Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Yaakov settled into the land of his father's sojournings. (37:1)

Rashi quotes the Midrash which gives insight into the pasuk. Vayeishev Yaakov - Bikeish Yaakov leisheiv b'shalvah. Yaakov Avinu sought to dwell in tranquility. Then, the ordeal of Yosef happened. The righteous seek to dwell in tranquility. However, Hashem says, "The righteous do not consider that which is prepared for them in the World to Come to be enough for them, but they seek to dwell in tranquility in this world as well!" According to the Midrash, Yaakov was chastised for seeking tranquility. This seems to be a bit demanding. Clearly, Yaakov was not seeking a country club. He was not planning to go to a resort vacation. His idea of tranquility was to study Torah throughout the day in a relaxed atmosphere: no more tension; no more grief; no more deterrents to distract him from his life's mission. Is that so bad? Furthermore, Yaakov was certainly aware of the pasuk in Iyov 5:7, Adam l'amal yulad, "Man is born to labor." This pasuk expresses the Torah's view on life. The purpose of man's existence is to toil. How could our Patriarch have sought a position which was not consistent with the Torah's world-view?

Yaakov Avinu was well aware of the above. He sought shalvah, tranquility, as an opportunity during which he could spend more time engrossed in his spiritual life. He wanted to live a life unencumbered by hindrances, anxiety, trouble - all that he had experienced during his contentious relationship with Eisav and Lavan, followed by the travail over the violation of Dinah. Yaakov felt that if he could immerse himself entirely into the sea of Torah, he would be able to plumb its depths with greater ease and success. He did not seek to escape misery as an end but, rather, as a means for greater success in Torah study. Was he wrong?

Adam l'amal yulad - "Man is born to labor;" amal seems to be the antithesis of shalvah, tranquility, but it does not have to be. One can experience situations that create anxiety and travail; he can toil and live without pleasure and still possess a feeling of tranquility. Tranquility is not about experiencing pure pleasure, unfettered by the burdens of life. It is about attitude. One can endure travail and still feel tranquil. It is all in the mind. Moreover, this is how it is supposed to be. One must learn to transcend the pain, eclipse the heartache, and go above the hindrances of life to field the curves as he encounters them. This is what life is all about. It is not supposed to be a bed of roses. What it becomes is what we make of it. Our attitude determines the tranquility of our existence.

Western culture has been plagued by an epidemic of addiction to drugs, alcohol, and anything that can generate an escape from pain and anxiety. Society's goal is to live in a trouble-free, pleasure-filled world of tranquility. In pursuit of these goals, people take brain-altering chemicals in order to escape life's realities.

The Torah frowns on such behavior. "Man is born to labor," to recognize that life - with its troubles - must be lived thoroughly. This can only be accomplished by embracing a Torah-way of life which guides us through life's obstacles, as it gives us the courage and fortitude to overcome life's distresses.

Yaakov sought to dwell in tranquility. He did not want to experience the adversity. Why transcend it if he can avert it altogether? Hashem's response was that, in this world, one must experience amal, labor. One must triumph over adversity - not avert it. To have shalvah, to maintain an attitude of tranquility toward life's difficult moments, is appropriate. To seek to dwell in tranquility, to circumvent these trying moments, is to deprive oneself of the opportunity for spiritual ascendance.

The Yom Tov of Succos presents a primary example of this idea. The festival of Succos is about vulnerability and faith. We move out of structured, stable homes and spend over a week in a ramshackle hut, a temporary structure, exposed to the mercy of the elements. During this time, we are most vulnerable. Yet, Succos is called the festival of joy. How is vulnerability a prescription for joy?

Succos is all about emunah, faith, in Hashem. When we are most vulnerable, we realize that, in reality, whatever security we thought we had was nothing more than an illusion. One wind can topple our home; one bad investment can destroy our savings; one bad step can destroy our health. In the Succah, we feel Hashem's closeness, His constant Providence, His love. This is joy at its zenith. Emunah is the belief that whatever occurs in our lives is an expression of Hashem's love. We may not always understand it, but that is where faith prevails. Tranquility is achieved when faith prevails over vulnerability - not when it is deflected.

Reuven returned to the pit, and behold! Yosef was not in the pit! So he rent his garments…he said, "The boy is gone! And I - where can I go?" (37:29, 39)

The Midrash Lekach Tov comments on Reuven's anxiety concerning the missing Yosef, "Where can I go?" Reuven thought that by saving Yosef, he was doing more than simply saving his brother's life. He was rectifying his questionable behavior concerning the incident with Bilhah. Now that Yosef was gone, however, his opportunity for making amends was gone with him. We must endeavor to understand the relationship between the incident with Bilhah and Reuven's missing the opportunity to return Yosef to his father.

In his Bircas Peretz, the Steipler, zl, explains Reuven's sin concerning Bilhah. In this way, he sheds light on its relationship with the return of Yosef. The pasuk (Bereishis 35:22) tells us, "Reuven went and lay with Bilhah." In the Talmud Shabbos 55b, Chazal present us with an entirely different scenario. They say that whoever claims that Reuven sinned with Bilhah is simply mistaken. It was nothing of the sort. Noticing what he felt was an affront to his mother, Leah, Reuven took matters into his own hands, without consulting his father, Yaakov. When Rachel died, Yaakov Avinu moved his residence to Bilhah's tent. Reuven perceived this as a slight to his mother's honor. He said, "If my mother's tzarah, co-wife/rival, was her sister, Rachel, should her sister's maidservant, Bilhah, also be her rival?" To put it in simpler terms: Rachel was gone; Leah is the new woman of the house. So Reuven moved Yaakov's bed into Leah's tent.

He erred by questioning Yaakov's judgment. Reuven should have realized that every action which Yaakov performed was directed by Hashem. Apparently, Hashem wanted Yaakov's residence to be in Bilhah's tent. Case closed. Just because Reuven did not understand Yaakov's behavior that did not necessarily mean that his behavior was questionable. The flaw was in his understanding - not Yaakov's action.

Reuven repented his sin for quite some time until the opportunity to demonstrate that he had changed; he was no longer rash in assuming but, rather, assiduous and well-thought out before acting. Once again, Yaakov acted in a manner which was, to Reuven, incomprehensible. By displaying unusual favoritism to Yosef, Yaakov was inadvertently fomenting the seeds of jealousy and hatred in his otherwise happy family. By teaching the Torah that he had learned in the yeshivah of Ever exclusively to Yosef and giving him a multi-colored, fine woolen tunic, Yaakov was arousing envy in the home. This envy germinated into an animus that led to the brothers' desire to do away with Yosef. Reuven saw this as an opportunity to rectify his earlier misdeed concerning Bilhah. Even though he did not understand his father's actions, he did not question them. Perhaps his father's actions concerning Yosef seemed unfair, illogical and provocative; still, he was his father and the b'chir ha'Avos, chosen of the Patriarchs. Yaakov knew what he was doing. Reuven would return Yosef home, thereby correcting his earlier mistake concerning Bilhah.

Reuven tried; his intentions were noble; he meant well, but he was too late. Yosef was already gone. He tore his clothing in grief, because he realized that he had lost an opportunity to complete his teshuvah, repentance, over the incident with Bilhah.

Life is filled with missed opportunities. For the most part, we miss these opportunities because we do not see them. We do not see them either because: we have not been looking; we lack the ability to recognize and discern what an opportunity is; or we refuse to see the opportunity staring us in the face. Opportunity demands responsibility and obligation. Not all of us are willing to accept this added burden. An American politician once said, "Never waste a crisis." There are those who view a crisis as the end of the world when, in reality, crisis is an opportunity for one to emerge stronger than ever before. As noted, the Hebrew word for crisis is mashber, which may be derived from shever, broken. We forget, though, that mashber is also a birthing stool. A crisis is an opportunity for one to grow and emerge even stronger than before.

Misfortune - or, rather, perceived misfortune- is an opportunity in disguise. When Yaakov sent Yosef to check on his brothers' welfare, Yosef did so willingly, despite the fact that he was well aware of his brothers' animus towards him. Indeed, when he arrived they had begun to plot his death but, finally, they agreed to sell him into slavery instead. The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh explains why the halachic maxim of Shluchei mitzvah einan nizakin, "an agent sent to perform a mitzvah will not be harmed," does not apply. Yosef was carrying out the mitzvah of Kibbud Av, honoring his father. The question is discussed at length by the various commentators. The Ohr HaChaim first says that Yosef was commanded to go to Shechem. When he arrived there, his brothers had already left for Dosan. He followed them there. Apparently, Dosan was not part of the command, thus circumventing the mitzvah's protection.

In an alternative response, the Ohr HaChaim explains that the "umbrella" of shluchei mitzvah applies only in a situation where there is clear misfortune. Misfortune, however, which turns out to be a source of salvation - indeed, a benefit for the individual - is not viewed as misfortune. It certainly was not fun for Yosef. The roller coaster of fortune which he experienced included: being sold as a slave; falling into the hands of Potifar's wife; living in a dungeon, amid misery and squalor, with the elite of Egypt's criminal community. This was only his physical deprivation. Undoubtedly, for someone of Yosef's spiritual persona, these years were an abysmal perdition. He emerged, however, as Egypt's viceroy, the man who provided food for the entire world. He was able to facilitate his family's move. Therefore, Yosef's ordeal cannot be viewed as misfortune.

What a powerful lesson for us. There are so many situations in life which we consider adverse. After the initial impact has passed, and the great healer "time" has wended its way, we realize that what we had considered a disaster was actually Hashem preparing the scenario for our ultimate benefit. While there are certainly situations which are definitely tragic, Hashem has a plan, and these circumstances are part of it. Keeping this perspective in mind will give us the greater fortitude needed to endure through the implementation of Hashem's Divine plan.

I am writing this on Erev Yom Kippur, as I contemplate the past week. The past year is too much with which to deal. Even the events that have occurred since Rosh Hashanah in our Torah-world are sufficient motivation to put one into the Yom Kippur mindset. We should not go to davening with our heads to the ground, depressed and frightened, thinking: "Who will be next? What will it be? What can we do?" It is much easier to write than to put the ideas into action. Everything is part of Hashem's plan. How we fit into this equation is His determination. He gives us the strength to endure.

I just spoke to Mrs. Baruch Berger - my annual call. Baruch is an angel sent down from Heaven to inspire us mortals. It was Baruch who came to me during Peninim's infancy, almost twenty years ago, and requested to distribute it in the New York area. He was battling a debilitative degenerative illness, and he wanted the z'chus haTorah in his corner. He distributed Peninim religiously for years until the disease took its toll. For the last few years, he has been relegated to a wheelchair, since the only limb that moves is his mouth - which somehow is able to smile to everyone who has the privilege to visit him. He has, Baruch Hashem, defied medical science, because he is here for a purpose: to serve as a living inspiration to those who need a smile, a pick-me-up. Hashem should send a refuah sheleimah to Baruch ben Sora Chashya, b'soch she'ar cholei Yisrael, and may he soon transform all perceived misfortune into salvation and benefit.

As she was taken out, she sent word to her father-in-law. (38:25)

Tamar had no intention of saving herself at the expense of her father-in-law's reputation. Chazal say that she reasoned, "If he admits voluntarily, then I will be saved and all will be good. If he refuses to come forward and concede his guilt, then I will die. Rather I should give up my life than cause Yehudah to be publicly disgraced." Chazal derive from here that it is better for one to throw himself into a fiery furnace than to humiliate his friend publicly. Shame seems to be a compensation for death. This gives us something to consider. Who knows if a g'zar din, Heavenly decree, against a person had not been averted by his experiencing a public humiliation? Indeed, the Ben Ish Chai takes this for granted. He derives from Chazal's statement that if a decree of death has been issued against a person, he has the chance to cause that decree to be rescinded by not responding to those who humiliate him. Ignoring embarrassment, not responding to ridicule, has quite a therapeutic effect. It can save one's life.

Understanding the depth of humiliation takes a special person. This does not mean that we should support an individual who does wrong and not criticize him. One who wrongs us certainly deserves chastisement. Perhaps he should even be ostracized, but there is a shiur, limit, to everything. We are Jews and, as such, we are blessed with three unique qualities which comprise our DNA: baishanim, rachmanim, gomlei chasadim. We embarrass easily, a quality which is a derivative of modesty and dignity; we are compassionate, because we are sensitive to the needs and feelings of others as if they were our own; last, we are selfless and perform acts of loving-kindness, with love and care.

I had occasion to read a fascinating, truly inspirational story in Rabbi Yechiel Spero's, "A Touch of Inspiration." It teaches us how far a Jew's sensitivity for another Jew should extend. It also demonstrates the power and its utilization a Rav can, and should, have. The Bilgorayer Rav, Horav Mordechai, zl, was the brother of the Belzer Rebbe and a leader of his own chassidic court. Being a great tzaddik, righteous person, people came from all over to pursue his blessing. Jews struggling with material and emotional challenges were well aware of his address. One of his townspeople was a Kohen named Shimon, who was undergoing a traumatic period. His first marriage had failed dismally, and he was now alone in the world - miserable, depressed, and forgotten by the world. He met a woman whom he wanted to marry. However, there was a problem: she was a divorcee, and he was a Kohen. His depression surfaced and took over. He was going to marry her despite the Torah's prohibition. He could no longer live alone.

Understandably, the townspeople took issue with his decision. It was an insurrection against Hashem and an insult against every Jewish citizen in the community. The people took serious umbrage to his deed. Everyone stayed away; even his best friends no longer recognized him. One would think that this reaction might have created feelings of regret in his mind. Instead, it sowed greater resolution. He was finally happy. He was not relinquishing his happiness.

The people were equally resolute. If he was not budging - neither would they. No one in town gave him the time of day. The Yamim Tovim were fast approaching; with Yom Tov came a Kohen's opportunity to duchan, recite special blessings which the Kohanim say on Yom Tov, performing their special service of blessing the congregation. The Kohanim were determined not to allow Shimon to join them in Bircas Kohanim. They approached the Rav, who agreed with their decision. He asked everyone to sit down, as he approached the lectern to address the congregation.

"My friends," the Rav began, "you have raised a valid point, that a Kohen who transgresses the law should not duchen. I am in agreement. He will not Duchen - but neither will anyone else! As long as Shimon is in violation of one of the marriage laws that apply to Kohanim, the rest of us cannot smugly sit back and pretend that we are not partially to blame for this breakdown in the observant life of a Jewish person. Perhaps, had we been more sensitive to Shimon's loneliness, he might not have taken such an ignominious step. Therefore, until Shimon recants his decision, no one in this shul will duchen!"

The congregation was stunned. This was truly a shocker to everyone - except Shimon, who walked out of shul in open defiance. The Rav was on his side. Regardless of the venomous stares he received, he would not back down. He was not about to throw out his newly-found happiness. This is the way the yetzer hora, evil inclination, works. It encourages the sinner, convincing him that his seditious act is justified.

And so it went on for two years. Every Yom Tov, the Chazan would reach the point in Shemoneh Esrai when the Kohanim were to bless the congregation, and he continued. There was no duchening. Finally, after two years, Shimon repented. He stood before the Rav and, without speaking, began to cry bitterly, confessing his egregious sin. He could no longer bear to take out his personal misery on his friends. They should not suffer because of his selfishness. He was hoping that with his teshuvah gemurah, complete, sincere repentance, he would once again be an accepted member of the community.

The Rav listened and promised to do everything within his power to facilitate his teshuvah, and to see to it that the community would accept him into their hearts and homes. He would no longer be a pariah.

Word spread quickly throughout town. Shimon had divorced his wife and was becoming a baal teshuvah, returning to a life of observance. The city would no longer be deprived of its Kohanim's blessing. A few weeks later, Yom Tov commenced. The Kohanim were ecstatic. Once again, the sounds of duchaning would be heard in shul. This joy, however, did not reach Shimon, since the community was still not prepared to welcome him back with open arms. Everyone seemed apprehensive. It is difficult to accept a baal teshuvah when the sin had been blatantly etched into their minds. It would take time.

As the Kohanim were about to arrange themselves in front of the Aron Kodesh, the Rav asked everyone to sit down. He had something to say: "Today we are about to return to the hallowed tradition of Bircas Kohanim. For two years, the sounds of the Kohanim blessing the congregation have not been heard in our shul. It happened because of one of our members, who has since repented."

Everyone looked in the direction of Shimon, who felt like burying himself in shame. That was, however, part of the teshuvah process. He would be as resolute in teshuvah as he was stubborn in committing the sin. He held his head up high in an attempt to control his overwhelming shame.

The Rav continued his short speech. "Chazal teach us that b'makom she'baalei teshuvah omdin, tzaddikim gemurim einan yacholim lamod, 'In the place where a complete penitent stands, even a completely righteous person cannot stand.' Therefore, as we return to our tradition of Bircas Kohanim, I feel that only one Kohen should stand up here today, the Kohen who is a sincere baal teshuvah. Shimon, you are today the greatest Kohen. Today, only you will duchen."

Shimon was reasonably tense, his legs almost giving out under him as he walked up to the podium to recite the blessings. That day, Shimon rendered what was probably the most heartfelt Bircas Kohanim ever heard in that city.

A number of lessons can be derived from this episode. First, once a person is in the grip of sin, it is difficult to wrench himself away. A person either justifies his insurrection, or obstinately claims that he does not care. Second, he receives very little support from people. Humiliation is the standard response from even his closest friends. Once he decides to recant his ways, he still does not always receive the necessary support. People have long memories. Third, teshuvah demands great resolution and fortitude. Indeed, if he was "weak" enough to sin, but "strong" enough to ignore the ramifications and repercussions, he is able to endure the teshuvah process. Last, some people do care. They help and give support, but, ultimately, it is up to the individual to correct his misdeed.

Yehudah recognized and he said, "She is right." (38:26)

We live in an age of "spin," with cover-ups being not only a daily occurrence but a way of life. After all, what is wrong with not revealing the truth? It is not as if I am telling an outright lie. This is a sad commentary on contemporary society. Regrettably, what happens "out there" has a way of surreptitiously slithering into "our world." The Midrash teaches that in the merit of Yehudah's open confession concerning his liaison with Tamar, thereby saving three souls, those of Tamar and her twin fetuses, many years later Hashem spared Chananyah, Mishael, and Azariah from the fiery furnace. Clearly, Yehudah deserves some credit, but are we not getting generous with the accolades? Would one imagine Yehudah capable of not confessing, thereby sentencing three innocent souls to their fiery deaths? It is almost as if Chazal were saying that Yehudah, who had the opportunity to murder three souls, did not; thus, he should receive tzidkus, righteous person status. How are we to understand this?

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, explains that as the primary judge in the case, Yehudah could have steered the verdict in such a manner that would have exonerated Tamar, without implicating himself. It was really not necessary for Yehudah to confess and humiliate himself. Indeed, he might have been justified in doing so. By confessing to his liaison, he was creating a chillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem's Name. He - the great leader of the community - was involved in an indiscretion. Is there a more egregious chillul Hashem than that? Furthermore, his father and grandfather, the Patriarchs Yaakov and Yitzchak, were there. Can we imagine the overwhelming embarrassment this must have caused Yehudah?

Yet, the progenitor of Moshiach Tzikeinu was not fazed by the situation. He was in the wrong, and he would own up to his responsibility. Hiding from the truth is not an appropriate quality for the one who would establish monarchy in Klal Yisrael. It might be an acceptable way of life for today's politicians, but it is not the way a Jew is to live. Hiding the truth - or hiding from the truth - at a time when it should be revealed, is participating in a lie. One who lives a life of cover-up is living a lie.

Va'ani Tefillah

Az yashir Moshe. Then Moshe sang.

The Midrash teaches us that whoever recites the Shirah will have his sins forgiven by Hashem. The Nesivos Shalom defines the meaning of "reciting Shirah." Whoever says Shirah daily meaning: he accepts and justifies what Hashem does in the world; He accepts Hashem's actions with joy, regardless of their appearance, whether they seem to emanate from the attribute of Mercy or the attribute of Strict Justice. A person who believes that all that Hashem performs for the world is good will merit Olam Habba; he is worthy of a place in the World to Come. In fact, one who has achieved this status is in Olam Habba - even while his physical body exists in this world. He has already transcended the confines of Olam Hazeh, this world, which limits a person's perception of Hashem's actions. He sees beyond that.

l'zechar nishmas
R' Noach ben Yehudah Aryeh z"l
niftar 22 Kislev 5726
by his family

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

The Fifteenth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel