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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And he made him a fine woolen tunic… so they hated him. (37:3,4)

When we recite the supplication during the Bircas Kohanim service on Yom Tov, Festivals, we say to Hashem, V'sitneinu l'ahavah, "And may You grant that we find love, favor, kindness and mercy, in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who behold us… Just as You granted Yosef, Your righteous one - at the time that his father garbed him in a fine woolen tunic." It seems strange that we would ask for such favor, when, in fact, the kesones pasim, woolen tunic, triggered Yosef's brother's hatred toward him. What favor did he find as a result of this tunic?

In his Kedushas Tzion, The Bobover Rebbe, zl, employs a Midrash to explain this. David Hamelech says, Lechu u'reu - "Go and see the works of G-d, He is awesome indeed toward man." This is immediately followed by, "He changed the sea into the land" (Tehillim 61:5,6). The Midrash asks, "Why did the brothers hate Yosef? It was so that the sea would one day split for their descendants." Chazal are teaching us a lesson concerning the wonders of G-d. He causes things to happen which, over time, are transformed into wonders for His people. In the beginning, however, they appear as awesome, almost fearful occurrences - something definitely not to look forward to, suggesting the inevitable question: "Why me? What did I do to deserve this?" In the end, however, we observe a transition to the good - "almost" as if this was Hashem's original intention. In other words, those alilos, awesome deeds, which, at first, had appeared fearful were really there for our good, to catalyze salvation for us.

Likewise, the kesones pasim originally appeared to be the source of the hatred the brothers harbored towards Yosef. In the end, all the troubles which resulted from that distinctive tunic led to the Splitting of the Red Sea. Actually, when Yaakov Avinu garbed Yosef with the kesones pasim, it was the immediate catalyst for Krias Yam Suf - but we had to undergo a number of alilos on the way. Thus, explains the Kedushas Tzion, we ask Hashem to grant us the result of Yosef's kesones pasim - only we really could do without the alilos that accompany it. Could we just experience the miracles - right away?

Yehudah said to his brothers, "What gain will there be if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?" (37:26)

Yehudah's idea for preventing Yosef's death comes across as preposterous. Once they had convened a bais din, court of law, and adjudicated Yosef's guilt, they had no more patience for counterclaims, especially one that asserted that no monetary gain would be achieved. Is this a reason to spare someone's life? Were they killing him for money - or because he was a rodef, pursuer, who was endangering the spiritual lives of each of them? Horav Yerachmiel Chasid, Shlita, quotes an explanation from Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, that illuminates this query, teaching us a significant principle in avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty.

In his commentary to the words v'chisinu es damo, "And cover up his blood," Rashi writes, V'naalim es misaso, "And conceal his death," This teaches that Yehudah was addressing the surreptitious nature of eliminating Yosef. Yehudah was the melech, king, over the brothers. He symbolizes the attribute of malchus, monarchy. The middah, attribute, of malchus is the same as the middah of achrayos, responsibility. As the reigning leader of a country, a king must take responsibility for his subjects. He cannot hide behind the crown. The king must be definitive in his decisions, with the welfare of his nation remaining foremost on his mind.

An aspect of taking responsibility is owning up to one's actions and standing behind one's decisions. A king does not make covert decisions. He stands in front of his resolution. A king who condemns a subject does not hide and blame it on someone else.

This is what Yehudah was telling his brothers: "We made a decision. We must be proud of our decision, because we think it is the right thing to do. If we are going to conceal his death, this indicates that we are ashamed, that we do not really support our decision to kill Yosef." One may not undertake an action if he is unprepared to stand behind it. According to halachah, Yosef was a rodef, but if the brothers felt that his execution as a rodef must be concealed, then the execution must be called off. It was not right.

Klal Yisrael are viewed as bnei melachim, sons of kings. We must take responsibility for our actions. We must also feel a sense of achrayos for our people, especially for those who are unable to fend for themselves. We are called Yehudim after Yehudah for a number of reasons. Included among them is the fact that when Yosef demanded Binyamin as a prisoner, it was Yehudah who stood up to him: Ki avdecha arav es ha'naar me'im avi; "For your servant took responsibility for the youth from my father" (Bereishis 44:32). Yehudah had taken responsibility. Therefore, he was the one who stood up to the Egyptian viceroy and demanded Binyamin's immediate release. To be a Yehudi means that one maintains a sense of responsibility. He stands up for what he believes and supports those who need his loyalty and encouragement - even if they are not among the community's popular elite.

The concept goes even deeper than this. The Ponevezher Rav, Horav Yosef Kahaneman, zl, once asked Horav Yaakov Galinsky, Shlita, "Tell me, which Shevet, Tribe, devoted itself most to Torah?" "What is the question?" Rav Galinsky countered. "It is either Shevet Levi or Shevet Yissachar. These tribes produced the nation's preeminent scholars." "If so," asked the Rav, "why did Yaakov Avinu send Yehudah to establish the first yeshivah in Egypt? Why not Levi or Yissachar?" "The truth of the matter is," acknowledged Rav Galinsky, "that when it came to Torah dialectic, lomdus, an analytical study, Yehudah was called the mechokek, prince." The Rav then quoted the Rambam in Hilchos Avodah Zarah 1:3, which clearly states that Yaakov had designated Levi to be the Rosh Yeshivah at home. We revert back to our original question: "Why Yehudah?"

The Ponevezher Rav explained, "When Yosef demanded that Binyamin remain his prisoner, it was Yehudah who said, 'This has gone far enough. I gave my father my word that Binyamin was returning. There is no room for negotiation concerning Binyamin's safe return home.' Yehudah was prepared to take on all of Egypt, because he had given his word to his father. How does one make such a guarantee? Did Yehudah know up front what would transpire in Egypt? Did he know for certain that he would be able to return Binyamin home? Clearly, he did not. Yet, he had taken responsibility for his younger brother. He had given his word. There was no longer any room for any form of discussion. An individual who is willing and prepared to obligate himself and guarantee results that, for the most part, are beyond his powers, such a person is worthy and suitable to open up a yeshivah!"

The Rav believed in what he said and was indeed the embodiment of that genre of Rosh Yeshivah. He built Ponevez without funds, assuming loans every step of the way. He borrowed and paid back - and then borrowed again! There had to be a yeshivah, and if this was the only way - then it would be the way the yeshivah would be built and maintained. He undertook a number of daring projects without the wherewithal. If he believed the project was a necessity for Torah development, he tackled it with a zest and vision that paralleled the strength of a much younger man. He succeeded beyond anyone's dreams, because he felt it was his responsibility to rebuild Torah after the Holocaust.

Yehudah recognized them and said, "She is more righteous than I." (38:26)

With his confession, Yehudah demonstrated his moral integrity, his willingness to stand behind his actions, even if they were later deemed inappropriate. He was wrong; Tamar was right. She was prepared to die, thereby shattering the very goal of becoming the progenitress of the Davidic dynasty and Moshiach Tzidkeinu. Rashi quotes a Midrash which teaches that Yehudah had no culpability whatsoever with regard to the entire incident; "Hashem said, 'Mimeni, it is from Me.' Yehudah did not advance toward Tamar by his own volition. Hashem orchestrated the entire scenario. He greatly approved of Tamar's tznius, modesty, while in her father-in-law's home: 'It is from someone of such moral character that I want to build the future of Klal Yisrael.'"

According to the natural cycle of events, Yehudah had no reason to ever dream of consorting with a woman of questionable repute. Chazal continue, "Rabbi Yochanan says that Yehudah (saw the woman at the crossroads and) wanted to pass by her. Hashem sent the Angel who is appointed over (the character trait of taavah, desire, and had the Angel confront Yehudah). He said to Yehudah, 'Where are you going? From where do kings stand? From where do the great and mighty stand?' And Yehudah turned toward Tamar - against his will." Chazal state with utmost clarity that Yehudah acted at the behest of the Almighty. Bearing this in mind, we are confronted with a powerful question. Tamar was an astute woman who would not undertake an endeavor that had absolutely no chance of succeeding. We have just proved that, under normal circumstances, the great Yehudah would never liaison with a woman of ill repute. Why, then, did Tamar dress herself up as such a woman and plan to ensnare Yehudah? She certainly was not aware of any Heavenly Voice directing Yehudah to advance toward her.

Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, derives an important principle from here. When a person wants something; when he desires it with all of his heart; when he feels that he absolutely must have it - he will do anything to obtain it, regardless of how unusual his actions may be. Tamar did not act sensibly. Her actions were irrational, but the nonsensical and irrational become normal procedure when someone is driven to obtain something. Tamar wanted to be the mother of Yehudah's children. It was her ardent desire to be the mother of kings. She would establish Malchus Bais David, the monarchy of the House of David. Would she refrain from acting because, on the surface, she appeared to be acting without rationale? This is how a person who wants something badly enough acts.

The Rosh Yeshivah observes that this idea applies equally in the area of growth in ruchniyos, spirituality. One who really seeks to grow will do anything and everything in order to achieve his goals. In the eyes of spectators, he might appear strange, but when one wants something badly enough - nothing seems strange.

With this thought in mind, the Rosh Yeshivah explains a fascinating Chazal concerning the pasuk in Mishlei 6:6 Lech el nemalah atzeil, "Go to the ant, you sluggard;" Re'eh deracheha vachacham; "See its ways and grow wise." Shlomo Hamelech admonishes the lazy fellow to take a lesson from the ant. Chazal explain that the ant is very industrious and does not stop gathering food - despite the fact that its total lifespan is a mere six months, and the amount of food it needs to survive an entire lifetime is but one and a half kernels of wheat. It gathers much, much more than it will ever need. Chazal explain its reason for doing so. The ant conjectures that, just in case Hashem decrees it to live more than its normal allotted time, it should have sufficient food to sustain itself. Likewise, man should prepare himself in this world with an abundance of mitzvos, for he never knows what he will need in Olam Habba, the World to Come.

We see from this, explains Rav Chaim, that when it comes to life, when one is in dire need of something, he will act far above and beyond his normal abilities. After all, his life depends upon it. Whoever does not go above and beyond is nothing more than an atzeil, an indolent, lazy human being. His slothful nature will bring him down, unless he is willing to change and rise above it. Laziness does not mean doing nothing. One can be assiduous and work hard, but, if he does not go that extra mile, he does not care enough about success. The individual who does not care enough about success - if one is not willing to go that extra mile, to do whatever it takes to achieve his goal - he is just plain lazy.

It came to pass, after these events, that his master's wife cast her eyes on Yosef. (39:7)

Two women who went out on a limb, so to speak, were actually moseir nefesh, willing to sacrifice themselves, for a role in the eternity of the Jewish People: Tamar and the wife of Potifar. They both resorted to methods that were unseemly: Tamar dressed herself as a woman of ill repute in an attempt to entice Yehudah; the wife of Potifar practically forced herself on Yosef in an attempt to convince him to consort with her. Tamar went down in history as a righteous woman who acted l'shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven, while Potifar's wife, although originally acting l'shem Shomayim, did not maintain this standard. Thus, she is considered to be wicked.

Let us examine the apparent differences between the two women. First, Tamar neither forced herself on Yehudah, nor was she married to anyone. It was not a malicious act of infidelity. It was perhaps unseemly, but one cannot term it as blatantly evil. Potifar's wife, however, forced herself on Yosef. When he did not fall prey to her allure, refusing to commit an act of disloyalty with her, she lost her temper and slandered him. She figured if she could not have him, then nobody else would either.

When we think about it, Potifar's wife really was devoted to her cause. Chazal teach that Potifar was sterile and could not have children. Thus, if she were to cohabit with Yosef and conceive, she would have to share this bit of news with everyone - especially her husband, who would know for certain that his wife had cheated on him. Potifar would not take kindly to his wife's illicit affair and would probably have her executed. Yet, despite the shame and even fear of death, she was willing to do anything in order to have Yosef's child. When she was spurned, she showed her true colors and the l'shem Shomayim went out the window.

What happened? How does someone who was willing to endure humiliation, to suffer execution, change her stripes so quickly? If she was a believer and, unquestionably, at first she was, what made her change? I think the answer lies in one word: rejection. Potifar's wife could handle it all - humiliation, fear of death, suffering. She could not, however, deal with the thought of being rejected. Being told "no" - confronting the knowledge that one is not good enough, not acceptable, just does not make the grade: "We are looking for someone 'younger' or 'older'." All of these snide comments are put downs that can destroy a person. Fear of rejection is very real, and it takes its toll on many. We must always remember, especially upon undertaking an endeavor: that a person who cannot handle rejection has no business getting involved at the onset. Rejection is part of growth, and one who is unable to deal with it will not be able to handle the hurdles of life. Potifar's wife fell apart when she was rejected, thereby indicating that she was not ready to be the mother of Yosef's child.

Rav Chaim taught that the humiliation of rejection is the worst pain and hurt that a person can experience. The awareness that one is not wanted by his fellow man can be devastating. The Rosh Yeshivah emphasized this idea time and again. A classic story demonstrates the Rosh Yeshivah's sense of caring for others. There was an agunah, abandoned wife whose recalcitrant husband refused to give her a get, bill of divorce. (Thus, she had no husband to speak of, and she could not remarry.) Her plight in life lay not in her meager earnings as a laundress; or even in her responsibility of raising her children all by herself; or even in having to give up hope of ever finding happiness with another partner in life. Rather, it was in the overpowering awareness of having been rejected by the one person who had originally chosen her to be his partner in life. She was one bitter and tormented person. Indeed, it was her miserable plight that granted her an incredible z'chus, merit, which was used to save hundreds of fellow Jews.

During the Six-Day War, hundreds of people had crowded into the Mirrer Yeshivah dining room, which served as a neighborhood bomb shelter. The shells were whistling overhead, striking dangerously close to the yeshivah. Everyone huddled in fear for their lives. Finally, there was a direct hit; the building shook, and the silence filled with fear. The people thought it was the end, and they all began to say Shema Yisrael. At that moment, the agunah's voice was heard above them all. She cried out to Hashem, "My husband abandoned me twenty years ago. I have suffered so much - yet, I forgive him! You, too, Ribbono Shel Olam, forgive the Jewish People from all we have done wrong!"

When Rav Chaim related this story, he would pause for a moment and weep. Then he would say, "Her prayer saved us!" This is the power that the impact of rejection has on a person. If a person who has experienced such humiliation is able to forgive, it is truly an incredible z'chus.

How can I perpetrated this great evil and I have sinned against G-d! (39:9)

It is sad that those who - either by choice or by upbringing - live a life totally estranged from Torah have no clue how distant they are from the verities of the Torah, its values and proposed lifestyle. Many of them are well-meaning, good people, who simply do not know. They are clueless concerning what a Torah Jew believes and the lifestyle to which he adheres. I recently had occasion to have a conversation with a respected member of the secular Jewish clergy - which taught me how distant two minds can be from another. Yet, one of them thinks that he and I are both on the same page. Indeed, I almost felt bad for the man.

In the course of the conversation, he shared with me some of the more sinister shailos, questions, that are presented to him by serious-minded members of his community. He then asked me if I, too, deal with such issues. I explained that, since: our Torah neither permits interfaith marriages nor countenances alternative unions; drugs are not a part of our lifestyle; and the respect which children accord their parents is part of the Aseres HaDibros, Ten Commandments, - these issues almost never see the light of day. I then went on to reiterate that much of our difference in matters of the clergy is due to the fact that we really are not on the same page. True, we are all part of Klal Yisrael, but the contemporary lifestyle which is accepted and prevalent in today's society does not coincide with Torah outlook. He, of course, felt that I should "get a life" and emerge from the archaic cave in which I have cloistered myself.

Having said this, I share a meaningful Midrash which teaches us an eye-opening lesson. When Potifar's wife attempted to entice Yosef to sin with her - he demurred. She offered all sorts of blandishments, promising him the world, if he would only weaken his resolve and liaison with her. His response should have been, "Exclusive of the fact that I owe your husband so much, and, therefore, I could not I repay his favor with such a scurrilous deed: I must also consider the repugnant nature of having an affair, something that is prohibited even by conventional norms." Yosef, however, did not say this. He went into a rendition of his sacred pedigree, "HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One blessed is He, often chooses someone from among the beloved of my ancestral home and asks of them to commit themselves to Him on a level that is beyond human cognition. My grandfather, Yitzchak, was selected as a sacrifice. Perhaps, I will be asked to commit myself to such a lofty endeavor, and, as a result of our liaison, I will become defiled as a korban, sacrifice."

"Furthermore," he said, "Hashem appears to those of my father's home whom He loves. He appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov in a dream. What will I do if He will call upon me, and I will be tamei, spiritually contaminated?"

This conversation is mind-boggling. This evil woman is talking about a licentious, illicit relationship, a base liaison that would be fitting for two animals, not human beings of any respectable standing. Yet, Yosef responds with a litany on the spiritual nature of his home and the fear that if Hashem might call upon him, he would not be appropriately spiritually prepared.

In a powerful insight, Horav Yaakov Galinsky, Shlita, teaches us that this is expressly how we should respond to the yetzer hora, evil-inclination, and to those who would incite us to sin and turn away from Hashem. "We are not on the same page as you. You live in the dung heap of society; we live in the pinnacle, in the elite, ivory tower of humanity. You root with the pigs of the lowest echelon of humanity. Your core objectives focus on promiscuity and licentiousness, your lives revolve around the sensual; your behavior is uncontrolled and unprincipled. We simply cannot converse with you on an equal plane. Our outlook is different; our thoughts are loftier; our goals are totally antithetical to everything in which you believe."

This, actually, is the core point of debate between a Jew and his yetzer hora. We are not on the same page. The aveirah, sin, which you are asking me to commit, is one that would be expected from a lesser person than I. As a Jew who hails from the noble lineage of the Patriarchs and holy Jews who, throughout the millennia, have sacrificed themselves for morality, for spirituality, ethics and the opportunity to serve Hashem - we are simply just not on the same page. We do not compete with the sewers of society. We dance to a different tune. Our Torah is our song; its holy words are our lyrics.

Horav Shlomo Karliner, zl, observes that the yetzer hora's triumph over man emerges when he is able to cause man to forget that he is a prince. He offers an insightful analogy to explain this. The prince of the realm was about to take a trip throughout the kingdom. His servants prepared the clothes he would take with him. They also laid out his royal finery for him to wear. After all, he could not prance around like his subjects. His carriage was prepared. Even the horses were bedecked in accoutrements of the finest leather, gold and silver. The route taken by the entourage took them through a number of communities which were poverty-stricken, where the squalor in which the people lived was insufferable. The prince's carriage rode by these communities. On a typically warm day, he rode by a community wherein its residents lived in abject poverty. He noticed a group of young men, who were probably his age, rolling in the mud. Apparently, the mud maintained its cool temperature much longer than other elements. They seemed to be having a great time. Now, would the prince be envious of them? Would he stop the carriage and jump in with them into the mud? After all, it was a warm day. Anyone with a modicum of human intelligence knows the answer. They are simply not on the same page.

Va'ani Tefillah

U'keshartem l'os al yadecha. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand.

The Tefillin shel yad must be bound upon the muscle of the upper arm, opposite the heart. The Torah, however, writes that it should be bound al yadecha, "upon your hand." Chazal teach us that "hand" should be interpreted as "arm." In the Yehi ratzon prayer which many recite prior to putting on Tefillin, we say, "And You commanded us to place (the Tefillin) on the zeroa (upper part of the arm) to remind us of (Hashem's) zeroa ha'netuyah, Outstretched Arm" (which was evidenced during yetzias Mitzrayim, the Egyptian exodus). Furthermore, we state that, "it is k'neged ha'lev,, opposite the heart," (so that) this helps us to control the urges and instincts of our heart for the special purpose of serving Hashem." What is the connection between the human biceps and the Outstretched Arm of Hashem, which is a metaphor for His awesome power over the forces of nature?

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that Hashem has given us a zeroa netuyah, as well. Thus, just as He exerts control over nature, so, too, has He granted us the power and ability to subjugate and control our own nature, our passions, emotions, desires. It is all up to us. This is what is meant by having the Tefillin shel yad k'neged ha'lev opposite the heart. When we place the Tefillin on the muscle of the arm, situated opposite the heart, we are making a powerful statement. The arm controls the movement of our hand. We are thereby declaring that we have it within ourselves to control the destiny of our activities. Thus, we say the words al yadecha, which refer to the hand, although it is upon the arm that we place the Tefillin. The primary lesson of the Tefillin shel yad is for us to use the power within us to control our "hands" - our activities.

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.

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