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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


He lifted his eyes and saw and behold! Three men were standing on him. (18:2)

Avraham Avinu is considered the amud ha'chesed, pillar of loving-kindness. He took advantage of every opportunity that availed itself to help someone, to perform a kindness for another person. He paved the way for the many acts of kindness that, in a sense, define the Jewish People. Avraham did not merely delegate others to act in his behalf. He personally acted. He reached out with love, with care, with empathy - but, above all, he reached out. As the father of our nation, as an exclusive member of the "high and mighty," it was not necessary for the Patriarch to personally involve himself. That was Avraham Avinu. When a great person personally carries out an act that he could have easily delegated to others, it elevates the act, ennobling the individual who executes it.

One of the greatest acts of kindness is caring about those individuals who are hardly noticed. People are always ready to ear-mark money and assign personnel to go out of their way to help someone well-known or to participate in an organization that is either prominent or caters to the exotic, the shocking, the dreadful, the heart-breaking cases which draw at our heartstrings, or achieve notoriety. Very few resources, however, are allotted to the down-and-out individual who will not generate fame for his saviors. The "little guy" who does not garner much attention regrettably does not receive much attention either.

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Saks of England relates an intriguing story about a woman, who, together with her husband, was among the greatest philanthropists of our time. This woman tragically passed away at a young age. She and her husband had been blessed with great wealth, most of which they had given away. They retained little for themselves, as they were satisfied to live a simple life. Their tzedakah, charitable bequests, which were spread over the world community, were primarily directed toward Jewish interests.

When Sarah (not her real name) passed away, she was mourned by many. Among those who grieved for her the most, were the waiters and waitresses at a popular hotel in Eretz Yisrael, where she and her husband had often vacationed. Over time, she came to know all of the staff: their origins, their family situations, and the problems they faced. She had developed a close, personal relationship with the hotel's staff. This was not - and still is not - a common practice. She was, however, no ordinary woman. She remembered not only their names, but also the names of their spouses and children. Whenever any of them needed assistance, she saw to it that it was provided, in a dignified manner, discreetly, without fanfare. This was her habit wherever she went. Is it a wonder that she was loved by all?

After her passing, it became known how it happened that she married her husband. There was, after all, a very distinct difference in their ages; he was a close friend of her parents! Apparently, she had a few weeks of free time available in the summer before she was to commence her academic year. Her future husband gave her a summer job with his company. One evening after work, the two were about to join her parents for dinner. They passed by a beggar on the street. Her future husband was punticulous concerning the mitzvah of tzedakah, and he immediately proceeded to reach into his pocket and gave the man a coin. As they continued to walk, Sarah asked him to lend her some money. Indeed, it was a fairly large sum, which she promised to pay back at the end of the week, at which time she would be paid her wages. After he gave her the money, she promptly ran back to the beggar and gave the money to him. "Why did you do that?" he asked. "I already gave him money." "What you gave him," she replied, "was enough for today, but not enough to make a difference in his life."

At the end of the week she was paid her wages, and she returned the amount she had borrowed from her future husband. He said, "I will accept the money only because I do not want to deprive you of your mitzvah." Many years later, following the untimely passing of his wife, he divulged to a close friend that it was then that he decided that this was the woman he wanted to marry, because "her heart was bigger than mine."

By her selfless caring for others, empathizing with their simple, everyday needs, she elevated the middah, attribute, of chesed to a new pinnacle. It is not enough simply to help others, one must feel their need within his heart; one must be sensitive to their pain as if it were his own. Indeed, by giving, we are actually receiving.

Then Avraham ran to the cattle… he stood over them beneath the tree and they ate. (18:7,8)

Avraham Avinu was the consummate master of the middah, attribute, of chesed, acts of loving-kindness. Clearly, this was not simply because he was a "nice man." There is more to it. When we take into consideration the lofty ideals that he imparted through his performance of chesed, we wonder who his mentor was. From whom or from where did our Patriarch learn the true depth of chesed, its significance and application? Perhaps the following thesis might shed some light on this anomaly.

Imagine: giving someone a ride using a company car; paying for the gas with a company credit card; deducting the time expended in doing the "favor" from company time. This is no different than giving tzedakah, charity, with company money. In other words, the act of giving is made easy for us, considering the fact that it does not deprive us of anything. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos 3:7, states: Ten lo mishelo, she'atah v'shelcha shelo. "Give him what is his, for you and yours are His." Rabbeinu Yonah explains this somewhat cryptic statement in the following manner. When one gives charity - be it money, or even time - one is parting with nothing of his own - neither of his money, nor of his self, for everything belongs to Hashem, Who "loans" it to us. At best, we are merely custodians of Hashem's property. We enjoy no proprietary interest in anything in the world, because everything ultimately belongs to Hashem. This understanding is fundamental to Jewish belief. A Jew must realize and accept the notion that nothing is to be attributed to his own powers - because he really has none of his own powers. Everything belongs to Hashem, Who is its sole proprietor. He permits us access as long as we utilize it for the proper purpose.

The Toldos Yaakov Yosef applies an analogy to explain the Mishnah in Avos. A man was known to never exhibit signs of worry. While equanimity is a wonderful quality to possess, the reason behind his placid approach to life was ambiguous. He either had such incredible conviction in Hashem that, as a result, he did not worry, or he was, quite possibly, a very unrealistic person. In other words; he was either a saint or miswired. When he was questioned concerning his presence of mind in confronting the anxious moments of life, he replied that he had nothing to worry about, because he possessed nothing! He considered nothing in life to be his own. Thus, he had nothing of himself invested in any item of his personal, little world. He, therefore, found nothing to worry him. Everything belongs to Hashem, Who is eminently capable of dealing with the issues.

The Baal HaToldos cites the Sefer Chassidim who further illuminates this concept. Let us, for example, take the mitzvah of Tefillin. When we bind the Tefillin on ourselves, we realize that it is Hashem who gave us the Tefillin; He also gave us the arm upon which to bind the Tefillin, and the ratzon, will, and thought process to carry out the mitzvah. So, how can we claim any reward for what is clearly all Hashem's doing? When Hashem rewards us for mitzvah observance, it is purely out of a sense of chesed. It is altruism of the highest order. He is being "extra-kind" to us for performing a mitzvah, which, in fact, was all His doing.

This idea explains the pasuk in Tehillim 62:13, u'lecha Hashem chesed, ki Atah tishalem l'ish k'maaseihu. "Chesed is yours, Hashem, because You reward a person according to his deeds." Why should Hashem's reward be an act of altruism? If one acts properly, if he observes the mitzvos, he deserves to be rewarded! If anything, reward should be an act of din, justice. Man's actions warrant reward. The Baal HaToldos illuminates the pasuk with the above insight. Essentially, everything that we do for Hashem is not really "we." It is made possible only due to Hashem's intervention, His constant support. Without the "Hashem component" in our lives, we simply do not have anything. He does not really have to reward us, because He made it all possible in the first place. Therefore, Hashem's reward is the consummate act of chesed.

Now we understand Who was the Rebbe of Avraham Avinu in the middah of chesed. It was Hashem. Yes, Avraham learned from the Almighty. With such a Rebbe, it is no wonder that Avraham became the amud hachesed, pillar of loving-kindness.

And Hashem said, "Because the cry of Sodom and Amorah has become great, and because their sin has been very grave." (18:20)

Sodom's crime was so grave that it caused an "outcry… so great" that it led to their total destruction. We wonder at the seriousness and finality of the punishment. Was there no other city so corrupt that deserved such punishment? Apparently not. Sodom's sin was not so much the result of the people's behavior, as it was their perverted philosophy of life. Chazal documented their sins as: inhospitality to strangers; animus towards anyone giving charity; social oppression; sexual perversion. These were the manifestations of their depraved philosophy, symptoms of a sick community. What lay beneath these symptoms? What motivated them to act in such a baneful manner? What was it about Sodom that set the standard for evil for all time to come?

Sodom's corruption was unique. It is this corruption that causes its inhabitants to be singled out among the wicked of the world. Chazal make a statement that gives us some hint concerning their depravity. We are told not to "act like the characteristic of Sodom." Middas Sodom seems to be a cruel quality. It is the act of depriving someone else of deriving benefit even when one has nothing to lose thereby. Zeh neheneh, v'zeh lo chasar. "This one benefits, and this one loses nothing." Yet, the Sodomnik begrudges the other person his benefit. Why? No reason. He has nothing to lose; yet, he refuses to do anything that might benefit another person. That is middas Sodom.

In Pirkei Avos 5:13, we are taught a powerful insight into the depravity that defined the people of Sodom. Chazal cite two opinions concerning the type of character possessed by a man who says: "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours." The first opinion holds that such a person is a beinoni, average person, while the second opinion in the Mishnah contends that this statement reflects middas Sodom. In other words, one who sticks to himself, who is neither interested in taking from others nor giving to them is a wicked person. Why?

The Tzemach Tzedek explains these two opinions. The Tanna who considers this to be the quality of an average person opines that a Sodom character applies only when one denies another a benefit, although he personally loses nothing. If he, however, has something to lose, he may not be manifesting proper behavior, but he cannot be called a Sodomnik. The second Tanna posits that even if one has something to lose by helping someone out, the very statement, "What is mine, is mine, and what is yours, is yours," undermines the fundamental underpinnings of existence, which is a symbiotic coalescence of diverse forces, systems and individuals. Hashem made the world in such a manner that forces interact together. Our bodies exist on the premise that all its cells, organs and limbs collaborate in a mutually beneficial manner to promote health and continued existence. The "what is mine, is mine, and what is yours, is yours" attitude brings the world to self-destruction.

Every community, every system, every process is based on a "give and take" system, in which those who are able - give, and those who must - take. Isolation from one another is disastrous to the individual and destructive to the community. Such a system cannot survive. Between neighbor and neighbor, callous indifference or taut hostility will reign. Soon, the only hospitality in that community will be that which is reminiscent of Sodom - no hospitality!

From a tzedakah, philanthropic, perspective, such an attitude is dangerous. The wealthy man who says, "What is mine, is mine, and what is yours, is yours," is basically looking for a way out of helping others. The problem, however, goes deeper than that. The first mistake he makes is in defining and claiming that what he possesses actually belongs to him. It does not! It belongs to the poor man, while he is his surrogate, holding his money for him. Hashem selected the wealthy man to serve as the guardian for the poor man's money. By claiming it is "mine," he rejects its true ownership, thereby reneging his Divine mission. That is middas Sodom.

He planted an eishel in Be'er-Sheva, and there he proclaimed the Name of Hashem, G-d of the Universe. (21:33)

There is no question that Avraham Avinu was the most successful outreach professional to have ever lived. He was the master in bringing a pagan society into the world of monotheistic belief. Every religion that has since initiated the process of rejecting idol-worship has done so as the result of his ground-breaking work. At one point, over half of the world population had accepted monotheism. This was without a doubt a marvelous, unprecedented feat. How did he do it? What was our Patriarch's recipe for success? What can we learn from his pioneering efforts that are applicable to life in our present society?

My brother-in-law related an incident that occurred with him a while ago which I feel can be applied to shed some light on Avraham's work. My brother-in-law takes the "F" train from Brooklyn to Manhattan daily. Like every responsible Jew who utilizes public transportation as a means of going to work, he had his Tehillim, travel Daf Yomi Talmud and a small Chumash with him. After all, one never knows how long the trip on a New York subway can take. While he usually does not find it a great difficulty to find a seat, this Friday morning was an exception. So, he stood there, holding onto the bar, while he recited Tehillim. Directly in front of him sat a middle-aged man and woman, who appeared to be husband and wife. The wife, although not dressed in the latest observant haute couture, appeared to be of Jewish extraction. The husband appeared most likely to be Jewish, but to the uneducated eye might be mistaken for Italian.

Noticing my brother-in-law hanging on precariously to the bar as the train sped along the rails, the man motioned to his wife to move over to make room for the Jew. Noticing that a place had been made for him, my brother-in-law thanked the couple, sat down, and proceeded to study Daf Yomi; Tehillim was over. In the back of his mind, the question that would bother most of us gnawed at him: Were they Jewish? They certainly did not appear to be. As my brother-in-law was about to depart from the subway at the 50th Street exit, he turned to the couple and instinctively said, "Gut Shabbos!"

Suddenly, as if a heavy cloud had been lifted from the man, his face lit up as he said, "That is the first time anyone has said that to me in years." Hearing this, my brother-in-law decided to remain on the train - even if it meant traveling to the Bronx and back. There began a conversation between a Bobover chasid and two alienated Jews, one of which had grown up in a "semi"-traditional family, but had been swept up in America's pop culture. The other one had never really been exposed to any form of tradition. They were two lost souls, waiting to be saved, but nobody had recognized them as Jewish. No one had taken the effort to care. My brother-in-law took a chance. The worst that could have happened is that they would have ignored him. Today, the couple is beginning to observe, to believe, to return to the heritage of their ancestors.

Avraham Avinu saw what appeared to be three Arabs. They were the most idolatrous of the pagan world - bowing down to the dust of their feet. Yet, the Patriarch did not prejudge them. He invited them into his tent and served them a hearty meal. After explaining to them that everything we possess is a service of the Almighty G-d, he asked them to join him in blessing Hashem. We all know the rest of the story.

It is so easy to prejudge others and to conjure up excuses about why they are not worthy of our time: "They are probably not even Jewish", "They are not interested," "Why bother"; "He is not my type," etc. Avraham succeeded because he did not prejudge. He reached out to everyone. The Pintele Yid is there. The spark is just waiting to be ignited.

After writing this, I saw a question along similar lines pondered by the Chafetz Chaim. Avraham was not the only oved Hashem, individual who served Hashem. There were others. Shem and Eivar were great men. They established a yeshivah which was the primary source of monotheistic education at the time. When Rivkah Imeinu was in need of spiritual counseling, she went to the yeshivah of Shem and Eivar. Yet, despite their efforts, they did not succeed in converting a nation or even a tribal family to monotheism.

The Chafetz Chaim attributes this anomaly to the premise that these spiritual leaders were concerned primarily with their own personal spiritual advancement. Whatever overflowed to others was to their benefit. Running a yeshivah for outreach purposes was not on their agenda. Avraham looked around and saw a world inundated with idolatry, submerged in debauchery, and living by a depraved standard of ethical values. Life revolved around the individual with selfish consistency. In order to change society's status quo, Avraham commenced on a program of outreach, which would acquaint the world community with Hashem, Who He was, and how much He cared about each and every creation! Vayikra b'shem Hashem, "Avraham called out in the Name of Hashem." He taught everyone about Hashem. This was the essence of his life.

This, explains the Chafetz Chaim, is the meaning of the pasuk, "For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him" (Bereishis 18:19). Avraham did not live for himself. His sole purpose in life was to spread the word of Hashem. This distinguished him from all the others, and this is why his legacy endured. He cared about the future of others; therefore, his future was ensured.

The Chafetz Chaim was like that, reaching out to anyone who would listen, caring about every Jew, regardless of how far he had drifted away from tradition, his blatant disregard notwithstanding. Even in his advanced age, feeble and weak, he would travel far distances by train for the opportunity to reach out to a Jew. Once, after taking a long, arduous journey by train to Horodna, the venerable sage remarked, "If someone were to grant me one hundred mitzvos for taking this journey, I still would not have endangered my health by traveling from Radin to Horodna. Since this trip involves the possibility of helping Torah dissemination, however, how could I refuse? If there is no Torah - there is no life. I must do everything within my ability to help Torah development." He made those remarks at a time in which the Chafetz Chaim was so old and ill that he had to be carried from the train to a waiting coach. He was no longer able to walk of his own volition.

The Chafetz Chaim related that he was once asked by one of the Torah leaders of the previous generation, who was surprised at the number of Jews who were distant from Torah, to explain the phenomenon. According to a passage in the Talmud Bava Metzia 85a, we are assured that Torah will never cease from our midst. In the Talmud Rabbi Parnach states in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: "If someone is a Torah scholar, and his son is a Torah scholar, and his son's son is likewise a Torah scholar, the Torah will not cease from his offspring forever." This is supported by the pasuk in Yeshayah 59:21, Vaani zos brisi - "And as for Me, this is My covenant… that the words that I have placed in your mouth shall not be withdrawn from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth's of your offspring's offspring… from this moment and forever!" This phrase teaches us, "I am a guarantor for you in the matter that the Torah will naturally come around to its home."

In other words, a home that has for three generations proven its commitment, by producing three generations of Torah scholars, becomes a home of Torah, and the Torah is naturally attracted to it. If this is so, who can be better models than the Avos, Patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, who were three generations of talmidei chachamim, Torah scholars. Why then does there exist the phenomenon in which so many Jews are alienated from Torah? What happened to Torah's natural habitat?

The Chafetz Chaim replied by applying a personal vignette. When he was younger, he traveled from city to city, selling the books which he had authored. Bookstores were not as popular then as they are today. He came to one community where he had been a number of times and knocked on a door - to no avail. He was surprised, because he had been there often, and the householder was always home. Apparently, this time was different, so he left.

"The same idea applies to Torah, as well," the Chafetz Chaim commented to the questioner. "The Torah returns to its natural home; it knocks on the door and waits to be admitted. It continues to wait, but if no one opens the door, it must go elsewhere. The Torah comes around, but it does not always gain entry. We must remember not to close the door on the Torah when it comes knocking!"

This is a valuable lesson worth remembering. When the door closes on the Torah, we are the ones who operate the mechanism.

Va'ani Tefillah

v'es rodfeihem hishlachta b'mtzolos k'mo even b'mayim azim.
And their pursuers You threw, like stones, into the shadowy depths of powerful waters.

In Shemos 15:5, Rashi distinguishes between three types of drowning suffered by the Egyptians. The most wicked among them were as straw, in that they were progressively stirred about, rising and descending; the average Egyptian went down as stone; and the relatively decent ones went down as lead, for they came to rest immediately. With this commentary in mind, we wonder why rodfeihem, their pursuers, who were certainly not the finest Egyptians, went down like stone? They should have been stirred around like straw. Furthermore, what is the meaning of "like stones"? Did they go down as stone or not?

Horav Chaim Kanievsky, Shlita, quotes the Talmud, in Bava Basra 73b which relates the "stories" of Rabbah bar bar Chanah. In the ninth story, they saw a certain tall bird whose ankles were in the water with its head reaching the sky. Seeing that only the ankles were in the water, they assumed that the water was not deep. A Heavenly voice warned them not to go into the water, not because the water was plentiful, but because it was torrential. The violence of the torrent did not allow anything to sink to the bottom. Hence, its shallow appearance. This teaches us that in water in which the torrent is extreme, a stone will be thrown around like straw, even though it is heavy. The Egyptian pursuers were "thrown around" like a stone in strong waters. Thus, these evil Egyptians suffered the punishment of going down like straw.

Dedicated in loving memory of our dear
father and grandfather
Arthur I. Genshaft
Yitchok ben Yisroel z"l
niftar 18 Cheshvan 5739
by his family
Neil and Marie Genshaft
Isaac and Naomi

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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