Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


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

Yisro heard something special that evoked within him a desire to leave his roots and go forth into the wilderness to join the Jewish nation. Chazal ask, "What did Yisro hear that caused him to come?" This question seems superfluous. After all, the Torah writes that Yisro heard "all that Hashem did for Moshe and Yisrael." Obviously, the focus is not on what he heard, but, rather, on some aspect of what he heard that motivated him to come. It was not only Yisro who heard. All of the nations heard and trembled. They shook in fear and awe, but they still did not leave their homes to join the Jews. They heard, but they did not respond. Yisro heard and came. Apparently, it is not what one hears - it is how one hears. According to Rabbi Eliezer HaModai in the Talmud Zevachim 116a, Yisro came shortly after Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. We are taught that when Hashem gave Klal Yisrael the Torah, all of the nations of the world heard the powerful reverberation of Hashem's voice. It inspired great fear in their hearts. They all assembled at the home of the wisest pagan, Bilaam ha'rasha, the wicked. "What is this awesome sound that we hear? Is it possible that G-d is bringing another cataclysmic flood to the world?" they wondered. "No. G-d swore that He would never again destroy the world through a flood," Bilaam replied.

"Perhaps He meant that He would never again bring a deluge of water, but He would send a mabul, flood, of fire," they countered.

"No," Bilaam said, "He said that He would never again wipe out the world."

"If so, what is this loud sound that we hear?" they asked.

"G-d has a very special jewel in His Heavenly treasury that He is giving to His children. He is giving them His Torah." This revelation allayed their fears of any impending doom. Let us turn to analyze the dialogue that transpired between the pagan nations and Bilaam. They sought his counsel out of fear. Thinking that the world was coming to an end, they sought an explanation for the thunderous noise they heard. Was it a catastrophe, a flood of water, a flood of fire, a cataclysmic event that would signal an end to the world?

Bilaam calmed them down, "Do not worry. It is only Hashem giving His Torah to His People." The Torah, with its eternal verities, was about to be given to the eternal nation. The Shechinah would descend to This World, and the Creator would inform His People about their function and purpose on this earth and how they can achieve a portion in the World to Come. That is it!

In relating this conversation, Horav Chaim Friedlander, zl, is filled with amazement at the utter foolishness and simplemindedness of these people. They had heard the noise. They understood that something unprecedented and awe-inspiring was occurring. When they heard that it was "only" Hashem descending to the world with the Torah, and that it would be given to Klal Yisrael, they no longer were in a frenzy. So what if Hashem was descending! So what if Hashem was giving the Torah! This had nothing to do with them. As long as there was to be no flood, they could care less what Hashem was doing with His Torah. They were prepared to return to their collective homes with the message - "false alarm, no catastrophe. It is only the Torah being given to the Jews. There is nothing for us to worry about."

This demonstrates how obtuse they really were. The Borei olam, Creator of the world, was revealing Himself and indicating what it is that He wants of His subjects - and this was nothing in their eyes. How utterly dense and irresponsible they were, because all they cared about was the assurance that there would be no catastrophe. In contrast, the thought of something positive - something edifying - taking place was not their concern.

When a catastrophe occurs, however, it will be too late for them. They did not bother listening to Hashem when He informed Klal Yisrael what it is that He expects from His creations, what it is that would prevent a catastrophe from occurring. They were too wrapped up in themselves. One person from among them did listen: Yisro. He understood the connection. He saw the pattern. He listened, and he responded accordingly.

Moshe told his father-in-law everything that Hashem had done to Pharaoh and Egypt for Yisrael's sake. (18:8)

It seems somewhat superfluous for Moshe Rabbeinu to reiterate everything that Hashem had done for Klal Yisrael. After all, Yisro's prior awareness of these miracles had motivated him to leave the comfort of his home to join Moshe and the Jewish nation in the wilderness. Simply, we may say that Moshe was only relating the details of this experience. The Brisker Rav, zl, takes an alternative approach, positing that, exclusive of the obligation to praise and thank Hashem for his being spared from a traumatic experience, one also must relate Hashem's miracles and kindness to others. Thus, there is a chiyuv, obligation, of hodaah, gratitude, and sipur, relating this story.

The Brisker Rav supports this thesis with a number of pesukim in Sefer Tehillim in which David Hamelech invokes us to "speak of His wonders" (Tehillim 105:2). "Let them acknowledge to Hashem His kindness, and to the children of men His wonders" (Ibid 107:8). Moreover, in Tehillim 79:13, it is stated implicitly, "As for us, Your nation and the sheep of Your pasture, we shall thank you forever; for generation after generation, we shall relate Your praise."

Therefore, while there were many miracles and wonders for which Klal Yisrael were beholden to Hashem, the opportunity to relate these miracles to an outsider who had not experienced them had not arisen until now. With Yisro's arrival, Moshe now had the opportunity to fulfill the second component of the obligation: relating the miracles.

The Brisker Rav adds a third obligation: the chiyuv, obligation, to bless Hashem. This is a function that is exclusive of the obligation to offer gratitude. Indeed, one must bless Hashem even if his experience has been a negative one. As Chazal teach us, "As one must bless for something good, so too, must one bless when a bad occurrence has taken place."

It once happened on Shabbos following the sheva berachos of one of his sons, that before Minchah when everyone gathered in his apartment, the Brisker Rav noticed that his son was not there. He immediately sent someone to his apartment to call him. When knocking seemed to be of no avail, the man decided to break down the door. As soon as he entered the apartment, he was overwhelmed with an odor of gas. Apparently, there was a gas leak, and the young couple had fallen into a deep sleep as a result of the gas. The windows were opened and the couple was taken to the hospital. It took awhile, but they were revived. The doctor said that had it been just a little bit longer, they would have succumbed to the gas. That Shabbos, the Brisker Rav went around relating the story of his children's miraculous rescue to everyone that he met. He said that Moshe Rabbeinu had demonstrated this trait when he related Hashem's miracles to Yisro.

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

The message that was to be given was, "You shall be for Me a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation" (Shemos 19:6). Rashi tells us that the term Bais Yaakov, House of Yaakov, refers to the women, and Bnei Yisrael refers to the men. The Chasam Sofer offers a compelling interpretation of this pasuk: "So shall you say to the [women] House of Yaakov" (What should you say to them?) Tell them that they are to "relate to Bnei Yisrael." They should tell their husbands and their sons, "You shall be a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation."

In other words, Hashem is telling Moshe Rabbeinu that it is the women who are to motivate, inspire and encourage their husbands and sons to study Torah. The husband may be the "head" of the house, but the wife is viewed as the neck. The neck supports the head, and it determines which way the head will turn. A wife who takes her responsibility seriously determines the future of her family.

Chazal state this clearly when they ask, "In what merit do women receive Olam Habbah?" They respond that it is in the merit of encouraging their husbands and sons to study Torah. Olam Habbah is not an easy thing to acquire. It is an awesome privilege to which a woman can gain access by making sure that the men in her life apply themselves to Torah. This can occur only when a woman realizes the infinite value of Torah. When the wife and mother appreciates and values Torah, she will see to it that her husband maintains a strong focus on Torah study.

You have seen what I did to Egypt… You shall be to Me a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation. (19:4,6)

Often, we become so involved in our daily endeavor that we lose sight of our true purpose in life. The Mesillas Yesharim commences his magnum opus with the words, "The foundation of piety - the root of perfect service - is that man should have a clear and truthful concept of his goal and purpose in life." Man must recognize and never lose sight of his purpose and responsibility in life. He was not created and placed in this world for no apparent reason. What is our purpose? What does Hashem expect of us?

Even before Hashem gave us the Torah, He prefaced it with an "introduction": "You have seen what I did to Egypt." It was done by design and for a purpose. We are to listen to His words and be His treasure from among the nations of the world. As Hashem says it so clearly, "You shall be a mamleches Kohanim, kingdom of Priests, and a goi kadosh, holy nation."

While everyone hears this, not everyone understands that it is a demand conveyed uniquely to each individual Jew. In his Aderes Eliyahu commentary to Devarim 29:18, the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna writes that every time the Torah speaks in lashon rabim, the plural, it speaks to each individual. When the Torah speaks in lashon yachid, the singular, it is speaking to the community as a single unit. Thus, the use of the word atem, you, in the plural, is a term used to speak to each individual Jew. Hashem is speaking directly to each and every one of us: "I expect something of you!"

Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, explains that this is the foreword to Judaism: Hashem speaks to each individual - not only as a collective member of the Klal Yisrael - but as an individual. It is a personal relationship with the Almighty in which a covenant is made between the two. Hashem says, "Look what I did for you. The entire Egypt was afflicted with the plagues that I sent against them. But you were spared. Why? Because I went beyond the natural order, because I cared for you. The Egyptians hurt you, and I punished them in an unprecedented manner. "

Hashem's extraordinary action on behalf of the Jews is a clear indication of His overwhelming love for them. Compare this to a case in which someone sees a bully attacking his only child. He certainly goes out of his way to punish this bully. If it had been someone else's child, however, he might rescue the child, but the punishment would not be as severe. Rav Shimshon gives the following analogy to demonstrate how Hashem cares for each one of us. Imagine that a man has ten children. One is unfortunately ill, and the father spends every spare minute caring for him and seeing to his every need. If someone were to ask the father, "Why are you so devoted to this one child? After all, you have nine others," the reply would be; "This is not simply 'another' child. This is my Shloimele, and I have only one Shloimele."

Now, let us take this analogy one step further. The father comes to visit Shloimele's yeshivah one day. "Have you seen my Shloimele?" he asks one of the students. "He is probably at the pizza shop," is the quick reply.

"What could he be doing at the pizza shop at 11:00 in the morning?" the father asks, somewhat agitated.

"He was probably hungry," answered the student. "What is the difference? There are still another one hundred bachurim, students, studying in the bais hamedrash."

We understand that this reply is meaningless to the father. He is concerned with his son. Where is he? He is not impressed with the one hundred students that are studying Torah. His Shloimele is not there, and that is what is uppermost on his mind. Likewise, Hashem comes to the bais hamedrash in the morning during Shacharis and sees that His Shloimele is not in attendance. He goes to the bais hamedrash a few hours later, and He sees that His Davidel is not studying there. Neither is His Berel. The fact that there are hundreds of others does not change the fact that His son - a reference to each and every Jew - is not there.

The first word in establishing our relationship with Hashem is - Atem - you. He speaks to us individually. What an incredible privilege! What an awesome responsibility!

And they stood at the bottom of the mountain. (19:17)

In the Talmud Shabbos 88a, Chazal relate that Hashem raised Har Sinai over their heads like an upturned vat (which enveloped them completely from all sides) and told them, "If you will accept the Torah - good - and if not, there will be your graves." Klal Yisrael immediately responded with the famous words of Naase v'Nishma, "We will do, and we will listen." One naturally wonders why Hashem found it necessary to compel Klal Yisrael to accept the Torah. Could there not have been a "gentler" way of presenting the Torah?

In his Gur Aryeh commentary, the Maharal m'Prague explains that Hashem presented the Torah to us in this manner to teach us that the Torah is compulsory and that we must accept it or else we cannot exist. Therefore, Hashem surrounded us completely, like an upturned vat. There was no escape, nowhere to run. This conveyed to us the de rigueur nature of the Torah. As Rav Saadya Gaon writes, "Our nation is not a nation without the Torah." The Torah is not just simply a way of life for us - it is life.

Horav Simchah Wasserman, zl, explains Chazal's comparison of Torah to water in this manner. When we think about it, a human being is almost totally comprised of water. If he were to become dehydrated, he would take ill and eventually die. Water is not just something that he needs to live - water is life! He is made up of water. Likewise, the Torah comprises the essence of a Jew. Without the Torah, he becomes spiritually dehydrated.

Rav Simchah would often cite the Rambam in his Igeres Teiman, where he emphasizes this point. To explain this idea, he would compare man to a robot. A person who does not possess Torah may give the appearance of being alive, but, actually, what we are seeing is nothing more than a robot. A foolish person might not be able to distinguish between the living, breathing person and the robot, who goes through the external motions of appearing alive. The wise man is acutely aware of the distinction between who lives and who appears to be alive. These words may come across as being uncompromising, but, then there is no alternative to life.

Honor your father and your mother. (20:12)

Honoring parents is one of the underpinnings of our belief. It maintains the tradition which is based on the transmission of Torah from generation to generation. Furthermore, it is one of those mitzvos that train us to develop a sense of appreciation and gratitude to those who benefit us. There is a deeper significance to the mitzvah of honoring one's parents: Attitude. It is not what we do for them; it is how we do it. The attitude which we manifest when we honor our parents determines the essence of the mitzvah. Chazal teach us that it is not what we feed our parents; rather it is the manner in which we speak to them when we feed them. Do we make it appear as a bother, a pain that we have to sustain, or do we act with gladness of heart, excited to be repaying our parents for all that they did for us?

Horav Meir Chadash, zl, explains that the most important aspect of Kibbud Av v'Eim is establishing and maintaining their independence. When we say, "How can I help you?" we are intimating that they need help, and we are there to assist them. We forget that parents are givers. They have given to us relentlessly throughout their productive lives. Now, perhaps when they are older, they no longer have the capacity for giving that they once did. By offering them assistance, we are bringing this message home to them: You cannot do it anymore. You need our help. This message, while it is not meant to hurt, nonetheless, does hurt. We should rather say, "Come, let us do it together." Always make every effort to sustain that feeling of "giving," which parents are so accustomed to feeling. We are to honor our father and mother, but first we must make them feel like a father or mother, not like a burden.

Va'ani Tefillah

Yud Gimel Middos she'haTorah nidreshes bahem - Thirteen Hermeneutic Rules.

Many of us recite the Yud Gimel Middos daily - by rote. I have taken the time and space to familiarize the reader with them by explaining them on a basic level. While this is not a primary part of our daily Tefillah, it is a crucial tenet of Jewish belief. Torah Judaism is based upon the premise that the Oral Law, our Mishnah and Talmud that were compiled by the Tannaim and Amoraim, in no way altered the essence of the Torah as it was given to us on Har Sinai. Moshe Rabbeinu was given the Written and Oral Law. Thus, to quote Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, who cites the Ramban in his commentary to the Sefer HaMitzvos l'HaRambam, that a denial of the Divine origin of the Hermeneutic Rules "would destroy the very roots of the tradition that has been transmitted to us through the thirteen rules of interpretation and the major part of the Talmud of which they form the foundation."

These rules are to be expounded in interpreting the Written Law. The hermeneutic rules serve a number of purposes. First, they protect the Oral Law which remained "oral" for thousands of years. These rules guarantee that it not be forgotten. They also ensure a consistency and unity between the Written and Oral Law. Last, these rules provide a means to examine and to restore the full compass of the tradition, when portions of it have lost some of its clarity under the weight of the exile.

These hermeneutic rules have regrettably been used as the point of embarkation for all forms of "reconstructing" Judaism in accordance with what happens to be in vogue at the time. The first assertion is that the hermeneutic rules are a rabbinic innovation and are not of Divine origin. Rav Hirsch battled valiantly and brilliantly with the forces that sought to secularize Judaism. He demonstrated the irrationality of their interpretations and proofs. Of course, they neither responded to his criticism nor were they able to refute his compelling refutation of their heretical theories.

Meir Bedziner
R' Meir ben Betzalel HaLevi z"l
niftar 24 Shevat 5764
on his yahrzeit.
Reb Meir loved people and was beloved by all.
His sterling character and pleasant demeanor were the hallmarks of his personality.
He sought every opportunity to increase the study of Torah and that it be accessible to all.
yehi zichru baruch

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

The Ninth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel