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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And Yaakov departed from Beer-Sheva and went to Charan. (28:10)

The Torah underscores Yaakov Avinu's departure from Beer-Sheva. This emphasis begs elucidation, because we know that Yaakov left Beer-Sheva. It is the place in which he was living. Obviously, when one leaves - he leaves from home. Rashi explains that when a tzaddik, righteous person, leaves a community, it is no ordinary departure. It is a major event, because the community will never be the same. The departure of a tzaddik creates a stir and leaves an impression. When a tzaddik is in a city, he is its glory, its splendor, and its beauty. When he departs, these qualities leave with him.

In reviewing this Rashi, Horav Avraham Pam, zl, asks a penetrating question. We can understand that a tzaddik plays a pivotal role in the community in which he is active. As its leader, he is truly the community's glory, beauty, and splendor. Yaakov, however, played no active role in directing the community of Beer-Sheva. It is not as if he were the rav of the city. A city without a rav to guide it is not much different than a child without a father. Yaakov was neither involved in any form of outreach, nor did he run a chesed organization, as did his grandfather, Avraham Avinu. If Avraham would have left Beer-Sheva, it would have impacted the city due to his enormous outreach - both materially and spiritually. When Yaakov left, he was a sixty-three year old yeshivah student, who had spent his days and nights doing nothing but immersing himself totally in the sea of Torah study. Hardly anyone had known that he existed. Does such conduct impact a city?

In Shabbos with Rav Pam, Rabbi Sholom Smith cites the venerable Rosh Yeshivah, who derives specifically from here the compelling impact that a person who studies Torah lishmah, for its own sake, has on his surroundings - even if he has no personal interaction with the members of the community. His devotion to Torah serves as a symbol of the significance of the Torah in the life of a Jew. By his embodiment of Torah ideals through his 24/7 dedication to it, his mere presence impacts the moral compass of his community, becoming a deterrent against sin. The aura that encompasses someone whose devotion to Torah study is consummate is palpable. People take notice when a great person resides in their midst. When they see a man of elevated spiritual stature, they sense that they are in the presence of an unusual human being. This is true, even when: the person does not hold a rabbinical position; is not a Rosh Yeshivah; or is not involved in the spiritual or material assistance of Jews in need of either of these mainstays of life.

As an example of such an individual, Rav Pam points to the Chazon Ish. At his bar-mitzvah, he vowed to spend the rest of his life engrossed in Torah lishmah. Indeed, when he reached marriageable age, he was offered girls from the spiritual and material elite. He demurred interest in these shidduchim, matrimonial matches. When he heard of a young woman from a distant town whose love for Torah was peerless, however, he showed an interest in meeting her. They met, and after a while, they discussed marriage. The Chazon Ish was honest and straightforward. He told her, "If you think that I will one day become the rav of a community, you are mistaken. I am neither interested in such a position, nor am I interested in becoming a rosh yeshivah or any other public position involving Torah. I am interested only in spending the rest of my life studying Torah for its sake - nothing else." The young woman, of course, agreed and married the man who would become the gadol hador, preeminent Torah leader of his generation.

Six decades went by before the name of the Chazon Ish became known in the Torah world. For sixty years, he spent his entire day and night engrossed in Torah. Sadly, he and his rebbetzin were not blessed with biological progeny, so their home was one of solitude, where the primary sound that one heard was the Chazon Ish learning or his rebbetzin reciting Sefer Tehillim.

When he moved to Eretz Yisrael in the early 1930's, his fame began to spread with the publication of his treatise, Mitzvos HaTeluyos Ba'Aretz, the proper fulfillment of those mitzvos that apply specifically to the Holy Land. In the last decade of his life, his sparse apartment in Bnei Brak became the pulse of the Torah world, with people descending on him from all over the world. In a short span of time, he became the address to which every Torah Jew turned for guidance. Despite all of this fanfare, the Chazon Ish remained an intensely private person whose devotion to Torah study was transcendent.

The relationship of the Chazon Ish with the nascent secular government of the State of Israel concerning Torah issues was uncompromising. Torah reigned supreme, and any law that undermined or placed Torah observance in peril was a law against the Jewish people. While the Chazon Ish was usually quiet, keeping a low profile, if he felt that Torah Judaism was being attacked, he fought back by galvanizing the Jewish community's support in opposing the implementation of the law.

When the Chazon Ish passed away, he was mourned by all of the members of the Jewish community. Even those whom he opposed respected his integrity. Indeed, he earned his position as one of the most beloved figures in Jewish life. When he passed from this world, not only did Bnei Brak - and Eretz Yisrael in general - lose its splendor, glory and beauty - but all of the Jewish world was affected by the tremendous void left by his demise. He was no rav - no rosh yeshivah - no kiruv professional - no philanthropist. He was a Jew who devoted his entire life to Torah lishmah, Torah study for its own sake. We now have an inkling of the awesome power of the Torah.

He took from the stones of the place. (28:11)

The Midrash disputes how many stones Yaakov Avinu took. Rabbi Yehudah posits that the Patriarch took twelve stones. Rabbi Nechemiah contends that he took three stones. The Rabbanan say that he took only two stones. Horav Yechezkel Abramsky, zl, offers a homiletic understanding of Rabbi Nechemiah's position that there were three stones. He suggests that "stones" are a metaphor which alludes to the three Patriarchs, who are the foundation stones upon which the world is built. Each Patriarch represents his individual approach towards serving the Divine. Avraham Avinu represents the middah, attribute, of chesed, kindness. Yitzchak Avinu characterizes avodah, service and devotion to Hashem; Yaakov embodies Torah.

Our Patriarch Yaakov arrived at the makom Hamikdash, place where the Bais Hamikdash would one day be constructed, and he encountered three stones. Chazal teach that the stones began to debate one another. "Upon my head, the tzaddik will rest his head," they each declared. When Hashem saw the stones becoming embroiled in controversy, He immediately fused them together to form one stone. What is Chazal's message? What lesson does the debate among the stones and Hashem's fusion of them impart to us?

Rav Abramsky explains that the stones represent the three Patriarchs who began to contend with one another. The issue was: Which of the three foundations upon which the world rests is actually the rosh, head, most significant? Where should the tzaddik place his head, his primary avodah, service to Hashem? On which one of the three media represented by the stones should he place his greatest focus? Avraham claimed that chesed is the prime vehicle for achieving distinction and for inspiring the world. Yitzchak felt that avodah should be characterized by prayer and intense spiritual devotion. Yaakov insisted that it is through Torah that one can make his most significant contribution toward maintaining the world.

Hashem settled the dispute by fusing them all together. His message to them was straightforward: One who seeks shleimus, spiritual perfection, is compelled to complete and perfect himself in all three foundations. One who exemplifies only one - or two - will not succeed in attaining perfection.

Yaakov arose in the morning, anointed the stone with oil, and declared, "This stone which I have set up as a pillar shall become a House of G-d" (Bereishis 28:22). He taught that one who strives to erect a veritable sanctuary for Hashem must embody and perfect himself in all three areas: Torah, avodah and gemillus chassadim.

Lavan overtook Yaakov. (31:25)

Imagine how Yaakov Avinu must have felt when Lavan caught up with him. He made an attempt to escape. He knew that if Lavan overtook him, he had little chance to remain alive. No one could best Lavan. So Yaakov kept on running, while Lavan continued his pursuit. The Midrash teaches us that, while Yaakov was running from Lavan, unbeknownst to him, another enemy, his brother Eisav, was also in pursuit. Armed to the teeth with four hundred trusted soldiers, Eisav was finally free to rid himself of Yaakov. His brother would pay a hefty price for appropriating the blessings.

Let us now see what the Midrash teaches about these two enemies of Yaakov, who were both bearing down on the Patriarch. Chazal say that Lavan chose not to kill Yaakov for two reasons. First, Hashem had warned him to stay away. The Almighty gave Lavan an offer that he could not refuse. He was told, in no uncertain terms, to stay away from Yaakov. Second, Lavan heard that his other nephew, the one who was so dear to his heart, Eisav, was also after Yaakov. Eisav did not travel light. His entourage was comprised of four hundred killers, whose sole purpose in life was following their master Eisav's command. If he said, "Kill," they killed - regardless of who the designated victim was. Lavan was concerned that, if he killed Yaakov before Eisav arrived, Eisav would claim that he was redeeming his brother's innocent blood! How dare Lavan harm his only brother? Lavan did not harm Yaakov, because he feared Eisav's reaction.

Eisav handpicked four hundred men who certainly put fear in the hearts of anyone who came within their proximity. Yaakov must have trembled, knowing that when they would meet, he would be in serious peril. Little did he realize that these four-hundred men, by their very presence, were responsible for sparing Yaakov from the wrath of Lavan. We may think that we are being besieged by the enemy, when, in fact, Hashem is manipulating this enemy for our benefit.

Man is hopelessly bewildered concerning the ways of Hashem. Indeed, just when one thinks that he is beginning to understand what is taking place, Hashem throws us a curve, just to demonstrate how myopic we are. We grope around, thinking that we actually see; yet, essentially, we either see what we want to see (or what we convince ourselves is present) or what Hashem allows us to see. The big picture, the whole story, remains elusive, because this is something to which man is not privy.

The Yalkut teaches that the dog is, by nature, insolent and brazen. In order to curb his brazenness, Hashem created the dog to be "poor," relegated to relying on human beings for food and sustenance. Thus, the dog will serve his master with fidelity and appreciate the favor that he receives. We are being taught that poverty is, at times, a favor. Hashem knows the nature of each individual and, apparently, some people cannot handle the test of wealth. It might go to their heads, which will lead to arrogance. The shoresh, source, of their neshamos, souls, is such that the fewer opportunities they have for confronting the challenge of insolence, arrogance, brazenness - the better for them. Essentially, poverty is a favor in disguise.

The Chafetz Chaim comments that people wonder why some are created with a silver spoon in their mouths, while others barely subsist from meal to meal. He explains that what we see before us is merely one frame of a large picture. We do not take into consideration that there is much more to see, as we are not invited to be part of the holistic viewing audience.

He compares this to a visitor who entered a shul for the first time and is surprised with the manner that aliyos, honors when being called up to the Torah, are being apportioned. Men whom he feels are distinguished are not receiving the more important aliyos, while those whom one might consider to be of lesser significance are being called up to the more esteemed aliyos. The gabbai, individual charged with apportioning the aliyos, replies, "You were not here last week, when it was their turn to receive the more eminent aliyos."

We are allowed on this world for one lifetime, which, regardless of its length, is never sufficient. During our short stay, we expect to receive the answers to all of our questions. Perhaps the soul of the poor man had been here "earlier" and proved that wealth had been too much of a challenge. Hashem has done him a favor by "easing" the burden of his challenge; thus, He keeps him away from the money. There are many questions, and, for each question, there is a proper answer. For the most part, that answer is: "You do not see the whole picture. There is so much more to the equation than you have the ability to grasp."

When the Chasam Sofer was a teenage student, he "dormed" at the home of a certain family. One day, a soldier stationed in the area asked the Chasam Sofer to teach him to speak Hebrew. In return for this service, he agreed to polish the Chasam Sofer's shoes every day. The Chasam Sofer agreed to the arrangement, despite his puzzlement at this request.

Years later, when the Chasam Sofer was already the distinguished Rav of Pressburg, Hungary, it happened that he was asked to adjudicate a dispute between two wealthy members of the community. As expected, only one of the disputants emerged victorious. The other disputant left the bais din, court, enraged with the verdict and dead set upon taking revenge against the rav. He was so upset that he conjured up a libelous story about the Chasam Sofer, asserting that he was subversive to the secular government. As a result, the Chasam Sofer was subpoenaed to appear in court before the magistrate to answer charges of sedition.

On the appointed day, the Chasam Sofer appeared in court. It was a military court - no jury. As soon as he entered the court, the chief magistrate came over and said, "You have nothing to worry about. I will take care of everything. When the judge saw the Chasam Sofer stare at him incredulously, he explained, "The rabbi does not remember me. I was the man to whom you taught Hebrew many years ago. I never forgot the favor. Now I have the chance to repay you."

As the Chasam Sofer left the courthouse, he commented about himself, "This is the meaning of the pasuk V'raisa es achorai u'panai lo yirah, 'You will see My back, but My face may not be seen'" (Shemos 33:23). At times, man sees Heavenly endeavors which are inexplicable. He neither understands why Hashem acted in this manner, nor perceives a reasonable purpose in these actions. Everything is sealed before him; with his limited perception, he is unable to penetrate the maze of events which are clearly Heaven-sent. Later on, Hashem's intent becomes clear. The panai - My face, up front, when events occur - are beyond our comprehension. Achorai - My back - later on, when we are privy to the consequences of those early endeavors, we begin to grasp the reason for Hashem's actions.

With whomever you find your gods, he shall not live. (31:32)

Yaakov Avinu made a statement, ascribing a premature demise to the one who had taken Lavan's terafim, idols. He was unaware that Rachel Imeinu had taken them. As a result of our Patriarch's words - albeit without malice and unwittingly - he catalyzed a tragic impact on his beloved wife. The Chafetz Chaim derives from here a compelling lesson concerning the gravity of one's words. Yaakov certainly did not want to harm Rachel, but words, once they exit the mouth, cannot be recanted. They are gone, and, sadly, in this situation, they left an indelible mark.

Yaakov was very careful about which words left his mouth. Imagine, says, Horav Shlomo Levinstein, Shlita, that upon hearing the demands the Egyptian viceroy was placing on his sons, Yaakov would have uttered a curse against him. His son, Yosef, would have died! The brothers returned home and related to their father the humiliation which they endured, as they had been accused of spying. Now, the viceroy wanted them to return with Binyamin. Yaakov must have been beside himself with rage at the insolence of this "pagan." One curse - and he would have been gone! He kept his calm, said nothing - and, as a result, Yosef lived out his full life.

David Hamelech says in Sefer Tehillim 119:62, Chatzos laylah akum l'hodos lach al mishpatei tzidkecha, "At midnight I arise to thank You for Your righteous ordinances." Why did David arise specifically at midnight - as opposed to any other time of the night? In Midrash Rus, Chazal comment concerning the meaning of mishpatei tzidkecha, "Your righteous ordinances." Mishpatim - the justice (punishments) meted out against Ammon and Moav, and tzdakos - the righteous manner that You act with my grandfather, Boaz, and grandmother, Rus. This refers to the encounter at "midnight," when Rus covertly entered the threshing floor where Boaz had retired to bed. Instead of cursing her, he blessed her for coming.

Let us envision the scenario in the perspective of the debauched culture that reigned at the time. Boaz's generation was morally deficient. The threshing floor was a place in which immoral encounters could take place. It was secluded, and the people who spent the night there were not necessarily the community's spiritual elite. Boaz sensed movement in this close proximity. He looked up and saw a young woman. What does a person do in such an instance, under such circumstances? One assumes that this woman is up to no good. His first reaction was to curse her!

Not only did Boaz not curse her, he went as far as to bless her! As a result of this "change of pace," David praised his grandfather for not cursing his grandmother. Who knows, had Boaz reacted in the opposite way, David Hamelech may not have been born!

The words that come out of a person's mouth have an element of kedushah, sanctity, to them. Under certain circumstances, strong words with dual connotations can have a far from desired - and even a deleterious - effect. An incident occurred during the hafganos, protests, in Yerushalayim, concerning the building of a swimming pool which would cater to mixed swimming. Obviously, to establish such a venue that undermines the very underpinnings of kedushas Yisrael, the holiness and morality of our nation, in the Holy City was a knife thrust into the heart of Torah-observant Judaism. People took to the streets to protest this infamy.

One day, Horav Yehudah Tzedakah, zl, who was Rosh Yeshivah in Porat Yosef, approached Horav Ezra Attiyah, zl, the Rosh HaYeshivah, with the suggestion that it might be appropriate to send the students of the Yeshivah to a hafganah that was taking place that day.

Rav Attiyah asked, "Are you not aware that it might become physical and the mishtarah, police, will beat the protestors with sticks and truncheons? Is it appropriate to send students to a scene of unrest where they might be hurt?"

"It is worth suffering for kedushas Yisrael," Rav Tzedakah countered. "Would your response be the same if it were your son who was beaten by the police?" was the Rosh HaYeshivah's reaction to his senior lecturer.

That evening, a hafganah took place, and Rav Tzedakah's son was injured by the police. When they came to inform Rav Tzedakah of what had happened, he replied, "I know. I already knew in the morning that this would happen… It is shegagah ha'yotsei mipi ha'shalit, "'Like a decree that is already issued by the ruler.'" This was a reference to Rav Attiyah's question concerning his son. As soon as the great tzaddik uttered the words, "And if it would be your son," it was as if he had foreshadowed its occurrence. The holier one is, the greater his spiritual stature, his words are commensurately valued and rendered significant.

Now Rachel had taken the terafim, put them into the camel's packsaddle and sat on them. (31:34)

There is no question that the yetzer hora, evil inclination, maintains a powerful hold on man. As much as we try to extricate ourselves from its grip, it is very difficult. It is a never-ending battle from which we often do not emerge triumphant. Is there a strategy for overcoming the blandishments offered up by the yetzer hora with which it ensnares us? Why do some fall prey, while others survive the battle, often unscathed? In Mayanei HaChaim, Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, shares with us his secret for success.

Lavan was searching for the terafim, his little idols, unaware that his daughter, Rachel Imeinu had hidden them in the saddlebags of the camel upon which she was riding. The question which many commentators touch upon is an obvious one: Why did she bother hiding them? Why did she not smash them, burn them, throw them into a river? Ibn Ezra explains that, by burning them, she was attributing significance to them. When one is compelled to destroy something, it is an indication that that item has value, is of consequence. This is the last thing that Rachel wanted to do. The terafim were nothing. They were meaningless. An idol's relevance is determined by the way it is treated by intelligent people. If it is treated as a non-entity, it has no significance. If, however, a person feels that the idol must literally be destroyed, it shows that he attributes an element of distinction to it.

The Midrash Tanchuma states that one does not recite the Motzoei Shabbos Havdalah prayer over a candle belonging to a gentile. The simple reason for this halachah is that a candle owned by a gentile has not "rested" on Shabbos. Second, by using a candle that belongs to a gentile, one lends distinction to the gentile. With regard to Hashem, he has no relevance.

Rav Zaitchik suggests that herein lies the "strategy," the maneuver for overcoming the yetzer hora. Just as Rachel was compelled to contend with her father's terafim, each and every one of us is challenged by his own personal avodah zarah, idol. It is called the yetzer hora. Yes, the evil-inclination within each and every one of us is an idol to which we regrettably defer. This is worship! One does not have to genuflect before the idol to be considered to be an idol worshipper. If one has no control over himself, if his yetzer hora exerts its dominance over him, he is a slave to an idol - no more and no less!

The key to winning the war against the yetzer hora is to apply Rachel's strategy: denigrate it; deprive it of its value; devoid it of significance, diminish its relevance. Sadly, we find this stratagem to be difficult. When the yetzer hora waves the "carrot" in front of our eyes, we are prepared to do anything.

The yetzer hora entices us with kavod, honor, tempts us with the fulfillment of our most base desires, convinces us that we can have it all. But what does "all" really mean? Is it of value? Is honor real? Does living out our fantasies really make for true self-satisfaction? It is all a game to which the unknowing give relevance. If we would apply even a modicum of intelligence, we would see how meaningless and purposeless it all is. When we have reached that point, the yetzer hora becomes putty in our hands. After all, the yetzer hora has only the significance which we give to it.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'heyisem kedoshim lei'Elokeichem. And be holy to your G-d.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, understands this pasuk from a practical perspective. It is incumbent upon a person to elevate himself continually. After a person is born, his body and mind grow on a steady basis until they each reach maturity. One's body usually stops its physical growth somewhere between the ages of eighteen to twenty years old. His intellectual capacity continues on after that - for a short while. At some point, all growth stops. This is with regard to physical and cognitive growth. As far as his moral and ethical development is concerned, it continues on throughout the duration of his life. The mitzvah, "And be holy to your G-d," is an imperative for us to elevate ourselves continually and come closer to Hashem. There is no end to this mitzvah. Kedoshim means to separate. Thus, we are mandated to separate ourselves constantly from what we were before, so that we reach higher and closer to G-d.

This, explains Rav Schwab, is the idea behind the ladder Yaakov Avinu saw in his dream. The ladder represents the human personality which is set on earth. Man must, throughout his life, continue to climb upwards, step by step, until he reaches its zenith. While no one can reach the top - one must, nonetheless, strive to achieve this goal.

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

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