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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


I am but dust and ash. (18:27)

In a statement which has become the paradigm of true humility, Avraham Avinu declares that he is but dust and ashes. As Rashi explains, Avraham is making a reference to what would have been his sorry end had the pagan kings or Nimrod had their way with him. He acknowledges that had Hashem not saved him, he would have been doomed. Someone once asked the Chidushei HaRim, the first Gerrer Rebbe, why is it that people cry when they reach the verse in the High Holiday Mussaf prayer, Adam, yesodo mei'afar v'sofo le'afar, "Man, his beginning is from dust, and ends in dust." One can understand that if man had originally been composed of gold and then ended as dirt, death would generate a feeling of sorrow. Since man has risen from dirt and ended as dirt, however, he is just returning to his original state. What is the reason for all of the weeping?

The Rebbe replied that the foundation of the world is earth. Man is placed on this "earth," so that he might elevate the dirt into something of greater spiritual character. In the end, man succeeds in doing nothing but shattering that hope, since everything ends up as dirt. Perhaps a deeper understanding of the Rebbe's words is that we have been created with incredible potential. Hashem has great aspirations, lofty hopes for everyone. Alas, we do not always realize these hopes and aspirations. We end up as dirt. True, many of us do grow spiritually and accomplish great spiritual achievements. We must ask ourselves: Have we achieved that which Hashem expects of us? Hashem sent us down to this world with a purpose in life. He expects us to achieve great things. Many of us return to Him with nothing but excuses for our lack of success. How important is it for each of us to ask himself: Am I doing what Hashem expects of me? Am I living up to my potential? While we may not know the answer, neglecting to ask the question might certainly be a reason to weep.

And it happened after these things that G-d tested Avraham. (22:1)

The retelling of the Akeidah, Binding of Yitzchak Avinu, has been a constant source of support for the Jewish People. Ostensibly, Avraham Avinu's actions in connection with the Akeidah are meritorious-to the extent that they have served as a bulwark to protect us from the prosecutorial criticism of the Satan. The commentators explain that the Patriarch led the way for others to emulate. While he might have been the first to demonstrate his willingness to listen to Hashem-- even if it meant slaughtering his son-- this type of act has been performed over and over again throughout the millennia, as Jews throughout the spectrum of Jewish belief have shown their devotion to the Almighty by sacrificing themselves and their children for their belief in Him. True, it all started with Avraham. He infused mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, into the national psyche. Still, in what manner are his actions different from that of countless others?

Perhaps he distinguished himself in the following manner: When Hashem called to Avraham, the Patriarch's response was, Hineni, "Here I am." Rashi explains that this is the answer of the devout, an expression which denotes both humility and preparedness. Avraham was basically conveying to Hashem that he would do whatever was asked of him. Indeed, when Hashem followed up His "calling" to Avraham with the instructions concerning the Akeidah, we do not find any response, any acquiescence, any agreement from Avraham - simply action. No "O.K.;" no "sure," - nothing. Avraham immediately acted, because he had already acquiesced to whatever would be asked of him when he had immediately responded with a resounding, "Hineni."

Herein lies the difference. Avraham was prepared to do whatever was asked of him, even before he was asked. When he was asked, he did not stop to think, to discuss; he immediately acted. There was no dialogue on his part. All those martyred Jews throughout the millennia perceived a situation, understood what was demanded of them and agreed to act after they were aware of the demand. Avraham agreed to act even before he knew what he was agreeing to. When Hashem calls, there is no place in man's cognitive senses to think, to mull it over, to agree. When Hashem calls, man stands ready to respond. This is what the Patriarch taught us: humility and readiness - Hineni!

The matter greatly distressed Avraham regarding his son. (21:11)

Avraham Avinu's home was uniquely spiritual. It was a home in which its members were comfortable in the presence of angels. Indeed, this is why Hagar was not overcome with fright when she spoke to the angel. She was accustomed to seeing angels. Apparently, her son, Yishmael, did not take well to the lofty, spiritual lessons that had become part of the daily culture in Avraham's home. He deferred to his bad habits and evil inclination. This raised concern in the eyes of Sarah Imeinu. A Yishmael who is not positively inspired by the atmosphere in Avraham's house does not belong there. He must be sent away before he has a negative influence on Yitzchak. When she demanded this of Avraham, the Torah writes, "The matter greatly distressed Avraham regarding his son." Simply, this means that the Patriarch was concerned about his son, Yishmael.

The Damesek Eliezer suggests a homiletic rendering of this pasuk which is both intriguing and, regrettably, quite practical. Avraham's concern was regarding "his" son, with the word "his" being a reference to Yishmael. Avraham was anxious about Yishmael's son. How would sending Yishmael away affect Yishmael's son? At least Yishmael had had a good upbringing. Having been raised in Avraham and Sarah's home endowed him with unparalleled opportunity for spiritual/moral growth. Although he rejected it, one cannot ignore the fact that he was privy to unprecedented spiritual lessons and opportunity. Something positive might have been infused in his psyche. This is clearly indicated by Yishmael's ultimate repentance. What about Yishmael's son? He would lose out forever.

What a powerful statement - and what a realistic fear! How often do parents "allow" themselves to play the role of spiritual advisor with their children's education? After all, my child has been raised in an observant home with excellent spiritual resources and a support system that will help him when necessary. This might be true concerning one's own child, but what about the following generation? That generation will not be raised in a home that is equipped with the spiritual support system that a child growing up in today's age needs to survive. Lamentably, many of those parents whose decisions regarding their children's education concerned themselves only with the immediate present, no longer have reason to worry about the future - it no longer exists. The grandchildren never had a chance, because their children were deprived of the opportunity. Shortsightedness with regard to our children's education can have devastating consequences.

Hashem tested Avraham. (22:1)

The Akeidah is considered the nisayon, trial, by whose standard nisyonos are measured. It was the ultimate test of Avraham Avinu's commitment to Hashem. When we think about it we may ask: What really was the test? It is not as if Hashem did not make it very clear to Avraham what He wanted him to do. Clearly, Avraham would never have entertained the idea of saying "no" to Hashem. If so, can we really consider the Akeidah to be a trial?

Horav Meir Bergman, Shlita, cites his father-in-law, Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, who explains this in an unusual and fascinating manner. He first quotes the Talmud Bava Basra 14b which states, "Moshe wrote his book (the Chumash) and the parashah of Bilaam." This statement begs elucidation. Obviously, if Moshe wrote the entire Torah, he also wrote the parashah of Bilaam which is included therein. Various commentators respond to this question with approaches that are somewhat questionable. The Maharil Diskin, zl, approaches this question after first explaining the difference between Moshe Rabbeinu's level of prophecy and that of other prophets.

First, he addresses a number of questions concerning Moshe's level of prophecy. Chazal tell us that no other prophet rose in Klal Yisrael who compared to Moshe. They add that among the gentile nations there arose a prophet who was equal to Moshe in prophecy. This is the wicked Bilaam! What a statement! Is it possible to compare Bilaam to Moshe in any way? These are two individuals who could not be further apart. Was Bilaam not the one who ignored Hashem's instructions to bless the Jewish nation, instead attempting to curse them? How insolent can one be? How could he act so reprehensively? Lastly, although Chazal say that all prophets saw their prophecy only through aspaklaria she'einah meirah, a murky window, Moshe alone saw through a clear window, aspaklaria meirah. What is the meaning of this contrast?

In response to these questions, the Maharal Diskin works backward, addressing the last question first. He explains that the source of prophetic visions is in the upper worlds of holiness, where ultimate truth, which is normally beyond the ken of human intellect, stands revealed. The manner in which this truth descends to this world and is revealed to the prophet is the process called nevuah, prophecy. When it is time for a navi to receive a message, the message descends through the realms of the various worlds, descending from the highest level of holiness to this earthly world, until it takes on a perceivable image, a sort of vision, which is interpretable by the navi. It is within the grasp of his intellect. Thus, when he regains consciousness, he examines the various images that he has perceived, and-- based upon his ability--he understands their significance, for the meaning of each vision has been impressed upon his soul.

Now, since prophecy is being perceived by a human being, it is similar to a person looking through a glass window. After all, the vision comes from a Heavenly Source, while the prophet looks with human eyes. He is availed a window through which to see and interpret, but his eyesight is as clear as the window.

The object one sees remains unchanged, but its appearance is contingent upon the color of the glass. The same analogy applies to prophecy. The prophet's soul is the medium through which he interprets the image. He views the image through the window of his soul. The more immaculate his soul, the more it is divested of gashmiyus, physicality, the less cloudy is the window through which he perceives the Heavenly-sent image. Hence, the clearer his interpretation will be.

This is the meaning of Chazal's statement concerning Moshe's ability to see b'aspaklaria meirah, clear window. He had achieved the almost inconceivable level of purity and holiness- one that has eluded every other prophet. Though they also prophesied truly, their grasp of the meaning of their prophecies was never as clear as Moshe's.

Bilaam was the only one who was granted prophetic vision through a "clear window," but for a contrasting reason. Far from being pure and holy, he was so perverted and spiritually contaminated that, regardless what vision of blessing were to be impressed upon his soul, he was sure to pervert its meaning. When he set off to curse the Jews, disregarding Hashem's warning not to do so, he was hoping that the bottomless evil of his soul would turn the most absolute blessing into a curse. He was counting on his "murky window" of a soul to twist the meaning and transform a blessing into a curse. To counteract this goal, Hashem had to grant Bilaam absolute clarity, so that the message would be clear and not misunderstood. Bilaam would have no way of transforming the image, thereby twisting the message. Ironically, Bilaam's corruption was the reason that he prophesied with the same lucidity as Moshe Rabbeinu!

We understand now why Chazal speak of "Moshe's Book" and the parashah of Bilaam as if they were two separate entities. The entire Torah is referred to as Toras Moshe, even those parts that relate historical events or prophecies originally received by the Avos, Patriarchs. It is all attributed to him because he did more than "merely" transcribe events. Owing to his unique level of prophecy, endless depths of meaning were revealed to him concerning these accounts of history that were even hidden from his predecessors or those regarding whom these events occurred. Not even the Avos had known as much about their prophecies as Moshe did. Thus, the entire Torah - even Sefer Bereishis - is justly called Toras Moshe.

Only when Moshe came to the parashah of Bilaam did he merely copy down the words, for Bilaam's degenerate personality could not be permitted to intermingle with the interpretation of his prophecy. Hashem gave it to Bilaam with all its depth and interpretation complete, fully revealed. When Moshe recorded it into the Torah, he served merely as a transcriber. There was no need for him to enhance or broaden the revelation of this passage. Since Moshe simply copied this parsha, it did not have the same character as the rest of Toras Moshe.

Citing the above exegesis, Rav Shach turns to the Akeidah and an understanding of the exact nature of Avraham Avinu's trial. The critical point is that Avraham received his command to sacrifice Yitzchak in a prophetic vision - through a murky window. Although his window was clearer than most, it was not b'aspaklaria ha'meirah, as Moshe would see. Thereafter, he was to interpret his prophecy into material terms, based upon his intellect as the window of his soul. What does this mean concerning the Akeidah? How does this interpretation play itself out in interpreting Hashem's message vis-?-vis Yitzchak? It meant that Avraham himself had the duty of interpreting the cryptic vision he had seen in the night and deducing from it that he was to bind and sacrifice Yitzchak! It was his interpretation!

We now understand how powerful the nisayon was that our Patriarch was prepared to undertake. Even though Hashem had commanded him, still the trial that awaited Avraham was: Would he put aside his fatherly love, his overwhelming closeness to his only spiritual heir, Yitzchak, and choose to understand Hashem's command correctly without evading its purport, or would he behave as any other father would, seeking some other interpretation of the vision? Avraham Avinu, the rosh ha'maaminim, first and greatest of believers, in his great purity of soul, deferred any personal emotions. His vested interests and personal prejudice would not play any role whatsoever in interpreting the image. Fidelity to Hashem would be the determining factor. With his faith intact, he arrived precisely at the correct interpretation of the vision. It is our Patriarch's unwavering and unfaltering adherence to the will of Hashem which we call to our merit as we entreat Hashem's benevolence each and every year. May He shine His countenance favorably this year and send us Moshiach Tzidkeinu.

Do not stretch your hand against the lad…The angel of Hashem called to Avraham a second time. (22:12, 15)

The angel of Hashem appeared to Avraham Avinu and ordered him to desist and not sacrifice Yitzchak. It appears that the angel then disappeared, only to appear after Avraham had slaughtered the ram. He then blessed him. Why did he not bless Avraham immediately after he held back and refrained from slaughtering Yitzchak? What did he prove by slaughtering the ram? Horav Yehudah Zedakah, zl, used the following story to explain the uniqueness of Avraham's actions concerning the Akeidah. Horav Aryeh Levine, zl, was known as the rav of the asirim, Jewish prisoners. He would visit the incarcerated, giving them hope and nurturing their spiritual development even in the pits of despair that was their home. One Shabbos morning he arrived to find a locked gate. The British commandant refused to let the sage pass through the gates. The fact that he had a pass was of no concern to him. During the current period of unrest, all previous permissions had been revoked. When one of the Jewish guards asked the British commandant why he would not permit an elderly Jew from giving solace to his poor co-religionists, he replied, "Let him find another way to earn a living."

This did not deter the tzaddik who lived for his fellow Jew. He circled the entire prison compound until he discovered a breach in the wall, through which he entered. It did not take long before Rav Aryeh was discovered and brought before the commandant. Surprisingly, the commandant said, "Now I know that this man is sincere and does this out of a sense of compassion and benevolence. Had it been just another job, he would have gone home. After all, he tried to enter and he failed. He now could be absolved of his responsibility. Not so, one who really cares. If the gate is sealed, one either finds a breach or breaks the lock. The prisoner should not suffer because of bureaucratic rules. This rav has my permission to enter the prison whenever he pleases. He is for real."

Rav Zedakah explained that a similar idea applies to Avraham Avinu. The fact that he refrained from slaughtering Yitzchak when the angel first appeared indicated only that Avraham followed instructions. Perhaps his original acquiescence to sacrifice Yitzchak was out of fear of the Almighty - not faith and commitment. The first chance to get out of the responsibility, the first loophole he could discover in the law, he would quickly make use of it. The angel disappeared to see how the patriarch would now react to the "stop" order. If Avraham would heave a sigh of relief and go home, it would indicate that his heart was never really into fulfilling Hashem's command. He had acted out of fear - not reverence and love.

Our Patriarch did not rest on his laurels. When he was told to desist, he was chagrined. What had he done wrong? Had he failed? How could he rectify the situation? When he saw the ram, he saw an opportunity to offer a sacrifice. He wanted so much to do Hashem's bidding - anything- any opportunity to serve Him. This was Avraham's way- and so should it be ours. Everything we do should demonstrate our love, enthusiasm, and passion to serve Hashem. It is not what we do - but how we do it that makes the difference in the fulfillment of the mitzvah.

Va'ani Tefillah

Poseach es yadecha u'masbia l'chol chai ratzon
Open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.

What indication do we have that Hashem satisfies the ratzon, desire, of every living thing? This is a strong statement. Clearly there are people who are not satisfied. They expect and want more. Horav Chaim Kanievsky, Shlita, cites the Talmud Arachin 16b wherein Chazal explain the extent of yissurim, troubles and suffering, which we receive from Hashem. If a person were to put his hand into his pocket thinking that he was about to extract three coins, and all he discovered was two, it is considered yissurim. We see from here that anyone, whose ratzon, desire, has not been fulfilled, has just undergone yissurim.

Chazal teach us that yissurim cleanse and purify a person's sins. If this is the case, then everyone actually does receive his ratzon. It is used, however, as a "payment" on his Heavenly account. We owe Hashem for the "wonderful" things that we do. Thus, when we sin, we are in Hashem's debt. As a sign of Hashem's great benevolence, he allows us to pay up our debt slowly. He thus debits our account by taking those things that we desire so much and uses it to pay up our "bill." This may be compared to a king who declared that, in honor of his birthday, he was giving every citizen ten gold coins. There was one individual who just happened to owe the king ten gold coins. The king told him that instead of giving him the money, he would just erase his debt. Hashem does the same for us when He satisfies our retzonos.

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 18th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

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