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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Yaakov became very frightened, and it distressed him. (32:8)

Rashi explains the dual fears that Yaakov Avinu experienced. He was frightened that he would be killed, and he was distressed that, in the course of the battle, he might kill "acheirim," others. Notably, Yaakov had greater fear concerning the harm he might inflict on others than the harm by which he might be victimized. Apparently, our Patriarch never heard of "collateral damage," a term which has regrettably been popularized in contemporary society. People's lives have no value, they are secondary to a higher cause. Some make it; some do not. That is collateral damage. We cannot have it all. Someone will suffer. The Jewish nation has a contrasting perspective which values every human life, thus maintaining a very dim view of the sorry excuse of collateral damage.

Let us return to Rashi's original statement. Yaakov feared killing acheirim. Who are the others? Why use this word? Why not simply say that Yaakov feared killing Eisav's men? In the Sefer Peninim Yekarim, we find a homiletic explanation quoted from the Imrei Noam and attributed to Horav Shmuel, zl, m'Ostrovtze, a disciple of the Koznitzer Maggid. When Moshe Rabbeinu was about to kill the Egyptian who was hurting the Jew, the Torah says, Va'yaar ki ein ish, "He saw there was no man…" "and he slew the Egyptian" (Shemos 12:2). Rashi comments that Moshe was not concerned with who might find out. If a Jew is being struck by an Egyptian, one neither asks questions, nor is he concerned that he might get into trouble for helping a Jew. We do what is right. Rashi explains that Moshe saw prophetically that no future convert would descend from the Egyptian assailant. We see Moshe was not taking chances. If there was a possibility of a Jew descending from this Egyptian, Moshe would have desisted and not intervened by inflicting mortal harm on the Egyptian.

Yaakov Avinu had a similar concern. In the Talmud Gitten 56a, we learn that Nero Caesar converted to Judaism. He was the progenitor of the distinguished Tanna Rabbi Meir. Nero was a descendant of Eisav. Thus, Rabbi Meir actually descended from Eisav. The Talmud Horayos 13b states that Rabbi Meir also went by the name Acheirim. He was a student of Elisha ben Avuyah, the Tanna turned apostate, who was later referred to as Acher, the "other one." After Acher left the fold, Rabbi Meir continued his relationship with him, feeling that he could distinguish between that which was halachically correct and that which was not. The sages did not agree with his choice of teacher; therefore, they referred to Rabbi Meir as Acheirim, "Others." Whenever we find a halachic decision being rendered by Acheirim, it is a reference to Rabbi Meir.

With this idea in mind, we understand Yaakov's fear if he were to succeed in killing Eisav. If Eisav died, so did the potential for Acheirim. Without Eisav, there would have been no Rabbi Meir. This was one piece of collateral damage that the Patriarch could not ignore.

Then he said, "Let me go, for dawn has broken." And he said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." (32:27)

What was the purpose of the debate/fight that took place between Yaakov Avinu and Eisav's guardian angel? Perhaps the answer lies at the end of the narrative when Yaakov refused to allow the angel to leave unless he would first bless him. The commentators explain this blessing as a demand from Yaakov that the angel concede to him that he had received Yitzchak Avinu's blessings by right. Once and for all, Eisav's complaint that Yaakov stole the blessings must be quieted. While it may be a nice gesture, what was to be gained by the angel's blessing? Was this the purpose of their battle? The blessings were granted by Yitzchak and would, thus, take effect regardless of the angel's blessing.

Horav Michoel Peretz, Shlita, explains that there is a great benefit to be derived from the blessing of Eisav's guardian angel. He was Yaakov's greatest combatant, his most serious adversary. To receive a concession from one's antagonist is the greatest approbation one can obtain. Indeed, one's actions should be on the level that he receives acclaim even from those who oppugn his way of life, who are opposed to his level of observance.

Having one's friends and supporters defend him and justify his every action is not an indication of his praiseworthiness and appropriateness. It is when the accolades are sung by his detractors that we see the true success of an individual. Indeed, it is the perspective of those distant from him, of those who are not subjective, that counts the most. They have a better opportunity to grasp the larger picture, to see from a distance what is often overlooked when up close. When Yaakov received the blessing from Eisav's angel, it carried incredible weight, because it demonstrated to the world that he was acting appropriately.

If we keep this principle in mind, we can understand why it was Yaakov's lot in life to fall under the radar of Lavan's evil web of deceit and moral bankruptcy. Think about it: "Yaakov was a wholesome man, abiding in tents" (Bereishis 25:27) - the tents of Torah. He devoted his life to Torah study, to self-betterment, to achieving an exalted level of spirituality. So, why was he relegated to living for twenty years with such a roguish person?

Rav Peretz explains that good is best discerned and enhanced when it is contrasted with evil. Hashem created evil, so that good could be appreciated and intensified. From the negative, one sees the positive; in darkness, one achieves a greater perception of light. Yaakov achieved a greater level of purity and holiness as a result of his exposure to his evil brother and wicked uncle. He saw the "pits" and was, thus, able to attain greater appreciation of the "fruit".

Eis tzarah hee l'Yaakov u'mimenah yivashea, "It is a time of travail for Yaakov, and from it he will be saved" (Yirmiyahu 30:7). The travail itself will be the source of Yaakov's salvation. It will bring about an otherwise difficult to achieve salvation. Indeed, the wound itself provides the remedy.

Yaakov saw the positive in every situation, the silver lining in what seemed to be a distressing challenge. As Rachel Imeinu was about to take leave of this world during childbirth, she named the child whom she would sadly not raise, Ben Oni, the son of my pain. She saw the pain associated with his birth, the tragedy that accompanied his entrance into this world. Yaakov also named this child. He called him Binyamin, the son of my right hand, the child of strength. The Patriarch understood that with the increased distress would come greater strength and ennoblement.

At times, when one is up against a stone wall, he works harder to either scale it or break through. This individual would otherwise never have attempted to achieve what had earlier been considered an impossible task. Rav Peretz underscores this idea with the following story: A young man, a baal teshuvah, penitent, who had experienced much hardship in his life, was confronted with yet another challenge. He had finally met a young woman who was nice, a baalas middos, possessing good character traits, who was deeply committed to a Torah life. The young man finally had a chance to move on with his life, to eschew the past and look forward to the future.

There seemed, however, to be a problem. The Rav whom he had engaged to be mesader kiddushin, perform the marriage ceremony, had questions concerning the young woman's pedigree. He felt that there were certain Halachic issues which needed to be clarified. The young man was crestfallen. He felt his life coming to a bitter end. Everything he attempted seemed to fail. He could not even get married.

He approached the Rosh Kollel in his community to ask for help. The Rosh Kollel listened to the young man's story and immediately cloistered himself in his study in order to clarify the halachic questions that had arisen. Two hours later, he emerged with a number of dispensations which allowed the young man to move on with his marriage. Regrettably, the rabbi refused to budge. The Rosh Kollel turned to the preeminent poskim, halachic arbiters, in Eretz Yisrael, who agreed with his ruling. The wedding took place two weeks later. The young man had risen from the depths of depression and was now a different person.

The chassan's anguish spurred the Rosh Kollel to delve deeper into the halachah, to plumb its depths and emerge with a halachic dispensation that would otherwise have been overlooked. Adversity created the opportunity for spiritual growth. From amidst the darkness and gloom, there shone forth brilliant light.

Then he said, "Let me go, for dawn has broken." And he said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me"… he said, "No longer will it be said that your name is Yaakov, but Yisrael." (32:27, 29)

Then G-d said to him, "Your name is Yaakov. Your name shall not always be called Yaakov, but Yisrael shall be your name." (35:10)

At first glance the above pesukim seem to convey the same message. After some perusal, however, we are confronted with a number of questions. First, Yaakov Avinu asked Eisav's angel for a blessing. The blessing turned out to be a name change for the Patriarch; a name change which denoted his spiritual stamina in besting the angel. Yet, when the angel gave the blessing, he began, "No longer will it be said that your name is Yaakov." Who cares about his original name? It is the new name that is important. Why does the angel introduce the new name with a negative mention of his previous name? Second, when Hashem confirms the name change, He begins, "Your name is Yaakov," but it will not always be so. Your name will change. It seems as if the angel sought to underscore that the Patriarch will forever lose the name Yaakov. On the other hand, Hashem is emphasizing the complete opposite: Yaakov's name will be Yaakov, but he will not always be called by his original name but, rather, by his new name, Yisrael.

The Chasam Sofer, zl, offers a penetrating explanation based upon a statement made in the Talmud Berachos 12b. Chazal say that Hashem was telling Yaakov, "Your name will continue to be Yaakov, but Yisrael will be your principal name, with Yaakov serving as a secondary name." The Patriarch would have two names: Yaakov/Yisrael, with Yisrael serving as the primary name.

Eisav's angel had an agenda when he said, "No longer will it be said that your name is Yaakov." He wanted to extirpate Yaakov's name permanently from the equation, so that only the name Yisrael would remain. Why? The Chasam Sofer explains that the dual name Yaakov/Yisrael has the same gimatria, numerical equivalent, as kra Satan - 729. Kra Satan is a reference to the Satan's decrees. We implore Hashem to tear, annul, the harsh decrees that Satan seeks to have imposed on us.

Eisav's angel was none other than the Satan. He was acutely aware of the power of Yaakov/Yisrael; thus, he sought to rid the Patriarch of his original name. Yisrael alone was not enough of a threat to him. Both names together were more than he could handle.

Why are both names necessary to impugn Satan's accusations against us? Why is Yisrael - a name that denotes strength, leadership, and the ability to overwhelm - not sufficient for our nation? The Chasam Sofer notes that Yaakov is derived from eikav, heel, which the Patriarch grasped on Eisav as they entered into the world. Yaakov symbolizes humility, as the heel is the lowest part of the body. It is also the first part of the body that is stepped upon when a person walks.

I think that Yisrael is not enough. Strength alone, unless tempered by humility, can be dangerous. How many great people have fallen because they lacked humility; because they always thought they were right; because, in their arrogance, they refused to listen to the advice of a "lesser" person? To triumph over Eisav and his minions, we must maintain the power of ki sarisa, "for you have striven" (and emerged triumphant) and eikav, the lowly heel. Only then will we see success in "crushing" Eisav's influence upon us.

The Steipler Gaon, Horav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, zl, exemplified the profound connotation of his two names. He was a gaon of unparalleled brilliance, a tzaddik who shunned the limelight, despite being the unofficial successor to his brother-in-law, the Chazon Ish. Most of his time was spent studying Torah in his modest apartment. He was the address to which Jews from all over the world turned for blessing, guidance and solace. There is no dearth of stories about the Steipler. I have chosen two that are probably well-known by some and worth repeating for the others. These stories underscore his fiery passion for Torah observance, as well as his outstanding humility.

At the age of nineteen, the Steipler was dispatched to the city of Rogathchov to establish a branch of the Novhardok Yeshivah. While he was there, he was drafted into the Russian Army to fight the Bolshevik Revolution. His unyielding determination to observe mitzvos despite being in an environment that was harshly anti-Semitic and antithetical to anything Jewish is legendary. The first Shabbos of his conscription set the tone for his entire stay in the army. On Erev Shabbos, he marched into the commander's office and notified him that, under no circumstances would he desecrate Shabbos. He was willing to make up the work during the week. Shabbos remained sacrosanct.

The officer was so taken aback by this unprecedented insolence that he agreed. There was, however, one stipulation. It was a suicidal gambit, but if he emerged alive, he could have his Shabbos. The Steipler said that he agreed to any condition. In fact, he did not even care what the stipulation was, since, regardless, he was not going to work on Shabbos. "As a result of your taking 'time off' to observe Shabbos, you will be placing a greater work load on your co-workers. Therefore, they will be allowed the 'privilege' of beating you to their heart's content." We must understand that these men were young, strong Russians whose anti-Semitic feelings were no secret. The opportunity to kill a Jew was a treat for them. The Steipler miraculously lived to tell about these special moments of suffering. As his bones were broken and his body shattered, he was able to say that he was infused with a special feeling of closeness to the Almighty. This is how he approached every mitzvah.

The second story demonstrates his unusual humility. Because of his distinction, everyone sought to have the Steipler attend his simchah. A joyous occasion becomes that much more gratifying with the presence of a Torah luminary. Understandably, the Steipler could not possibly attend each simchah to which he was invited. Especially in his old age, it was a rarity when he would attend a Shabbos bar-mitzvah. Indeed, he could easily spend the entire Shabbos trudging from one simchah to another.

He did, however, make one exception. A young boy was bar-mitzvah and the Steipler entered the shul and wished mazel tov to the father and bar-mitzvah boy. He then bent over to whisper something into the ear of the boy. The interchange took a few minutes - much longer than the average blessing of wishing that the boy grow in Torah and be a nachas to his parents and Klal Yisrael. The boy listened to the Steipler and then declared, "No! No! It is not a problem!" Then the Steipler left.

Anyone who observed the conversation wondered what had occurred. Later on, the Steipler explained that six years earlier, the bar-mitzvah boy, who was seven-years old at the time, was davening in the same shul as the Steipler. The boy was reading out of a very large siddur, causing the Steipler to think that the boy was learning Gemorah during davening. He went over to the boy and mistakenly criticized him for learning when he should be davening. The boy respectfully showed the Steipler that the volume in his hand was a siddur - not a Gemorah. The gadol hador, preeminent Torah giant of the generation, was very apologetic and asked the boy's forgiveness. The boy, of course, forgave him.

The Steipler, however, placed the incident on the back burner for six years until the time at which the boy would legally become an adult. He waited this entire time to once again ask for mechillah, forgiveness. It was concerning this request that the boy replied, "No problem. I did it already."

This is what Yaakov /Yisrael exemplifies, and it is with such qualities that we will render Satan powerless.

And two of Yaakov's sons, Shimon and Levi, brothers of Dinah, took each man his sword, and came upon the city which was resting trustfully and slew every male. (34:25)

Previously, we read that Ha'kol kol Yaakov, the domain of Yaakov, was the study of Torah. V'ha'yadaim yedei Eisav, the hands belonged to Eisav. Physical violence, raising the sword, war, all belonged to Eisav. It was, therefore, incongruous to their very nature for the sons of Yaakov Avinu, Shimon and Levi, to raise their sword to kill an entire city. This is not the Jewish way of dealing with dispute and adversity. The sword is something we would expect from the descendants of Eisav - not Yaakov.

Indeed, the Patriarch took serious umbrage with their actions, claiming that they had clouded the family reputation, besmirched their honor, tainted the name of Yaakov. They responded that they could not allow the pagan to have his way with a Jewish woman. Indeed, as Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, comments, the reason Shechem acted so cavalierly with Dinah was specifically because she was a foreigner, a friendless Jewish girl. Who cares about the Jews? Perhaps they were correct in reacting, but the manner of their response was uncalled for and certainly imprudent.

Rav Hirsch derives from this entire fiasco that the Jew is quite capable of raising his sword. He does not resort to violence because it is abhorrent and against his nature. It is not because he is weak. Throughout history, when the Jew has had to fight, he did so valiantly, with extreme force. If we have become the mildest, most soft-hearted of nations, it is not due to any inherent weakness on our part, to any form of cowardice. It is due to our Torah education, which focuses on humanness and mildness. We can wield the sword, as Eisav does. We do not, because we are Yaakov.

Devorah, the wet-nurse of Rivkah, died, and she was buried below Bais Kel, below the plateau; and he named it Allon Bachus. (35:8)

Apparently, the passing of Rivkah Imeinu's nursemaid must have been of critical significance to the Jewish people. Otherwise, it would not have been prominently mentioned in the Torah. In fact, it is recorded immediately after we are notified of Yaakov Avinu's establishing a Mizbayach, Altar, in Bais Kel. While it is true that the elderly nursemaid died and was buried there, does her passing warrant such prominent coverage? Furthermore, the place was named Allon Bachus, due to the excessive weeping that took place there. Who was Devorah that she was granted such honor? What role did she play in Rivkah's life?

Rashi explains that it was not only Devorah who died, but also Rivkah who died. Indeed, the death of Devorah is an allusion to Rivkah's passing, which took place at the same time. Thus, the excessive weeping, with the word bachus, weeping, in the plural, alludes to the double weeping - for Rivkah and Devorah. Rivkah's passing is concealed by the Torah for reasons mentioned by the commentators, connected to her being the mother of the wicked Eisav. The world population was not ready to appreciate the life of the woman who gave them the evil Eisav. We have still not resolved the issue of why Devorah, a woman who reached an advanced age, commanded such outpouring of mourning.

Horav Moshe Tzvi Nahariyah, zl, takes us back to our first encounter with Devorah, which occurred at the time of Rivkah's betrothal to Yitzchak. As the young bride was about to leave home, her family decided to send along her nursemaid. The immediate question which glares at us is: If Rivkah was mature enough to make a decision concerning marriage, why did she require the services of her nursemaid? If she was that young - perhaps she should not be getting married. Furthermore, why does the Torah find it necessary to share this tidbit of information concerning Devorah?

Targum Yonasan ben Uriel writes that Devorah was much more than a nursemaid. She was padgevassa, her mentor, her spiritual advisor, who guided her on the path of observance. As such, it is understandably crucial that Rivkah's descendants be made aware of the pivotal role she played in her life. Rivkah became the illustrious Matriarch as a result of Devorah's tutelage. We owe her a great debt of gratitude.

Rashi and Ramban debate why Devorah was with Yaakov at this point. She was no longer a young woman who could travel freely. Rashi contends that Rivkah sent her to inform Yaakov that it was finally safe to return home. The aged nurse unfortunately died on the way home. Ramban maintains that it is highly unlikely that Rivkah would dispatch an elderly woman to fetch her son. He suggests that, following Rivkah's marriage, the nursemaid took leave and returned to Padan Aram. When Yaakov left Lavan's home, he took Devorah with him out of respect for his mother. He planned to support her in her old age.

Rav Nahariyah suggests that there is more to Devorah's accompanying Yaakov. After all is said and done, she was old and frail, clearly not a candidate for wilderness travel. Yaakov wanted Devorah due to what would be her compelling influence on his sons. Any woman who could survive in Lavan's evil environment and emerge a paragon of virtue, fully-committed to Hashem, must have been a very special woman. She deserved to leave.

How did she survive? How did she remain steadfast in her beliefs? There were no schools, no opportunity for education. How did she do it? The Rosh Yeshivah explains that she was probably one of the "souls made in Charan" (Bereishis 12:5) by Avraham and Sarah. The influence and inspiration she received from the first Patriarch family remained with her for her entire life. Out of a sense of hakoras hatov, gratitude, to Avraham and Sarah, she decided to remain with Yaakov's family and help with the "kids." Her influence was far-reaching, warranting her special mention in the Torah.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'laasos u'l'kayeim. To observe and to uphold.

To observe is the goal of Torah study. Practical application is the fundamental purpose of limud ha'Torah, study of the Torah. Only if one is proficient in the Torah can he apply its laws practically. There are people who perform mitzvos by rote, following what others do, with no clue concerning the "why," "how," and "what for." It is not enough simply to "do." One must execute the mitzvah properly with meaning and enthusiasm. Horav Akiva Sofer, zl, defines v'laasos u'l'kayeim, as an entreaty that we be able to perform mitzvos and transmit what we do to the next generation, thereby seeing to it that the mitzvah is upheld. We must see to it that the mitzvah is not lost on us, but is carried on to our descendants and students.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that u'l'kayeim applies to the strengthening of mitzvos by championing them even if it involves hardship. Some mitzvos may even interfere with one's livelihood or other aspects of his daily endeavor. We implore the Almighty for strength to transcend the challenge, to triumph over the hardships, so that, in face of all odds, we succeed in upholding all of the mitzvos.

l'zechar nishmas
R' Noach ben R' Yehudah Aryeh z"l
niftar 22 Kislev 5726
by his family

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