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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And Yisro heard all that Hashem did to Moshe and to Yisrael, his people. (18:1)

Yisro was not the only one who heard about the miracles which Hashem wrought for His people. All the nations of the world heard. Yet, the Torah writes that only Yisro heard. Was his ability to hear different from that of the others? The commentators explain that everyone heard, but only Yisro applied what he heard.

To paraphrase Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, "Yisro did not simply hear; rather, he derhered, a Yiddish expression which denotes a specific quality of listening. We suggest another idea. More often than not, we attend a lecture, an ethical discourse, and are impressed with the message that has been expounded. We listened - we heard - we even accepted the idea, but, as far as we are concerned, it is a great idea - for someone else! It has nothing to do with us. There is no personal message. Yisro heard and understood the personal aspect of the miracles which Hashem had wrought.

And Yisro heard all that Hashem did to Moshe and to Yisrael, his people. (18:1)

Rashi explains that Yisro heard two reports that had such a great effect on him that he left the comfort of his home and sought out Klal Yisrael in the wilderness. He heard about Krias Yam Suf, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the war with Amalek. The Torah seems to imply that in addition to impacting Yisro, these miracles are also interrelated with one another. We must endeavor to understand their significance, as well as their relationship.

In his sefer Simchas HaTorah, Horav Simcha Hakohen Shepps, zl, explains that with their victory over Amalek, Klal Yisrael's incredible power was revealed to the world. The question now arises: If Klal Yisrael was so powerful, why did they not simply battle the Egyptians also? Why was it necessary to split the Red Sea? They could have emerged triumphant from Egypt - not driven out as slaves.

Apparently, the Jews could not wage war with the Egyptians because they still maintained a spark of hakoras hatov, gratitude, to them for opening up their country to them many years earlier when Yosef was viceroy. Egypt had been their home away from home for many years. By right, they could not battle with them, because war is the antithesis of hakoras hatov. This is what inspired Yisro: the war with Amalek and the splitting of the Red Sea. The fact that they could vanquish Amalek, but they would not fight the Egyptians, precipitating the need for Krias Yam Suf, demonstrated the extraordinary character of this nation. This nation represented the ideal, a people whose character should serve as the exemplar of what a human being should strive to be. They were the people whom Yisro understood he should join.

And you shall make known to them the path in which they should go. (18:20)

In the Talmud Bava Metzia 30b, Chazal interpret the words, "the path," as a reference to performing acts of loving-kindness. In his Shaarei Teshuvah 3:13, Rabbeinu Yonah asserts that tzedakah, charity, is performed with one's money, while gemillus chasadim, acts of loving-kindness, are performed both with one's possessions and with one's body. A person should see to it that he provides assistance to his fellow man, regardless of his own personal financial standing. A smile, a nice word, a personal visit, serve this objective; it is not the monumental deeds that make the difference. Simple acts of caring can change a person's life. Chesed begins when we take notice of those around us in order to respond to their needs.

I recently read about a project initiated by a professor in clinical psychology. He encouraged his students to get involved in helping people. They asked, "What is there to do?" That is a typical question of those who are looking for a way to avoid responding to the needs of others. The professor took one of his students, whom we will call Joe, and brought him to a senior citizens center, so that he could do something for others. The following is what happened as a result of Joe's visit.

When Joe first came to the home, he noticed that there were a large number of elderly patients just lying around in bed wearing their old cotton gowns, doing nothing but staring up at the ceiling. These people were acting like they had become victims of senility, but this was not the case. Senility is not necessarily a natural consequence of old age. It often occurs when people do not feel loved or useful.

At first, Joe did not know what to do. Indeed, this was the first time he had been in such a home. The professor suggested that he approach a certain elderly woman and begin a conversation with her. Joe went over to the patient, and they began to talk. It was more of a monologue than a dialogue. Nobody had listened to the woman for so long that she had a lot to share. She talked about her life, the ups and downs, the successes and failures, the happy times and the sad ones. She even spoke about her impending death. She had made peace with the fact that she would not live forever. She had so much to say, but no one had cared to listen!

Joe was thoroughly moved by the experience. Therefore, he returned the following week. Soon he began to spend the day visiting many of the patients. It became known as Joe's Day. He would come to the home, and all the patients would gather to speak and even to listen. Someone cared.

No longer did they sit around in their worn-out gowns, staring at the ceiling or at the clock on the wall. Some asked their children to bring them new clothes. They had their hair done; they wanted to look nice, because someone finally cared. Joe realized that kindness can be expressed through the little things we do. Look around, and you will find a lonely person who needs company, a hassled worker whom no one remembers to thank, a young student whose parents have seemingly forgotten about in the maelstrom of life, a spouse who needs a smile, a child who needs an encouraging word. It is the little things that we do - or do not do - that make the difference. That is what chesed is all about.

One more story: Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, was a giant in Torah scholarship. He was also a giant in chesed. He did not merely delegate others to perform acts of chesed; even at his advanced age, he personally went out of his way to help those in need. He exhibited a sense of caring for others that was unparalleled. An observant psychologist who lives in Yerushalayim related the following story. When he walked into shul on Erev Pesach, he was greeted by a number of mispallelim, worshippers, "You must have done something special to have merited a visit from Rav Shach."

"Who? What are you talking about?" he asked them.

"Rav Shach was walking around your courtyard last night for about an hour," they said.

"Impossible. You must be mistaken. Why would Rav Shach visit my courtyard?" the psychologist asked incredulously.

After awhile, it became clear to the psychologist that, indeed, Rav Shach had been at his house. He now became chagrined, exclaiming, "Woe is me. It is my fault. I told the Rosh Hayeshivah not to come up to the house. It is because of me that the gadol hador, preeminent Torah leader of our generation, waited outside for an hour."

The worshippers looked at him, without a clue as to what he was talking about. The psychologist was miserable. On Chol Hamoed, one of the Intermediate Days of Pesach, he traveled to Bnei Brak to ask mechilah, beg forgiveness, from Rav Shach. The Rosh Hayeshivah joyfully welcomed him to his home, saying, "I should ask you for mechilah!"

Afterwards, Rav Shach explained what had occurred and what had precipitated his trip to Yerushalayim. On the night before Pesach, when everyone was occupied with Bedikas Chametz, searching their homes for chametz, a bachur, young man, came to speak to Rav Shach. The Rosh Hayeshivah perceived that something was clearly wrong emotionally with this bachur. He then telephoned the psychologist to ask if he would spend some time speaking with the young man. The psychologist was prepared to travel to Bnei Brak if that was what Rav Shach desired. Rav Shach told him that he would send the bachur over to him. Little did the psychologist know that Rav Shach, feeling that the bachur should not travel alone, would go along and wait outside for the duration of the visit.

Upon being asked why he did not send someone else with the bachur, Rav Shach responded, "I am an old man and, thus, have very little to do to prepare for the Yom Tov of Pesach. Why should I bother someone else who is busy? Furthermore, I had the opportunity to take a stroll and partake of the refreshing air of Yerushalayim while I thought of divrei Torah. What greater pleasure is there?" This story speaks for itself.

So shall you say to the house of Yaakov and relate to Bnei Yisrael. (19:3)

When was the last time someone got up and attributed his success in Torah study to his mother? It is certainly not a common scenario. Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, is quoted as saying, "It is well worth it to work a lifetime, establishing seminaries for thousands of young women, in order that the result will be one good mother!" He substantiated this when he added, "Look at what one mother accomplished! Rashi's mother raised a son that illuminated the world. What would the Torah have been without Rashi? No Rashi on Chumash - no Rashi on Navi - no Rashi on Talmud. Torah would never have been the same. All because of one mother."

Each in his own manner, the commentators, explain why Moshe Rabbeinu was instructed to convey the Torah first to Bais Yaakov, the women, and then to Bnei Yisrael, the men. The Midrash attributes it to the women's alacrity in mitzvah performance. Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer explains that men usually accede to their wive's advice. The Moshav Zekeinim al HaTorah from the Baalei Tosfos cites Rabbeinu Moshe M'Narvona, zl, who says that it was in Leah Imeinu's merit. She had a tablet made of gold, upon which was engraved the words, "Torah tzivah lanu Moshe," the Torah was commanded by Moshe. She would gaze at this tablet all day to the point that her eyes became tender as a result of the reflection from the gold. Therefore, her descendants/daughters, merited to hear the Torah first.

Rabbeinu Bachya asserts that women preceded men in hearing the Torah because the success of a man's Torah study is based upon the women in his life. A mother sets the tone for a child's attitude toward Torah study. She inculcates a love for Torah in her child, a love that will continue to endure as he develops and matures. The koach ha'chinuch, power of education, that rests upon the mother is compelling. When the Chafetz Chaim, zl, would hold his mother's old, tattered Sefer Tehillim in his hands, he would become very emotional and say, "Do you have any idea how many tears my mother shed over this Tehillim, as she entreated Hashem to grant her that her son should be a Yehudi kasheir, proper Jew?"

The Chafetz Chaim's daughter once related the following story concerning her grandmother. She said, "My grandmother was not a miracle worker. I do remember that at the end of her life, after her son, my father, had become renown throughout the Torah world as the saintly Chafetz Chaim, a number of close friends approached her with the obvious question: How did you merit to have a son that illuminated the eyes of the world? What was your recipe for success?

She replied that she could not remember anything that she had done that would have catalyzed such success. After they pestered her some more, she added that there was one small thing that came to mind. Prior to her wedding, her mother had asked to speak to her. These were her words: "My daughter, listen to what I have to say. We are commanded to raise our sons to study Torah and have yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven. Therefore, I ask of you that every free moment that you have, take your Siddur in hand and pray to Hashem that you merit to raise your children to be G-d-fearing and observant Jews who will devote themselves to Torah study. Do not forget to shed tears when you pray." She gave her daughter a Siddur in which Sefer Tehillim was included.

The Chafetz Chaim's mother continued, "That is all I did. Whenever I had a free moment, I would take out the Siddur and recite Tehillim, crying out my heart to Hashem that my Yisrael'ke would develop into a talmud chacham, Torah scholar, and a yarei Shomayim."

Upon relating this story, Horav Eliezer M. Shach, zl, would add, "Rashi's rebbe was Rabbeinu Gershom Me'or Ha'boleh. He was greater than Rashi. Yet, Rashi merited to become the Rabbon Shel Kol Yisrael, quintessential Torah teacher of the Jewish people. Why? Because of his mother, the tzadekes, who was the sister of Rabbeinu Shimon Hazekein m'Magence and because of his saintly father."

It is related that Rashi's father possessed a valuable, precious stone that the priests needed for their idol. He, of course, was not about to grant them access to this stone. They surreptitiously convinced him to travel with them on a boat, with the intention of forcibly taking the stone from him. When Rashi's father realized what they were about to do, he threw the stone into the water, thereby forfeiting his own life. In return for this extraordinary act of mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, a Bas Kol, Voice from Heaven, came forth to announce that he would merit a son that would illuminate the world.

The Gaon m'Vilna said about Horav Zalman, zl, m'Volozhin, brother of Horav Chaim, zl, m'Volozhin, that he was above the human dimension. He was like a Malach Elokim, a Heavenly angel. This is attributed to his mother who, when she was in labor and about to give birth to him, refrained from expressing any moaning whatsoever, because her husband was studying together with the Shaagas Arye. In her desire not to disturb these two giants of Torah, she contained her expression of pain until the final moment of birth. In this merit, the Shaagas Arye blessed her that her newly born son would be able to vanquish his yetzer hora, evil-inclination, and become similar to a Heavenly angel. This all demonstrates that when parents value Torah education, so do their children.

Children learn to respect what they see respected at home. When they are exposed to a double standard or hypocrisy, they react in kind. In concluding the impact that Jewish mothers have had on their children, we cite the mother of the Rosh Hayeshivah of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin and founder of the Daf Hayomi, folio a day, Horav Meir Shapiro, zl. Rav Meir Shapiro would always relate two thoughts that his mother had shared with him as a young child. These ideas inspired him and, in turn, became the source of inspiration to so many others. His mother would say to him, "Meir'l, my child, see that you study well and learn Torah, because every day that goes by with no Torah learned is something precious lost that can never be retrieved. Who knows what the next day may bring?" She would also emphasize the greatness of Torah when she said, "Work harder and sacrifice more. For such a great and mighty Torah, this is too small a sacrifice."

When a child grows up hearing these two maxims as part of his daily lessons, it is no wonder that he achieved such distinction. Indeed, all of us are beneficiaries of her legacy.

You shall not covet your fellow's wife…nor anything that belongs to your fellow. (20:14)

It seems that if one is not to covet anything that belongs to his friend, "anything" would include his house and his wife, etc. Why does the Torah make a point to emphasize certain possessions and then use the collective "anything" at the end of the pasuk? Horav Shmuel Walkin, zl, makes a practical suggestion. He says that the Torah is advising us how to not fall into the trap of envy and desire for what does not belong to us. When we see that our friend possesses an item of exceptional beauty or value, something for which we envy him, we should think about everything else our friend has. This can be viewed from contrasting positions. On the one hand, our friend might have accumulated much "baggage": problems; challenging situations; major physical or financial losses. These might have catalyzed compensation for him in the form of his beautiful home. Alternatively, we should look at his many achievements, the wonderful acts of chesed that he has performed. The beautiful possessions which he now has might be his remuneration. When we look at our friend's possessions, we should view them in the context of "everything" that he has. It might change our mind regarding coveting what belongs to someone else.

Va'ani Tefillah

Bircas Elokai Neshamah

There is a dispute as to when one recites the bracha, Elokai neshamah. Most Siddurim place Elokai neshamah following Bircas HaTorah. The Gaon m'Vilna preferred a different sequence: Asher yotzar, followed by Elokai neshamah, and then Bircos HaTorah. The supportive reasoning is that since the brachah of Asher yotzar refers to the body, the brachah of Elokai neshamah, which refers to the restoration of the soul, should follow. Elokai neshamah does not begin with the usual introductory words, Baruch Atah Hashem, and, therefore, it is a brachah hasemuchah l'chavertah, following a brachah which begins with Baruch Atah Hashem and also ends with Baruch Atah Hashem. Thus, it follows Asher yotzar. The other Rishonim feel that as a Bircas Hodaah, Blessing of gratitude, it stands alone and does not need the introductory blessing.

V'ata asid litlah mimeni, - "You will, one day, take my (neshamah) from me."

We realize that life does not go on forever. We submit to Hashem's will and are not depressed by the reality of our eventual demise. Perhaps the notion that the neshamah is eternal - and, therefore, the essence of a human being - helps us to understand that we do not really die. Our neshamah, which is eternal, merely ascends to its original home. We believe in Techiyas Hameisim, Resurrection of the Dead, when the body that has long decayed will be recreated and once again serve as the soul's repository.

l'iluy nishmas
ha'isha ha'chashuva
Maras Liba bas R' Tzvi
niftar 28 Shevat 5762

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