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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, saying, "After I have withered shall I again have delicate skin? And my husband is old!" (18:12)

Is it possible that Sarah Imeinu questioned Hashem's ability to produce a miracle? Certainly not! She simply did not believe that this was a Divine message. It was the courteous wish of a guest who was just being nice. Sarah had long passed her childbearing age. It would take nothing less than a miracle for her to give birth to a child. Had she known the true identity of these travelers, she would not have been so quick to laugh. Horav Mordechai Eliyahu, zl, has a different approach to the entire parsha, which I feel portrays Sarah in a positive light and teaches us an added dimension concerning her character.

Sarah was the epitome of integrity. This is indicated by the Torah's emphasis, Va'techacheish Sarah, "And Sarah denied" (that she had laughed). They had never before heard any form of prevarication from Sarah. Obviously, this was an isolated incident which is underscored. There must be more to it. The Rishon L'Tzion explains that, just as today there are support groups for many ailments and situations, women at that time must have similarly supported one another. Childless women must have provided solace for one another. A support group allows a group of people who are grappling with the same issues to come together, to talk, encourage one another. The group allows them a "release" from the general unintentional lack of sensitivity to those who have special needs, who have a family member in a special needs situation, or who have undergone a trauma which distinguishes them from others. People are not mean; some are insensitive or just plain thoughtless. The support group avails a person an escape from a society that is thoughtless.

A woman who is barren has a greater sense of compassion for another woman who is living through a similar situation. Sarah Imeinu was the rallying point for other women in her situation. Now, let us picture what must have taken place when Avraham Avinu shared with his wife the wonderful news of a child imminently joining their family. Sarah was ecstatic, but very demanding. She could not perceive herself as a mother with a child walking down the street, while all of her friends to whom she had been a tower of support continued to endure a life of pain and loneliness. She demanded that Avraham pray for all of the other women who were childless. If she was to be a mother - so, too, should they become mothers. Our Matriarch stood crying bitter tears before her husband: "Please, you must intervene on behalf of the others. My motherhood will only increase their pain." Avraham prayed, and when Sarah conceived, so did all of the other women who had until that time been barren.

When Sarah gave birth to Yitzchak, the air was filled with the sounds of infants crying, because when Sarah gave birth, so, too, did all of the other women. The joy was palpable. The entire region was awash with the joyful sounds of mazel tov! There was a problem, however. The litzanei ha'dor, skeptics of the generation, sick individuals who simply could not tolerate the good fortune of those who adhere to Hashem's command, did not believe in miracles. How could they? They did not believe in G-d! If there is no G-d, there can be no miracles. They conjectured that all of these women - including Sarah - had been ill with some undisclosed disease that had attacked the reproductive ability of certain women, thereby rendering them barren. It was no miracle. It was a medical breakthrough.

Such foolish talk, albeit nonsensical, can damage the minds of simple people, influencing them to believe the utter nonsense they were hearing. Hashem performed a miracle. In those days, there was no such "invention" as a baby bottle. An infant nursed from its mother. If this was not feasible, the mother would hire a wetnurse to nurse her child. Since so many women had babies all at once, certainly there was a shortage of wetnurses. To make matters more obvious, Hashem prevented the flow of mother's milk from all of the women other than Sarah, thus compelling all of the new mothers to turn to our Matriarch to sustain their babies. They said, "It is only in your merit that we have given birth, but now, we have no milk to nourish our children. Can you help?" Sarah nursed all of the children. This is what is meant by the pasuk (Bereishis 21:1), Heinikah banim Sarah, "Sarah would nurse children," - all of the children.

This could not go on forever. The women begged Sarah to pray for them - which she certainly did. A whole generation of barren women was now acutely aware of the miraculous births of their children. It was no medical breakthrough. It was the work of Hashem. Avraham and Sarah had intervened for them. Thus, a generation of pagans turned to Hashem with conviction when they were exposed to the truth.

It would be a sacrilege to You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the righteous along with the wicked; so the righteous will be like the wicked. It would be a sacrilege to You! Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?" (18:25)

Certainly, everyone at one point or another has wondered about the continued good fortune of the hypocrite, a person who is a self-professed tzaddik, publicly acting like a righteous, virtuous Jew, while covertly carrying out activities that are ethically and morally depraved. He is living a life of sham and piety. His only concern is about putting on a good show so that he can fool people. In the privacy of his mind and behind closed doors, he is a different person. He has no problem cheating others - regardless of their financial standing or positions in the community - including those with whom he uses his mock friendship to maintain appearances.

In his Responsa, Teshuvos Zayis Raanan, Horav Moshe Yehuda Leib, zl, m'Kutna, explains this anomaly. He begins by questioning the redundancy of the above pasuk. Why does Avraham Avinu repeat, Chalilah lecha, "It would be a sacrilege to You"? He explains that two types of tzaddikim are in the world. The first is the righteous person who is thoroughly righteous - in the eyes of Hashem and man - but, at least, in the eyes of Hashem. This is the real tzaddik: no airs, no show; simply a pious and virtuous person. The second type of tzaddik is the one who is outwardly righteous, presenting a picture of virtue to the outside world, while concealing the truth about himself: it is all a show.

This is what Avraham argued to Hashem. Hashem would not kill a tzaddik together with a rasha - even without my prayer. What is right is right. One cannot argue with this scenario. Concern arises when someone is k'tzaddik, like a tzaddik - but not thoroughly righteous. Concerning this, the k'tzaddik, like a rasha, makes sense. After all, he just appears to be a tzaddik. Nonetheless, chalilah lecha, "It is a sacrilege to You," because it will engender a chillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem's Name, since people who are unknowing will certainly complain and say, "Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?" We now understand the two "sacrileges" and, perhaps, we are now also able to come to terms with all of the sham tzaddikim who are availed the good fortune that should really be the lot the real tzaddikim. Regrettably, people are not usually able to discern the difference between the "chameleon" and the real thing, thus causing them to question Hashem when the imposter receives his due.

G-d remembered Avraham; so He sent Lot from amidst the upheaval. (19:29)

Lot was spared twice. First, he was taken captive by the four kings. From their perspective, he had a birds-eye view of Hashem's miracles, as Avraham Avinu with his makeshift army was able to vanquish the four mighty, bloodthirsty kings. Avraham came either with his trusted servant and student, Eliezer, or he rounded up 318 of his students and went to war. In any event, it was clearly a miracle in the merit of Avraham.

One would think that someone with a modicum of intelligence would realize this and repent. Not Lot. Forget about his sense of hakoras hatov, gratitude to Hashem and to his Uncle Avraham. Not Lot. He did not appreciate, nor did he repent. He did what he wanted. His desire for material wealth and a life of abandon overrode his sense of human decency. Repentance would be meaningless to the individual who is returning to a life of continued moral turpitude. So, he went to Sodom, the center of human indecency. Here, he would fit in perfectly - and he did.

Hashem was about to destroy Lot. Perhaps in Avraham's z'chus, merit, Hashem would once again spare Lot. Everyone is allowed one mistake. Lot should be no different, but he did it again. He allowed his taavos, passions, to get the better of him. His greed would not allow him to live comfortably in Sodom. When the father was an ingrate and a lecher who resided in a morally depraved community, it was no wonder that he produced two daughters who were responsible for the births of Ammon and Moav. These two nations also had no clue concerning the middah, character trait, of hakoras hatov. When the Jewish People were traveling in the desert and asked them for water, they refused. How easily they forgot their origins. Had our Patriarch Avraham not saved Lot, they would have been nothing more than a figment of imagination. They owed their very existence to Avraham. This did not seem to deter them.

One who is an ingrate is an extremely low level of humanity. People cannot deal with an ingrate. Whatever one does for him is never enough. It is all about taking, because he does not know the meaning of giving. This is why we may not accept converts from Ammon and Moav. Their gene pool is tainted with ingratitude. It does not affect the women, since they did nothing wrong. Klal Yisrael is founded and nurtured upon the middah of hakoras hatov. Thus, we cannot allow someone who is missing this vital spiritual chromosome from joining our People.

Lot's actions teach us another important lesson. The power of base desire is overwhelming. The hold it has over a person is compelling. Lot followed the pagans, turning away from Avraham - his benefactor, mentor and closest friend, only to rejoin the paganist belief which allowed immorality. When a person is blinded by his passions; when his vision is stigmatized by desire, he can stand in the presence of angels and still continue the life of a moral profligate. This was Lot. He went with Avraham only as long as Avraham was "going his way."

Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Yitzchak. (22:2)

In the preface to his commentary to Meseches Shabbos, Minchas Asher, Horav Asher Weiss, Shlita, writes that in the above pasuk, Hashem is spelling out to Avraham Avinu the principals upon - and manner in which - the Akeidas Yitzchak should be executed. He focuses on what many of us conceive as being the state of mind that permeated the two giants who took part in the Akeidah. Avraham and Yitzchak must have been on such an incredibly lofty spiritual plane, completely divested of any physical, mundane emotions which would have run contrary to Hashem's command to them.

Throughout the generations, the greatest, finest and most righteous have served Hashem under the most difficult and challenging conditions, both physically and emotionally, yet did so with unbelievable conviction and calm. They elevated themselves to the land of angels, whereby they were despoiled of their physicality. Should Avraham and Yitzchak be any different? Certainly not! After all, it had to start somewhere. The joy that must have been inherent in the holy Patriarch was unbelievable. This is what seems to have been, or, at least, we perceive that this must have been the case. Veritably, Chazal teach us that this was not the case. Rather, as they describe the scenario, we see an elderly Jew, broken-hearted, tears falling freely down his cheeks, a tormented man about to slaughter his only child, his future.

Indeed, the Midrash presents the following picture. Avraham reached out to take the slaughtering knife in his hand. As he positioned the knife over Yitzchak's throat, Avraham began to cry uncontrollably, and his tears, the tears of compassion for his child, fell on Yitzchak's eyes. Nonetheless, despite the outward display of sad emotion, Avraham's heart was filled with unbridled joy. Reading this Midrash, we wonder why Avraham was weeping so bitterly? He was carrying out Hashem's command. How could he be sad? Avraham approached serving Hashem much differently than we do. If his heart was filled with joy, it should have been manifest on his face.

Rav Weiss explains that, if Hashem had given Avraham permission to divest himself of all physicality, to elevate himself to the level of Malach Elokim, an angel of G-d, the Akeidah would not have been much of a nisayon, test. It would have been very easy for him to achieve and triumph over the test - because it would not have been a test! An angel has no emotions, therefore the filial, fatherly emotions that prevail in a "normal" situation would be no match for an angel. Hashem did not permit this. Avraham was to take this test as a man - not an angel.

Hashem said, "Please take your son, your only one, whom you love…Yitzchak… and bring him up there as an offering." Do not act like an angel. Act like a father whose only son, whom he loves with unparalleled devotion, is to be sacrificed. The Akeidah was to be a father's sacrifice - not an angel's sacrifice. Avraham was commanded to transcend the fatherly emotions and offer his son to Hashem amid tears and emotion, as would a father.

We have no conception of this form of nisayon. Essentially, it is impossible for two opposing emotions, joy and mourning, happiness and grief, to work in tandem within the same person in executing the same activity. Avraham led the way. He could do it. Although his eyes poured forth their tears, his heart reached the epitome of joy in serving his Master.

This, explains Rav Weiss, is the underlying meaning of Yitzchak's question of his father, "And Yitzchak said to Avraham, to his father, 'Father,' and he said, 'Here I am, my son.'" At first glance, Yitzchak's question makes no sense, nor does Avraham's reply. We now understand that Yitzchak was wondering, if in the course of carrying out the mitzvah, Avraham had ceased to be his father. Was he now an angel? Yitzchak asked, Avi, "My father? Are you still my father?" Avraham replied, Hineni beni, "(Of course) behold, my son!" I am still your father; I have not changed.

Horav Eliyahu Meir Bloch, zl, explains this attitude as intrinsic in the exhortation, V'ahavta es Hashem Elokecha b'chol levavcha, "Love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart." Rashi notes the word levavcha is actually written in the plural, rather than as b'chol libecha. From here we derive that one must serve Hashem b'shnei yitzrecha, with both inclinations - good and bad. Harnessing the evil inclination to serve Hashem is not easy, but whoever said that serving Hashem would be easy? It is demanding - as is anything which is important. The Rosh Yeshivah adds that b'shnei yitzrecha refers to one's emotions: sadness and joy. Just as one is to serve Hashem during periods of joy, so, too, must he serve his Creator during moments of pain and anguish. This is indicated by the halachah that if one's father passes away, the son recites the blessing, Baruch Dayan HaEmes, "Blessed is the Truthful Judge," as a way of proclaiming his acceptance of the Divine decree. He also recites, Baruch HaTov v'Hameitiv, "Blessed is the One Who is good and does good," since now he will inherit his father's material possessions. One must serve Hashem with all of his emotions - even if they contradict one another.

In the Toldos Admorei Bobov, an inspiring episode enables us to see this idea in action. The Bobover Rebbe, zl, Horav Shlomo, together with his son and successor, Horav Naftali, were in an underground bunker beneath a hospital in Grosswardein, Hungary. They were hiding in a room in which there was so little oxygen that the candles which they lit kept going out. The air was stale, and food was at a premium. When they were fortunate to obtain a piece of moldy bread, they quickly gulped it down. The men passed their time underground studying and teaching Torah and telling stories about righteous Jews of old. This made it easier for them to bear the ceaseless hunger.

The Rebbe originally had an old pair of Tefillin, which he continued repairing until the strap finally tore for the last time. He immediately burst into tears, "Now, I have lost yet another mitzvah when I have so few left." His misery was not long-lasting, as a gentile farmer who heard of his plight shared a secret with him. Apparently, earlier in the war, a Jew escaping the Nazis had left his brand new Tefillin with the gentile, telling him that one day he would be able to fetch a large sum of money for them. The Rebbe promised to pay him as soon as he made it across the Romanian border.

Two months later, however, the Rebbe was in Grosswardein, hiding from the Germans. He did have his precious Tefillin with him. He realized that, during the last few months, his young son, Naftali, had reached the age of bar mitzvah. It would be celebrated joyfully in the bunker in Grosswardein. He would wind the Tefillin on the arm of his son - the only survivor of his entire family.

Prior to the celebration, the Rebbe and his son endangered themselves by sneaking out of the bunker and heading for the hospital's showers. No mikveh was available to purify their bodies before putting on Tefillin. The showers would do. The Rebbe looked at his young son and, with fierce pride, he said, "You know, we are in danger of losing our lives. If they catch us, we will be immediately terminated, and there is no chevra kaddisha, Jewish burial society, to tend to our bodies. So, it is a good thing that we have cleansed our bodies."

He added, as if thinking out loud, "Who would have thought we would come to such a time when a bar mitzvah boy washes up equally for Tefillin and for his departure from this world?"

This is another example of b'chol levavcha - b'shnei yitzrecha.

For I know that you are a G-d-fearing man. (22:12)

This was the tenth test, following after nine tests which all had successful outcomes. Yet, only now, after the Akeidas Yitzchak, did Hashem ratify Avraham Avinu's commitment as a yarei Shomayim, G-d-fearing. If this is the case, what is the meaning of yerei Elokim, G-d-fearing? Does committing to the Akeidah manifest a greater sense of fearing G-d than walking into a fiery cauldron?

Horav Nachum Breslover, zl, teaches that one who does not possess an azus d'kedushah, a sense of resolute holiness, who is undaunted by those who stand in the way of his observance, who can transcend the taunts that they hurl at him and the obstacles they place before him, will slowly defer to the taunts and begin to relax his commitment to Hashem. Thus, one who lacks azus d'kedusha will not learn the way he is supposed to respond. Without learning, he will not possess chochmah, wisdom, and a man without wisdom has no yiraas Elokim, as Dovid HaMelech writes: Reishis chochmah yiraas Hashem, "The beginning of wisdom is fear of G-d" (Tehillim 111:10).

In his gloss to the first halachah of Shulchan Aruch, the Rema writes: "He should not be ashamed of those who seek to degrade him." Azus d'kedusha is the key to avodas Hashem, serving the Almighty. One who fears what people will say, who trembles when others poke fun at him, who takes to heart those who would do everything to prevent him from achieving success in his avodas ha'kodesh, actually does not have a chance for success; he has already capitulated. The Akeidah was an incredibly difficult trial, but what made it stand out more than the previous nine was the fact that after the deed was done, Avraham would have to return home and "face the music." The people would complain about the inconsistency of his teachings. He rejected human sacrifice; yet, he was prepared to slaughter his only son because G-d had commanded him to do so. He promoted marital harmony and respect; yet, he ignored his wife's pain and was prepared to slaughter his son. He declared that G-d was compassionate and loving; yet, this same loving, compassionate G-d had instructed Avraham to commit a brutal act. These are but some of the questions that would be posed to him by the people.

Avraham, however, did not care. His decision was based upon one factor: Hashem. Whatever the Almighty commanded him to do, he was prepared to carry out, regardless of what the critics would say. Some people live for the purpose of maligning others. They seek every opportunity to attack and revile what others do. Avraham Avinu was on a holy mission. What people said did not matter to him.

Va'ani Tefillah

b'shivtecha b'veisecha u'v'lechtecha va'derech u'b' shachbecha u'b'kumecha.
When you sit in your house, and when you walk on the road; when you lie down, and when you arise.

The necessity to make Torah an essential part of our everyday endeavor is herein underscored. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, explains the above four circumstances from a practical point of view. When one sits in his home, comfortably surrounded by all of its conveniences, recreational and relaxational appliances, he is apt to place Hashem on the "back burner." The Almighty will not be his priority. Thus, he is reminded that the home is also a place for speaking Torah. The other extreme is the road trip which exerts and raises one's anxiety level. Inconvenienced by the presence of strangers, sleeping in strange beds, living out of a suitcase, one might be prone to relax or even forget about Hashem. The Torah reminds him that a Jew may never forget, may never let his guard down.

The second set of circumstances involves the spirit - or emotional aspect - of a person. When one lies down, weary and dispirited, he has no desire to do anything but rest and forget about his responsibilities. This idea applies equally to the twilight of one's years, when in our senior years we tend to say, "Who cares?" We are hereby admonished that one who truly loves Hashem never rests from repeating His words. Likewise, when one arises in the morning full of pep and vigor, he is occupied with goals and aspirations for taking on the world and tackling all of its problems, as well as his own. He is so busy with his personal ambitions that he might forget Hashem. This applies also to the morning of one's life, in his youth, when he is so filled with life and material pursuits that the spirit is placed as a far second to everything else. He is hereby reminded that one must always repeat Hashem's words.

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

Neil and Marie Genshaft
Isaac and Naomi

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