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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)

The most basic and significant unit in Judaism, the area which plays the most prominent role in shaping the future of our nation, is the Jewish home. The bais Yisrael has throughout the millennia been determinative in the success or failure of the life of many a Torah Jew. In his commentary to the parsha, Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, focuses on this phenomenon. Yaakov Avinu/Yisrael transmitted his name and destiny to the future Jewish nation. We are not referred to as the people of Avraham or the people of Yitzchak. Our relationship is mediated through the third Patriarch, Yaakov/Yisrael. Thus, we see Yaakov, like his grandfather before him, going out on his own version of Lech Lecha, "Go for yourself." At the opening of our parsha, we see Yaakov in isolation, on his way to carry out his destiny.

When Yaakov left home, his departure took place under different circumstances than when Avraham Avinu left his home. Avraham went into isolation as a married man. He was not completely alone. He left with family, kinsmen, wealth, prestige, presence. Yaakov left with nothing. He did not leave - he fled! The difference is that Yaakov's mission was to establish a Jewish home, the foundation upon which the Jewish nation would be developed. For this mission, the Patriarch took nothing and no one with himself. The bais Yisrael was to be established upon the strength of Yaakov's person, his character, his exceptional qualities: no additions.

Yaakov was selected because he was the first to express the concept of Bais Elokim, "House of G-d." He taught us that Hashem must be sought, above all, within the confines of one's own home. This, explains Rav Hirsch, is the definition of "House of G-d": the place within which the soul of man grows and flourishes and to which, in turn, he brings all that he has achieved, transforming it into life-building activity. This is the greatest and closest place in which G-d may be found revealed.

When we bear in mind that the definition of bais Yisrael is "borrowed" from Bais Elokim, we develop a new perspective on what a Jewish home should be, what it represents, and what it should produce. We understand why such Jewish homes produced the Torah leaders of the past and present. It is all in the home. The home is the nurturing ground for the neshamah. The parents, who have been designated as the ones who are to provide the nurturing and transformation of the souls of their children, have an awesome responsibility. Much of their success is dependent upon their awareness of this responsibility.

The Talmud in Megillah 23a states: "On Yom Tov/Festivals we come late and are quick to leave." Rashi explains that this refers to shul, where one may delay his entrance because he is busy preparing his Yom Tov meal. Hagahos Yaavetz adds that while the men usually do not actually prepare the meals, they remain at home to attend to the children and to assist their wives with the preparation of the meals. Imagine, according to the Yaavetz, men are permitted to come later to shul in order to help out at home. Horav Yitzchak Zilbetstein, Shlita, points out the respect halachah gives the Jewish home. The mother is busy preparing the meal, leaving no one to watch the precious children. We cannot allow them to run around the streets unsupervised and uncared for. Thus, the husband remains home, because attending to the needs of the Jewish home is avodas Hashem, a service to the Almighty.

And he dreamt, and behold! A ladder was set earthward and its top reached Heaven. (28:12)

The Ben Ish Chai quotes his father who notes that the gimatria, numerical equivalent, of the word sulam, ladder, is 136. This number coincides with the gimatria of mamon, money. It is not a coincidence. In fact, he uses the gimatria to interpret the pasuk, v'hinei sulam, "and behold, a ladder," mutzav artzah, "was set earthward." As a result of the sulam/mamon material possessions, man senses that he is standing on the earth. He feels that the money is his personal achievement which he accomplished through his involvement in various areas of commerce while on the earth. What he does not realize is that, v'rosho magia ha'Shomaymah, "(and) its top reached Heaven." Every penny that he has earned was by Heavenly decree. One's ability to gain material bounty in this world is achieved only through the will of the Almighty. This can change at any time, and the rich man can overnight be turned into a poor man. This is what is meant by the conclusion of the pasuk, "And behold! Angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it." The Heavenly angels have a mission: To act as Hashem's agents for elevating the individual that Hashem wants to promote, and demoting the individual that Hashem wants to dismiss.

The Ben Ish Chai supplements his father's exegesis. What relationship exists between the money and the ladder? They have the same gimatria, and we do not believe in coincidence. A connection must link them. He explains that if one were to "animate" the rungs of a ladder, the top rungs might say something like this: "There are ten rungs on this ladder. Supposedly, we are all equal, but I know that the carpenter who fashioned this ladder saw that 'I' was the most distinguished rung. Therefore, he placed me at the top of the ladder." This notion goes through the "mind" of the top rung of the ladder, while he arrogates himself over his fellow rungs. One day, the owner of the house against which the ladder was standing, took the ladder and turned it upside down. Suddenly, the top rung was no longer on top. He had become the bottom rung. In addition, now the new top rung will be more circumspect in viewing himself as better than the other rungs. He understands that the position of the rung is not determined by its uniqueness but, rather, by the whim of the homeowner.

The wealthy should not be haughty over their good fortune, for it can change overnight. It is a cycle that goes through the world. One minute one is on top, the next he could very well be on the ground, just like the rungs of a ladder. The idea of "seize the moment" applies very well to tzedakah. While we have the money, let us use it to further our support of those in need. In response, perhaps Hashem will find us deserving of holding on to it a bit longer.

This might have been Yaakov Avinu's objective when he asked Hashem for lechem le'echol u'beged lilbosh, "bread to eat and clothes to wear." One would think that the Patriarch would have more lofty requests to make of Hashem. Simply, this means that Yaakov asked for the bare minimum, no luxuries, only the bare essentials. On a higher plane, however, I think Yaakov was teaching us a significant lesson: The bread that we eat and the clothing that we wear are derived from Hashem. They are not products of our achievement, but gifts to us from the Almighty. We can never lose sight of this reality. Yaakov was affirming this lesson for us.

And he dreamt, and behold! A ladder was set earthward and its top reached Heaven. (28:12)

Malbim interprets Yaakov Avinu's dream as alluding to the Patriarch himself. There was actually no Heavenly ladder. Yaakov was the ladder! He stood between two worlds and served as the bridge between them. His body was planted on this world, with his neshamah, soul, reaching up to the uppermost Heaven. The dream illustrated Yaakov's main potential. While he is physically subordinated to this world, his soul can soar in the spiritual stratosphere - if he wants. It is up to him.

In one of his classic shmuessen, ethical discourses, Horav Chaim Mordechai Katz, zl, addresses Yaakov's dream and explains its relevance to us. As always, when the Rosh Yeshivah spoke, it was a heartfelt address and major learning experience for his talmidim, the students in Telshe, who were privileged to imbibe his guiding lessons for the life of a ben Torah. Chazal teach us in the Talmud Berachos 55b, that one is shown in a dream that which he thinks about subconsciously in his heart. Thus, the Rosh Yeshivah explains, given that Yaakov was always pondering ways to develop himself further spiritually, to have a deeper understanding of the profundities surrounding Creation, the secrets that guide our existence; thus, he was shown in a dream a lesson that would assist him in his spiritual quest: Man can reach Heaven. True, it is very distant, in the sense that it is a totally different dimension, but - with devotion, commitment and hard work - it is accessible.

So what does the ladder with its many rungs represent? If the idea is the connection between Heaven and earth, the spiritual with the physical, why was there not a bridge or a straight incline? Why rungs?

The Rosh Yeshivah explains that the rungs symbolize, level by level, the path to spiritual ascendency. Step by step, one climbs higher and higher. Neither does the reality occur overnight, nor does one "jump" up there. It is a gradual progression. He adds that one will not reach the summit unless he has sheifah, ambition. One must aspire for greatness, hunger for closeness to Hashem, and yearn for spiritual distinction. With enthusiasm and passion, he must work his way up - rung by rung. Ambition, without a willingness to accept whatever is thrown at him along the way, will not earn him success. He must be willing to toil, to sweat, to cry, to go on despite the obstacles - and he will make it. The metaphor of the ladder was teaching Yaakov the lesson of sheifah and ratzon - ambition coupled with a burning desire for spiritual ascendancy. One must climb - and continue climbing.

We live in a time when the psychology of life is defined by satisfaction. We are afraid to overdo it, to demand too much, to set lofty goals before ourselves - and especially for our children. Heaven forbid should one be weighed down with undue pressure. We have become so indulgent that we settle for less when it involves spirituality. If the visionaries who built Torah in America seventy years ago would have dreamt like beggars, we would not have the mosdos ha'chinuch, institutions of Torah education, with which we are blessed today. They were aristocrats; they dreamt like noblemen! Nothing stood in their way. They wanted more than a share of the pie; they wanted it all! Their sheifah, their vision, their toil, is what availed us the opportunity for unprecedented spiritual growth. They were not happy with a little school. They wanted yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs, shuls, and mikvaos, kashrus standards to satisfy the most meticulous level of observance, camps and schools for every Jewish child, regardless of any physical and mental challenge. They did not settle, and neither should we. Yaakov's ladder should mean something to us. It should be our clarion call for spiritual achievement.

When Dr. Moshe Auerbach was dispatched by the Orthodox Jewish community in Germany to establish a Talmud Torah in Petach Tikvah, he met with the leader of the chareidi community in Eretz Yisrael, Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zl. After explaining his goals and objectives for the school, Dr. Auerbach asked Rav Yosef Chaim for his approbation and blessing. Rav Yosef Chaim asked, "Will the school that you are about to start produce students who will one day arise at chatzos, midnight, and mourn the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash?"

The question understandably shocked Dr. Auerbach. "Is this supposed to be the goal of a school? Our goal is to produce frum, observant Jews, who will love Torah, study Torah and observe its mitzvos. Indeed, Rebbe, do all the alumni of the Talmud Torahs in Yerushalayim recite Tikun Chatzos? Let us be pragmatic. This is not a realistic goal," was the educator's reply.

"Yes, you are correct," responded Rav Yosef Chaim. "Indeed, only a very few, a select and unique group of students achieve such distinction, but it is our goal from day one to imbue each and every student with this awareness. After all, is this not the first verse in the Shulchan Aruch? 'Every G-d-fearing Jew should mourn the Bais HaMikdash.' Thus, unique individuals will arise and recite Tikun Chatzos. According to what you are intimating, this halachah will be ignored in your curriculum. I cannot support a school that omits even a single halachah from the Shulchan Aruch."

One must strive for the zenith if he is to achieve anything at all. Satisfaction with goals that are easy to achieve is setting oneself up to settle with mediocrity. A secular American poet wrote: "A man's reach should exceed his grasp." We cannot all make it to the top of the ladder, but if we do not set our goals high, we will probably end up sitting on the first rung, wondering what happened to everyone else.

And behold! Angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it. (28:12)

The Midrash Tanchuma offers a fascinating imagery of Yaakov Avinu's dream. First, Hashem showed Yaakov how the Heavenly angel in charge of Bavel/Babylon ascended the first seventy rungs of the ladder - and came down. Next, the angel of Madai/Media went up fifty-two rungs - only to return back to the bottom of the ladder. This angel was followed by the angel of Yavan/Greece who went up one hundred rungs - and also came down. The last angel was the angel of Edom, Eisav's nation and its descendants, who went up and kept on going - and did not return earthward. Yaakov asked Hashem, "Does this mean that Edom will not descend?" Hashem replied, "Do not worry. Even if he were to reach the highest Heaven, I will take him down." Hashem then asked Yaakov, "Why do you not attempt to scale the ladder?" Yaakov was afraid and said, "Just as these have come down, so will I not make it up there." Hashem told Yaakov, "If you ascend - you will rise to the top and never descend." Regrettably, Yaakov was unsure of himself. Thus, he did not chance it. Hashem told him, "Had you had faith, you would have risen and never descended. As a result of your lack of faith, your descendants will be enslaved in various ways by these four kingdoms."

The Midrash begs elucidation. There are, however, two very clear lessons to be derived from Chazal. Horav Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Shlita, learns from Chazal that yeridah, descending from a previously held position, is a misfortune. It is not something to ignore. This applies even under such circumstances that one does not descend lower than he was when he originally began his ascent. The mere fact that he could not maintain his position, that he fell back, is in itself a matter of concern. Descending is tantamount to falling, and falling is a traumatic experience. Second, if one thinks that he cannot maintain his position on a higher perch, it is better that he go no further. Better to remain where he is than to climb higher and fall. This is what Yaakov Avinu feared. He saw how shattered the other nations were after their descent. He decided that it was better not to scale the ladder than to ascend and fall. The Patriarch was viewing the situation with great transparency. If he was not going to maintain the change in "altitude," he was better off on terra firma, exactly where he was right now.

The Rosh Yeshiva explains the error of this hypothesis, as indicated by Chazal. Yaakov did not manifest a strong enough conviction in himself. He did not acknowledge the tremendous difference between himself and the gentile nations. Yes, they fell and were crushed, but Yaakov is unlike them. They cannot maintain their spiritual "high", because they are primarily suffused with physicality. They belong on the earth. Yaakov's composition is quite different. He is comprised of a greater element of spirituality. Thus, he can survive and maintain his spiritual hold on a greater elevation. When Yaakov ascends, he remains resolute in his new position.

A similar situation, to which we might refer as a wasted spiritual opportunity, took place later in history with Shimshon HaGibor. Beaten, blinded and enslaved by the Philistines, Shimshon cried out to Hashem from the innermost recesses of his heart, "Please, Hashem, help me one more time. Let me take down the Philistines. Tamus nafshi im Plishtim. Give me the strength to destroy them as I die." Hashem listened to Shimshon. He gave him his wish. The question is raised: If Shimshon understood the efficacy of prayer; if he was aware that prayer can bring about salvation, regardless of the "odds," why did he not pray for his own salvation? Why did he ask that he die with the Philistines? Why did he not ask to live? Why did he not pray for his vision to be returned to him?

It was the same mistake that Yaakov made. He did not think he could ask for so much. He knew the powerful force of tefillah. Yet, he did not feel himself worthy of asking for so much. One must believe in himself and feel himself capable of achieving the greatest and most complex heights. If we do not climb, we will not reach the top. It is true that if one does not try he cannot fail, but neither can he win. This is not a rubber stamp for haughtiness. It is only an encouragement to those who are worthy, but have a sense of fear in the back of their mind. We must attempt the climb with our sights focused on the summit. The greater one's sights, the greater Hashem's support. Try it.

When Yaakov came from the field…Leah went out to meet him and said, "It is to me that you must come, for I have clearly hired you with my son's dudaim. (30:16)

Leah exchanged the dudaim of her son, Reuven, in return for the privilege of having Yaakov Avinu spend the night in her tent. Leah had prayed fervently for more children. This was her opportunity. Hashem responded to her prayer and granted her a fifth child, Yissachar. Chazal teach us that the tribe of Yissachar was unique, in the sense that it produced an unusually large amount of poskim, halachic decisors. Why was Leah blessed with such progeny? What did she do to warrant such nachas? Why did she specifically merit halachic decisors?

In "A Vort From Rav Pam," Rabbi Sholom Smith's latest collection of divrei Torah from the venerable Rosh Hayeshivah, Horav Avraham Pam, zl, explains that there is a certain level of middah k'neged middah, measure for measure, in the repayment of Leah's exchange. In order for Leah to conceive Yissachar, she had to make a difficult decision. In getting Yaakov to come to her tent, Leah was confronted with a dilemma. The Patriarch was scheduled to go to Rachel's tent immediately upon his return from the field. Rachel, however, had sold her privilege to Leah. What should Leah do now? Allow Yaakov to go to Rachel's tent and then lead him to her tent? This would clearly cause Rachel pain, despite the fact that she had made a fair trade. The alternative would be to "go out" and greet Yaakov, a behavior which was not the most appropriate because it lacked tznius, modesty, as befitted someone of Leah's stature. Indeed, she was later criticized for this. What should she do? She was stuck between the proverbial "rock and a hard place."

Leah opted for the difficult path: she would not hurt her sister's feelings, even if it meant degrading herself. She acted appropriately, because obviously Hashem concurred with her decision by granting her Yissachar, a son whose descendants would be the poskim of generations to come. They would be the ones charged with making the difficult decisions.

There is something we should learn from this. Leah acted judiciously, even if, perhaps, improperly. Nonetheless, it was the right thing to do. Yet, her daughter, Dinah, was later faulted for "going out." Regrettably, even when one is right, he or she might be wrong, because we never know who is looking, and young eyes are impressionable. This is a lesson that might be best for us to review at home.

Yaakov deceived Lavan HaArami by not telling him that he was fleeing. (31:20)

Why did Yaakov Avinu sneak out from Lavan's home? The "deceit" that the Torah speaks about was that Yaakov never indicated to Lavan that he was aware of his displeasure with him. Yaakov represented everything Lavan despised. He was living proof that idol worship was a sham, its idols nothing more than useless stones. Lavan could not tolerate Yaakov; certainly, he was obsessed with his son-in-law's success. Apparently, Yaakov left discreetly in order to avoid a confrontation with Lavan. What did he fear? Yaakov was much stronger than Lavan, as we see from the way he rolled the large stone off the well. Yaakov's sons were nothing to ridicule. Clearly, if it came to a physical confrontation, Yaakov would prevail.

Horav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Shlita, explains that Lavan and his sons actually believed that everything which was in Yaakov's possession really belonged to them. The fact that he earned it fairly meant absolutely nothing to them. They had a very possessive attitude. Thus, if Yaakov were to leave, they would go to war against him. They were not relinquishing "their" property without a fight. Let us imagine that Yaakov had taken up arms against his father-in-law. After all, the man was a thief, a scoundrel, a cheat of the lowest order. This was not necessarily something that was public knowledge. The most vile deceivers put on airs of righteousness. That was specifically part of Lavan's disguise. Think what people would say: Yaakov is fighting with his father-in-law! The chillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem's Name, which would result from this debacle would be devastating. As usual, people would knock the young "Jew" who had the gall to fight with his "loving" father-in-law. First, he shnorrs off of Lavan for over twenty years, then he takes "his" possessions. Is this not what always takes place whenever there is a fight in the "family"? It is always the fault of the newest member of the family. One would never think that the distinguished Lavan would be guilty of deception.

In order to prevent this chillul Hashem, Yaakov took the way out that presented him in a guilty light. People might now even believe Lavan's claims. After all, what kind of son-in-law sneaks out, unless he is guilty of theft?

We learn from this to what length we must go to prevent a chillul Hashem from occurring. People are easily fooled. They want to believe the status quo. It is so much easier to lay the onus of guilt at the doorstep of the "new guy." The old establishment has been in for "eons." Everybody owes them. They can do no wrong. Going up against this, Yaakov felt that he would rather be called a ganov, thief, by Lavan than have Hashem's Name profaned.

Alternatively, Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, quotes Horav Aizik Sher, zl, who derives another lesson from Yaakov's behavior. The Patriarch teaches us that one must always act with dignity. Klal Yisrael is a noble people; thus, we should act with nobility and behavior befitting an aristocrat. People of breeding are not loud, they do not call attention to themselves; they would rather ignore the fight than fight and win. Jews do not take an aggressive position. It is below our dignity. Take the low road, be passive, regardless of what other people would do in a similar instance. We are not other people.

Va'ani Tefillah

Va'yaar Yisrael es ha'yad ha'gedolah…va'yaaminu b'Hashem
Yisrael saw the great hand….and the people feared Hashem.

A rav once spent Shabbos with Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl. In the course of conversation, he related the story of his friend who petitioned a famous Chassidic Rebbe for a blessing. Apparently, there was a serious health issue in his family. The Rebbe told him that in order for the blessing to be effective, the petitioner must believe in the Rebbe. "If you do not believe - then you are wasting your time." The fellow replied, "But, Rebbe, concerning Krias Yam Suf, the Splitting of the Red Sea, the Torah writes that first Yisrael saw the great hand, and only afterwards did they believe. This indicates that yeshuah, salvation, preceded belief." The Rebbe prayed for the man.

Rav Moshe distinguished between personal salvation, which requires one to believe first and then wait for salvation, and general, communal salvation which does not demand that belief precede salvation. Alternatively, Rav Moshe explained that there are two aspects of emunah. The first emunah is one in which a person believes that Hashem is the only One Who can do everything. Man has no ability of his own to achieve salvation. Klal Yisrael had achieved this level of emunah even before they witnessed the mighty hand of Hashem. The second form of emunah is one in which a person believes in Hashem's Omnipotence, but does not know if Hashem will be "willing" to help him by changing the natural order and creating a miracle. In other words, I believe that Hashem can do it, but am I worthy of His miracle?

Every person must believe that Hashem can perform the miracle, but the belief that He will change nature for him often only follows post-miracle.

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

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