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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


A man discovered him, and behold! - He was blundering in the field; the man asked him, saying, "What do you seek?" (37:15)

Yosef's father sent him to seek out his brothers and report back to him concerning their welfare. Chazal teach that Hashem sent the Malach, angel, Gavriel, in the likeness of a man, to lead Yosef to his brothers. This was all part of the Divine master plan that would eventually lead the entire family of Yaakov Avinu to descend to Egypt, as part of fulfilling the prophecy to Avraham Avinu. The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, interprets the "man's" question to Yosef homiletically. The man/angel was telling Yosef that when he - or any man - is lost, confused with life, its issues, circumstances and vicissitudes, he should not allow confusion to prevail. First and foremost, he should determine his personal goals; then he should deal with the issues.

All too often, we are confronted with the challenges of life that bog us down, stunting our upward/forward mobility. We are basically stuck in the proverbial "rut." We do not know where to turn, and we do not have the skills to do it. The sage counsel is first to determine where we are going and what our goals are. Then, we need to remain focused on those objectives. When we lose our focus, everything suddenly becomes impossible to traverse. We are lost, because we do not know where we are going. A kite may fly around aimlessly in the air, but, as long as it is stabilized on the ground, it will not stray.

Every Jew must have a goal and remain focused on that goal. He must set standards and maintain them religiously, not deferring to every whim that he encounters. Even in Avodas HaKodesh, serving Hashem, one must have standards and priorities which are consistent in his life. Let the following serve as an example: The Bais Yisrael makes the following observation concerning Yehudah's remark, "What gain will there be if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?" (Bereishis 27:26). What did Yehudah mean by the phrase, "What gain will we have?"

The Bais Yisrael explains this based upon a kabbalah undertaken by the Chozeh m'Lublin. The Chozeh had a support system to protect him from falling into the clutches of the yetzer hora, evil-inclination. He had taken a kabbolah, accepted upon himself, never to do anything unless his actions would bring pleasure/benefit to Hashem. If his actions would not catalyze kavod Shomayim, the Chozeh held himself back from acting.

This, explains the Bais Yisrael, was Yehudah's intention when he asked his brothers, Mah betza ki naharog achinu? "What gain is there by killing our brother?" What will Hashem benefit from our actions? This is what the Targum Onkeles means when he translates betza as mamon, money. What profit is there from killing Yosef? Hashem will gain nothing. If Hashem's honor in the world will not be increased as a result of our action, then there is no reason to act.

This is how a Jew should live his life: with cheshbon, an accounting; with standards; with principles; with purpose. These are many words which all revert back to one word: focused. If one lives a focused life, he knows where he is heading and why. The raison d'etre for our actions should always be: Will Hashem benefit from this? Will it increase kavod Shomayim? To act without focus, without reason, aimlessly, without purpose, is to live life like one to whom Judaism has no meaning. We know better than that.

Reuven heard, and he rescued him from their hand. (37:21)

Reuven slowed the process, ultimately convincing his brothers not to be guilty of cold-blooded murder. Chazal teach that Reuven acted nonchalantly concerning his act of saving Yosef. He did not take it to heart and certainly not to his head. They say that had Reuven been aware that Hashem would have written in His Torah that Reuven was to be credited with saving Yosef, he would have taken Yosef right then and there and carried him on his shoulders back home to Yaakov Avinu. Reuven acted properly, but did not give his actions much thought.

A similar statement is made concerning Boaz, who gave Rus some meat to eat. The Megillah records this act of kindness for posterity. Chazal say that had Boaz known his simple act of decency was being given such distinguished coverage he would have fed Rus fattened calves. In other words, he would have gone all out for her. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 34:8) concludes, "In the past, a person would perform a mitzvah, and the Navi would record it. Now, if a person performs a mitzvah, who records it? Eliyahu HaNavi and Melech HaMoshiach." They are pretty impressive codifiers.

With the above in mind, we should reflect on the value of each mitzvah and our appreciation thereof. Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, notes that the Torah giants of old, Reuven and Boaz, were well aware of the intrinsic value of the mitzvos they were performing. Their error was in not recognizing that their actions were actually worthy of being included in the Torah. Rav Aharon distinguishes between a mitzvah that becomes Torah and one that does not. When one reads about Reuven's act of saving Yosef, he is actually studying Torah. He must recite Bircas HaTorah, the requisite blessing over Torah study. With every word of this sentence that he reads, he fulfills a mitzvas asei, positive commandment. Furthermore, he is not simply reading Jewish literature; he is studying Torah, which, in its own right, spiritually elevates and refines him.

Had Yehudah and Boaz known that their activity would achieve such critical acclaim, they would have acted more forcefully, with greater alacrity and moral perfection. So should we, when we are performing mitzvos. When we realize the awesome integral value of each mitzvah and the compelling nature of the great achievements we can catalyze, our entire attitude toward mitzvah performance will change drastically.

The Rosh Yeshivah takes this idea further. Imagine if Reuven could see into the future that Yosef - the brother whom he rescued - would become a leader and sustainer of the entire world. Millions of lives hung in the balance of his power. In addition, Yosef was the one brother who was born with the power of vanquishing Eisav. Boaz was the progenitor of David Hamelech and the Davidic dynasty. All of this happened as the result of a "simple" act of chesed, kindness. We see now that there is no such thing as "simple." Everything is great. We never know what wheels we are setting in motion when we act correctly by performing a mitzvah.

This idea is especially significant with regard to those whose chosen vocation in life is Torah dissemination. We have no idea how far-reaching is our influence, how many lives are saved by our act of reaching out to a fellow Jew. It does not take much. One kind word, one smile, one pat on the back can change a disillusioned student's attitude and save him from spiritual extinction. The little we do now grows immensely over time. Can we imagine the reward of those who devote their lives to this endeavor?

As she was taken out, she sent word to her father-in-law, saying, "By the man to whom these belong I am with child." (38:25)

Interlaced within the story of Yosef's sale as a slave and eventual arrival in Egypt, is the story of Yehudah. At first, it seems misplaced, since it does not appear to have any relationship to the Yosef narrative. Chazal, however, explain that Yehudah was deposed as leader over the tribes, because he was not forceful enough to prevent the sale. Had he demanded that Yosef be released, he would have prevailed. He only saved him from death. For not completing his task, he was punished by Hashem with the eventual passing of his sons, Er and Onan. In the midst of this story, we meet Tamar, one of the true heroines of Klal Yisrael's long history. We have very little recorded of her pedigree and past - only her present, which dominates the narrative to such an extent that it is no wonder that she was to become the maternal progenitor of Moshiach Tzidkeinu.

What did she do to earn her such distinction? The answer to this question is not what she did - but what she did not do. The Torah relates that Tamar was originally married to Er, Yehudah's eldest son, who was evil in the eyes of Hashem. He was punished with Heavenly excision. Yehudah instructed Onan, his second son, to perform Levirate marriage, by marrying the young widow. This would save Er's name. Realizing that a child born into this marriage would be regarded as belonging to Er, Onan took great care not to impregnate Tamar. This is a sin, and Onan was also prematurely called to his rightful place in the next world. Fearing that Shelah, the next brother, would also die, just as his two older brothers did, Yehudah told Tamar to wait until Shelah grew up. Time went by, Shelah grew up, and Yehudah had not yet given him to her. Tamar realized that this was not happening. Yehudah had no intentions of risking his third and last son.

Tamar was an agunah, stuck between a rock and a hard place. She could not marry anyone, since she was bound by law to the next brother. Shelah, who should become her husband, was being held back by Yehudah. What was a girl to do? She decided to embark on a daring course of action. She dressed herself up as a woman of ill-repute, and, when Yehudah went by on his way to the sheep-shearing, she negotiated with him concerning a liaison. Clearly, there was much more to the story than meets the eye, but, for present purposes, we will leave it as is. After negotiating a price, Tamar insisted on a security, which was provided by Yehudah. The next day, Yehudah sent a friend to pay the "woman," but she was gone - disappeared!

Three months later, Tamar began to "show." Word got out that Tamar, who was legally bound by the code of Levirate marriage, had had a relationship with someone. She was pregnant. Yehudah, the leader of the community, declared, "Take her out to be burnt." In an attempt to save her life and spare Yehudah any shame, Tamar surreptitiously sent the security to Yehudah, saying, "I became pregnant from the one who owns this." Suddenly, it all became clear to Yehudah. He realized his error and came to the conclusion that Tamar was a woman of exemplary character. She was prepared to die, rather than bring shame upon him. This took enormous courage and strength of character.

Her behavior became the model for future generations of how a Jew should act. Her conduct was the origin for the Talmudic dictum, "It is better for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace, than to shame his neighbor in public." Indeed, much of Rabbinic thought on the subject of sparing another Jew shame is based upon Tamar's acute sensitivity to Yehudah. We can derive much from the incident of Tamar and Yehudah. She was a woman who, for all intents and purposes, was situated on the extreme edge of society, but who was prepared to die, rather than to shame her father-in-law. This episode was the precursor of David Hamelech's birth and dynasty. His was a dynasty founded on the principle that emotional pain is at least as harmful as physical pain. Offending another Jew is like mortally wounding him. She understood that the loss of one's esteem is tantamount to the loss of life. Such a woman can - and did - infuse her descendants with respect for human dignity. For all generations, we are cognizant of the significance of moral greatness as taught by Tamar.

Stories abound concerning our sages' extreme concern for feelings of a fellow Jew. Horav Meir Bergman, Shlita, related the following episode: A famous Maggid lectured in Yerushalayim one Shabbos afternoon. Since the drashah, discourse, was to begin in the very late afternoon, all of those assembled davened Minchah before the speech. One distinguished Rav had forgotten to daven Minchah before attending the lecture. As he saw the sun begin to set, he became increasingly nervous. What should he do? If he were to stand up and walk out, it would cause a commotion. To remain in his place meant missing Tefillas Minchah. His options were not very encouraging. He compromised by standing up and, with his face turned toward the speaker, he inched out very slowly. He was disturbed about his actions, worrying that he had acted improperly. He decided to visit the Chazon Ish to ask his opinion.

He presented his query to the Chazon Ish in a simple, straightforward manner: What does one do if he is attending a lecture and realizes that he had not yet davened Minchah? The Chazon Ish responded emphatically: "What is the question? To leave in the middle of the lecture is an insult to the speaker and a humiliation of a Torah scholar. Clearly, Tefillas Minchah does not override such a transgression. One remains in his seat until the conclusion of the speech!"

When we hurt a fellow Jew, we often ignore our actions, not maliciously, but rather, because we are unaware that we have caused someone pain. Either the victim has been proficient in concealing his pain, or our own indifference to the humiliation has allowed us to believe that we had not hurt the other fellow. Regardless of the reason, as long as one does not ask for - and receive - forgiveness, he is not absolved. Heaven must now intervene.

The following episode underscores this idea. A fellow, whom we will call Reb Shmuel, stood at the entrance to Har HaZeisim and surveyed the cemetery with his eyes. He was an individual to whom the cemetery was quite foreign. He rarely visited but, this time, the circumstances demanded that he do something unusual, something out-of-the ordinary. He was fortunate to have a large family, each one of his children being a source of much nachas. So, why was he here? It was the abject poverty. He just could not take it anymore. Another wedding was coming up, and he had no money. The shame, the ridicule for him and his family was simply too much to tolerate. As a final effort, he would visit his grandfather's grave. Reb Shmuel had been especially close with his sabba, grandfather, taking care of him during his twilight years. From clothing and feeding him, to taking him outside, he was always there. Perhaps his grandfather would intercede on his behalf.

It was not as if Reb Shmuel did not work. He was one of the premier rebbeim in the Yerushalayim educational system, but a single paycheck, a houseful of children, medical expenses and everything else had taken their toll. He approached his grandfather's grave, and the torrent of tears began in earnest. Amidst the weeping, he attempted to articulate his needs, entreating his grandfather's soul to please countenance him and intercede in Heaven on his behalf. As he stood lost in grief, he dozed off and began to dream.

In his dream, Reb Shmuel saw a vision of his grandfather standing before him. He immediately began to weep incessantly, beseeching his grandfather's assistance. In response, his grandfather presented a picture of Reb Shmuel's family. Before him stood his children, sons and daughters. The picture seemed perfect, except for one of his younger son's image. It appeared to have been airbrushed, hardly noticeable, very unclear. Something was wrong. Reb Shmuel began to shudder with fright. What was his grandfather telling him?

"My dear grandson," his grandfather began, "this is what was decreed against you. Yes, your dear son, Yankele (not his name), was summoned to return to his Source. When I heard this, I began to intercede on your behalf. How could I forget the years of your life which you devoted to my care? Day and night, you were there. Shabbos, Yom Tov - a day did not go by that you did not avail yourself for me. I prayed and begged. The Heavenly Tribunal listened. Instead of taking your Yankele, it was decided that you should instead suffer from poverty. The forlorn, wretched feelings which have been a part of your life are a "replacement" for the grief you would have sustained with the loss of your child.

"Are you prepared to exchange poverty for Yankele?" asked his grandfather. "No! No! Heaven forbid!" screamed Reb Shmuel. "Under no circumstances. Whatever I have has suddenly become wonderful. Thank you! Thank you! But I have one question: What dreadful sin did I commit that warrants such punishment? I cannot remember anything that earthshattering in my life," said Reb Shmuel.

"Let me tell you," his grandfather said. "Years ago, when you were still a bachur, unmarried, you offended one of the fellows in your chaburah, social group. You never asked his mechilah, forgiveness."

What a frightening story. Because of a "harmless" insult or attitude of indifference to another Jew, one may lose everything.

There is more. When Yehudah attempted to dissuade his brothers from harming Yosef, he said, "What gain will there be if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?" (Bereishis 37:26). Horav Yehudah Assad, zl, explains that Yehudah was intimating that if their hands were soiled with innocent blood, their power of prayer would be abrogated. He cites the pasuk in Yeshayah 1:15, "When you spread your hands (in prayer), I will hide my eyes from you; even if you were to intensify your prayer, I will not listen; Your hands are replete with blood," indicating that the prayers offered by one who has blood on his hands is worthless.

In the Talmud Bava Metzia 58b, Chazal compare the prohibition of humiliating someone to murder. "If anyone makes his friend's face turn white from shame in public, it is as if he has spilled his blood." In both cases, blood is caused to rise then fall. One who is embarrassed loses his natural color and turns white. Yet, we have no problem putting people down and going to shul immediately thereafter to offer our prayers. Indeed, the humiliation even takes place in shul! Yet, it does not seem to deter anyone. Perhaps, if we stop to think of the ramifications of our actions, we will think twice before saying or doing something that is inconsiderate of - or offensive to - others.

After these things, his master's wife cast her eyes upon Yosef. (39:7)

After spending a year in Potiphar's service, the stage was set for Potiphar's wife to express her desire for this handsome slave. Chazal teach that there is more to the story. Yosef ruminated, "My father was tested, my grandfather was tested, and I should not be tested?" Immediately upon hearing this, Hashem decided to grant Yosef his wish. He, too, would be tested. Chazal conclude that Yosef wanted to be tested, so that his latent strength of character would be freed and he could ultimately achieve more. Clearly, languishing in an Egyptian jail was not conducive to Yosef's hidden abilities.

The Midrash states that Yaakov Avinu experienced nisyonos, tests. Is this true? We find the Patriarch experiencing great troubles, but are those troubles to be classified as nisyonos? Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, suggests that listening to his mother's advice and presenting himself before Yitzchak Avinu dressed as Eisav, speaking in his vernacular so that he could obtain the berachos, blessings, was a test for Yaakov, the ish emes, man of truth. During his entire life he had personified truth. Now, he had to go against everything he believed in in order to fool Yitzchak, his father. This was a test. Furthermore, living twenty-two years in Lavan's house, in an environment permeated with moral and spiritual filth, where decadence and underhandedness went hand in hand, was also Yaakov's test. It took incredible self-control and perseverance to maintain himself on the same lofty spiritual perch as when he had originally come from Yitzchak's home.

Yosef also sought to be tested, so that his hidden powers would emerge. Yosef got what he requested. This way, whatever powers were concealed within him would now be able to work for him and for his descendants.

Hashem tested Yosef atypically. His test was completely unlike that of his father and grandfather. Yitzchak was asked to give up his life. Avraham Avinu was thrown into a fiery cauldron. Yosef's test appears to be on a completely different level. His life was not in danger. No one was out to kill him. Can his test be considered that compelling? Is it so difficult to maintain moral rectitude, to control one's basic desires and not act like an animal? Is this in any way similar to the noble acts of Avraham and Yitzchak, when their lives were actually in danger?

Rav Zaitchik explains that this is actually the meaning of nisayon, test. A test is a way of determining one's spiritual stamina, his ability to deal with adversity, to maintain his character and ethics on a high moral ground. The problem is that we think that once we have achieved prominence, we no longer need to worry concerning the "simple" tests. Who would think that a great tzaddik could fall into a situation that was inappropriate? What we do not realize is that it is the "little," "simple" tests that trip us up, that even the greatest spiritual personalities fall prey to these trials. One must always remain vigilant, never knowing from where the attack against his spiritual status will come. The test of Potiphar's wife leaves a subtle message: one must always be careful, never taking anything for granted. Too often, the things that could "never happen" - happen! We read about great people who make foolish mistakes. "There, if not for the grace of G-d, go I," should be on the lips of everyone. Yosef learned that it is often more difficult to triumph over the "small" test, than what one perceives to be the "big" test.

Adon uzeinu, Tzur misgabeinu, Magen yisheinu, misgav baadeinu. Master of our strength, Rock of our security, Shield of our Salvation, secure a place for us.

Horav Avraham ben Ha'Gra, zl, notes that man undergoes four periods in his life: naarus, childhood, bacharus, youth, shacharus, the prime of life, ziknah, old age. Naarus, childhood, is from birth until ten years of age, when, as a child, he is swift as a leopard, constantly on the go, running, climbing, moving to and fro, but he is not yet as strong as a youth or an adult. Hashem is Master of our strength; we recognize that our strength during this period of our life emanates from Him. From age ten until twenty years of age, we have achieved strength, but we are not yet firm and secure. Hashem is the Rock of our security. From age twenty until fifty, we are in our prime. We marry, raise a family, seek to earn a livelihood. Indeed, we are in constant need of Hashem's Salvation. At this point, He is the shield of our salvation. From age fifty until seventy, our strength begins to wane, and we need tremendous inner-strength and support, which Hashem is for us as Misgav baadeinu. This prayer is our way of acknowledging that we could not develop in life without the constant supervision of the Almighty. During every stage of our development, He is there. Regrettably, many of us seem to forget this until He opens up our eyes, when He "pulls back" on His protection over us. Without His constant "eye" over us, we would have no chance.

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

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