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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Do not fear to go down to Egypt, for I will make a great nation of you there. (46:3)

Yaakov Avinu needed reassurance. He was prepared for the worst, as he had already experienced so much hardship. It is no wonder, therefore, that when he was confronted with the beginning of what was to be galus Mitzrayim, the Egyptian exile, he was afraid. The Patriarch, however, did not fear for himself. His commitment and devotion to Hashem was unwavering. He feared for his children, his descendants who would be born into Egypt's depraved culture. How were they going to be able to withstand the onslaught of evil and licentiousness, as they confronted an environment permeated with spiritual defilement? He also saw the pain that his descendants would endure, the physical and emotional hardship that characterize exile. Hashem told Yaakov not to worry. In Egypt, he would become a great nation. While this is a wonderful blessing, did it ease the pain? A larger nation means that a greater multitude of Jews would suffer the angst of the exile. How was this supposed to calm Yaakov's fears?

Sforno explains that it was specifically in Egypt, as a result of the terrible exile, that Yaakov could be assured of his people's spiritual survival. In Egypt, they would be reviled, considered an anathema, to be tormented and degraded to the parasitic level, but hate is good! It keeps us away from the "others." Hatred protects us from intermarriage, guards us from getting too close and from learning to accept their culture as a way of life. Hatred creates boundaries. That is a good thing. Only in the Egyptian exile did Klal Yisrael have a chance for spiritual continuity and advancement. In Canaan, they were accepted. Their Canaanite neighbors were their friends - or, at least, they put on a good show. They would visit, have a barbecue, go to the ballgame - and then the intermingling would proceed from the innocuous to the serious. Acceptance leads to friendship, with friendship leading to the ultimate tragedy.

When Klal Yisrael loses their unique identity, when they begin to look, act, and speak like their gentile neighbors, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to achieve their spiritual goals. Isolation guarantees that we, as Jews, will be spared the indignity of being accepted as one of them. It is about time that we stopped apologizing for our uniqueness. Jewishness is not an accident of birth. Our Jewishness is an inherent gift of Heavenly design. Regrettably, some of our co-religionists do not see it this way. Unless the gentile accepts them as one of them, they feel they have failed in their mission of tikun olam. This is why they bend over backwards to expunge any vestige of distinction and uniqueness that individuates the Jewish nation, and them as Jews. They want to be friends with the gentiles, be accepted by them, even marry them. After all, the exile is over.

It is this pin-headed line of thinking that just about destroyed German Jewry in the nineteenth century and is continuing to do so today. We are a spiritual people, as well as a physical one. If there is no spirituality left, if the Jew has assimilated himself into the immoral culture that prevails in contemporary society, what is really left of him as a Jew? I have often asked this question of wonderful, well-meaning Jews who have assimilated: "Exactly what is there about your lifestyle that denotes your Jewishness?" Sadly, the answers are often the same, and they do not reflect any practice that is intrinsically Jewish.

Horav Moshe Shternbuch, Shlita, posits that anti-Semitism has kept Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, alive throughout the millennia. The murder, the libels - products of virulent hate, which led to devastating pogroms - were actually the force that stood behind us. It stood firm as an impenetrable barrier against assimilation. It kept us away from them. In a world of relative freedom for a Jew - and an eagerness to socialize and be accepted - intermarriage and spiritual extinction are not far off. Sadly, we are not winning the battle. When the Jewish nation realizes its greatness, its unique pedigree and special favor in the eyes of Hashem, we will develop the sense of pride essential for overcoming the depression that is fundamental to galus.

I taught a class today to a group of unaffiliated Jews. Some remembered their Orthodox zaides, others even spoke of their Torah-observant parents. After all is said and done, however, they had chosen a different path of life. Their children, regrettably, had no choice. I will not even talk about their grandchildren. I must emphasize that these are wonderful people who somehow, somewhere, veered from their heritage - and now it is too late. Perhaps not for them, but for their descendants. Let me take that back. It is never too late. It just becomes more difficult. As long as the spark is there, as long as there is an affiliation, a sense of pride - there is hope.

Perhaps it was bashert, or it was the emotion that still lingered when I came home, but when I turned to my bookcase to search for a sefer, my eyes fell on Rabbi Yisroel Besser's tribute to Horav Shlomo Freifeld, zl. He was a towering individual whose love for each and every Jew was only superseded by his love for Yiddishkeit. It is no wonder that he was one of the founders of the baal teshuvah, penitent, movement. He reached out to Jews of all stripes, backgrounds and persuasions. He did not care from where one came. His concern was for where he was going. Let me share a few vignettes about the man who is referred to as Rebbi by his many students.

When a person is called up to the Torah, he recites the blessing, Asher bachar banu mikol ha'amim, "Who has chosen us from among all the nations," and concludes, v'nasan lanu es Toraso, "and He gave us His Torah." The first part of the blessing concerns our being Jews: we acknowledge and thank Hashem for choosing us. The second part of the blessing expresses our gratitude to the Almighty for giving us His Torah.

In his drasha, lecture, Rav Freifeld observed that in the early part of the twentieth century, the nisayon, challenge, was concerning the second part of the blessing. In those days, every Jew - man, woman and child- was acutely aware of his pedigree, his Jewishness. He was infused with a sense of pride concerning his Jewish identity. His battle, instead, was pertaining to his ability to perform mitzvos. It was simply just too difficult. Shabbos was a tremendous hardship. Kosher was extremely difficult. Once these two primary mitzvos were not observed, the rest soon followed suit.

"Today," the Rosh Yeshivah continued, "there is no longer a struggle to keep mitzvos. Kosher is readily available at an acceptable price, and Shabbos is no longer something about which the non-Jewish world is ignorant. Our battle has shifted to the first part - the challenge to be a Jew." We lack the pride of being part of the Chosen People. Indeed, some of our co-religionists even feel the need to apologize for being Jewish.

Judaism must permeate one's entire being to the point that it is reflected externally in his every nuance. Rav Freifeld would often relate the story of a journalist named Dorothy Thompson, who had been sent by her newspaper to cover the first Zionist convention held in Basel, Switzerland. She had spent a few days at the conference, moving among the delegates and getting a feel for their positions and world perspectives. She then decided that she wanted to attend the historic Kenessia Gedolah in Katowitz, Poland. She dressed up as a man and snuck into the great hall. She later wrote of the disparity between the two gatherings: "In Basel, I saw the Jewish intellect. In Katowitz, I saw the Jewish G-d."

I conclude with the Rosh Yeshivah's practical appreciation of a well-known Midrash. Chazal point out that an ant manifests two noteworthy characteristics: It is very industrious, constantly working, preparing and storing food for "later." It works so incessantly that it stores much food for a long period of time. This is really unnecessary, since the lifespan of an ant is only six months. The other admirable trait is that the ant will not take anything that does not belong to it. Rav Shlomo explained that these dual characteristics are actually one and the same: "Only someone who does not look elsewhere truly realizes that all the chiyus, sustenance, that he will ever need is right here." He then continued, "Rabbosai, everything that we need is already within us. We need not look elsewhere."

How true is that statement. The Jew who is insecure feels that "others" have more to offer than his own Yiddishkeit. For some, it takes going out there, seeking and exploring, only to discover that it is all a sham. We have it; they do not. These individuals will, hopefully, return. Regrettably, there are those who are so stubborn that they would rather continue living a fool's life filled with hypocrisy and self-deceit than be modeh al ha'emes, concede the truth, that they have erred, they were wrong. We can only hope that they, too, will one day develop the courage to return and stand proud in support of Hashem and His Torah.

Yosef hitched his chariot and went up to meet his father… He appeared before him, fell on his neck, and he wept on his neck. (46:29)

Yosef made a point to harness the horses personally in preparation for his long anticipated meeting with his father. It would be no ordinary meeting. It was Yosef and Yaakov Avinu, two individuals whose relationship with one another was unusual, in the sense that Yosef was a spiritual replica of his father. Separated for over two decades, one can only begin to imagine the pent-up emotion that was welling up within each one - father and son. Yet, we see a number of anomalies concerning this meeting. Yosef hitched the chariot himself, probably out of excitement and growing anticipation. "Yosef came within view of his father." This is obvious; why state it? Clearly, if his father fell on his neck, he came into his father's view.

This question is addressed by a classic answer of Horav Leib Chasman, zl. Yosef had his own personal reason for seeing his father. Twenty-two years is a long time. He had left as a teenager and was now presenting himself as an adult, a world leader. How his heart must have pounded as he came closer and closer to that moment. A righteous person such as Yosef, however, does not think only of himself. What about his aged father's feelings? As much as a son yearns to see his father, it is only a minute emotion compared to the father's feeling toward his son. Yosef empathized with his father's feelings.

Yosef had two feelings coursing through him that day. On the one hand was his personal longing for his father; on the other hand, he recognized his father's yearning to see his long lost son. How does one process these two emotions? Which one dominated Yosef's heart? The Torah gives us the answer with the words, "Yosef hitched his chariot." What was his rush? Why did he not wait for one of his servants to do it for him? Rashi explains, "So as to stir himself to honor his father." It was all about his father. Everything that he did - in thought and deed - was directed towards his father. His Kibbud av consumed him, so that nothing else mattered - not even his own feelings. With great effort, Yosef suppressed his emotions and directed all of himself, every aspect of his being, to focus totally on the mitzvah of Kibbud av. This is underscored by the Torah when it says, "He appeared before him." It was all about him: Yaakov. It was as if "Yosef" played no role in the historic meeting, for all of his thoughts were focused on his father.

Horav Meir Bergman, Shlita, applies the Mashgiach's explanation to elucidate why Yaakov chose that moment to recite the Shema. In Meseches Kallah Rabbasi 3, Chazal teach us the magnitude of the mitzvah of deferring one's personal wishes to perform the will of Hashem. They derive this from Yaakov, who refused to kiss Yosef, because the Patriarch was unsure if, during Yosef's exile in the morally bankrupt Egypt, he might have fallen under the allure of a pagan woman.

Can one begin to imagine Yaakov's devotion to Hashem? He was a loving father who was about to meet his son for whom he had mourned for twenty-two years. Surely, he was filled with longing, anticipation, incredible pride at his son's success - and yet, despite all of this, the Patriarch did not for one moment disregard the minutae of halachah and the demands of kedushah, holiness. He refused to kiss his son, because, maybe, on the outside chance, his son's spiritual character had been tainted during his long exile. That day, the spirit of prophecy - which had left Yaakov when he commenced his mourning for Yosef - had returned. What more did Yaakov need? What greater proof of Yosef's fidelity to maintaining his spiritual integrity did Yaakov require before he kissed Yosef? Until he was absolutely certain that Yosef was still "with the program," Yaakov would not indulge his deepest fatherly emotions. He would not yet kiss his son. How did he achieve such an unprecedented level of devotion?

Rav Bergman explains that this is Yaakov Avinu. He was an individual who accepted the the yoke of Heaven Above to the fullest extent, who lived by the axiom, V'ahavta es Hashem Elokecha, "You shall love Hashem, Your G-d," b'chol levavcha, u'b'chol nafshecha, u'b'chol meodecha, "With all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might." To Yaakov, these were not mere words to be repeated by rote. There was no lip-service in his service to Hashem. It was tangible; it was real. He carried these words engraved on his heart and imbedded within his soul. At the moment that he served Hashem, every fiber of his being was engaged. There was no compromise. At that moment, every human emotion paled in comparison. Even the joy of reunion, following twenty-two years of inconsolable mourning, was nothing compared to the minutest doubt concerning spiritual integrity. This was Yaakov Avinu's Shema.

Yosef also "said" Shema. After all, if Yaakov was reciting Shema, should Yosef not also have been reciting it? Rav Bergman explains that, indeed, Yosef was expressing the Shema differently. What better way could there be for him to proclaim his acceptance of the yoke of Heaven than by doing exactly what he was doing - in the manner that he executed his Kibbud av? Harnessing the chariot with his own two hands, racing off to Goshen as fast as he could go, with the single-mindedness of subduing his own emotions and thinking of nothing else other than honoring his father - this was Yosef's Shema! Is this not a compelling expression of acceptance of Heaven's yoke? How did Yosef conclude his Shema? He kissed his father. This was surely his father's greatest conceivable pleasure. They both "said" Shema that day - just with different expression.

Pharaoh said to Yaakov, "How many are the days of the years of your life?" Yaakov answered Pharaoh, "The days of the years of my sojourns… few and bad have been the days of the years of my life." (47:8,9)

Yaakov Avinu comes across as issuing a subtle complaint, as he, with a hint of bitterness, was telling Pharaoh that he had had a rough life. Clearly, the Patriarch was not complaining about his life, but rather, explaining why his appearance bespoke a life of hardship: "Yes Pharaoh, I appear old and haggard, because life has not been easy for me. I am not complaining, but I am not able to conceal the truth." Yaakov was punished for this. Heaven views our actions with a Heavenly measuring stick. Therefore, the "few" and the "bad" caused him to lose thirty-three years of his life. His father, Yitzchak Avinu, lived to be one hundred and eighty. Yaakov died at the age of one hundred and forty-seven. The severity of this punishment is unusual. Imagine, had Yaakov lived another thirty-three years. As it was, he still achieved the appellation of b'chir she'b'Avos, greatest of the Patriarchs. We have no idea what the Patriarch could have achieved during those thirty-three years. The greater one is, the more exacting the measuring stick and, consequently, the more severe the punishment.

The Daas Zekeinim m'Baalei Tosfos makes this statement. The number thirty-three is not arbitrary, but rather, corresponds with the number of words in the two pesukim describing Yaakov's meeting with Pharaoh. They add that, while it is true that Yaakov did experience much adversity in his life, in the end, Hashem came to his rescue. This is something he should have taken to heart. What does this teach us concerning our perspective on life?

In his volume of shmuessen, ethical discourses, from Horav Avraham Pam, zl, by Rabbi Sholom Smith, the author points out an important lesson to be gleaned from the Daas Zekeinim. Yaakov Avinu had experienced much hardship in his life. Yet, he was able to overcome each and every one of the situations which plagued him. He had been threatened by Eisav and was subjected to twenty years of living with his evil father-in-law, Lavan. Did these experiences take a toll on him? Apparently not, since it is written, Va'yavo Yaakov shaleim ir Shechem, "Yaakov arrived intact at the city of Shechem" (Ibid. 33:18). "Intact" means both physically and spiritually complete. Next, we find Dinah abducted and violated, but she was later returned to him. According to the Midrash, she was the mother of Yosef's wife, Osnas. It does not seem like a bad ending. His favorite son Yosef was sold into slavery. Yaakov was inconsolable for twenty-two years. Now, however, he was being reunited with him, and, lo and behold, Yosef is the viceroy of Egypt and provider to an entire world. When we look back at the culminations of each of his periods of adversity, we wonder if Yaakov had reason to complain.

It happens all of the time. We are confronted with a challenge; we go through a serious crisis and later we realize that these moments of life's complexities were essentially a blessing in disguise. Hashem's kindnesses come in varied forms, some overt, others subtle and not so obvious. It may take decades, even a lifetime, to discern the hidden gift, the silver lining, within each crisis.

There are instances when one's wheel of fortune appears to be directed at him, and his stock is rising rapidly. Everything seems to be going his way, as blessing is focusing on him. One does not know for sure what is truly good - and what is bad. Things are not always what they appear to be. Hashem has His ways, and we can only survive if we maintain a strong sense of faith in Him. The Rosh Yeshivah notes this idea in the tefillah, prayer, we recite as we bentch Rosh Chodesh, bless the New Moon. We ask the Almighty, among other things, she'yimalei mishalos libeinu l'tovah, "to fulfill our heartfelt requests for the good." The word "good" is underscored, because we do not always know what is really good - and what is really good for us. It might be good, but, for "us" it would be harmful, and vice versa.

In the footnote of the sefer, there is a story related by Rav Pam's grandfather, the Shedlitzer Rav, zl, concerning a Jew in his town, Reb Moshe Rieger. This Yid, although he was a great talmid chacham, who had received semichah, ordination, on all four sections of the Shulchan Aruch, never took a rabbinical position. Instead, he chose to engage in commerce, which earned him a small fortune. Everything seemed to be going along well until, one day, he received the calamitous news that one of his ships, carrying a fortune in goods, had sunk on the high seas. Reb Moshe was suddenly facing financial ruin. Overnight, he went from being a successful businessman to becoming a member of the ranks of the destitute, the downtrodden and the depressed. Upon hearing the news, the members of his immediate family burst into tears. Reb Moshe's face, however, was filled with a smile from one end to the other. His wife was concerned that he had snapped from the pressure. "Why are you smiling?" she asked him. "I just received my k'sav rabbanus, rabbinical contract," he replied. "This telegram (with the news of the lost ship) is a sign from Heaven that I should leave the world of commerce and engage in the pursuit of Torah scholarship." What seemed to be a curse was actually a Heavenly directive that he needed to change his life.

Yosef gathered all the money on hand in the land of Egypt… and Yosef brought the money to Pharaoh's house. (47:14)

The Ramban notes that Yosef was an ish emunim, man of impeccable integrity, refusing to take one penny for himself if it did not belong to him. Yosef could easily have justified "dipping into the till." If not for him, there would be no money. This earned him the respect and admiration of Pharaoh and the Egyptian people.

One who lacks integrity, even if it is with regard to a simple misdemeanor in which there is no real monetary loss, is still, in effect, a liar and a thief. It might only be theoretical in nature, since the loss is superficial, but it still taints the individual. This blemish has an effect on the individual's DNA to the point that it will have a character - altering effect on his descendants. Let the following comment shed some light on the concept to which I am alluding.

The Alter, zl, m'Slabodka, Horav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, was wont to say, "If people relate that a certain person, who happens to be the scion of an illustrious lineage, is guilty of stealing a bouquet of flowers from a street vendor, one must be acutely aware that this infraction did not occur overnight. This is not some isolated incident. The thief's actions are rooted in generations. He is acting out a pathology that has been festering in his family tree. The chances are that his grandfather had plagiarized a dvar Torah, a seemingly innocuous theft. When the grandfather perpetuates such an infraction, over time, the grandson will steal flowers." We may add that, regrettably, it only gets worse with time and each ensuing generation.

Parents are a child's first mentors. At birth, a child acts selfishly and is self-centered. This can advance to lying, cheating and stealing. The next step is disrespect, defiance and all-around disobedience. A child learns integrity at home. Therefore, integrity must be an essential component of each parent's lifestyle. When children observe their parents manifesting high moral integrity, they will follow suit. These life lessons are a critical part of a child's development.

It can also go the other way. A parent who instructs his child that cheating is wrong, will have little chance of success, if his child sees him acting in a less than honest manner. Even if what the parent does may be justified in his own eyes - this will not convince his child. It goes without saying that any unjustified act of deceit, dishonesty and theft cannot be countenanced by a child. So, why is it that some people continue along their merry way committing acts of disrepute against other members of the community, demonstrating complete disregard for their own reputation and in blatant disdain for what their children, who are innocent observers, become subject to imbibe into their own mindsets? I have yet to unravel the mind of such a person.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'haer eineinu b'Sorasecha, v'dabeik libeinu b'mitzvosecha. Enlighten our eyes through Your Torah; attach our hearts to Your commandments.

The fact that from all the body's organs, the organizers of the Tefillah chose the eyes and heart to represent Torah comprehension and mitzvah performance, is indicative of their special relationship with one another. We find the head, mouth and kidneys used in a number of places as metaphors for Torah and mitzvos. Yet, as Horav Baruch Epstein, zl, explains, the eyes and heart are unique in their relationship with the strengthening of prayer. The Yerushalmi Berachos 1:5, states: "The eyes and the heart are two 'brokers' of sin." This means that the eyes see, and the heart lusts. Essentially, all of the other organs of the body are dependent upon these two critical organs. Therefore, we pray to Hashem that the natural inclination of these two organs be directed towards kedushah, holiness, so that everything else, all the other components of the body, will follow suit.

Rav Epstein cites the Talmud Avodah Zara 28b, which states that on Shabbos one may anoint an eye that has swelled and threatens to burst forth from its socket, because shureinai d'eina b'ovanta d'liba telu, "The eyesight is connected to the muscles of the heart." Rashi explains that there seems to be a physical connection between the eyes and the heart. Tosfos comments that what the eye perceives is determined by the understanding of the heart. Thus, we see that these two organs are intricately connected both physically and quasi-emotionally.

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