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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And behold! Three men were standing over him. (18:2)

Rashi explains that each of these three angels disguised in the image of men had an individual mission. One came to tell Sarah Imeinu the news that she would give birth to a son; and came to heal Avraham Avinu; and one came to destroy Sodom. One angel never performs more than one mission. Let us focus on their missions. The angel that came to notify Sarah was a malach of chaim, an angel of life. The angel that came to destroy Sodom, however, was an angel representing death. What relationship is there between these two angels that necessitated their coming together to visit Avraham? Why did they have to "travel" together? Furthermore, if they had to be together, why did a malach ha'maves, an angel of death, have to accompany an angel of life? Incidentally, only two angels went on to Sodom, since the third one had no mission there.

Horav Tuvia Lisitzin, zl, derives from here that all three angels had one focus and one goal, one mission. They were all together under one aegis: to prepare the world for the birth of Yitzchak Avinu. Prior to Yitzchak's birth, Hashem changed the names of Avram and Sarai to Avraham and Sarah, respectively. This change in name also altered their mazal, zodiac star. The day that Sarah conceived Yitzchak was an auspicious one for the world. She was not the only barren woman to conceive. Throughout the world, people became blessed. Those who were barren became fertile. Those who could not see were now able to see. Those who previously had not been able to hear could now hear. Those who were mentally challenged were now able to think cogently. Many prayers were answered that day, as it became a yom simchah, day of joy and festivity, for the world community. It was a singular day in universe.

Such a halcyon day needs great preparation. The Malach Michael came to notify Sarah. The Malach Gavriel came to destroy Sodom, because prior to Yitzchak's arrival, the world had to be rid of its evil. There is no place for evil in a world inhabited by Yitzchak. The Malach Refael came to heal Avraham after he and his household had circumcised themselves. This was necessary so that Yitzchak would be born b'kedushah v'taharah, in holiness and purity.

The malach that came to destroy Sodom was on the same mission as the others. He was not an angel of death. He was an angel of mercy. Eradicating evil is not a negative act, but one of a positive nature, since it prepares the setting for good to take place. Likewise, we find that the two angels arrived in Sodom in the evening. Did it take that long to travel from Chevron to Sodom? Obviously, they were waiting to see if Avraham Avinu would succeed in defending Sodom, if he could find something positive that would spare them. These were angels of mercy, who waited as long as possible before they had to carry out their mission. Three angels with one mission. Therefore, they all visited Avraham, from whom Yitzchak would descend.

Let some water be brought and wash your feet. (18:4)

Rashi notes that Avraham Avinu asked that a shliach, agent, be the one to prepare and bring the water for his guests. He did not bring the water himself. Thus, generations later, when his descendants were in need of water in the wilderness, Hashem "sent" the water through an intermediary, Moshe Rabbeinu. Let us step back, peruse history and develop a clearer understanding of the effect of Avraham sending an agent to bring the water. Horav Aizik Ausband, Shlita, notes that had Avraham personally brought the water, then Hashem would have "personally" given water to the Jews, rather than have Moshe speak to the rock. As a result of Moshe's hitting the rock, he was refused entry into Eretz Yisrael. Had Moshe taken Klal Yisrael into the Promised Land, there never would have been a churban Bais Hamikdash, the Temple would never have been destroyed, and we would not have had to go into exile. This would have precluded all of the persecutions and slaughter to which we have been subjected during our long and bitter galus, exile. One little action, one simple activity, would have made the difference. We now have a glimmer concerning the infinite value of one mitzvah and the incredible effect that a little alacrity and personal care adds to its fulfillment.

Sarah denied it, saying, "I did not laugh," for she was frightened. (18:15)

We must endeavor to understand Sarah Imeinu's denial. Did she, or did she not, laugh? The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, explains that while she did laugh, it was out of joy, similar to Avraham's reaction to the wonderful news. The Torah, however, attests to her subconscious doubting of the news. The Ramban questions how Sarah, who was a Neviah, prophetess, could doubt Hashem's word. He explains that had Sarah been aware of the true essence of these three men who delivered the news, she would have certainly believed the prophecy. She was under the impression that they were human beings. Thus, she thought twice before accepting their word.

The Sefas Emes goes a bit further in explaining Sarah's statement, teaching us a powerful lesson regarding the essence of teshuvah, repentance. After all, we must take into consideration that Sarah was speaking to Hashem. One does not deny to Hashem, Who knows everything, unless one is unaware of his denial. Regarding the pasuk in Devarim 20:8, "Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, and let him not melt the heart of his fellows, like his heart," Chazal comment, "What is it that provokes fear in this man?" They explain that the individual fears going to war as a soldier, because he is overwhelmed with the "sins" in his hand. This is a reference to any simple infraction, anything that might cloud his mind and impede his self-confidence. They use the aveirah, sin, of letting his mind wander while he is putting on his Tefillin. There should not be any hafsakah, interruption, or hesech ha'daas, diversion, between the Tefillin shel yad, which one places on his arm, and the Tefillin Shel Rosh, which he dons on his forehead. This is the type of sin that worries him. Why should he return from the battlefield? Certainly he has repented and performed the necessary teshuvah for this shortcoming. The mere fact that he is concerned about these aveiros she'b'yado is an indication of his lofty spiritual nature. He fulfills the pasuk, V'chatasi negdi tamid, "My sin is before me constantly."

The Sefas Emes explains that the key to the acceptance of his teshuvah, the clear proof that Hashem has accepted his contrition and forgiven him, is when he is no longer troubled by the after effects. He does not think about his sin. His past is forgotten. If it still concerns him, it demonstrates that he has not fully achieved atonement.

Sarah repented for her laughter. She was so contrite in her repentance that she neither thought about it nor remembered that it had ever occurred. As a true G-d-fearing Jewess, she could not fathom that she had "laughed" at the angel's word. Thus, her denial was unknowing.

The goal of the baal teshuvah is to see beyond his roots. He succeeded in the process of teshuvah, so he should now feel and act like everyone else. He is a mainstream Jew. We must remember that teshuvah is a process that should elevate and embolden a person - not be a stigma of one's past.

So the men got up from there, gazed down toward Sodom… the men had turned from there and went to Sodom, while Avraham was still standing before Hashem. (18:16, 22)

Is there any difference from where they turned? The pasuk seems to emphasize that they turned from "there." We know "where" they were. They were visiting with Avraham Avinu, and it is from his hospitality that they continued on to Sodom. Sforno comments on the words Vayifnu mi'sham ha'anashim, "the men turned from 'there,'" from the house of chesed, kindness that was Avraham's. This means that they had left a home that was the epitome of kindness to go to a place that had descended to the nadir of depravity. Prior to this, the pasuk also emphasizes that the men gazed down from "there." Simply, this means that when one stands in Avraham Avinu's home, a home exemplifying loving kindness at its zenith, the stark contrast of Sodom glares at you. The evil perpetrated by the Sodomites was magnified when viewed from the vantage point of Avraham's house.

Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, takes this idea a bit further. He explains that one who was born deprived of the gift of sight, who never in his life saw light or colors, can never fully understand their meaning. An individual who was once able to see clearly, but has lost his ability to see, can understand and mentally perceive various colors. This is the condemnation against the people of Sodom: You were able to see! You once saw and understood the meaning of kindness and human decency. You have no excuse for your actions. Had you been born and raised in some remote village on a backward continent, totally secluded from human interaction, then the critique for your nefarious behavior might not be as intense. However, you lived in the vicinity of Avraham Avinu, an individual who personified loving kindness at its apex. You knew what was right and what was wrong. Yet, you chose to live a life of evil, a life of preying on those weaker than you, a life of taking advantage of the unfortunate and the needy, a life of miscreancy. Yes, the angels looked down from Avraham's house, because the view from that vantage point was much more odious. The Sodomites had no excuse. They had no one to blame but themselves.

The same idea applies to each and every one of us. Every Jew, regardless of his background or upbringing, if he is born with a mind, can reach Hashem. He was created in the image of Hashem, with a neshamah, soul, that consists of a part of Hashem Above. What excuse does he have for not finding Hashem? At least he should search! If he searches seriously, he will find the path to Hashem. It just takes an intelligent mind - that functions!

Yet, one who has never studied Torah, who has never experienced the sweetness of a blatt, folio, of Talmud, who has never been excited over the penetrating logic of our Chazal, does have a degree of mitigation. He can plead ignorance as a way of exculpating himself. This might recuse him to a certain degree, but what about he who had studied Torah, who had imbibed of its profundities, who had experienced its lessons and savored its sweetness - what is his excuse? He knew what a Jew was. He understood the definition of a human being. He understood the meaning of spirituality. Yet, he decided to close his eyes and ignore everything that he had seen.

The angels arose from Avraham's home to look at Sodom. It was a glaring and penetrating stare. They were looking from Avraham's home, saying to the Sodomites, "You see what Avraham is and what his activities are. You are neighbors with a kind, loving example of what a human being is to be. How can you, after seeing all of this, commit your vile cruelty against people? How can you allow yourselves to sink into the quicksand of foolishness, evil and contamination? You know better; you have seen the light. So, why do you hide your head in the darkness?" Their proximity to Avraham's home magnified their sins and sealed their punishment.

Avraham responded and said… "Although I am but dust and ash." (18:27)

Our Patriarch compares himself to two lowly materials: afar and eifar, dust and ash. What is the significance of these two materials in the context of Avraham Avinu's response to Hashem? The Netziv, zl, explains that afar, dust, has an advantage in that it has the koach ha'toladah, power to give birth, to produce, to serve as the catalyst for creating something else. It does not, however, have a relationship to an av, father, a previous generation. It has been created by Hashem in its present state. It is what it is because of its own essential nature. It is not born of anything else.

Eifar, ash, on the other hand, is the end product of a coal, an ember, a piece of wood, or whatever material was burned into ash. It has a "past." It has yichus, pedigree. It, however, does not have the advantage of afar, in that it cannot be used to create something else. There is no power of toladah, creativity, in it. Afar has a future, but no past. Eifar has a past, but no future.

When Avraham entreated Hashem, he said, "Ribono Shel Olam, I am but dust and ash. I am like dust that I have no zchus avos, ancestral merit, as my father was an idolater. Likewise, I have no future in that I am childless, similar to ash which is an end product. Because of Avraham's poignant prayer, a prayer in which he presented himself as being totally unworthy, Hashem granted him two unique gifts that would serve his descendants: the afar sotah, dust used for a wayward wife, which, when used, provides the opportunity for creating shalom bayis, marital harmony and bliss, in a home; and the eifar Parah Adumah, ash of the Red Heifer, which is used to purify a person who has contracted tumaas meis, ritual contamination from coming in contact with a corpse. Avraham's unprecedented humility, his total self-abnegation, served as the precursor for his progeny to receive the two mitzvos that would elevate the kedushah, holiness, of Klal Yisrael.

The greater, more elevated an individual is, the more penetrating is his understanding of his inadequacy. Humility should be the result of a deeper understanding of Hashem and His World, thereby recognizing one's inconsequence. One who is all wrapped up in himself does not see beyond himself. In Sefer Tehillim 17:18, David Hamelech entreats Hashem with the words, Shamreini k'ishon bas ayin, "Guard me like the pupil of an eye." The Radak comments that the root of the word ishon, pupil of the eye, is ish, man. The relationship between the two words is to be found in the fact that when one looks into the pupil of another person's eye, he sees a reflection of himself. He sees a reflection of a "man." He adds that the letters vav and nun, which are the suffixes to the word ish, creating the word ishon, are used to signify a diminutive. Thus, ishon means a small man. If one looks into someone's eye, he sees a miniature reflection of himself. He sees a small man.

Rabbi Paysach Krohn relates that, upon hearing this interpretation of the Radak, Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, the venerable Rosh Hayeshivah of Telshe, added that a powerful lesson may be derived from here. When one looks at another person, he is inclined to view himself as superior to him, thus deserving of his honor and recognition. The Torah is alluding to a different perspective that one should have when he looks at another individual. He should "see" himself as inferior to him and, therefore, look for the other person's virtues and attributes that elevate him. As far as he himself is concerned, the diminutive image he has of himself in the pupil of the other person's eye will suffice.

In his hesped, eulogy, for Horav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, zl, Horav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Riff, zl, describes this extraordinary gadol, Torah giant, as a man of singular greatness. He not only shielded his true measure of greatness from the public realm, he managed to "hide himself" from his immediate family and friends. Who would imagine that this frail, sickly, man would arise every midnight to recite Tikkun chatzos, a prayer lamenting the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash and the ensuing exile? He was an individual who personally carried on his shoulders the financial concerns of thousands of families through the world, yet he never revealed to anyone who these families were.

Erudite in every area of Torah, his encyclopedic knowledge of Talmud Bavli, Yerushalmi and the four tracts of Shulchan Aruch was affirmed, but never publicized. He never sat at the dais at conventions or meetings, never voiced his opinion in public. Yet, behind the scenes he was the prime mover of many endeavors in support of needy Torah scholars. He was a leader who led from behind, whose presence was felt, but not seen. Humility was not just his virtue; it was his essence.

Va'ani Tefillah

v'nazkir shimcha - and we will remember Your Name.

Why is it necessary to emphasize that we will remember Your Name? It suggests that we might forget His Name. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that throughout his life a person undergoes some difficult periods - periods during which Hashem's Presence seems to elude him. It is at times such as these that we must remind ourselves that He is there. Yes, it may appear that He has forsaken us, but that is all part of the challenge. We are to reinforce our emunah, faith, and bitachon, trust, in Hashem and not let it wane. Imo anochi b'tzarah, "I am with him during times of trouble" (Tehillim 91:15). This classic pasuk tells it all. We are never alone. It is specifically at such a time that Hashem seems to have left us, that He is there, giving us the strength to continue, to go on, and to face the gravity of the situation.

Our obligation is to look for Hashem, specifically during those times that He seems to have forsaken us. While we may believe that He is there, it is important that we seek His Presence, that we ingrain in our minds the notion that we are not alone. When one looks for Hashem, he will find Him.

Dedicated in loving memory of our dear
father and grandfather

Arthur I. Genshaft
Yitzchak ben Yisrael z"l
niftar 18 Cheshvan 5739

by his family
Neil and Marie Genshaft
Isaac and Naomi

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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