an indication of his true self-respect. An individual who is honorable does not allow his deficiencies to impugn his integrity. He is honest, accepting the consequences which result from his admission, but he remains a principled person who places self-respect above public opinion. This is the symbol of true honor, similar to the maxim of Chazal in Eiruvin 13b, "One who runs from honor, (will have) honor pursues him." There are people who pursue honor - and never really receive it. It is all a question of integrity, or, as the popular dictum concludes, "You cannot fool all of the people all of the time."

What seems odd is the fact that this entire honor originally was to be bestowed upon Reuven as the b'chor, firstborn. He was to be the Kohen, progenitor of the Priesthood; the rights of the firstborn were to be his; and he was to be the monarch. Hashem took these privileges from him because of his impulsivity. He acted on behalf of his mother, whom he felt that Yaakov Avinu had humiliated. He acted too quickly, without thinking, getting carried away as a result of his distress that Yaakov had passed over his mother. He lost it all due to his knee-jerk reaction. Did he deserve such a punishment? After all, he was acting on behalf of his mother. Should he have lost so much as a consequence of his over-zealous attitude in protecting his mother's honor?

Horav Tuvia Lisitzen, zl, delves into Reuven's behavior and discovers a self-serving motivation beneath Reuven's act in support of his mother's cause. Reuven acted on behalf of his mother. Perhaps this reflected a need to act on behalf of his own honor. Was it really for his mother, or was it for himself? He ran after the honor: One who runs after honor loses it, because it runs away from him. A king does not pursue honor, because if he has to ask for it, he does not deserve it. This is why Yehudah warranted the monarchy over Reuven. Likewise, Kehunah, the Priesthood, belongs where kedushah, holiness, reigns. Reuven's actions revealed an insufficiency in his kedushah, sufficient for Yaakov to eliminate him from the prospect of becoming the Kohen.

In other words, the Shevatim, Tribes, each one individually, and in his own inimitable manner, by his own action determined his destiny. They laid the foundation for his future position in life and leadership, both for his individual descendants and for the community in general. Yaakov responded to what he observed, to how his sons acted, to their perspective on life evidenced by their behavior under the circumstances that had confronted them.

Dan shall pronounce judgment on his people, as one of the tribes of his people. (49:16)

Dan was blessed with the middah, character trait, of truth and justice. Rashi adds that this blessing has special reference to Shimshon Hagibor, a descendant of Dan, who judged Klal Yisrael and meted out justice to the Philistines. The attributes of truth and justice are powerful middos, but, like all middos, they must be used properly. Indeed, as I recently heard from Horav Binyamin Eisenberg, Shlita, the reason middos are called just that is because the word middah also means measurement. Every middah manifests its own distinct measurement of which determines its near and far parameters. There is a time and place for every middah. For example, although we may frown upon anger under most circumstances, situations occur in which one must become angry. It is all according to the prescribed measure, the middah.

In the Talmud Pesachim 4A, Chazal relate that a certain individual insisted on going to court to settle every monetary dispute in which he was involved. He refused to compromise or negotiate any form of settlement. The settlement always had to be based on a black and white court decision. Chazal say that this man was clearly a descendant of Dan. Why? What is the connection between one who is inflexible and the blessing of truth and justice, which Yaakov bestowed on Dan? How could a lofty blessing result in the mistrust and obstinacy manifest by this person?

Horav A. Henoch Leibowitz, Shlita, explains that while every member of the Tribe of Dan was blessed with the precious legacy of an aptitude for justice, like any other attribute, it is susceptible to distortion. We need to exert extreme vigilance on every middah on a constant basis in order to maintain its pristine character, or else it might transform into something sinister and negative. The person to whom Chazal refers did not genuinely care about his inheritance of truth and justice. His passion for justice led him to make unreasonable demands, to refuse to compromise, to seek a way of extracting every last penny that might be owed to him. He went to court because, to him, "justice" was an obsession. He was not, however, seeking justice; he was pursuing money! Because he did not develop this middah, he distorted it, and, eventually, it catalyzed his ruin. He went beyond the prescribed measure. Yes, one can take truth and justice and pervert it, creating discord and dispute in his daily endeavor.

When Hashem blesses us, we should take the time to analyze the multifaceted qualities of this blessing. Anger is divisive, but, at times, it is not only appropriate, but it is actually necessary for Jewish survival. Although the outgoing and friendly person may create happiness and joy for others, he must perceive when it is more beneficial to keep quiet and say nothing. It is all within the middah. Truth and justice are powerful attributes to be embraced, but at times flexibility and compromise are primary, even if one must "look away" and give up on being "right." Middos are treasures that must be developed, diamonds in the rough that need to be polished in order to bring out their true brilliance. One who values Hashem's gift will demonstrate his appreciation in the care that he accords it.

Va'ani Tefillah

Ivdu es Hashem b'simchah. Serve Hashem with joy.

To serve Hashem with joy is not simply constructive advice. In fact, in the Tochachah, Admonition, in Sefer Devarim 28:47, the Torah clearly implies that the curses included therein are a punishment for not serving Hashem with joy: "Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, amid gladness and goodness of heart." Is it fair to suggest that a lack of joy catalyzes such a catastrophic consequence? Clearly, there are individuals who serve Hashem on a daily basis by rote, complacently following their traditional upbringing. Is an insipid service grounds for such severe punishment? The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, reads the pasuk with an emphasis on the positive, as if the Torah was intimating: As if it was not bad enough that you did not serve Hashem with joy, instead, you used this joy for throwing off the yoke of Torah. It is one thing to act inappropriately, but to do so without joy - that is the nadir of insurrection.

Horav Dovid Povarsky, zl, explains this further. A person, who does not sense joy in his service to Hashem, is apparently experiencing this joy elsewhere. Obviously, he finds other pursuits more exhilarating. He has established for himself another set of priorities. Hashem will have to "help" him to readjust his priorities.

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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