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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


For I give him special attention because he commands his children and his household after him. (18:19)

Hashem expresses His affection for Avraham Avinu because of his adherence to imparting the derech Hashem, way of Hashem, to the next generation. It is Avraham's ability and dedication to educating his progeny which distinguishes him from everyone else. Chinuch habanim, educating one's children, is what differentiates a parent from a caretaker. A parent cares about his child and, consequently, oversees his educational development. A caretaker cares primarily about himself, placing his child's education in a far second-place behind everything else. What is the most effective method for educating one's children? Since Avraham is the "father" of education, it would be appropriate to take note of his methods and apply them in raising our children. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, notes that when Avraham conveyed Hashem's command regarding the Akeidah to Yitzchak, he spoke only eight words: "Hineni beni…Elokim yireh lo haseh l'olah beni, "Here I am, my son…Hashem will show the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." This is all that is recorded by the Torah of their dialogue preceding the Akeidah.

We derive from here, posits Rav Zilberstein, that a multitude of words -- long, tedious conversations -- are not what is necessary in order to appropriately convey the Torah way to one's children. There is another way, a better way, Avraham Avinu's way -- to be a proper role model: Be straight; be ethical; be moral; be truly observant. Do not communicate mixed messages. Do not say one thing and practice the opposite. In short, earn your child's respect and set the proper standard for him to emulate. A child can observe no greater chinuch, lesson in education, than watching his father following the path of Torah without compromise.

"Because I said (only) there is no fear of Hashem in this place and they will kill me on account of (to take) my wife." (20:11)

Horav Elchanan Wasserman, zl, had occasion to be in Germany a number of years prior to the Nazi implementation of their Master Plan. At the time, Germany was considered among the most progressive and intellectual nations. Its culture and nobility presented a paradigm for others to emulate. As we know, however, it was all superficial. Something was missing from this cold, dispassionate culture. The Jews were an "accepted" part of society. This, of course, led to assimilation. Little did they know the tragic events, the cataclysmic horrors, that were lurking right around the corner. Rav Elchanan delivered a lecture to the Kollel, post-graduate fellows, of the Seminar L'Rabbanim in Berlin.

He began his address by first citing Avraham's response to Avimelech, explaining why he claimed Sarah was his sister, rather than state the truth that she was his wife. Avraham feared for his life, since he was in a country in which the people did not fear G-d. In making his statement, Avraham says rok, "only," there is no fear in this place. Why does he add the word rok, only? This word appears to be superfluous. Rav Elchanan explained that Avraham Avinu was conveying an important principle/message to Avimelech. He told him, "You have an impressive community, cultured, intellectual; everything for which one can ask, rok, only, there is one thing that is clearly missing - yiraas Shomayim - fear of Heaven. This is why I had decided that my wife and I are in mortal danger. If the base passions of any of your countrymen becomes ignited for my wife, I am as good as dead." In such a situation, culture, intellect and breeding have no value. Only one thing can prevent a tragedy: yiraas Shomayim. With these words, Rav Elchonon was alluding to the danger lurking under the surface of the progressive and enlightened German culture. No one believed that such a refined nation could descend to the nadir of depravity, to rewrite the meaning of cruelty. The Germans were missing one thing - one thing that distinguishes between a human being and an animal: yiraas Shomayim.

We derive from here an important lesson. Fear of Heaven is the key to humanness. It is the only way that one can control his base nature. Man needs discipline. This discipline can only come from a source whom man respects and fears. If there is no fear, there is no man. In his "Chaim Shel Torah," Horav Yaakov Beifus, Shlita, analogizes this idea with an example from the world of vegetation. Trees are good for the environment. They provide shade; they enhance the beauty of their surroundings. One can even have fun climbing them. Fruit-bearing trees have an added benefit: they provide fruit, and, thereby, sustenance for us. It goes without saying that the fruit-bearing quality of these trees is not simply just another benefit; it constitutes their essence. Without this quality, they are just plain trees! Likewise, man is comprised of various attributes. The virtue of yiraas Shomayim supercedes every other virtue, because, without it, he is not a human being.

Rav Elchanan supplements his thesis, citing the Zohar HaKadosh which suggests that Hashem wanted man to be comprised of all of the creatures in the world. He should be a veritable microcosm of the creations preceding him. This is why when Hashem was about to create man, He called together all creatures and said, Naase Adam, "Let us make man." He should have a bit of every creature in him. Thus, all the creatures "shared" in the creation of man.

With this in mind, we understand that man is a formidable creature. He is part lion, part leopard, part snake, part vulture, and part insect. He is a conglomerate of every animal, wild beast, fowl, insect, and fish. How do we keep this creation known as "man" in check? What chain do we tie on him to keep him from destroying everything around, if he so pleases? Only one thing: yiraas Shomayim, the chain of fear, the chain of discipline, the chain of respect. What is yiraas Shomayim? Rav Beifus explains that it is the acute awareness that Hashem observes everything that we do. He witnesses every nuance, every movement. He knows every thought. This awareness inspires fear and awe, which in turn, evokes a sense of humility and shame if He sees us doing anything inappropriate. How does one acquire yiraas Shomayim? Simple - constant awareness and reiteration that Hashem is above us watching at all times. Awareness, however, is not sufficient. One must acquire this awareness and integrate it into his psyche.

A well-known incident occurred concerning the Chafetz Chaim, zl, that supports this idea. The Chafetz Chaim was once traveling by wagon. While on the road, the wagon driver noticed a melon in someone's field by the side of the road. He quickly pulled over the wagon and jumped out. He was about to pick it up, when the Chafetz Chaim shouted, "They are watching!" When the driver heard this, he quickly returned to the wagon. Upon noticing again that no one seemed to be around, he made another attempt to retrieve the melon from the person's field. Once again, the Chafetz Chaim shouted, "They are watching!"

This happened a few times, until the wagon driver gave up trying to "appropriate" the melon for himself. As they continued their trip, the driver turned to the Chafetz Chaim and asked, "To what do you attribute the fact that each time I went to take the melon you saw someone watching while I saw no one?"

The Chafetz Chaim's response is something which should catalyze within us a heightened sense of awareness in regard to our daily endeavor. He said, "I also did not see any man. I meant that they are watching in Heaven!"

Shivisi Hashem l'negdi tamid, "I place Hashem before me constantly," should be the catchword by which we live. Our function is to remain resolute, so that when the yetzer hora, evil inclination, begins with its blandishments, we respond, "They are watching!" This defines yiraas Shomayim. Thus, it is the essence of man.

Avraham prayed to Hashem, and Hashem healed Avimelech, his wife, and his female slaves and they gave birth. (20:17)

Hashem punished Avimelech and his families for taking Sarah from Avraham. It is interesting to note Avraham's reaction when Avimelech realized that he had erred. Avraham prayed that Avimelech be cured from his punishment. Avraham Avinu, the amud ha'chesed, pillar of kindness, conveys to us the appropriate response to hearing about someone else's misfortune - pray for him! Avraham's sympathy set the standard for his descendants. How often do we hear about another Jew who has fallen ill or succumbed to another misfortune. While it is true that we feel for him, how many of us feel the pain as if it were our own? Avraham prayed for Avimelech, simply because it was the right thing to do.

Furthermore, Avraham prayed for Avimelech to be able to have children once again, a blessing that had eluded Avraham. He prayed for someone else, even though he himself would have been overjoyed to have children. According to human nature, if one hears about another person who has sustained the same illness from which he himself is suffering, he will not pray for his fellow. He might even feel that misery loves company. Avraham Avinu had every reason to disregard Avimelech's "situation." After all, it was not as if Avraham had himself been blessed with children, that he should now concern himself with Avimelech.

This was not Avraham's manner and this is not the way a Jew should respond. As descendants of Avraham Avinu, when we hear of another Jew's pain our immediate reaction should be to daven for them. Is that not what we do for ourselves? Horav Moshe Leib Sasover,zl, was wont to say, "To know the needs of men and to bear the burdens of their sorrows - that is the true love of man." Avraham Avinu was rewarded for praying for Avimelech. Chazal tell us, "Anyone who prays for his friend, when he himself is in need of that mercy, he is answered first." Whether this is a reward, or Hashem's response to an act of total self-effacement, it is a wonderful eitzah, piece of advice, for those in need. As mentioned before, it goes against the grain of human nature to rejoice in another person's joy when he personally is in need of that same blessing. If one can break away from his natural proclivity and elevate himself to pray for another person in the same need, Hashem will certainly look favorably on his prayer -- and He will bless that individual first.

Visiting the sick is not easy. To walk in, smile, convey best wishes and leave, does not constitute bikur cholim. To fulfill the mitzvah of visiting the sick, one must empathize with him; one must pray for him. To visit the sick means to pray for him. To care for the sick means to pray for them. One who feels for another Jew knows that there is only one "address" for assistance - Hashem - and he turns to Him.

Let me close with a notable Midrash regarding Avraham's prayer on behalf of Avimelech: Chazal portray the Heavenly angels crying out to Hashem, "Ribono Shel Olam! Sarah has been barren for so many years. Avraham prays for Avimelech's wife, and she becomes fertile along with his other midwives. These women You remember, and You listen. Yet, Sarah remains infertile. Is this justice?" Immediately, Hashem remembered Sarah. This Midrash tells it all; we have only to listen.

And they stood up and went together. (22:19)

The Torah uses this phrase three times in regard to the Akeidah. The first time, when Avraham left his home together with Yitzchak on the way to the Akeidah, the Torah writes that "they walked together." Rashi explains that "together" means that Avraham, who was acutely aware of his mission to slaughter his only son, went with the same good will and joy as Yitzchak, who knew nothing of Hashem's command. The second time the Torah writes this phrase it is after Avraham had hinted to Yitzchak that he would be the sacrifice. Yet, Yitzchak accepted Hashem's command in such a manner that he continued "walking together" with Avraham, as one person with one sentiment. The third time seems problematic, since it refers to Avraham and Yitzchak returning from the Akeidah together with his two lads, Yishmael and Eliezer. How are we to understand this "togetherness"?

Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, explains that Eliezer and Yishmael were unaware of the heightened spiritual experience which they had missed, having no clue to what had transpired. Likewise, Avraham and Yitzchak, who played the leading roles in this drama, left the Akeidah without any feeling of haughtiness after having experienced this seminal event. Probably the best word that comes to mind is: equanimity. They acted as they were supposed to act. In no way did they feel that they deserved any special round of applause or unusual commendation. They did not bask in assumed glory. It was not a deed performed beyond the call of duty. It is for this very purpose that they were created. They were Jews, and a Jew follows Hashem's command - unequivocally, with equanimity, because that is what a Jew is supposed to do. To put it in simple terms: a musician makes music; a physician heals; a teacher instructs; a Jew follows Hashem's command.


He was sitting at the entrance of the tent. (18:1)

Rashi comments that Avraham sat at the entrance to see if there were passersby whom he could bring into his house. The words used for passerby, "oveir v'shav," is usually translated as one who goes back and forth. Horav Avraham Yaakov, zl, m'Sadigur interpreted oveir v'shav homiletically. Some poor people who cannot support themselves, are accustomed to coming to the door and asking for alms. It is not necessary to wait by the entrance for them. They come on their own. An individual who had once been self-supporting and had experienced a reversal of his finances would be embarrassed to come to the door. He would work up his courage to come, then quickly run away. This might happen a number of times, as he would be "oveir v'shav," go back and forth. Avraham waited by the door for such an "oveir v'shav" to coax him inside. Alternatively, the Kotzker Rebbe, zl, referred to the oveir v'shav as one who was oveir, transgressed an aveirah, and "shav," repented and performed teshuvah. Avraham looked for the baalei teshuvah to bring them into his house.

And wash your feet. (18:4)

Rashi tells us that Avraham had them wash their feet because he thought they might be Arabs who bow in worship to the dust of their feet. Avraham Avinu opened his door to all people, regardless of their background. Rav Eliezer, the father of the Baal Shem Tov, was known for his hospitality to wayfarers. Indeed, the Satan -- in an attempt to test and undermine his commitment -- once dresse d up as a poor man and came to his door on Shabbos with his walking stick and bag. Rav Eliezer ignored the man's obvious desecration of Shabbos and took him in and fed him, without criticizing him in any way. It was because of this love and commitment to all men, regardless of background and religious persuasion, that he was blessed with a son that illuminated the world.

For I cherish him, because he commands his children…doing charity and justice. (18:19)

What connection is there between charity and justice? Horav Yosef Yitzchak, zl, m'Lubavitch, explains that when a person is blessed by Hashem with financial abundance, he must quickly ask himself, "Why me? Why did Hashem bless me as opposed to anyone else?" This type of "mishpat," judicial probing, will motivate him to stretch out his hand with tzedakah to others.

That we may give life to offspring through our father. (19:32)

The Shearis Menachem notes that the gematria, numerical equivalent, of the words, "me'avinu zera," offspring through our father, coincides with David ben Yishai, also 386. Lot's daughter said, V'nichyeh, "We will live," our only hope for life, the essence of our life, is that this endeavor will sow the seed for David ben Yishai.

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