Back to This Week's Parsha| Previous Issues
Torah Attitude: Parashas Noah: Torah and proper conduct
There appears to be a Catch-22 situation since there is no proper conduct without Torah, and there is no Torah without proper conduct. Right from the beginning G'd established that if the Jewish people would accept the Torah the world would case to exist. From the time of creation till the time of revelation the world existed for twenty six generations without having received the Torah. Rabbi Chaim Vital asks why developing good character traits is not part of the 613 Commandments? The more one studies Torah, the more one is expected to fine-tune one's conduct and elevate one's character traits to a higher plane. "Every Torah scholar that does not behave with proper conduct, a dead carcass is better than him." Noah, who also studied Torah, behaved with proper conduct. Only by studying the Book of Bereishis, can we elevate ourselves to the level of proper conduct described in the Torah.
The Mishnah says in Pirkei Avos (3:21): "If there is no Torah there is no proper conduct. If there is no proper conduct there is no Torah." The Maharal explains that proper conduct includes the way one runs one's business or other occupation, as well as how one deals with other interpersonal relationships. However, he points out that the Mishnah seems to present us with a Catch-22 situation. If there is no proper conduct without Torah, and there is no Torah without proper conduct, if so, where does one start?
No Torah, no world
The Maharal has two approaches how to solve this problem. In his second approach, he explains that every individual is a mini-cosmos and must develop in the same way that G'd made the world develop. At the time of creation, G'd made a condition that the world would only continue to exist if the Jewish people would accept the Torah at the time of the revelation at Mount Sinai (see Rashi Bereishis 1:31). So right from the beginning G'd established that if there is no Torah there is no world.
Twenty six generations to develop proper conduct
But in reality, from the time of creation till the time of revelation the world existed for twenty six generations without having received the Torah. This period was utilized to develop proper conduct. The Yalkut mentions that this is hinted to in Parashas Bereishis (4:1) where it says that G'd stationed an angel east of the Garden of Eden to "guard the way to the Tree of Life". The Yalkut explains that the Tree of Life is referring to the Torah. As it says (Mishlei 3:18): "It [the Torah] is a tree of life for those who hold on to it." And "the way (derech) to the Tree of Life" is referring to proper conduct, known as "derech eretz".
Not part of 613 Commandments
This, says the Maharal, is the route every individual has to follow. Proper conduct cannot be fully developed without the guidance of the Torah. But a person who is devoid of proper conduct will not have the basis to fulfill the commandments of the Torah. This is further discussed in Gates of Holiness (1:2) by Rabbi Chaim Vital. Rabbi Vital asks why developing good character traits is not part of the 613 Commandments. He answers that good character traits are a pre-requisite that prepare a person and enable him to fulfill the commandments in a proper way. Therefore, their development cannot be part of the commandments. On the other hand, it is not sufficient just to develop good character traits and proper conduct. For without the guidance of the Torah one does not know when and how to apply the various character traits. This is what King Solomon says in Koheles (3:1): "There is a time for everything and a period for every object under the Heavens.
Fine-tune one's conduct
But it goes even further. The Torah does not only define when it is appropriate to apply every character trait, it also elevates proper conduct to greater heights than human beings would develop on their own. And the more one studies Torah, the more one is expected to fine-tune one's conduct and elevate one's character traits to a higher plane.
Special expectations of conduct of a Torah scholar
In Maseches Derech Eretz Zuta, our sages discuss the special expectations of the conduct of a Torah scholar. Similarly, the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 1:15) has very harsh words for a Torah scholar who does not behave with proper conduct. It says: "Every Torah scholar that does not behave with proper conduct, a dead carcass is better than him." The Midrash continues to describe that we should all take an example from Moses. Moses was superior in both wisdom and prophecy, and was sent to take the Jewish people out of Egypt, he was instrumental in performing G'd's miracles at the time of the exodus, and ascended to the Heavens and brought down the Torah. He further was the one who gave the instructions how to build the Tabernacle. Nevertheless, Moses did not enter into the inner sanctum until G'd called upon him, as it says (Vayikra 1:1): "And He [G'd] called upon Moses and spoke to him."
Conduct of Noah and family
In this week's Parasha, we see how Noah, who also studied Torah (see Rashi Bereishis 7:2) behaved with proper conduct. For twelve months, Noah and his family were locked up in the ark with all the animals. This was not an easy ordeal. The Midrash Tanchuma (paragraph 9) describes how Noah and his children did not have time to sleep throughout their time in the ark. Every animal had to be fed at its appropriate time. This was overwhelming for Noah. In Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer (Chapter 23) it is related how Noah was praying to G'd that He would take him out of this "prison". Finally, when the Flood was over, Noah sent out the dove and established that it was possible to leave the ark. Nevertheless, says the Midrash Tanchuma (paragraph 8), he did not just go out on his own. Noah said: "G'd told me to enter the ark, as it says (Bereishis 7:1): 'Come to the ark, you and your household', so now I should not leave without being commanded to do so." At that moment, G'd revealed Himself to Noah and said (Bereishis 8:1516): " … Go out of the ark, you and your wife, your sons and your sons' wives with you." This is the kind of proper conduct that the Torah expects of us.
Only by studying the Book of Bereishis, can we elevate ourselves to the level of proper conduct described in the Torah. This will prepare us to fulfill the commandments described in the other four Books of Moses. As long as we are in exile, there are many commandments we cannot fulfil. These commandments relate to the time when Moshiach comes. In the merit of our developing the basis of proper conduct, may we soon merit the time when we will be able to fulfill all the commandments that G'd has given us.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
P.S. If you have any questions or enjoyed reading this e-mail, we would appreciate hearing from you. If you know of others who may be interested in receiving e-mails similar to this please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Shema Yisrael Torah Network