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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Shall I conceal from Avraham what I do? (18:17)

For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of Hashem. (18:19)

The Torah relates that Hashem sent angels to Avraham Avinu to inform him of the Almighty's plan to destroy Sodom. Why were they sent to tell Avraham about the impending destruction? The Torah explains, Ki yedativ, "Because I have loved him," means because he [Avraham] teaches his offspring about Hashem, thereby encouraging them to observe His mitzvos. The reasoning begs elucidation. What relationship exists between the fact that he has dedicated his life to educating his children and the fact that Angels were sent to inform him of the impending destruction of Sodom?

The sons of the Chasam Sofer, zl, quote their father, who says that herein lies a significant principle concerning how a person should act in life. From the very beginning of Creation until Avraham Avinu, there were men who were G-d-fearing and clung to Hashem. There was someone as saintly as Chanoch, who ascended to Heaven alive, because he had reached such a pinnacle of sanctity that he could no longer remain in this world of physicality. Yet, we find that Avraham, father of our nation, did not achieve this apex of spirituality. This was, however, not due to any failing in his avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty. Indeed, had Avraham secluded himself as Chanoch did, he surely would have achieved angel-status.

Avraham realized that sealing himself in a room, secluded from the rest of humanity, would defeat his purpose in life: to reach out to the world and teach them about Hashem. He felt that he must somewhat diminish his personal service to Hashem, so that he could thereby magnify Hashem's Glory in the world. It was a major spiritual sacrifice on his part, but he was sacrificing for the sake of Hashem!

The Almighty responded favorably to this display of spiritual selflessness. He said, "Avraham did not of his own accord reach the level of prophecy by which he would be suitably fit for Me to reveal to him what I am about to do to Sodom, because he devoted his spiritual ascendancy instead to educating the world about Me. It is not right that he should lose out on prophecy as a result of his extreme devotion to Me." This is why Hashem informed Avraham about Sodom. The Chasam Sofer derives from here that Hashem will reimburse the individual who devotes himself to educating and reaching out to people for anything that he might have lost as a result of this "sacrifice."

The Chida writes in his Devash Lefi: "Heaven acts with a person commensurate with the way he acts with his family and his household."

Avraham came forward and said, "Will You even obliterate righteous with wicked?" (18:23)

Avraham Avinu took the decree to obliterate Sodom seriously. Indeed, Rashi teaches that the word vayigash, "and (Avraham) came forward," has three connotations - each one apparently applying to our Patriarch. We find "coming forward" used with regard: to war; to conciliation; and to prayer. Avraham undertook all of these approaches. He spoke strongly, arguing forcefully to establish his point; he appealed to Hashem to have mercy; and he prayed. He did all of this for the people of Sodom! Why? These were the most reprehensible people of the time. They made life miserable for anyone who had the misfortune to spend a day in their "welcoming" community. They tortured the poor and brutally killed anyone who lent them assistance. Yet, Avraham was prepared to speak forcefully with Hashem on their behalf. How are we to understand this?

Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, contends that this is the result of rachmanus, pure compassion. Unadulterated sympathy, selfless pity on another human being, knows no bounds. It traverses race, color and level of evil. Regardless of a person's background, the baal rachmanus, compassionate person, cares deeply about the welfare of the other and reaches out to assist him, regardless of his past, present or future. Right here and now, he is in need. Hashem was about to issue a decree against the Sodomites. Avraham was well aware of their history, their evil, their blatant cruelty to others less fortunate than they. Yet, he prayed for them. Why? He pitied them.

Truthfully, we should not be taken aback by Avraham's behavior. His compassion parallels that of Hashem, Who came to Avraham knowing that the Patriarch would speak in their defense. Hashem has compassion for all of His creatures, regardless of the unmitigating evil which some of them impose upon others. Avraham was only following suit.

If this is the case, why did Avraham not have the same compassion in his heart for the generation which built the Tower of Bavel? Chazal teach that the tower was built when Avraham was forty-eight years old. He saw what the people were doing, and he was acutely aware why they were building the tower, so he cursed them. He not only did not want them to succeed in building the tower, but he wanted to see them punished. Were they that much worse than the Sodomites for whom Avraham prayed?

Rav Sholom explains that the difference lies in the fact that Avraham saw with his own two eyes the sin which the dor haflagah had perpetrated. The sins of the Sodomites were hearsay, delivered by word of mouth from travelers. Additionally, Hashem informed him of their iniquity. At the end of the day, however, he did not actually see the Sodomites actively engaged in their nefarious behavior. Concerning the dor Haflagah, it was a different case altogether. He heard the tumult and saw the people building the tower. When one sees the sinner in action, it is much more difficult to justify his behavior, regardless of the spectator's level of compassion.

Perhaps we can offer an alternative reason for Avraham's lack of compassion for the dor Haflagah, although he had manifested incredible forbearance for the Sodomites. The sins were different. The Sodomites were terribly sadistic people. The lack of human decency and the brutality with which they treated the unfortunate person who fell into their hands were beyond cruel, but their deeds could somehow be defended, because to be such a victimizer one must himself have been a victim. A mean person must have been mistreated as a youth. A cruel person probably had once been the victim of cruelty. When the sin is one of inappropriate middos, defective character, there is always someone else upon whom to lay the blame. It may be compared to abuse in its many forms. The present-day abuser himself has at one time been a victim of abuse. Thus, it is not necessarily all his fault. There is room for compassion - regardless how far from deserving the sinner may seem to be.

The dor Haflagah was guilty of heresy. It was not the people's characters which were deficient; it was their minds. A person thinks what he wants to think, believes what he wants to believe. While it is true that environment plays a role in shaping one's thought process, an individual does not have to himself be a victim in order to victimize others. The evil of that generation was wrought against Hashem. Indeed, the people worked in a unified manner to build the tower upon which they would rebel against G-d. No mitigating circumstances warranted any sort of compassion for them. They were miscreants who deserved to be cursed, because they were undermining the Hand that was feeding them.

Avraham prayed to G-d, and G-d healed Avimelech… Hashem remembered Sarah. (20:17) (21:1)

Rashi notes the juxtaposition of Sarah Imeinu's conception and giving birth to Yitzchak Avinu upon Avraham Avinu's prayer on behalf of Avimelech. He explains that the Torah put this passage (Sarah's conception and giving birth) next to the incident of Avimelech to teach that whoever seeks mercy by praying for his friend, while he himself (the individual praying) needs that same thing (for which he is praying on behalf of his friend), he (the one praying), is answered first. Avimelech was in need - Avraham prayed for him; thus, he was answered by Hashem - before Avimelech.

Imagine two people who are waiting to be blessed with a child, or two people have similar diseases and are both gravely ill. Surely, both are praying to Hashem for themselves. What if one of them prays for the other one to be healed, to have a child - despite the fact that he himself is in dire need of a blessing? Hashem will listen to him - first!

The Sefas Emes derives an even stronger lesson from here. He explains that if a person prays for his friend despite his own need, Hashem will not listen to his friend's entreaty; he will be answered first. He explains it in the following manner. For Avraham, it would have been highly advantageous that Avimelech not be cured. As we find later on, the slander that was being popularized by the letzanei hador, the scoffers of the time, was that Avraham had not actually fathered Yitzchak. It was during her captivity in Avimelech's home that the king took advantage of her, and, thus, Yitzchak Avinu was really Avimelech's son - not Avraham's. So it would have been best for Avraham to see to it that Avimelech remain sick and unable to father a child. This was not our Patriarch. He did the correct and proper thing, regardless of the ramifications. The chips will fall where they may, but Avraham was not playing G-d. He overcame his personal need.

Likewise, we find Avraham Avinu "coming forward," Vayigash Avraham, to (as Rashi explains) argue forcefully, to ask for mercy and pray to Hashem on behalf of the Sodomites. Why should Avraham contend with Hashem concerning Sodom? What does Rashi mean when he says that vayigash Avraham, "Avraham came forward," denotes preparation for war? Whom was he fighting? Horav Zev Weinberger, Shlita, explains that Avraham was battling his own human nature, which saw good in everyone and sought every opportunity to engender chesed. Sodom was the complete antithesis of Avraham. For him to overcome his feelings toward them, his natural animus toward cruelty, was a great challenge. He did it because he was Avraham.

Furthermore, when Sarah weaned Yitzchak (b'yom higamal es Yitzchak) (the word higamal has varied connotations - one of them being that it was the day of Yitzchak's Bris Milah), Avraham invited the great leaders of the civilized world. Among them were Shem, Eivar and Avimelech. Why did he invite Avimelech? True, he was a powerful and distinguished leader, but his presence at Yitzchak's Bris only added fuel to the slanderous accusations that he was Yitzchak's real father.

Avraham took all of this into consideration, and he still prayed for Avimelech. The slanderer would continue slandering, regardless of Avraham's reactions. Such people live in the sewers of society and thrive in the dirt they spew. He was not going to refrain from praying for Avimelech, who was also in need. This is why the Patriarch earned the appellation amud hachesed, pillar of kindness. He performed kindness, not only when it was convenient or he could benefit in prestige or money. He acted with chesed, because it was the correct thing to do. He overcame his personal feelings and prayed for Avimelech, despite the possible negative consequence.

For G-d has heeded the cry of the youth as he is, there. (21:17)

Avraham Avinu had a son, Yishmael, who deviated from the derech, path, which his father had surely encouraged him to follow. Likewise, Yitzchak Avinu had a son, Eisav, who paved for himself a path to infamy. Two sons - two reshaim, wicked men; yet, Yishmael repented, while Eisav died as he had lived - a rasha. One might suggest that Yishmael was made of finer spiritual material, better middos, character traits. This is not true. The angel told Hagar that her son would be a pera adam, a wild man, similar to a wild donkey-- his hand in everything and everyone's hand against him. Yishmael would be a wild man, a bandit, reviled by everyone. This certainly does not speak well of his character traits. Indeed, the Chafetz Chaim, zl, addressed the concept of pera adam in association with the Arab riots of the late 1920's. These Arabs were a murderous scourge wreaking evil and brutality on any innocent person who happened to be in their way.

The sage disclosed that he would, indeed, have liked to go to Eretz Yisrael, but these people manifested a dual tzarah, trouble. He expounded that the angel designated Yishmael as a pera adam. The appellation seems to be presented in the wrong sequence. When we describe a person, he might be an adam savlan, patient man; adam ra, evil man; or adam kaasan, angry man; but, in all instances, the word adam precedes the epithet. Concerning Yishmael, it is the other way around; pera, wild, precedes the adam. The Chafetz Chaim explained that most people are first an adam, human being, and then the appellation follows, describing what kind of human being he is. Yishmael, however, was first a pera, wild animal. His humanness followed his savagery. The pera was his essence. The adam is the nickname. It is secondary to his savage nature.

As such, Yishmael the savage, despite growing up in Avraham's home, worshipped idols, murdered and plundered; he was driven away from home and went on to live in the wilderness as a thief who robbed travelers. Yet, later on in life, he repented.

Yitzchak's son, Eisav, seems to have been a much better-- certainly better behaved-- son. He respected his parents, yet went about his own way, as a hunter, philanderer, murderer, thief and idolater. Eisav took his evil to the grave. He never repented. What was the difference between these two sons who both had brothers that achieved the pinnacle of observance, reaching Patriarchal status? Their lives appear to have been similar. Yet, in death, one repented -and the other remained resolute in his evil.

The Alter, zl, m'Slabodka, Horav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, addresses this question. His response is compelling and certainly warrants its own discussion. He explains that the difference lies in the parental reaction to his son's evil. Avraham sent Yishmael away, despite the pain that this action incurred. Eisav continued to live at home, until that time that he chose to leave. At times, we must demonstrate that certain activities are unacceptable. It will hurt. It will appear to be cruel. It is what we might refer to as tough love. For the sake of the child, the parents have to make a painful decision. Yishmael finally came to terms with his iniquitous behavior, understanding that his father had done what was best for him, and, eventually, he repented.

Eisav had it all. He lived like the rasha that he was, yet remained home, seemingly not receiving any consequences or chastisement for his behavior. He probably thought that he had gotten away with it. Why, then, should he repent? After all, what did he do wrong? If he could pull the proverbial wool over his father's eyes, why could he not do the same to everyone else? Repenting is only for those who are weak at heart.

We elaborate on this concept of tough love, an idea that has been popularized by the secular world. As pointed out by Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, however, the concept of tough love heralds back to ben sorer u'morer, wayward and rebellious son, whose parents literally turn him into bais din, Jewish court, for punishment. As a practicing psychiatrist, Dr. Twerski states that the only way that a person who is plagued by an addiction will eventually be cured is through tough love. The parents, at times, must act as if they are insensitive and uncaring - when, in truth, they are tearing themselves apart. Hashem is all merciful. Yet, in the Torah, He advocates that the parents of the wayward and rebellious son take their child to court, which, likely, means having him executed. Hashem knows that the punishment is merciful in comparison to the alternative.

While the concept of applying tough love must be tailored to every case individually, at times it is necessary, but it should be carried out only under the advice of a competent, experienced professional. Every child is different; every situation is different. This is not a "one size fits all" cure. It is to be used only in extreme situations which call for such radical "therapy".

We are living during a period in which we see good boys and girls from wonderful G-d-fearing homes wandering off the path of observance. There is no longer such a phenomenon of a stereotypical family which has among its offspring a child whose sense of security has plunged so low that he or she must do "something else" to garner attention, to cry out from the pain they suffer. It can happen - and does happen - in the finest and the best families, that adolescents and teenagers, often in genuine distress, act out-- or act on-- their miseries. They feel a lack of acceptance in their community, their shul, their school, so they go elsewhere - where they feel secure. This is neither the place, nor the forum, for addressing the multifold issues involved. This is a job for the professionals far more qualified than I. While on the subject of Eisav and Yishmael and the concept of tough love, however, I reminded myself of a story I wrote a number of years ago, which has lost neither its impact nor its timeliness.

Parents never cease loving their child, despite the immeasurable heartache and agony they experience when the child rebels. Some parents are stronger than others; thus, they continue trying, hoping, long after the average person would have given up. The following letter was penned by someone who "made it back." It is a son's tribute to a father who suffered the agony, made a tough decision, and was fortunate enough to see that his everlasting love made a difference. The father refused to give up on his own son - even though, for all intents and purposes, the casual spectator looking through a myopic lens might not have thought so.

"Until a few years ago, I did not take anything seriously. I was not like the rest of my class. Having graduated from yeshivah high school, I was undecided about what to do next. I was neither interested in continuing my Jewish education, nor was I ready to begin college right away. I thought I would just drift around for a while and then get a job.

"My parents were obviously not very pleased with my decision, but, at that point, what my parents wanted did not carry much weight in my life. Regrettably, during this time, I fell in with a group of like-minded fellows who were not Orthodox. At first, I figured that they would not influence me, but I was dead wrong. It did not take long before I became like them: no interest in Judaism. Shabbos and kashrus became relics of my past. Indeed, my entire life became a haze: no direction, no meaning, no value.

"My parents were devastated. While they did not expect me to become a rabbi, they certainly did not expect this. As well as having destroyed my life, I was on the way to destroying my family. It got to the point that, due to the adverse influence I was having on my younger siblings, my father asked me to leave the house. When I moved out, I said some cruel and vicious things to my father. I can remember him standing silently by the door, with my mother crying at his side.

"Looking back, I realize that what I saw in them as a weakness was actually incredible strength of character. A year went by, and I had no contact with anyone in my family. I missed them very much, but I was afraid that, if I contacted them, it would be perceived as a weakness on my part.

"One morning, I was shocked to find my father standing outside the door to my apartment building. He looked at me with tired, worn eyes and asked if we could talk. I was stubborn and obnoxious. I only nodded. We walked to a corner coffee shop, where we sat down to talk. My father opened up. He said that everyone missed me and that, despite my absence, I had been in their hearts and minds every moment that I was gone. I saw the hurt in his eyes, eyes that had long ago stopped crying - because he had no more tears. He told me how my mother agonized over what had happened, blaming herself for not having been there for me. Why did he come? He came because he had one last request: no lecture; just one last favor. He wanted me to drive with him to Monsey, New York, to recite Tehillim at the grave of a certain tzaddik. I looked at him incredulously, and then he began to cry. Bitter tears streamed down his face, as he asked me to please grant him this one request. As far removed as I was from Yiddishkeit, I was still moved by his request.

"I told my father that that particular day was impossible, because I had plans to go with my friends to Atlantic City that night. I would go with him another time. He reached across the table and took my hands in his, looking at me with his tear-streaked, sad face. He said nothing - just stared and wept. I felt my own eyes begin to water, and - rather than have him see me cry - I just agreed to meet him later on that day.

"I made the necessary apologies to my friends. Atlantic City would have to wait. Later on that day, I drove with my father up to the cemetery in Monsey. We did not talk much during the trip. I remember getting out of the car with my father and walking over to one of the graves. He placed some rocks on top of the grave and gave me a Tehillim. Anybody who walked by would have seen a bizarre sight: my father - standing there in his long black frock, a black hat perched on his head; and me - with my leather bomber jacket and jeans. We did not stay long. Ten minutes is all it took, and soon we were on our way back. We talked as much on the return trip as on the way in - very little.

"My father dropped me off and walked me to my apartment building. I will never forget the words he told me that day. He said, regardless of what had occurred between us, and no matter what might happen in the future, I was always going to be his son, and he would always love me. I was emotionally moved by his words, but I did not manifest the spiritual inspiration that he hoped would occur that day. I shook my head at his words, and we parted company.

"The next morning I woke up to some shocking news. On their return trip from Atlantic City, my friends had been involved in a head-on collision with a tractor-trailer rig. They did not survive the accident. Had I not gone with my father that day, I would have been in that car.

"As I write this letter, I am overwhelmed with emotion. I made a Bris for my bechor, firstborn, today. My father was sandek, and, as he held my son on his lap, our eyes met, and we smiled. It was as if we had finally reached the end of a long arduous journey.

"We have never talked about that trip to the cemetery; nor did I ever tell my father about my friends' untimely death. I just walked into their home that evening and was welcomed with open arms. No questions asked, no accusations, no answers. I just know that, sitting here late at night with my son in my arms, I will try to be the father to him that my father was to me."

Returning to our original question, we may suggest another difference between Eisav and Yishmael. Shlomo Hamelech says (Mishlei 19:25), "When you smite the scorner, the na?ve one will become prudent." There is a leitz, scorner, whom the Midrash (Rabbah Shemos 27:6) says refers to Amalek; and a pesi, imprudent one, whose sin is different, and thus, does not require the same punishment. Why is Amalek referred to as a leitz? He is the archetype of evil; a rasha - not a leitz.

Horav Yitzchak Hutner, zl, explains that a leitz is someone who looks for a weakness in any edifice/organization/endeavor of importance with the express goal of demolishing the entire structure. Amalek, who "coincidently" was Eisav's grandson, sought to undermine the miracles Hashem wrought for us, to transform that which was significant and compelling into something inconsequential. Maharal explains that Amalek personifies a nation that takes reality and divests it of its distinction, converting it into nihility, casting it to oblivion.

Amalek inherited the denigration gene from his grandfather, Eisav. The very significance of a person meant nothing to him. His persona pompously gave him the platform from which to expound and put down anyone and everything. He did not necessarily act sinfully. He first transformed his desired activity into something "good." So, why should he repent?

Yishmael, on the other hand, was a pesi, an imprudent son, who acted without thinking; albeit acting out his evil fantasies, he did not live for the express purpose of committing evil for evil's sake. He had his desires which he sought to satisfy. If, in the course of carrying them out, he broke the law and someone was hurt - too bad. He did not care - but, unlike Eisav, he did not plan it this way. He was simply imprudent - a pesi. At the right time, in the proper venue, he would repent.

V'lo sasuru acharei levavchem v'acharei eineichem.

Horav Tzvi Hirsch, zl, m'Ziditchoiv, quotes an inspiring exposition from his Rebbe. V'lo sasuru; the word sasuru may be derived from tatiru, to permit. The Torah is admonishing he who has followed his heart's directive to return to Hashem. He should not say, "I sinned; I went too far; I cannot go back." As a result of the ensuing depression which is often the consequence of sin, the sinner becomes convinced that he might as well permit himself to do whatever he wants. He has regrettably undone the bond that attaches him to Hashem. By following his heart, he has broken the relationship that he had established with the Almighty. He might as well continue with his wretched life as a sinner. V'lo sasuru teaches: Do not permit yourself to fall into sin by deferring to your depression. Repent - return - come home. If you are sincere, Hashem will embrace you.

The Chidushei HaRim makes a similar statement. Regardless of what we have done, our deference to the passions of the heart and allure of the eyes should not be a reason for yiush, hopelessness. A spark of holiness is always left within every Jew. By igniting that spark, we will be able to fulfill the mandate of not giving in to our heart and eyes.

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

Neil and Marie Genshaft
Isaac and Naomi

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