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And the earth had become filled with robbery. (6:11)
In the Midrash, Chazal offer an intriguing interpretation for the word “chamas.” Indeed, the corruption of that period was on a “fruma oifen,” religious manner. They depict a case in which a person would come to the market with a basket of fruit. Immediately, everybody pounced on the basket, each removing less than a shavah perutah, value of a “penny,” of fruit. A perutah is the minimum halachic parameter to constitute stealing. Bais Din cannot collect a sum less than a perutah from the thief. In other words, these evil people were concerned about how much they stole. They wanted to make sure that their “geneivah,” stealing, was within the limits of the law. How are we to understand this? We are talking about a generation that had sunk to the nadir of depravity, murder and licentiousness; every immoral act was insignificant to them. Why should they suddenly concern themselves about the laws of geneivah?
Horav Sholom Shwadron, zl, derives a profound lesson in human nature. It is conceivable for one to transgress the most cardinal sins, to stoop to the lowest rung of immorality, and still be concerned with the halachic implications of his behavior. After all, if he can steal with halachic dispensation, why should he transgress a Biblical prohibition? This is the hypocrisy that prevails in the minds of some people. They want to murder and act immorally, while simultaneously lauding their meticulous mitzvah observance.
Horav Shwadron cites the following story as an analogy to understanding the psyche of these people: He was once walking on one of the side streets in Yerushalayim, when he noticed people moving away quickly from an area down the block. As he got closer, he was told that there was a terrible stench being emitting from some place down the block. His curiosity got the better of him as he came closer to the spot. He wanted to know what was so bad that everybody was literally running away. When he came to the place, he noticed that the lid of a manhole had been removed while a crew was cleaning out some sewage that had gotten stuck. The stench was overpowering. As he got closer, he looked in and saw that the Arab crew was down in the pit seemingly unaffected by the odor.
Moreover, one of the Arab workers was enjoying his lunch. He sat there eating a falafel sandwich, totally oblivious to the noxious fumes. How could he eat - even enjoy - a falafel amid the stench of the sewage all around him? The answer, realized Horav Shwadron, was that one only felt the noxious odor from afar, but in the center of the stench, surrounded on all sides with all forms of waste, he did not sense the offensive odor. Smell is relative. When one is surrounded by noxious odor, when he is in the middle of the stench, it does not smell as bad. He can have his lunch and enjoy it amid the reeking smell of sewage.
A parallel idea can be applied to the generation that was destroyed by the flood. When a person is submerged in the slime of sin, when he is engulfed by depravity, licentiousness and all forms of violence, it is no wonder that he loses all sense of objectivity. When he is in the sewer, he can enjoy his falafel. The yetzer hora, evil inclination, can even make him believe that he is a saint. After all, he would never steal the value of a perutah. What about all of those other terrible sins that he has committed? Those are nothing; they are momentary lapses in his spirituality, but not really a reflection of his real essence.
We now understand why that generation did not repent. They had so many opportunities. Hashem gave them every chance – to no avail. They felt they had nothing to repent about! They were perfect! Regrettably, this attitude did not die with them. Until this very day, we have those who see nothing wrong with a momentary lapse, a quick fling with the yetzer hora, as long as they remain committed in other areas of religious observance. These people will one day wake up and realize that it did not work then, and it will not work today.
Noach, with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives with him, went into the Ark because of the waters of the flood. (7:7)
The pasuk implies that Noach entered the Ark at the last minute; to escape the rising waters which compelled him to seek shelter. Indeed, Chazal tell us that Noach “miketanei emunah hayah,” his faith was imperfect. He waited for the “last second” to enter the Ark. This is difficult to understand. It is one thing to say that someone is deficient in a middah, character trait, such as hatred or envy; to claim, however, that Noach was lacking in emunah is a strong statement. This is a man who spent one hundred and twenty years building an Ark. He did not just build it; he even planted the cedar trees from which he made the boards for the Ark. He went all over preaching, inspiring, hoping to bring some of the pagans back to belief in Hashem. When the moment had finally arrived, he could show the world it was true. The torrential rains had begun. He did not stand at the helm of the Ark, screaming, “I told you so.” He did not even depart until he was forced to do so. Does this sound like the same Noach who had been so meticulous in following Hashem’s imperative?
Horav Gershon Liebman, zl, derives from here that one who is “mashpia,” inspires others, risks his own exposure to those whom he is attempting to influence. Noach spent a “lifetime” influencing others, reaching out to them, seeking every way to bring them closer to Hashem. At the same time, however, that he was trying to help others, he was endangering his own spiritual health. We see now why, on the one hand, Noach was considered a tzaddik, while on the other hand he was so affected by the people of that generation that he is called “m’ketanei emunah.” If this is true about Noach, whom the Torah calls a tzaddik, what should we say about ourselves? One can be spared the effects of this harmful influence in just one way: “zikui horabim”, by doing everything possible to bring others into the fold. Noach saved himself; he survived; his family made it – but that was all. He failed in zikui horabim. Avraham Avinu reached out to a world of pagans – successfully. Moshe Rabbeinu interceded on behalf of Klal Yisrael – successfully. They were “mezakeh the rabim.” Noach was only able to save himself. His lack of mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, on behalf of others weakened his ability to protect himself from their harmful influence. Thus, he failed.
This exposition might explain why some of those mashpiim, those who have gone out to reach out to others, to inspire the unaffiliated, to bring back the alienated, have themselves become lost. The determining factor that effects success is mesiras nefesh. How far is one prepared to go to help others? Is it all superficial, the nurturing of an overactive ego - or is it for real? The product will tell us the true origin of one’s kiruv work.
Hashem said to Noach, saying… go forth from the Ark, you, and your wife and your sons. (8:15)
Chazal tell us that Noach did not want to leave the safety of the Ark. He was safe, his family was safe. Why should they not remain in the Ark? Moreover, Hashem wanted Noach to continue his family. Noach was apprehensive about this. Should he have children only to bring them into a world of destruction and evil? Noach had lost all hope for his future descendants. Hashem told him that if someone is saved it is for a reason. A whole world was destroyed. Humanity was obliterated from the face of the earth. One family existed. Was it by chance? Did every bullet have its “number”? Did every bullet reach its mark, except for Noach and his family? The lesson is clear: Since Noach was saved, it was for a purpose. He had no right to have second thoughts about his future, nor could he take his future into his own hands.
My rebbe, the Veitzener Rav, Horav Tzvi Hirsch Meisels, zl, who served as spiritual mentor to thousands in Auschwitz during the dark years of World War II, would relate this concept to the many Holocaust survivors who had lost hope. He reiterated time and again the notion that if they had been saved when so many others perished, it was surely by design. They had a Divine imperative to rebuild the Jewish world and culture that the Nazis had so cruelly destroyed. The spiritual climate that we enjoy today is a tribute to those who were able to go on, who saw the future amid the desolation, whose vision transcended the destruction, who realized that it was not by chance that they had survived.
And they said, “Come let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens (11:4).”
What happened to the Migdal Bavel? Chazal tell us that one-third of the tower was destroyed by fire, one-third sunk into the ground, and the remaining one-third still exists. The Midrash proceeds to emphasize that should one think that the remaining one-third is not impressive, it is not true. If one were to ascend the remains of the Tower of Bavel, upon looking down, the people he will see will appear to be the size of grasshoppers. Remarkable words! How do Chazal know this? One would think that Rabbi Chiya bar Abba, the author of this statement, had personally ascended the tower and looked down from its high perch.
Horav Nissan Alpert, zl, suggests that Chazal are not addressing the tower’s physical structure, but rather the foundations upon which it was built, its purpose and the underlying objectives of its creators. The builders of the Tower had but one objective: to rebel against Hashem Yisborach. There were various “approaches” to this rebellion. In response to the pasuk, “The whole earth was one of language and of common purpose” (Beraishis 11:1), Chazal have given two interpretations concerning the meaning of “devarim achadim,” “of common purpose.” Everyone is in agreement that they all worked together as a harmonious group. They had one language and one goal, which they knew could only be realized if they all worked together, b’achdus, in unity. “Devarim achadim” are translated as “sharp words.” The word “achadim” is derived from the word “chad,” sharp. They disputed Hashem’s authority, contending that He had no “right” to select the heavens as His home, relegating mankind to earth. They planned to build a giant tower upon which they would place an idol with a sword in its hand to make it appear as if it was battling the Almighty. The other foolish claim was that every one thousand six hundred and fifty-six years, the heavens “open up” with a tremendous downpour that deluge the earth with floods. This was, of course, a reference to the Mabul, implying that it was nothing more than a natural occurrence. They would build a tower that would “hold up” the sky from “opening up” and releasing its waters. This is the “safah achas,” one shprach, one language, and the sharp words that resulted from this “unity.”
If we analyze Chapel, we derive that actually there were three underlying causes for the tower. The first cause was misplaced and misguided unity. The people worked together because they were afraid of being spread out across the world. Their achdus was not positive in nature. It was purely for the purpose of self-preservation. Otherwise, they did not care about one another. Such unity is meaningless. Its origin is selfishness, not selflessness. It cannot endure. Second, they were in contention with the Almighty. They sought to battle Him. They could not accept His domination of the world. Third, they disputed the miraculous nature of the Mabul. Thus, they sought natural methods to prevent another flood.
Chazal relate to us the fate of these three reasons for building the Tower. One cause was completely destroyed, burnt, obliterated from the world. The second cause sunk into the ground. It exists but has no power, no effect on anybody. It is as if it did not exist. The third cause, regrettably, continues to thrive. The group that sought to battle Hashem is gone. The most malevolent sinner knows that Hashem exists and that it is senseless to talk of “fighting Him.” No one, however inane, would ever say that he was “taking on” the Almighty. That group is gone.
Those who demonstrated a burning desire to unite the world, so that everyone would live together in brotherhood, are still around. Indeed, after every war, when hundreds of thousands of victims are killed, these peace, love and unity supporters arrive on the scene preaching, preaching and preaching. Unfortunately, they accomplish very little because a unity whose only goal is unity will not endure. People must ascribe to one ideal in order for their accord to work. Yes, the desire for achdus exists, but it has unfortunately sunk into the ground, lacking even the fundamental criteria of “safah achas,” one language.
The third cause, the primary motive for building the Tower, the denial of Hashem’s Providence, His constant control and direction of the world, regrettably continues to exist. For one hundred and twenty years, Noach labored and toiled, building the Ark that would transport him and his family to a safe haven. An entire world ignored his pleas for repentance. On the designated day it began to rain and rain. Soon the world was deluged. Hashem had punished the wicked who chose to continue their degenerate lifestyle. Exactly what Noach had said would occur came true. Noach and his family lived, while the rest of that generation perished. Do we need a greater, more definitive demonstration of Hashgacha, Divine Providence? Yet, the generation that built the tower seemed to “forget.” The third motivating factor of the tower has continued to plague generation after generation with its evil intentions. We must ask ourselves: What is it going to take to finally rid ourselves of the Tower of Bavel? Then we must do something about it!
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS:
1) Prior to the flood, Hashem assured Noach of two things. What were they?
1) The food on the Ark would not rot and the wicked people would not harm him.
Father and Grandfather on his first yahrtzeit
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