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Torah Attitude: Parashas Noah: Slow to anger
Being slow to get angry is one of G'd's thirteen attributes of mercy. "Slow to anger" means that G'd does not punish the sinner immediately. G'd waited an additional 120 years after the tenth generation had been born before He brought the flood to see if the people would repent. Just like at the time from Adam to Noah, G'd is now patiently waiting for the nations to repent. The Kabbalists explain that everything that exists is constantly sustained by G'd. The one who commits a sin brings about the creation of an accusing and destroying angel. We must learn to emulate the attributes of G'd and be ready to give others an opportunity to rectify their wrongdoings, or to wait until these wrongdoings otherwise disappear. We should remember that it is human to err and even rabbis are human beings. Rabbi Preida had a student who had great difficulties comprehending his lessons and Rabbi Preida would teach him the same lesson 400 times. A person should always have ambitions to learn more and understand better.
One of G'd thirteen attributes
In this Torah Attitude we will deal with the next thing mentioned in the Mishnah needed to acquire Torah which is being slow to get angry. This is one of G'd's thirteen attributes of mercy described in Parashas Ki Sisa (Shemos 34:6). Obviously, when we speak about attributes of G'd it is very different than when we speak about those of human beings. Every individual has many attributes, also described as character traits, which form their nature and cause them to act in certain ways. The Rambam (Laws of Repentance 5:2) explains that a person is free to develop both positive and negative character traits, as we have been created with the ability to choose. By G'd, the attributes are not character traits but different ways of conduct that G'd chooses in every situation. Therefore, when it says that G'd is slow to anger it does not mean that G'd at any point really gets angry. Rather, it means that He conducts Himself in a fashion that shows His displeasure with people's behaviour. G'd uses human terminology and describes it in the Torah as "anger" in order for us to comprehend His conduct.
G'd is slow to anger
With this insight we can understand Rashi's quote from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 111a) that explains what it means that G'd is slow to anger. The Talmud does not mention anything about anger. Instead, the Talmud teaches that "slow to anger" means that G'd does not punish the sinner immediately. In His great mercy G'd waits and gives the sinner time to repent.
The flood and repentance
We find a classic example of this conduct in this week's Parasha when G'd punished mankind for their sins with the flood. The Mishnah says in Pirkei Avos (5:2): "There were ten generations from Adam to Noah in order to let it be known to what extent G'd is slow to anger. For all the generations angered Him increasingly until He brought upon them the waters of the flood." Rashi explains that G'd waited all this time and did not punish in order to give them an opportunity to repent. Even after the ten generations when Noah was born, G'd still waited. As it says in last week's Parasha (Bereishis 6:3): "And G'd said ... and his days shall be 120 years." Rashi explains that this means that G'd would wait an additional 120 years after the tenth generation had been born before He would bring the flood to see if the people would repent. G'd also send them a message through Noah of the impending flood to encourage them to repent. In this week's Parasha (6:14), it is related how G'd told Noah to make an ark. Rashi asks in the name of Midrash Tanchuma (paragraph 5), why G'd made Noah work so hard to make this ark? G'd had many ways He could have used to save those who deserved it. The Midrash answers that G'd wanted Noah to be busy throughout the 120 years so that the people would see what he was doing and ask him what it was all about. In this way Noah would answer them that G'd was going to bring a flood upon the world because of their sins. G'd orchestrated all this to encourage the people to repent. When the 120 years were up, G'd again gave them another chance. As it says later in the Parasha (Bereishis 7:1-4): "And G'd said to Noah, 'You and all your household shall come to the ark ... For in seven more days I will make it rain upon the earth for fourty days and fourty nights, and I will wipe out all existence." Says Rashi, these seven days were an additional opportunity for the people to repent. At the very last moment, as it started to rain, we see that G'd was still hoping that mankind would repent. It first says (7:12): "And the rain was upon the earth for fourty days and fourty nights." Later (7:17) it says: "And the flood was for fourty days on the earth." Says Rashi, when it started to rain it came down with mercy. For in case they would repent then it would come down as rain of blessing. But as they did not repent, it turned into the flood of destruction.
G'd is patiently waiting
This is how G'd in His great mercy conducts Himself. He gives chance upon chance but eventually time runs out and the sinners receive their punishment. Rabbeinu Yonah in his commentary on the above-mentioned Mishnah in Pirkei Avos mentions that this is what we experience nowadays as well. Many nations of the world have persecuted and oppressed the Jewish people throughout our long and bitter exile. Just like at the time from Adam to Noah, G'd is now patiently waiting for the nations to repent. But if they are not going to do so, eventually the time will come at the end of days when they will be judged for all their evil doings.
Everything sustained by G'd
The Kabbalists explain that everything that exists is constantly sustained by G'd. This is the deeper meaning of what we say every morning in the first blessing before Shema: "And in His goodness He constantly renews every day the work of creation." A builder who builds a house or a carpenter who makes furniture, have no impact on what they have made once their job is finished. By G'd it is different. Nothing can exist unless G'd provides it with life. As we quote every day towards the end of Pesukei D'zimrah from Nechemia (9:6): "It is You G'd by Yourself, You made the heaven, the heaven of the heaven, and all their legions, the earth and everything that is upon it, the seas and everything there is in them, and You give them all life." Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh explains in his commentary (Bereishis 42:30) that the root of the word we are allowed to use for G'd is Adon which means Master. This word is closely connected to the Hebrew word for socket "Adan" (see Shemos 26:19). Just as the socket carries and sustains what is put into it, so does the Master of the Universe carry and sustain everything He created.
Based on this principle, the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Cordovera (Tomer Devorah Chapter 1) analyzes what happens when a person sins. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (4:13) says: "The one who commits a transgression acquires for himself an accuser." This, says Rabbi Cordovera, means that the sin brings about the creation of an accusing and destroying angel. The purpose of this angel is to accuse the sinner before the Heavenly Court and to make sure that the sinner is punished. This angel needs to be sustained, like everything else, for otherwise it would cease to exist. Strictly speaking, sustaining this angel should be the job of the one who caused it to be created. But man has no power or ability to sustain an angel, and the consequence would be that the angel would have to cease to exist. This could happen in one of two ways. One way is for the sinner to die immediately. This would justify the nullification of the accusing angel as there is no one to accuse anymore. In this way, the accusing angel would cause the immediate death of the sinner. It is based on this strict principle of judgment that G'd said to Adam (Bereishis 2:17): "And from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you may not eat from it, for on the day you eat from it you shall surely die." The other way is for the sinner to be punished immediately and atone for his sin. Once the sinner atoned for his sin the accusing angel would have no reason to exist any longer. However, G'd in His great mercy, accepts to sustain this angel, just like He sustains the rest of the world, and gives the person who sinned time to repent. If the person does not repent, then G'd will either punish the person in this world, and thereby nullify the accusing angel, or if the person does not have the merit to be punished in this world, he will have to wait until he is in the World to Come for his punishment. This, says Rabbi Cordovera, is the deeper meaning of what Cain said when he pleaded with G'd (Bereishis 4:13): "Is my sin too great to be carried?" Rashi comments on this from the Midrash Tanchuma (Paragraph 9) that Cain said to G'd, "You carry and sustain the whole world, and my sin You are not ready to carry?" Cain begged G'd to sustain and carry the accusing angel he had caused to be created till he would repent.
Give others opportunity to rectify their wrongdoings
Rabbi Cordovera continues and says that we must learn to emulate the attributes of G'd and the way that He conducts Himself, and be ready to tolerate and be patient with each other. Even when someone harms us, or otherwise sins against us, we must be ready to give the other person an opportunity to rectify his wrongdoings, or to wait until the wrongdoings otherwise disappear. Many people flare up in anger and take immediate action. But Rabbi Cordovera teaches us that we must learn how to be patient and forgiving.
To err is human
This is imperative in any inter-personal relationship. But it is especially important when it comes to Torah study. This applies at every level starting from the student studying under the guidance of a mentor. No one is perfect and a teacher or rabbi can also make mistakes, and if this happens one should not act in haste and turn away. We should remember that it is human to err and even rabbis are human beings. Obviously, every situation should be looked at as a separate case, and there is no general rule. Sometimes, especially when we are dealing with young students, it is important to protect them and make sure that there is no improper conduct taking place. Similarly, when one studies with a partner, or one has reached a level of teaching others, one must be patient and deal with every situation appropriately.
The Talmud (Eruvin 54b) relates how one of the great scholars of the Talmud, Rabbi Preida, had a student who had great difficulties comprehending his lessons and Rabbi Preida would teach him the same lesson 400 times. One day, Rabbi Preida got a message that he was needed for an important matter. Rabbi Preida patiently taught his student, but even after 400 times he still did not understand the lesson. The rabbi asked his student, "What happened to you today." The student answered, "Once I heard that the rabbi had an important matter to see to I was nervous the whole time that maybe he had to go now." Rabbi Preida said to him, "Try and focus now and I will teach it to you again." And he patiently went through the subject another 400 times.
Ambitions to learn more and understand better
The Talmud (Eruvin 54a) further teaches that a person must be ready to teach others even if they do not know how to show him proper respect, and in this merit he will sustain his own knowledge and be rewarded with a better understanding. Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon points out that one even has to have patience with oneself in his own studies and not get frustrated and give up if it is difficult to absorb the subject he is studying. Obviously, a person should always have ambitions to learn more and understand better. But at the same time, one should be happy with what one has accomplished already. When we manage to internalize these lessons and conduct ourselves accordingly we will always feel good. And in this way we will be able to grow further in our studies and continue to learn and teach others what we have learned.
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
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