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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And Sarah laughed at herself. (18:12)

What if the fifty righteous people should lack five? Would You destroy the entire city because of the five? And He said, "I will not destroy if I find there forty-five. (18:28)

Simchah, joy, plays a significant-- almost critical role-- in our avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty. Without simchah, we are unable to sustain a meaningful and enduring relationship. The ultimate goal of a Jew is to bond with Hashem. Without joy, this is impossible, since the Shechina cannot rest in a place of atzvus-- loosely translated as sadness-- but as the Baal HaTanya defines it, a total absence of feeling. A sad person has feelings. A person in atzvus is mute, without emotion. This is why simchah and sadness can coexist, such as on Tishah B'Av. They are both emotions which are realized at different stages. While we might view simchah as an added quality in avodas Hashem, it is actually much more. Avodas Hashem without simchah is integrally lacking. It is diminished. It becomes a drag - something one must do - rather than something he wants to do and enjoys doing.

Two unrelated exegeses underscore the conclusive benefits of simchah. It is related that the daughter of Horav Shmuel, zl, m'Kominka, was childless for many years. She had prayed fervently to Hashem to be blessed with a child - to no avail. Once, when her father was out of town, Horav Rafael, zl, m'Barshad, visited the town of Kominka. The young woman asked to see the tzaddik, righteous person. After pouring out her heart to him, she petitioned his blessing for a child. Rav Rafael listened to the woman and replied, "A segulah, special remedy, for having children is simchah." When Rav Shmuel returned home, his daughter related to him what Rav Rafael had said. He immediately replied that this idea may be derived from three areas in Tanach - Torah, Neviim and Kesuvim.

The Torah tells us Va'yitzchak Sarah, "And Sarah laughed." This may be interpreted as the catalyst for her blessing of a child. Since she expressed herself joyfully, it served as a segulah for her. In the Navi Yeshaya 54:1, the Navi says, Rani akarah lo yaladah, "Sing out, O' barren one." If the woman is barren, a solution to her problem would be rani, "sing out" with joy, and Hashem will listen. Last, we find in Kesuvim, Tehillim 113, Moshivi akeres ha'bayis - eim ha'banim s'meichah, "He transforms the barren wife into a glad mother of children." How is the barren woman transformed? By being glad, she will become a mother of children.

Rav Shmuel's daughter was herself a very erudite woman, quite well-versed in Torah. She asked her father, "If this is the case, why did Hashem question Sarah's laughter? Why was He bothered by her reaction? She was only expressing joy as a form of segulah for her predicament." Her father replied, "A segulah is applicable under such circumstances as when a tzaddik issues a blessing. The segulah will support his blessing. When Hashem Himself renders the blessing, one does not need any other assurances. His blessing needs no support."

The second exegesis focuses on Avraham Avinu's advocacy on behalf of the "righteous" of Sodom. He asked Hashem if there were to be only fifty minus five, or forty-five righteous individuals in Sodom, whether Hashem would annul His decree. Hashem replied in the affirmative. The Imrei Chaim, zl, m'Vishnitz, renders this pasuk homiletically. The word chamishah, five, has the same Hebrew letters as simchah. Avraham asked Hashem, "If there are fifty righteous people in Sodom, but they are lacking in simchah/chamishah, will You still destroy the city?" Hashem replied, "I am not mevater, yielding, concerning the attribute of simchah. Even if there are (only) forty tzaddikim (not fifty), but they are b'simchah; if joy is a part of their outlook and demeanor, I will repeal the decree."

And Avraham will surely become a great and mighty nation… for I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him. (18:18,19)

The pasuk seems to imply that Avraham Avinu's z'chus was primarily due to the impact he was to make on future generations-- his adherence to the Mesorah, transmission of our heritage, throughout the generations. This is enigmatic. Is Avraham not worthy of his own accord? He was: the first one to recognize Hashem; the individual who was willing to die in a fiery furnace for his convictions; the one who stood up against an entire pagan society to preach monotheism. I think that it is quite a r?sum? to consider. Is Avraham's only merit the fact that he would pass it all onto the next generation? Horav Yosef Chaim, zl, m'Bagdad, the Baal Od Yosef Chai, explains this matter. He begins by citing Chazal who compare tzaddikim, righteous people, to trees, quoting David HaMelech in Sefer Tehillim 92, "A righteous man will flourish like a date palm, like a cedar in the Lebanon he will grow tall." In contrast, reshaim, wicked people, are likened to grass, once again quoting David Hamelech (Ibid) "When the wicked bloom like grass."

The difference between trees and grass is that a tree has deep roots. What appears above the ground is only part of the entire tree. Concerning grass, however, what you see is what you get. It does not have such penetrating roots. A rasha is very much like grass. What you see is all that exists. In other words, the rasha lives, then dies, and is forgotten about. He does not have roots. There is nothing enduring about him. His life having been lived is over - and so is he. Nothing remains, but a wasted life of evil.

The tzaddik is compared to a tree, because his life does not end with the grave. There is much more to a tzaddik's life than what we see before us. It has deep roots that penetrate far beneath the soil in every direction. His children carry on his legacy, reflecting his lofty character traits and teachings long after he is gone. Likewise, his students and their students are all a positive reflection of their mentor's impact. Yes, the tzaddik is very much alive,even after his soul has gone on to the World of Truth.

Chazal (Bava Basra 116a) distinguish between David Hamelech's passing, which is described in the Navi as shechivah, resting; and Yoav ben Tzruyah's passing, which is referred to as missah, death. David left a successor for his position, a son who would follow in his noble ways. Therefore, David's passing is only considered "resting." He may not be physically active, but his legacy lives on. Yoav did not leave progeny to carry on after him. Thus, the Navi considers him dead in the full sense of the word.

We now understand why Avraham's ability to transmit to the next generation is what merited him to be the progenitor of a large nation. The Torah is not addressing the present. Clearly, Avraham was a great individual whose character and conviction were without equal. The Torah is addressing the future generations: V'Avraham hayo yiheyeh l'goi gadol. "And Avraham will surely become a great and mighty nation." The double wording hayo yiheyeh is used to underscore two havayos, presences, of Avraham: now, during his lifetime; and later, in the future when he will be gone. There is a revealed aspect to Avraham, which, like a tree, is seen by everyone who comes in contact with him. There are also the roots, the concealed impact on his progeny and myriad students, something which is seen even after the Patriarch takes leave of his mortal remains. On the contrary, this is the way to truly describe a tzaddik: by his enduring impact on future generations.

Because the outcry of Sodom and Amorah has become great, and because their sin has been very grave. (18:20)

The outcry of the victims of Sodom's physical and mental abuse was too much. The tears of the oppressed seeking liberation from their misery had reached the Heavenly sphere. The Talmud Sanhedrin 109b cites a number of cases depicting the perverted sense of justice which characterized Sodom. One of the more infamous decrees was the Sodom approach to hospitality. In fact, the "Sodom bed" has become a catchword for describing a situation where something is made to fit - regardless of its size. The custom was that, when a visitor came to Sodom, they would lay him down on a bed to be measured. If he was too long, he was surgically shortened. If he was too short, he was stretched. In any event, visiting Sodom was not encouraged. In another case, a young girl who had given alms to a poor man was sentenced to death via an extremely cruel method. After all is said and done, Sodom was a depraved place, inhabited by individuals who were clearly out of their minds. Can a significant lesson be derived from this parsha?

Horav Arye Leib Bakst, zl, explains that the Sodomites were far from insane. Indeed, they were very normal - but very wicked people. They maintained a depraved philosophy on life which served as the cornerstone of interrelationships with people. They felt that every person should be made to stand on his own two feet - by himself - without assistance of any kind. Seeking communal assistance was a terrible failing which bespoke a person plagued by weakness. They eschewed the concept of charity, with taking from charity considered to be an unpardonable anathema. Such a person was censured and held in contempt.

Having a philosophy, maintaining it, and seeing to it that it is accepted become the prevalent lifestyle of Sodomite society. By finding extreme ways for compelling people to do things on their own, the people of Sodom established, maintained and assured the acceptance of their desired lifestyle. Refusing all acts of chesed, lovingkindness; rejecting any opportunity for doing good and helping others, were the primary methods used by Sodom's board of governors to train its citizens from early youth to be self-sufficient and to avoid any manner of living off anyone's assistance. By taking matters to the extreme, they felt they would inculcate the citizenry with a disdain for anything but self-sufficiency. The Rosh Yeshivah feels that the Sodomite extreme has wormed its way into the Torah society. How often do we hear well-meaning parents and communal leaders decrying the fact that the Yeshivos and Kollelim are not providing educational opportunities for their young men to earn a living? "Should he be relegated to live off the assistance of others? Should my son grow up to be a beggar? I refuse to have my son support his family on charity." They feel that everyone should do his part to provide for his family and that living "on the dole" is demeaning and counterproductive. Is this any different than the Sodomist perspective on life?

Rav Bakst cites Rabbeinu Yonah in his Shaarei Teshuvah 3:15, where he writes: "We find that the people of Sodom were very evil, with a number of wicked practices being attributed to them… Yet, at the end, they were destroyed because of their nullification of the mitzvah of tzedakah." Their refusal to assist others was their death sentence. One who does not involve himself in acts of chesed is acting contrary to the raison d'etre of the Creation of the world. Olam chesed yibaneh, "Forever your kindness will be built," or, loosely translated, "The world will be built on kindness." The world can only continue to exist upon a foundation established through the principle of kindness. When people live only for themselves the world cannot endure, because, at one time or another, people do need each other.

Avraham Avinu built his mission on the attribute of chesed. He then transmitted it to his descendants, so that a love of chesed would be part of their DNA. Chesed was the vehicle by which he engendered spirituality within the Jewish people. When we realize that it is not all "about us," it comes to our attention that we have responsibilities in life, to one another - and to Hashem.

I think there is another aspect to chesed that is important. Without chesed, one cannot grow. With acts of chesed, the indivdual grows exponentially, commensurate with the acts of chesed. In Divrei HaYamim (1:4:10) we find a prayer articulated by an individual whose name was Yaavetz. He asks the Almighty for blessing, using the following prayer, "If You will bless me and extend my borders." He basically is petitioning Hashem for two blessings: to be blessed and to be extended. Why? Horav Tzadok HaKohen, zl, m'Lublin, explains that we often notice people who have been blessed with incredible blessing and unbelievable bounty, but, regrettably, have no idea how to deal with their gifts. Their concept of tzedakah remains on the same level as when they were poor. Their concept of sharing and helping others has not been altered from the time that they lived as hermits. They are ill-equipped for the blessing. They are literally small, simple people with large bank accounts who have no clue that ,with blessing, life must change radically.

We see it all the time, when small people, simple people win a lottery and spend the money on themselves, on items that have very little lasting value. They are soon back where they had been before winning the lottery. Sports figures who are venerated by a generation of fools, who have no concept of the meaning of true success, provide models of small people who do not qualify for blessing. Their large pay checks are soon spent on frivolous matter, leaving them with no enduring livelihood.

This was Yaavetz's prayer. He asked that he, too, be expanded with the blessing. To receive great blessing, but remain a small person, defeats the purpose of blessing. He asked to be equipped to appreciate and make proper use of the blessing. In the Talmud Temurah 16a, Chazal expound on Yaavetz's prayer. "If you bless me with Torah; if I will become a great Torah scholar, then bless me also with students to teach, who will imbibe my Torah teachings. By giving to others, I will myself become bigger." This is how one grows: by sharing what he has with others. Without sharing, one continues to remain the same as before - no change, no growth.

Anyone with a modicum of intelligence realizes the truth of this idea. One who retains everything for himself will not grow. He will continue to be diminutive. Those of us who have had opportunity to expand our horizons by reaching out to others-- by being involved in acts of chesed, by teaching, by parenting-- understand the incredible metamorphosis which has taken place in our lives, in our psyche.

Who does not have a friend, classmate, or neighbor who years ago was mediocre at best? Suddenly, upon meeting him or her some thirty-years later, we wonder what happened. How did he or she become so successful? How did he or she blossom so much? We never knew that he or she had that in them. Wow!

Their horizons expanded and, with the added perspective,they accepted greater responsibility. It all came with the territory. Yosef HaTzaddik was not recognized by his brothers. Did his facial appearance change that much? Was his countenance altered by time to the point that these astute Shivtei Kah, future Tribes of Hashem, could not discern that it was Yosef that was standing before them?

They remembered another Yosef: a seventeen-year-old who went around tattling and worrying about his appearance. He would spend time combing his hair, something an individual who was a monarch, a world leader, who held the keys to the world food bank, would never do. It could not be Yosef. This individual who stood before them was as far removed from the Yosef that they remembered as a distinguished, well-bred diplomat was from an illiterate, uncouth village ruffian. No way could this be that Yosef.

But it was. The Shevatim were unaware of Yosef's travails, his many challenges and adversities. His tribulations demanded growth, maturity and acumen, all latent qualities possessed by Yosef, which had been dormant. There had never been a demand for them to surface. When Yosef became a world leader with the responsibility of feeding the world community, his horizons expanded. The imposition of the middah of chesed upon him catalyzed his growth. He became a different person.

Olam chesed yibaneh. The world grows on chesed. The more we do for others, the greater we become. Avraham taught us: If you want to grow, to be great, you must expand your horizons by doing for others. As you share with them, Hashem will provide you with more. The greater the expenditure of tzedakah v'chesed, the greater will be the income. Try it and see for yourself.

The child grew and was weaned. Avraham made a great feast on the day Yitzchak was weaned. (21:8)

Rabbeinu Bachya writes that, while the world custom is to celebrate the day of child's birth with a seudah, festive meal, or do the same on the day of his son's Bris Milah, Avraham Avinu waited until Yitzchak was weaned and ready to study Torah. Why? He suggests that it was at this point that the Patriarch initiated Yitzchak in Talmud Torah. After Yitzchak was weaned, Avraham felt that the time had come for his son to commence his Torah studies. This was the day of true joy. Pikudei Hashem yesharim mesamchei lev, "The orders of Hashem are upright, gladdening the heart." Avraham waited to celebrate his son's birth and his entrance into the Covenant of Milah simultaneously, at the point of his most joyous and momentous occasion: when he began to study Torah.

A father's greatest moment is when his son begins to study Torah. It is the moment of dreams: the anticipation, the yearning, all coupled together with the notion that this is the moment of true fatherhood. The torch is being passed on. The legacy continues. While there is undoubtedly much joy felt and exuded during all of life's milestones, they do not compare to the inner joy a parent feels to see the purpose of his life achieving fruition. The spiritual joy emanating from such a sublime moment captivates the parent as nothing else does. Indeed, this is the primary and enduring sense of joy that a parent experiences with regard to his son.

G-d tested Avraham. (22:1)

Chazal tell us that Avraham Avinu was tested ten times by Hashem. It seems strange that the Patriarch had to prove himself so many times. One test should have sufficed. If he passed, it indicated that he believed, that he was committed. What more is necessary? Indeed, Chazal teach us that the Akeidas Yitzchak, Binding of Yitzchak, was the most difficult test, and it was through this test that Avraham successfully completed his trial period. He was "in." If the Akeidah was the turning point, if it was the final indication, why did Hashem not just simply test Avraham with the Akeidah?

Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, derives an important lesson from here. A man may exist who, for all intents and purposes, is a great man, but this does not detract from the fact that he could have one area in which he is deficient. On the one hand, he is a great man - a giant; on the other hand, in only one area, he is puny, deficient, small. Is it a contradiction? The Mashgiach says, "No." It is not necessary to qualify the paradoxes of human nature, because this is the composition of man. He is filled with contradiction. The good does not compensate for the bad. They are part and parcel of the same individual. In fact, Chazal teach us this lesson when (Sanhedrin 74a) they apply this idea to the seminal pasuk, "Love Hashem with all your heart, all of your soul and all of your money." Why is it necessary to mention all three? Chazal explain that there are people for whom money takes precedence over their lives, and vice versa. There may be an individual who is very pleasant, never loses his temper. He is, however, quite frugal when it comes to sharing his wealth with the poor. He must work on his chesed/tzedakah issues. The list goes on. We all know someone who lives a contradiction. He is normal. Human beings are filled with contradiction. Hashem has provided each and every one of us with the opportunity for growth, the opportunity to change something about ourselves, because we are not perfect.

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

The nisayon, trial, of Akeidas Yitzchak, the Binding of Yitzchak, was the greatest of the ten trials which our Patriarch, Avraham Avinu, underwent. His triumph over the various challenges to his faith and his emotions, both as a father and as the first Jew, serves as a paradigm for-- and major intercessor on behalf of -- his descendants. The Akeidah epitomizes the Jew's determination to serve Hashem, despite his difficult circumstances. Pesikta Rabbasi teaches that the Akeidah took place on Rosh Hashanah. For this reason, it serves as the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. That, together with the various tefillos, prayers, which refer to the Akeidah, all serve as interveners, recalling Avraham's superhuman act of devotion. In his merit, we ask we be pardoned and Hashem to continue to sustain us.

I have always been bothered that on the day that we ask for life, we recall an act of devotion that was about to end life. Is this not a bit ironic, almost self-defeating? Furthermore, the Akeidah is considered the ultimate test of the "ten." Why? What about Avraham's being flung into a fiery furnace? That surely was not a trial to ignore. Yet, it lags far behind the Akeidah. According to Rashi, it is number two on a scale of ten. Should not Avraham's willingness to risk his life for Hashem not receive greater acclaim? It is almost as if Avraham had simply been doing that which was expected of him. I recently came across a powerful analysis by Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, concerning the episode in the Talmud Menachos 29b which relates Moshe Rabbeinu's dialogue with Hashem concerning the proper s'char, reward, to be accorded to the Tanna Rabbi Akiva. Chazal relate that Moshe was overwhelmed by Rabbi Akiva's knowledge and his ability to derive novella from the crowns affixed to the letters of the Torah. He asked Hashem, "Show me his reward." Whereby Hashem showed Moshe how Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death by having his flesh torn off his body with metal combs. His corpse was then cut up and sold in the marketplace. When Moshe saw this, he was appalled. Zu Torah, v'zu s'charah? "This is Torah, and this is its reward?" Hashem's response was, Shsok, kach alah b'machashavti, "Be silent! This is what has been My line of thinking." Basically, Hashem told Moshe that the reason behind what appeared to be this gruesome and humiliating form of punishment was beyond Moshe's ken.

It is notable that,when Moshe saw Rabbi Akiva's torture, he did not ask any questions. It was only after he saw his flesh being weighed in the marketplace that he became disconcerted. Was Rabbi Akiva's death not sufficiently disturbing that it would engender questioning? Rav Shach explains that Moshe understood that there is no greater reward than meriting to leave this world Al Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying Hashem's Name. This is the ultimate service to Hashem. Indeed, Rabbi Akiva himself declared to his students, "All my days I was troubled about when I would have the opportunity to fulfill the mandate of loving Hashem with all my heart and soul." He had reached the pinnacle of a life devoted to Hashem.

When his flesh was sold in the marketplace, however, it was too much. It was a chillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem's Name. The denigration of such an illustrious Torah leader was too much to bear. Moshe cried out, "Is this Torah? Is this its reward?"

What a powerful lesson the Rosh Yeshivah is teaching us concerning the manner in which a Jew should live. Avraham Avinu walking into the fiery furnace was the ultimate Jewish experience. It was the zenith of service to Hashem. He was doing that which was expected of him. This is the meaning of living as a Jew. Only a Jew who is prepared to die as a Jew really lives as a Jew!

On Rosh Hashanah, we recall the Akeidas Yitzchak, which is Yitzchak's mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice. We are telling Hashem, "Yes - we are prepared to die as Jews." Thus, we are deserving of living as Jews. In the merit of our Patriarchs, who understood the depth of love that one should manifest for the Almighty, we ask that He grant us a year blessed with life, so that we may be able to sanctify our lives for Him. To live for Hashem is to be prepared to die for Him.

Va'ani Tefillah

HaMeir laaretz v'ladarim aleha b'rachamim. He Who gives light to the earth and all its inhabitants, with mercy.

Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, notes that even in the area of beneficence the benefactor has the option to do what he wants, how he wants, and when he wants, with complete disregard for the needs and feelings of the beneficiary. Hashem provides the world with light. It is the earth's great blessing. He gives it in such a manner, however, that all of its inhabitants derive its benefit. This is executed with utmost mercy, with consideration for the feelings of its beneficiaries. A landlord may decide to fix his apartment's roof at a time convenient for him, but inconvenient for the tenant. Thus, we add, "its inhabitants," for they are the purpose for which the earth was created. In addition, this service is carried out "with mercy." The sun does not rise suddenly in the midst of darkness. The earth's movement causes a gradual change from darkness to light, that neither are one's eyes damaged, nor is anyone startled by the sudden change. Water does not pour from the clouds in heavy torrents, but in small drops, so that the rain can be tolerated. Everything that Hashem does is for us.

Dedicated in loving memory of our dear
father and grandfather
Arthur I. Genshaft
Yitchok ben Yisroel z"l
niftar 18 Cheshvan 5739

Neil and Marie Genshaft
Isaac and Naomi

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