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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Yaakov departed from Beer-Sheva. (28:10)

It really was not necessary to relate Yaakov Avinu's point of departure. We know where he had been living. The Torah could have simply stated that he went to Charan. Chazal infer from here that his departure from Beer-Sheva left a significant impression. When a righteous person leaves a place, he leaves behind a void. As long as such a person lives in a city, he embodies its glory, its splendor, and its beauty. When he departs, the traits he personifies leave with him. In other words, it is the righteous person who leaves an impression on the place. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, relates that Horav Yehoshua Leib Gadlevsky, zl, would tell about a "place" that left an impact on him. Truth be told, this episode left a powerful impression on this writer.

Rav Gadlevsky was born in Germany. After studying in Frankfurt, he left for Telshe in Lithuania to study in the yeshivah under the revered Rosh Yeshivah, Horav Avram Yitzchak Bloch, zl. He studied there for a number of years and, when he came of age, he became engaged to be married. The wedding was to take place in Slabodka. The day after his aufruf, on the Shabbos before the wedding, he went to bid farewell to his rebbe. The custom is that after his aufruf a chassan does not go out unaccompanied. As he bid farewell, he mentioned that he was going to the train station, and that he needed a student to accompany him. Whom could he ask?

The Rosh Yeshivah replied, "Go to the bais hamedrash and look around at the students that are engrossed in study. If you see anyone who is not involved totally in learning, this does not mean that he is wasting time - just that he is "speaking in learning." You may take him with you to the train station.

The chassan did as he was told. He remained for quite a while in the bais hamedrash, but he could not locate anyone who fit the Rosh Yeshivah's criterion. He returned to Rav Bloch and related his lack of success. Everybody was learning b'hasmadah rabah, with great diligence. What was he to do?

The Rosh Yeshivah's answer was powerful, defining the individual that he was and the way he inspired Telzer talmidim: "If you need something to accompany you to the train station, take the image of what you have just seen along with you. You stood by the bais hamedrash for quite some time and could not find a single student who was not involved in Torah. This picture should accompany you throughout your entire life! Whenever you will need encouragement and chizuk, strengthening in your Torah study, reflect on this image. It will change your life."

Rav Yehoshua Leib studied b'chavrusa, study partner, with Rav Naftali Beinish Wasserman, zl, son of Horav Elchanan Wasserman, zl. As was the accepted tradition, R' Yehoshua Leib asked his chavrusa to attend his wedding. R' Naftali said he would think about it. Around that time Rav Elchanan stopped in Telshe, as he was traveling throughout the region. He paid a visit to his son, who presented him with his query concerning attending his chavrusa's wedding. Should he attend the wedding, and - if he should - how long should he stay? Was attending the chupah ceremony sufficient, or should he remain throughout the wedding?

We should take into consideration that Telshe to Slabodka was not a "stroll in the park." It was a train ride and, given the conditions in pre-World War II Europe, it probably took an entire day. Rav Elchanan told his son, "Since you are his chavrusa, that establishes a certain relationship, a bond. You should attend - but only for the chupah. Immediately thereafter, take the train and return to the yeshivah." That was the "world that was."

(If G-d will) give me bread to eat and clothes to wear… and Hashem will be a G-d to me. (28:20)

Yaakov Avinu stopped along his journey to pray to Hashem. This would be a powerful prayer, a prayer that would set the tone, serve as a paradigm for future prayer and for a healthy Jewish attitude. One would think that our Patriarch would ask for the world. The opportunity was there. Why not? He, however, did not. He asked for two things: lechem le'echol ubeged lilbosh, "bread to eat and clothes to wear." He did not ask for the world. He did not even ask for steak. Simply lechem, bread. That would be sufficient. He asked for clothing to wear - not Armani, simply something respectable to cover his body. In other words, Yaakov asked for bare necessities - no excess, no luxuries. Yaakov was asking for his future, his opportunity to come closer to Hashem. V'hayah Hashem li l'Elokim. "And Hashem shall be for me a G-d." It is almost as if the criteria for establishing a lasting relationship with Hashem is: lechem le'echol u'beged lilbosh. No more. Why? Is a Jew not permitted to enjoy? Is there something wrong with having a "little more" than bread? Is a nice suit an anathema? Rabbeinu Bachya writes: "This is the paradigmatic request of the righteous from Hashem. They do not ask for extras or luxuries. They only ask what is necessary to live, without which man cannot survive. Excess creates confusion. Therefore, one should be sameach b'chelko, happy with his portion, content with a little, and not desirous of luxuries. Then his heart will be satisfied with Hashem." The above is a free translation which reflects the author's understanding of Rabbeinu Bachya's commentary. He seems to underscore the significance of being content with necessities as the primary direction one should take if he wants to come close to Hashem.

Furthermore, he is not negating going beyond the bread and clothes - just not to live for it. There is nothing wrong with wearing good clothes, as long as this does not characterize one's life's desire. One must eat. Although bread is not the only staple, there is a great difference between eating to live and living to eat. One who is obsessed with gashmius, physicality and materialism, has no room left for ruchniyos, spirituality.

This time let me gracefully thank Hashem. (29:35)

Gratitude is an inherently Jewish characteristic. The Chidushei HaRim asserts that we are called Yehudim after Yehudah, because we give thanks to the Almighty. We wake up in the morning, and the first thing that we recite, our very first prayer of the day, is Modeh Ani lefanecha melech chai v'kayam shehechezarta bi nishmasi b'chemlah rabbah emunasecha, "Thank you, living and eternal king, for mercifully returning my soul within me. Great is your faithfulness." The Jew begins his day with hodaah, giving thanks. I recently read a short vignette about this very special, meaningful prayer.

There was a convention of neurologists from all over the globe who gathered to discuss a variety of neurological issues. One of the primary topics was the phenomenon of people fainting upon rising from bed. One of the speakers, a female neurologist, delivered results from the latest findings that this fainting is caused by the sharp transfer of positions from lying down to standing up. She calculated that it takes approximately twelve seconds for the blood to flow from the feet to the head, and when a person stands up upon awakening, the blood is thrown too quickly to the brain, creating a fainting spell. Her suggestion was simple: upon waking up, one should sit on the bed for twelve seconds, count to twelve and then stand up. This approach will prevent dizziness and fainting. This seems like a simple solution to a pressing problem. Indeed, everybody applauded her solution.

Another professor, who happened to be a Torah-observant Jew, asked for permission to address the assemblage. He said, "We Jews have a tradition that dates back thousands of years. We recite a prayer of thanksgiving to the Almighty every morning upon waking up. We offer our gratitude for having merited to wake up healthy and whole. The prayer is called Modeh ani. It is recited while one is still on the bed and sitting up. The prayer consists of twelve words, and - if you concentrate and say it slowly-- it takes exactly twelve seconds to say."

When we begin the day recognizing our greatest Benefactor, we go through the day with an altogether different outlook: one of deep-rooted gratitude to Hashem for all that He does for us. Hodaah has another meaning: to give eminence or majesty, hod. In Sefer Tehillim 18:11, David Hamelech says, Vayede al kanfei ruach, "He flew high on the wings of the wind." In another pasuk in Tanach, the word "hodaah" is used to mean "lifting up" or "carrying". Thus, the same word which is used to thank is also used to give eminence, to elevate. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, derives a fundamental principle from here. When we have cause to thank, pay gratitude to a benefactor, we become dutibound to study his eminence, to elevate him and to recognize his virtues. This is all part of gratitude. When we recognize the need to thank Hashem, we, in turn, apply ourselves to acknowledging His eminence.

Since Peninim is written a few months before it is published, I am writing this as I prepare for Rosh Hashanah. As we are about to usher in the New Year and Yom HaDin, Day of Judgment, everyone is concerned about the past and, of course, the future. We ask ourselves: Are we worthy of the future? We introspect over the past and turn to Hashem for forgiveness with promises that we will not repeat our mistakes. I was wondering how many of us begin our tefillos with a sense of gratitude for all that we have received this past year. Perhaps some have received more and others have received less, but the mere fact that we are here, able to talk about it, is reason to shout, "Thank you!" By the time this is read, it will be past the Yamim Noraim, High Holy Days. As we begin to navigate the winter months, it is still not too late to offer our gratitude.

It is so natural to request what we need, but more difficult to begin with an acknowledgment and gratitude for the past. The following story has been a tradition handed down from the Tzemach Tzedek. One Yom Kippur, the talmidim, disciples, of the Baal Shem Tov sensed that their rebbe was not acting in his usual manner. He seemed sluggish; his tefillos were not expressed with his usual fervor and enthusiasm. Something was wrong. It took some time, and, after a while, the Baal Shem appeared rejuvenated, vivid and filled with zeal and passion. He completed the holy day's davening, prayer service, with heightened devotion to Hashem. Something had clearly transpired before their eyes to which they were not privy.

They approached the Baal Shem that evening, begging elucidation of the day's events. The Baal Shem related that by midday things had begun to appear very bleak for the Jewish People. Hope for the next year was not very promising.

Understandably, he was quite upset. He had no idea how to mitigate this kitrug, accusation, against Klal Yisrael. Suddenly, out of nowhere, something occurred which provided the Jewish People with a rampart against Satan's denunciation. They now had a chance for mercy. It happened because a middle-aged woman, who for years had been barren-and had practically given up hope of having her own child-- had miraculously given birth at the age of 50. During davening, she left the shul to go home and nurse her infant son.

What does a nursing child have to do with providing merit for Klal Yisrael? It was not the nursing; it was the way she nursed, and what she said as she nursed her child. As she sat there staring lovingly at her son, tears of joy welled up in her eyes, and an overwhelming feeling of gratitude spread throughout her being. How thankful she felt to Hashem for what He had done for her. How fortunate was she to be able to nurse her child at an age when most women were grandmothers a few times over. Hashem had been so good to her. How could she repay the Almighty for his incredible kindness to her?

With a heart filled with emotion and a voice trembling with trepidation and joy, she said, "Ribono Shel Olam, You have performed such an unimaginable chesed, kindness, with me. How can I ever repay You? The entire world and everything in it belongs to You. The only thing that I can do is bless You, from the depths of my heart, that the overwhelming nachas, pleasure and satisfaction, that You catalyzed for me with the birth of my son, You should have from Your children!"

This woman's simple words, emanating from a pure heart created such a stir in Heaven to the point that the accusers became defenders of Klal Yisrael. The decree that was hanging over our heads was rescinded as the middah, attribute, of Rachamim, Mercy, prevailed.

Rachel said, "Mighty struggles I have struggled regarding my sister, and I have succeeded." And she named him Naftali. (30:8)

Rachel Imeinu seems to be pouring out her heart, reminiscing about her past struggles to attain the status of her sister, Leah Imeinu, who had a large family. The Daas Zekeinim go so far as to interpret Rachel's words as: "I have suffered greatly regarding my sister, and I have gathered my strength to endure and have not succeeded until now." They are implying that Rachel took her inability to bear children-- in contrast to Leah's large family-- very hard. It almost brought her to the breaking point. She was able to maintain the fortitude to bear the pain of childlessness only as a result of her tremendous resolve.

This struggle which Rachel experienced was not petty jealousy. Rachel was jealous of her sister, as recorded by the Torah (Ibid 30:1), "And Rachel was jealous of her sister." This was not the kind of envy that prevails in us. Rashi explains that this was kinaas sofrim, the type of competitive feeling that is found among Torah scholars, whereby a scholar has a deep-rooted desire to achieve greater, more elevated heights in Torah. He sees another individual who is "ahead" of him on the spiritual ladder of Torah knowledge, and he is envious - not of him - but of his achievement. This "envy" stimulates growth among Torah scholars.

The jealousy that plagues the average person is such that he does not tolerate his friend's success, regardless of the arena in which it is experienced. I want to have more than he does. Kinaas sofrim is not the desire to see the other person have less - just that the individual has a strong desire to also be worthy of such reward. He wants to know what he can do in order to achieve such distinction. Given this distinction, let us understand Rachel's jealousy. If it was positive and even praiseworthy, to the point that she wondered whether she could also have children, she wanted to know what she could do to merit a portion in building Klal Yisrael. Why, then, does she declare that her suffering was almost unbearable? Why would a carefully orchestrated and controlled jealousy, which under normal conditions was being used for constructive spiritual growth, ever reach the point of being overwhelming? How can something "good" be "bad"?

Horav A. Henoch Leibowitz, zl, asserts that the yetzer hora, evil inclination, attempts every strategy in order to ensnare people in its trap. At times, when the simply straightforward approach does not work, the yetzer hora reaches into its bag of tricks and changes strategies - even if it appears to be switching sides. Instead of setting up obstacles to impede spiritual growth, it will encourage them to move forward at an even faster pace. The yetzer hora is now not the "evil" inclination, but, instead, manifests itself as a scholar who pushes us harder and faster, to accept greater spiritual responsibilities, to do more, quicker, until he stumbles, or even snaps. The goal of the yetzer hora is to stop the individual from moving forward. If the front door does not work, he uses the back door.

The Chafetz Chaim, zl, interprets this into the tefillah we say each night during Maariv: v'haseir satan milefaneinu u'meiachareinu, "And remove from us the Satan, from in front of us, and from in back of us." The usual position which the yetzer hora/Satan takes is in the front, blocking forward/upward spiritual movement. If that does not work, it switches sides and comes up from behind, pushing people to go faster, with greater intensity, until ultimately they fall.

Rachel was involved in kinaas sofrim, envious of her sister's merits. Even the great Matriarch could have pushed too hard and fallen into a maelstrom. She was using pain and dissatisfaction as stimuli to increase her service to the Almighty, so that her merits would rise. At times, however, pain and dissatisfaction can lead to depression and hopelessness. It was only because she was able to muster her willpower to exert control over her emotions, that she was able to maintain equilibrium. Otherwise, she would have fallen into the trap of spiritual vertigo, in which the emotions backfire and one ends up not only spiritually uncontrolled, but in emotional turmoil.

Spiritual ascendency is a constant endeavor. Indeed, it should be a lifelong pursuit, but a person must be aware that this pursuit is like walking a tightrope. On the one hand, one should avoid complacency and stagnation; on the other hand, there is a concern that by slowing down and focusing on one's deficiencies, he might get carried away and fall into depression. Thus, he should attempt to strike a balance between never feeling satisfied, always wanting to improve, but not going so fast that he might stumble and lose control.

Spiritual crises, with their attendant backsliding, are not unusual. While they occur in one way or another in everyone's life, they can be especially traumatic for someone who is beginning to tread the waters of Jewish observance. The baal-teshuvah, newly-observant, is extremely self-aware and prone to self-criticism. Thus, what the observant person takes in stride, the newly-observant views as a major disturbance in his life. A minor setback can become a source of angst, throwing him off-balance for a while, as he retrieves and builds up his self-confidence. Having a preconceived notion of what an observant Jew is - and should be - often cultivates a feeling of self-doubt. These issues can be exacerbated by insecure members of the observant community, whose insensitivity to anyone who is not exactly like them, is often manifest subtly and, at other times, not so subtly.

On the other side of the coin is the problem of spiritual fatigue, waning of interest and a loss of enthusiasm. This can lead to overload in which one just gives up, claiming it is too much. He is in need of respite, to disengage, gather himself and set his equilibrium straight. For the most part, he should seek out his rebbe or mentor, talk and express his feelings. This is one of the many crises that confront all of us, but especially one who is newly-observant. No one said it was going to be easy, but then, nothing of great value is.

Rachel said, "Mighty struggles I have struggled regarding my sister, and I have succeeded," and she named him Naftali. (30:8)

Rashi interprets this pasuk: "I was persistent, and I beseeched with many beseechments and turnings to Hashem to be equal with my sister." Rachel Imeinu was confronted with what appeared to be an insurmountable challenge. She did not give up. Regardless of how we translate Naftulei be it struggle, prayer, entreaty or beseechment - Rachel persevered and kept surging forward. She was not going to be left out of the building of Klal Yisrael - not if she could do something about it. Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, derives from here that when it involves ruchniyos, spirituality, nothing should stand in one's way. One must be stubborn and persevere, not giving in or giving up. Rachel saw that Heaven was preventing her from conceiving. Every door that she approached was closed. A lesser person would have thrown in the towel. It just was not bashert, destined to occur. Not our Matriarch, Rachel. She broke down the doors. This was not about being refused a material object. This was about Klal Yisrael and being a part of establishing another shevet, tribe, another component in the infrastructure of the Jewish nation. It was not a time for complacency, for passivity, or acceptance. It was a time for action. In the end, she prevailed. When something is worth fighting for - one fights.

Rav Shimshon posits that when someone notices obstacles standing in his quest for spiritual ascendency, he is to persevere and do everything within his ability to overcome these challenges. On his way to the epoch test of his life, the Akeidas Yitzchak, our Patriarch, Avraham Avinu, was challenged by Satan every step of the way by raging rivers, wild animals and other such impediments. With determination and self-sacrifice, he trudged on and reached Har HaMoriah.

During one of the Napoleonic conquests, the commanding officer was notified that the enemy had breeched the first rampart. The situation appeared bleak, as the enemy was rapidly advancing. When the general heard this, he became depressed and melancholy. At that moment, one of his adjutants entered the war room and asked the general why he looked so crestfallen. The general replied that he had just heard grave news concerning the events of the war. The adjutant looked at his commander and said, "This moment, I have been privy to even worse news." "What did you hear?" the general asked. "I heard that the commander of the troops has fallen into a state of depression. This report is worse than the previous one," the adjutant responded. When one gives up hope - all is lost.

Throughout history, Klal Yisrael has been blessed with a standard of leadership that never took "no" for an answer. Nothing was impossible. If the door was closed - they broke it down. Many were Roshei yeshivah, and rabbanim, spiritual leaders of the highest calibre, who contended those who blocked the way for Klal Yisrael's spiritual and physical development. Their opponents were assorted: secular leaders who were bent on destroying the Jewish People, and insecure leaders from within the fold, whose desire to appease the secular political leadership was more important than the lives of their own people. These spiritual giants were assisted by lay leaders whose devotion to Klal Yisrael was without peer, and who maintained an unyielding adherence to the bidding of the gedolei Yisrael.

One such superstar about whom I had the distinct privilege of writing about in The World that Was: America, was Stephen Klein. He provided a singular example of the strictly Orthodox Jew who bridged the world of Torah observance with that of corporate America - with corporate America benefitting from the relationship. His unstinting adherence to halachah, while building a large corporation; his view of himself as nothing more than a shlucha d'rabbanan, a faithful emissary of the gedolei Yisrael; his generosity and kindness to individuals; his dedication to rescuing and sustaining his fellow Jews; his unequivocal commitment to Torah institutions throughout the world; and his harnessing of the mass media to convey the word of Hashem to an unknowing world: all of these traits are what set him apart. While others devoted themselves to one or two of the above - Stephen Klein dedicated his life and every aspect of his being - successful to each and every one of the aforementioned.

One would need an entire volume to portray his life and to do justice to his achievements. One particular vignette has always had a special place in my heart. In 1946, as chairman of the Immigration Committee of the Vaad Hatzala, he volunteered to go to Europe as an accredited officer of UNRRA (the United Nations Refugee and Rescue Authority) to spend six months working in DP (Displaced Persons) camps. During that time, he established yeshivos, arranged visas and supplied affidavits for thousands of Jews to emigrate to this country. For a man to leave his wife and young children, and a new business that was still growing under his leadership, was an extraordinary display of self-sacrifice, but then, Stephen Klein was an extraordinary man.

Magid devarav l'Yaakov chukav u'mishpatav l'Yisrael.
He details His words to Yaakov, and His chukim and Mishpatim to Yisrael.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that in the previous pesukim, the Psalm has indicated how Hashem uses His powers to convert awesome sheets of ice into rain/snow, so that instead of destroying the earth, they will sustain it. In closing, David Hamelech asserts that Hashem does the same with His words and laws. Comprehending the underlying concepts behind tzedek u'mishpat, righteousness and justice, is impossible, because it emanates directly from Hashem on High. This is true concerning all of Hashem's Laws. They may seem elementary and simple to understand but they actually are not. What Hashem does is "break" them down just like the sheets of ice, so that we are able to grasp these sublime concepts. Thus, even the young child in cheder can understand Hashem's words. During Yemos HaMoshiach, Days of Moshiach, we will be able to see how these "simple" words emanate back to Hashem to even higher and more profound principles. Hashem will then reveal Torah to us on a level never before attainable.

The Sefas Emes notes the use of the word magid, He details, in the present tense, rather than higid, He detailed, in the past. He explains that the Torah, in of itself, is a closed book. One's ability to plumb its depths and penetrate its secrets is commensurate with his amal, toil. The more he works at it, the more Hashem will reveal to him. Thus, the detailing of the Torah did not occur only when it was given. It occurs at every given moment that a Jew studies Torah and enthusiastically exerts himself to mine its profundities.

In loving memory of
our husband, father and grandfather
on his yahrtzeit

Elchanan ben Peretz z"l
niftar 11 Kislev 5759
Esther Kurant
Mordechai & Jenny Kurant
Aliza & Avrohom Wrona
Naomi & Avrohom Yitzchok Weinberger
Dovid & Chavi Kurant
Yossi & Chani Kurant

Peninim on the Torah is in its 18th year of publication. The first fourteen years have been published in book form.

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

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