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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Hashem appeared to him…while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent. (18:1)

Rashi's commentary to this pasuk is well known. Hashem appeared to Avraham Avinu, visiting him during the Patriarch's recuperation from his Bris Milah. It was the third day following the circumcision, a day which is especially painful, so Hashem was mevaker choleh, visited the sick. Rashi's source is Chazal, who laud the exalted nature of this mitzvah. While everyone agrees that this mitzvah is meaningful, both to the beneficiary and benefactor, it is also a source of incredible reward to the individual who fulfills it.

The Sefer HaMiddos writes concerning the mitzvah of bikur cholim: "In the merit of bikur cholim, one will not leave this world amidst yisurim, pain and suffering." The reason for this is quite simple: The individual who alleviates another Jew's pain in some way will have his own pain alleviated. Hashem does not allow for any good deed to go unrequited. We are rewarded for the good we do for others, b'middah k'neged middah, on the scale of measure for measure. Bikur cholim is a prime example.

I think that a deeper meaning can be attributed to the Sefer HaMiddos' statement. We all accept that one who visits a sick person alleviates his pain in some way. As a result, he will not suffer when the time for his departure from this world arrives. It is "tit-for-tat", by doing for someone else one garners reward for himself. Perhaps there is much more to this. When one empathizes with the pain endured by the choleh, he also experiences pain. He feels sad, miserable, hurt that his friend is suffering. It takes a personal toll on him. Thus, since he has already suffered, he no longer is required to suffer for his own sake.

In other words, one does not simply visit the sick and then go about his day with business as usual. To visit, be mevaker, a sick person means to take something of the choleh back with him, to empathize with his predicament, to somehow feel his pain. Otherwise, it is a simple visit for which he will certainly be rewarded, but he is losing out on the depth and true meaning of the mitzvah.

I just came across a story I wrote a number of years ago which supports this idea. Horav Sholom Dov Ber, zl, m'Lubavitch, was deeply engrossed in study as his young son slept in his crib in an adjacent room. The infant began to cry, but his father was so involved in his learning that he did not hear the child's cries. The child's grandfather, the venerable founder of Chabad chassidus, the Baal HaTanya, zl, lived one floor above them. He was also studying Torah. Yet, he was able to hear his grandson's cries. He immediately went downstairs and discovered that the infant had fallen out of his crib. He picked up the child, took him into his arms and began to soothe him until the child fell asleep, after which he placed him back in the crib. He later went over to his son and said, "Torah study should not be an excuse for not hearing the cry of another fellow in need. Regardless of his age, you must reach out to him."

The above story is not a bikur cholim story. I write it because it is a story which defines how a Jew is to act. We all perform many acts of kindness. How do these acts of chesed affect us personally? Do they make us better, more caring people? As a result, have we developed greater sensitivity to the plight of those less fortunate than we are? How often do we really get involved in the acts of chesed to the point that they are on our minds all the time?

When we visit someone who is sick, it is often on automatic pilot. Everyone is busy; we all have places to go and things to do. Believe me, the fellow whom we are visiting wishes that he had things to do and places to go - and that he was able to go! It is all about listening, raising our awareness and empathizing with those in need. It makes such a difference, and quite possibly, it will be a z'chus that we will never have to undergo such travail personally.

And Hashem said, "Shall I conceal from Avraham what I do, now that Avraham is surely to become a great and mighty nation?" (18:17, 18)

Hashem informed Avraham Avinu, that He was about to destroy the city of Sodom. Its community of sinners had gone too far, elevating sin to the level of cultural acceptance. It had become a way of life. The Torah teaches that Hashem's intention in notifying Avraham of His plans was to inform Avraham about his future as Patriarch of a large nation. Is this the reason that Hashem informed Avraham of His plans? True, Hashem wanted Avraham to pray for the people of Sodom, to teach the Patriarch the significance of prayer and its ability to rescind a decree - even when it appears to be too late. In this situation, however, Hashem knew that Sodom lacked the minimum number of righteous persons to ward off the decree. So why bother to pray? Hashem could have taught Avraham the significance of prayer in any other of a number of instances - ones in which prayer seemed to have greater efficacy than it would have for Sodom.

The Maggid, zl, m'Dubno explains this with his inimitable mashal, analogy. Each of two men asked the salesman to give him a suit to fit his son. The salesman was quick to respond by asking for the boys' sizes. The first father was clueless as to what size the boy wore. He began to describe his height and weight and body build. Being a professional, the salesman instructed the father to go home, pick up his son and return to the store for a fitting. He was not taking chances by selling him a suit for a boy, sight unseen.

The second father also sought a suit for his son. While he did not know his son's size either, he claimed it would not present a problem. Apparently, he had a number of sons of different sizes. He would take a few suits. Whatever did not fit one son would fit another.

Likewise, Hashem sought Avraham Avinu's prayer. He wanted to hear numerous supplications from the Patriarch. True, they might not "fit" the needs of Sodom, but Avraham would be the progenitor of a large nation. Somewhere, someone would need his prayer.

Horav Shlomo HaLevy Levinstein, Shlita, quotes Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, who reiterated the idea that no prayer is wasted, when he eulogized his mother-in-law, Rebbetzin Mann. When she became ill and required emergency brain surgery, she survived the surgery, but never woke up, lying in a comatose state for a week before her holy neshamah, soul, ascended to its rightful place in Heaven. During her illness, prayers were recited throughout the Holy Land. Yeshivos, Bais Yaakovs, and chadorim recited tehillim in her behalf, entreating the Almighty for her recovery. Hashem listened; regrettably, the answer was, "No."

Rav Pincus explained that, chas v'shalom, Heaven forbid, should anyone think for a moment that the tefillos were wasted. No prayer goes for naught! Hashem saves and stores them until they are needed for another Jew who is missing the necessary prayers on his behalf. When a person harvests his crops, he certainly gathers much more than he needs at the moment. He stores the remainder in a reinforced silo to maintain the grain for a later date. Our tefillos are stored, put away until that time in which they can save another Jew in need.

What if there should be fifty righteous persons in the midst of the city? (18:24)

The pasuk seems to be emphasizing tzadikim b'soch ha'ir, "righteous persons in the midst of the city". Simply, this means that these virtuous men do not play out their righteousness only in the private sphere, but also in the midst of the city. It might not be convenient for some to express their religious beliefs in public - such as when it means adhering to the standard uniform of an observant Jew, i.e. tzitzis, yamulka- yet, they do so out of religious conviction. Hashem was setting the standard: a righteous person at home and in the street. (We have also been plagued with the disease of those who publicly flaunt their religious affiliation, but, in private, they have no qualms about acting in a most reprehensible manner, unbecoming a Jew.)

Harav Zalmen Sorotzkin, zl, suggests that the term tzadik, righteous person, is a relative one. He relates that once while traveling by train, he overheard a group of assimilated young men bragging about their negative religious conquests. On Yom Kippur, they ate and drank to their hearts' content as they played cards. One of their friends who was listening intently asked, "Did all of your friends join in the reveling?" "Yes, they all attended" was the quick response. "What about so and so (one of their peers who rarely attended public functions)?" "No," they replied, "he did not join us. He is a big tzadik. He fasts on Yom Kippur."

Rav Zalmen writes that he derived an important lesson from their response. The term tzadik is relative. An individual can desecrate Shabbos, eat non-kosher food, gamble with the worst of them, but, if he fasts on Yom Kippur, he is considered a tzadik! In contrast to the above story, Rav Zalmen relates that he once had to vet a student of a prominent yeshivah. Upon speaking to his rebbeim, he was informed that they had questions concerning his level of yiraas Shomayim. Apparently, upon occasion, he was guilty of perusing secular periodicals.

When the Lutzker Rav heard this, he deduced that there exists a wide gap between the rasha, wicked/evil person, measured according to yeshivah standards, and the interpretation of tzadik, righteous person, as contrasted with a secular, assimilated environment. The yeshivah rasha was light years above the tzadik of the train set.

We now understand that when Avraham presented his defense of Sodom and asked Hashem that the people of Sodom be spared in the merit of fifty tzadikim, he was certain that there were not fifty righteous individuals in Sodom. Yet, there were "Sodom tzadikim," who, relative to the miscreancy that was rampant in the city, were considered righteous. Avraham asked for fifty tzadikim in the "midst" of the city - in comparison to the rest of the city. These people were certainly not righteous, but they did not act as nefariously as the others.

The men stretched out their hand and brought Lot into the house with them, and closed the door. And the men who were at the entrance of the house, they were struck with blindness…and they tried vainly to find the entrance. (19:10, 11)

The angels pulled Lot into the house making sure to close the door behind them. Immediately afterward, the angels struck the men at the door, blinding them. They no longer could locate the doorway to Lot's house. One can only find what he can see. We wonder why the door had to be closed once the men had been blinded. They could no longer find the entrance. Lot was essentially protected. He could sit right in front of them, and they would not be aware of it.

Horav Shalom Schwadron, zl, explains that the door was not closed in order to save Lot. The door was closed so that Lot not observe the Sodomites being punished. Lot merited being spared from death. He did not merit to watch the deaths of the evil citizens of Sodom. Lot was far from a saint. He was saved because he had remained silent when Avraham Avinu told the Plishtim that Sarah Imeinu was his sister. Lot could easily have refuted Avraham, but he kept his peace, thereby earning incredible reward for himself. While the reward was worth his life, it did not mitigate his evil streak. He was as wicked as the rest. Thus, he was allowed to live, but he could not watch the others die. The door was closed so that he could not watch his compatriots receiving their due.

Hashem's punishment is exacting, as is His reward. Lot was not allowed to watch; thus, the Sodomites died without having to experience the indignity of seeing one of their own spared. Lot's reward was life - nothing more, nothing less.

And Avraham said, "Because I said, "There is but no fear of G-d in this place and they will slay me because of my wife." (20:11)

We can derive a powerful lesson from Avraham Avinu's statement. Yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, is the "be all" and "end all." One who fears Hashem has hope that he will navigate through life's journey without encountering challenges that are insurmountable - not because they will not occur, but because he has the one tool that gives him the ability to surmount and triumph over whatever the "satans" of life throw at him. Avraham felt that a lack of yiraas Shomayim on the part of the Plishtim could even lead to bloodshed.

We see this on a regular basis. When a person has no yiraas Shomayim, he is liable to descend to the nadir of depravity. Nothing stops him in his free-fall to iniquity. A great scholar once fell prey to moral iniquity, whose consequences were devastating for him, as he fell from the summit of adoration to the abyss of disrepute. Regrettably, he was not the first or last distinguished leader to fail and eventually fall. At the time that this occurred, a number of his colleagues wondered what could cause such an exalted individual, a man whom everyone held in the highest esteem, to behave in such a manner. A few of them approached Horav Moshe Mordechai, zl, m'Lelov, to question him about how such a great man could have fallen so dreadfully low. Simply, from a cognitive perspective, was he not aware of the consequences of his moral turpitude? The Lelover explained, "There is a well-known rule that, once a person is undergoing a nisayon, trial /test/ challenge, his seichel, common sense, is taken from him. All that he has left to protect him from succumbing to the challenge is his yiraas Shomayim. Everything else is gone." Indeed, as Horav Gamliel Rabinowitz, Shlita, notes, when Avimelech heard Avraham's rationale for referring to Sarah Imeinu as his sister, he did not argue with him. He did not debate the issue, because he knew only too well the repercussions resulting from a lack of yiraas Shomayim.

And Avraham circumcised his son, Yitzchak, when he was eight days old, as Hashem had commanded him. (21:4)

For the Jew, Bris Milah, circumcision, is much more than a rite of passage; it defines him. This applies to a halachic bris, performed by a bona fide mohel. It does not apply to the surgical procedure performed by one is who not of the Jewish faith - either by birth or by practice. The Jewish child that has been ritually circumcised shares an inextricable bond with the Almighty that transcends any form of physical ligature. In his commentary to Chumash, Horav Aryeh Leib Heyman, zl, very beautifully explains this relationship. He notes that the Torah does not mention Avraham Avinu's exemplary commitment to performing acts of chesed, kindness, until after he had his bris milah. Clearly, Avraham had acted kindly to people even before he was circumcised. Apparently, it was not of the same level of significance. The Avraham of pre-bris mode was not the same person who became the Patriarch of our People.

Second, the Torah sees fit to connect the destruction of Sodom with Avraham's bris milah. We see this in two instances. First, the recuperation from the bris milah, Avraham's act of chesed with the angels that visited him, and the destruction of Sodom are all juxtaposed upon one another-almost as if they were a single story. Second, the three angels who together visited Avraham indicate that their three-part mission was all inter-connected. Indeed, Chazal teach that the reason two angels traveled on to Sodom was that one of the three completed his mission once he delivered the wonderful news concerning the upcoming birth of Yitzchak Avinu to Sarah Imeinu. This explains why he did not go to Sodom, but the angel whose mission it was to destroy Sodom first visited Avraham. Apparently, the mission to destroy Sodom had its roots and point of commencement with the visit to the ailing Avraham.

In order to explain the relationship between milah, the destruction of Sodom and Avraham's commitment to chesed, Rav Heyman cites the place in which the Torah commands Avraham's descendants to carry out acts of chesed. In Devarim 28:9, the Torah enjoins us: V'halachta b'Derachav, "You shall walk in His ways." This is explained by Chazal as the mitzvah to perform acts of kindness. The Jew is adjured to be G-d-like by performing chesed, just as Hashem performs chesed.

When Hashem commanded Avraham concerning the mitzvah of bris milah, He said, "Walk before Me and be perfect…I will set My covenant between Me and you" (Bereishis 17:1,2). The bond of perfection which Avraham achieves through the bris milah obligates him to "walk in Hashem's ways" by carrying out acts of loving kindness, as does Hashem. Avraham Avinu is linked with Hashem in an eternal bond which transforms his every mundane act of kindness. It is no longer mundane kindness; it is walking in Hashem's footsteps! This idea is reiterated a number of times in Sefer Devarim, as Hashem is referred to as HaKeil Ha'Neeman, shomer ha'bris v'hachesed. Bris and chesed are equated, indicating that they are inextricably bound with one another.

Thus, the Torah underscores Avraham's exerting himself on the third (and most painful) day after his bris milah, to perform the mitzvah of hachnosas orchim, welcoming wayfarers and reaching out to them. It is as if especially at this point - following his entrance into the holy covenant with Hashem, that the mitzvah of chesed becomes significant.

Second, now that Avraham was enjoined in the mitzvah of doing chesed with others, the world (as a result) was introduced to the lofty goals of chesed. Kindness became no longer an abstract idea; it became a mitzvah, a compelling obligation for every human being to be sensitive to the needs of his fellow. The sins of Sodom became blatantly magnified against the backdrop of this mitzvah. They were a people whose entire focus on life was antagonistic to the concept of chesed. Olam chesed yibaneh, the world is built upon the foundation of chesed. To challenge this in the manner that had become the culture of Sodom was to undermine the very underpinnings of Creation. Sodom had to be destroyed!

Furthermore, it would be an egregious error to compare chesed as performed by Lot to the chesed that his uncle, Avraham, carried out. A person who does not have a bris, whose acts of kindness are not carried out as part of the covenantal relationship with Hashem, are just that: kindnesses. They are not chesed, as in bris v'chesed. What Lot did was out of the kindness of his heart; he was not responding to Hashem's command. Thus, he was prepared to allow the violation of his daughters, even their deaths, as long as he could save his guests. This is subjective kindness, which one performs to satisfy his own needs. Therefore, generations later, Lot produced descendants such as Ammon and Moav, who were prepared to allow the deaths of the Jewish People, when their throats were parched from traveling in the wilderness. Therefore, we find benevolent countries who help refugees, because it is good publicity, yet they turn a blind eye to the plight of those who are not politically attuned with them.

In his commentary to the Chumash, Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, as quoted by his son, Rav Meir, offers a novel interpretation of our opening pasuk. He cites the Midrash Tanchuma to Parashas Tetzaveh which asks: "When is a newborn circumcised?" Chazal reply, "A newborn is circumcised when he is eight days old, just as our forefather Yitzchak was circumcised at this age." Why do Chazal ask the question, when, in fact, the Torah explicitly says (Bereishis 17:12), "At the age of eight days, every male among you shall be circumcised." Furthermore, why do Chazal answer this question by citing the fact that Yitzchak was circumcised at the age of eight days? Why not simply quote the pasuk?

Rav Schwab explains that the students were not questioning when a father is obligated to circumcise his son. This is evident from the Torah. Their query, however, focuses on the infant/son: When does the "newborn" become circumcised? When does the "person" within the body of the child, when does his Jewish soul become circumcised, become inducted into the ranks of the Jewish People?

The bris milah accomplishes two "removals": the physical orlah, and the spiritual orlah, the orlas ha'lev, foreskin which encloses the heart. Until the physical foreskin is removed, the spiritual foreskin has not yet been perfected. The students asked Chazal, "At what point in life does the bris milah (which occurs on the eighth day) have an effect on the child's spiritual dimension?" They were under the impression that, until the child has progressed to a certain level of intelligence, he is incapable of achieving spiritual perfection. Therefore, they thought that the bris, which is performed on the eight day-old infant, has no immediate spiritual effect on the child.

The Sages explained that this was untrue. They cited the pasuk which states that Yitzchak Avinu underwent the bris milah at the age of eight days. The Torah stresses that Avraham circumcised "his son, Yitzchak," when it could have simply written, "his son," with no specific reference to Yitzchak. The Torah is teaching us that Yitzchak was the holy Patriarch, even at the age of eight days old! The very day of his circumcision, Yitzchak achieved perfection. His neshamah had reached a sublime level of sanctity as a result of the bris milah. He was now a ben bris, a bona fide son of the covenant.

We may not disregard the obvious implications of this dvar Torah. Those who delay and even go so far as preventing the bris from occurring, or who have it performed not in accordance with halachah, Jewish law, are delaying their child's spiritual perfection. You might say, "Who cares?" Do these parents want to sever their child's connection with the source of holiness which permeates Klal Yisrael? If the answer to that is still, "Who cares?," I ask: What right do they have to deprive their children of their rightful legacy?

Va'ani Tefillah

Yachad kulam hodu v'himlichu v'amru All of them in unison gave thanks, acknowledged (Your) sovereignty.

Interestingly, earlier in the tefillah, when we relate the praise, the shirah, song of praise, that the people sang to Hashem, it does not use the word yachad, all together, in unison. This is because shirah is praise, regardless of how many sing it. Praise is praise. Coronating the king, explains Horav Reuven Melamed, zl, requires everyone together, in unison, or the act is deficient. A monarchy which does not have the support of the entire populace is unstable. Anyone who does not participate in coronating the king is a mutineer. This is something about which we should ruminate prior to Rosh Hashanah, says the Alter, zl, m'Kelm. If we do not all proclaim Hashem's Kingship, we are undermining His Monarchy. Additionally, we might add, praise is a personal expression. Each individual has his own individual experience; thus, he views his personal salvation from his own subjective perspective. As such, his praise is not necessarily the same as that of his friend. This is not so concerning proclaiming one's allegiance to his king. He is either involved all of the way - or he is not involved.

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

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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