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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations. And Noach, with his sons… went into the Ark because of the waters of the Flood. (6:9) (7:7)

Upon perusing the commentaries, we note contrasting opinions concerning the true nature of Noach's tzidkus, righteousness. The Torah begins by stating that Noach was righteous - in his generations. This leads to a debate among the commentators concerning Noach's status had he lived in a generation blessed with such a saint as Avraham Avinu. Was Noach a relative tzaddik, in relation to the wicked of his generation, or could he have passed the litmus test even in Avraham's generation? Next, the Torah tells us that Noach entered the Teivah, Ark, "because of the waters of the Flood." This implies that our hero waited until the last minute before entering the Ark. Indeed, Chazal say that Noach mi'ketanei emunah hayah, he was of the lesser believers. On the one hand, he believed that there would be a flood. On the other hand, he did not enter the Ark until the water was up to his mouth. How are we to understand Noach? Was he a reluctant tzaddik?

From the numerous explanations, I have chosen two that have positive connotations and simultaneously teach us important lessons about human nature. What I feel must be underscored is that after digesting these exegeses, we have an entirely new outlook on what has been a somewhat prejudicial perception of the individual whom the Torah refers to as the "first tzaddik." The Sabba, zl, m'Shpoli, popularly known as the Shpoler Zayde, explains that actually those who are dorshin l'gnai, take a dim view of Noach's righteousness, are doing Klal Yisrael a great service. These commentators saw b'Ruach Ha'Kodesh, through Divine Inspiration, that just about every tzaddik throughout time will be plagued with detractors. Regardless of his piety, his saintliness notwithstanding, someone, somewhere, will have a jaundiced view of him. They will find something negative to comment about or, as is becoming increasingly common, they will fabricate something to discredit the tzaddik. After all, who is greater than Moshe Rabbeinu? Nonetheless, they suspected him of inappropriate behavior. As nonsensical as it sounds, this is human nature. It is fostered by envy and nurtured by insecurity, but it happens all of the time.

If the first tzaddik in the Torah would have had no detractors, he would have established the defining criteria for determining who is and who is not a tzaddik. Thus, these commentators went out of their way to be negative about Noach, in order to teach future generations of tzaddikim that those who belittle do not negate the righteousness of the individual. Even Noach had detractors. Yet, the Torah grants him Hashem's sign of approval with His personal confirmation: "And Noach found favor in the eyes of Hashem" (6:8). Can we ask for more?

Concerning Noach's seemingly diminished conviction, with Chazal referring to him as miketanei emunah, Horav Yitzchak zl, m'Vorke, explains that Noach, indeed, waited for the last second to board the Ark. He hoped beyond hope that the Flood would not come - not because he lacked faith, but because he believed in people. Noach cared about the ketanei emumah, the individuals of little faith, hoping that they would ultimately come around and repent, thus circumventing the need for punishment. Noach cared about these ketanei emunah. He thought they would rally. Regrettably, they did not, and he was compelled to enter the Ark.

I wonder, are we any different? There is an entire world of alienated Jews out there, who have been estranged for generations from the Torah and Yiddishkeit. Yet, we have kiruv organizations, outreach professionals and novices, who do not seem to give up hope of bringing back the ketanei emunah. Yes, reality indicates that these people are too far gone, but, every once in a while, we have a success story that is off the charts. Each story refreshes our hope for others, renews our passion to reach out to the unaffiliated, rejuvenates our own personal conviction.

I recently read an article in which the author questions her ability to go on praying for the miraculous recovery of a little seven-year-old girl, whom the doctors said had lost her battle with cystic fibrosis. The doctors had sadly issued a death sentence. Yet, no one stopped praying. Why? What about a miracle? Could it be that some of us have difficulty with miracles because we always give up before they occur? Could it be that when Hashem challenges our faith, it is precisely at that point of resignation that we blow it. If we would hold on for one more moment, we would experience the salvation. This is what Noach endured. He did not want to throw in the towel - on anyone. This is perhaps one of life's greatest struggles. The ability to cling fast, to hold on, long after reality tells us that it just cannot be. Trusting in Hashem when the odds are stacked against us: this is the meaning of enduring faith or faithful endurance - to learn the art of forbearance, to cling tenaciously with perseverance and resolution, regardless of the struggles, the odds, the reality. To do this is to understand the meaning of genuine faith.

Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations. (6:9)

Rashi cites a debate among the Sages concerning Noach's true spiritual plateau. Some maintain that Noach's ability to sustain his righteous achievement, despite being surrounded by a generation of corruption, is to his credit. Indeed, had he lived in Avraham Avinu's time, he would have achieved much more. Noach was great, despite his evil environment. Others maintain that Noach's righteousness was relative to a generation that was morally and ethically corrupt. Had he lived in Avraham Avinu's time, he would have paled in comparison. Veritably, a person should be judged in accordance with his environment, his challenges, his generation. Apples should be compared to apples.

There is one pressing question which should be addressed: Why Avraham? Since when do Chazal draw parallels between individuals? Is there a specific reason that our Patriarch is brought into the picture? Horav Pinchas Friedman, Shlita, quotes the Midrash Tanchuma which relates that at one time the people of an entire generation were held responsible for the sin of even a single individual. Indeed, Chazal say that the generation of the Flood contained many other righteous individuals like Noach, but, they, too, perished as a result of the sins of the generation. Noach was spared because of his unique z'chus, merit. What merit did he have?

In the Talmud Sanhedrin 108a, Chazal state that actually Noach was also slated to be included in the punishment for that generation. It was only because "Noach found favor in the eyes of Hashem" that he was spared. So what did Noach do wrong? What sin did he commit that had warranted his inclusion in the punishment? Chazal explain that Noach should have prayed for the members of his generation. He should have prayed for their repentance, for their pardon. In fact, the commentators teach that until Noach commenced the Ark's construction, he had not yet prayed for his generation. It was only after he began building, and his neighbors began inquiring about the big boat in his driveway, that he was compelled to tell them that Hashem was putting an end to their insidious behavior. There would be a Flood. This makes it more difficult to understand why he found favor before Hashem and was, thus, spared from the punishment that the rest of his generation suffered. In the Midrash Rabba (Bereishis 29:5) Chazal make the following statement which sheds light on our dilemma. "We find Hashem acting kindly with the latter descendants in the merit of the earlier ones. From where do we see that Hashem does chesed with the earlier generations due to the merit of the later ones? "Noach found favor in the eyes of Hashem." This was b'zchus, in the merit of, his descendants." Simply, Chazal are referring to Noach's three sons, who apparently served as a protective agent on behalf of Noach. Rav Friedman says that upon perusal of the early commentators, we note that this applies to Avraham Avinu, who was a descendant of Shem ben Noach. Concerning the pasuk Va'yaaver Elokim, "And Hashem passed over" [on the land and the waters] (ibid. 8:1), which refers to the end of the Flood, the Chida cites in his sefer Chomas Anach, in the name of Rabbeinu Efraim, one of the Rishonim, that the last letters of these three words are: reish, mem, ches. The numerical equivalent of these three letters: r(e)m(a)ch is 248, which is the same as the numerical equivalent of Avraham's name. Hashem applied Avraham Avinu's merit to Noach, thus sparing Noach from the fate of his generation. The Chasam Sofer quotes the Seder Olam Rabbah that claims that Avraham was 48 years old during the haflagah, dispersal, following the building of the Tower of Bavel. Noach lived for ten more years after that. This leads the Chasam Sofer to interpret the opening pasuk of our Parshah in the following manner: "These are the generations of Noach." Who were the primary toldos, progeny, of Noach? "Noach was a righteous man": the primary progeny of Noach was an individual who was a tzaddik, about whom it is written, Hi'shalech Lefanai v'heyei samim, "Walk before Me and be perfect" (Bereishis 17:1). That tzaddik was Avraham, who, was 58 years old (Noach = 58) during the generations of his ancestors Noach. When Noach, the grandfather (Noach = 58), saw his grandson, Avraham, who was 58 years old when Noach died, then Noach went calmly b'menuchah (Noach) to his rightful place in Olam Haba, the World to Come.

Rav Friedman adds that Avraham derived the concept of chesed from Noach, who dedicated his entire sojourn on the Ark to one long act of chesed. There was nary a moment when he was free, so devoted was he to caring for the myriad creatures accompanying him on the Ark. Avraham said, "If they survived the Flood only due to their total devotion to the animals, to the point that when Noach once came late to serve the lion, he was struck and badly injured, how much more so will I be spared from punishment in the merit of my acts of chesed on behalf of human beings."

This indicates that Avraham's acts of chesed were inspired by Noach. If so, what greater merit is there for Noach than the fact that he was the inspiration for Avraham Avinu becoming the amud ha'chesed, pillar of lovingkindess? This is the deeper meaning of Noach being saved because of Avraham.

Our inspiration can come to us through a number of media. The following story demonstrates how a young yeshivah student's life was positively influenced by someone who had lived some sixty years earlier. What makes the episode even more striking is that neither the benefactor or the beneficiary knew each other, nor was there any intention on the part of the benefactor to influence the young beneficiary.

The story, which is related by Rabbi Binyamin Pruzansky in "Stories That Warm the Heart," centers around a young Israeli yeshivah-high school student, who was not greatly enthused about learning. He attended yeshivah because it was the thing to do. During the summer bein hazmanim, intersession, his yeshivah took a trip to Poland. It was an inspirational journey to visit and pray at the burial sites of the great rabbanim and roshei yeshivah of pre-World War II Europe. The concentration camps were also included in the trip. In other words, this was not a trip for the carefree tourist. This was a serious, emotionally-charged journey of consciousness.

Our yeshivah student, whom we will call Shlomo, had no interest in being inspired. He went on the trip with much the same attitude that he had when he attended yeshivah: it was the thing to do. Everything changed when he passed through the intimidating gates of Auschwitz with its infamous sign Arbeit macht frei, "Labor makes (you) free." The trip had now taken on a serious - almost compelling - tone. Suddenly, all of the stories of the Holocaust came to life in stark reality. Shlomo felt himself transported to that tragic period in our history. He heard the screams, felt the despair, smelled the stench. He was there! He felt himself riding in the cattle car, stuffed with other broken, hapless Jews, waiting to arrive at their destination, thinking they knew what "arriving" meant.

They thought they were going to labor camps. They were grossly mistaken. By the time they discovered that there really was no labor, only deportation and then death, it was too late. As Shlomo stood in the room, which they had just been informed was the last place the confused masses passed through prior to entering the gas chamber, his eyes began to well up with tears. As he was thinking these melancholy thoughts, he suddenly noticed a handprint pressed into the wooden beam where he stood. At first, it was hardly noticeable, but, after close inspection, he was sure that it was someone's handprint. Thoughts began to churn in Shlomo's mind. This was the handprint of a Jewish inmate who was waiting to be led to the gas chamber. The man was holding onto the beam with every fiber of his being, praying, begging Hashem, "Please, allow me to live!" He must have made promises, expressed his willingness to give up everything material/physical pleasure just so that he could live a little longer. Perhaps he dreamed of liberation, having a family and raising children in the Torah way. Alas, Hashem said, "No," and this man became another one of the Kedoshim, martyrs. Not, however, before he had pressed his handprint into the wood. His chance was over, but someone else might pick up the torch and carry on.

Shlomo broke down. The man whose handprint he was contemplating would have given anything to live even another few hours, and he, Shlomo, was squandering away his life on foolishness. He sensed that he owed something to that man and to the many others like him, who wanted so badly to live, but whose lives were snuffed out prematurely. Shlomo made a promise that, from that day on, he would change. Every minute would be valued; every minute would count. This moment was the turning point in Shlomo's life, as he applied the brakes, shifted gears, and put himself into overdrive. He never looked back - all because of the inspiration he had received from someone he did not know, who, in fact, had died many years earlier. Inspiration transcends time.

For the earth is filled with robbery through them. (6:13)

The generation of the Flood did it all. Their behavior deteriorated to the point that immorality and idolatry had become a way of life. Their immoral conduct extended even to animals, whereby they completely disregarded the parameters of human decency and the separation between species. Yet, Chazal note that it was neither idolatry nor sexual perversion that catalyzed the final decree for their total extinction. It was chamas, gezel, robbery, thievery, that brought them down. The commentators present a number of explanations concerning why robbery was the ultimate deterring factor in their punishment. Ramban comments that robbery is a common-sense transgression. One need not be a rocket scientist to see the evil in stealing; no one wants to have his possessions misappropriated. He worked for them; he earned them; they are his. Thus, a sin of such comprehensible proportions is considered by Hashem to be a toeivah, abomination. It is inexcusable and, thus, should be punished to the fullest extent.

Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, views this from a practical approach. He cites the Midrash that teaches that the theft was in itself unique. They stole in such petty ways that it was not subject to the authority of the courts. While this may not be the gravest of sins, it bespeaks a society that is morally repugnant. Thievery within the letter of the law weakens one's perspective on right and wrong, destroying his sense of guilt and corrupting the entire social fabric of society.

Last, we cite the Melo Ha'Omer who teaches us a significant, albeit frightening lesson. The Midrash Vayikra 17:4, teaches that Hashem does not harm human beings immediately. He first metes out His punishment on the individual's possessions as a signal to repent and correct his behavior. It is only after the subtle and, at times, not-so-subtle reminders have been ineffective that Hashem has no other recourse but to punish the person by inflicting pain and ultimately worse on him. This, explains the Melo Ha'Omer, can occur only if the money/material possessions which he owns are really his. This means that his claim to their ownership is legal. If he has appropriated them through illegal means, then his possessions are not really his. They belong to someone else. Thus, they cannot protect him. The generation of the Flood paid dearly for their sins, with their lives.

The following true story took place a number of years ago in Eretz Yisrael. Two yeshivah students decided to take a trip up north to visit a number of the kivrei tzaddikim, gravesites of the righteous, that are situated there. It was a nice day, and they were able to get hold of a decent car, so they decided to drive. Things were going along smoothly until they reached the highway leading out of Bnei Brak. They noticed that their thermostat was running a bit higher than it should. As the trip continued - and the heat of the day rose - so did the needle of the thermostat. Fearing that they would overheat, they pulled over on the side of the road to see what was wrong.

Neither one of these students was well-versed in auto-mechanics, so, after playing around for a while, they gave up. With no other recourse, they attempted to wave down anyone who could help them solve the problem. A number of motorists pulled over and attempted to solve their problem, to no avail. Apparently, they would need the services of a qualified mechanic. To put it simply: they were stuck. Suddenly, a car pulled up and out came a man dressed in full chassidic garb. He asked, "What seems to be the problem?"

"Our car is overheating, and we have no idea what is wrong," they replied. "Let me see what I can do," the man said. The fellow removed his long frock and lay down on the ground beneath the car, searching for the trouble spot. After a few minutes of fiddling around, he came out from down under and said, "I know the problem. Your fan belt tore and must be replaced."

"What should we do?" the bachurim asked. "Not to worry," the man answered, as he returned to his car and brought out a giant tool chest with car repair tools. He then opened his trunk and took out a brand new fan belt. After completing the repair, he packed up his car and was prepared to leave.

"How much do we owe you?" the bachurim asked. "Nothing," he replied. "What I did is a chesed. I enjoy helping people out." "Well, we cannot force you to take money for the time that you wasted, but what about the part? That is an expensive part - why should you pay for it?"

"It is no problem. I must do this my way," he replied. "Why should you lose money because you are a nice guy?" they asked. "Let me tell you a story," he began. "I grew up in a totally secular environment, shunning the religious way of life. I was a highly successful car mechanic with a thriving business. Since I knew cars inside-out, I would diagnose a problem which the owner had no clue existed, or I would charge inflated prices for the repairs that I performed. One day, I decided to eschew my life of abandon and was chozeir b'teshuvah, prepared to live a life completely committed to Torah and mitzvah observance.

"One thing kept gnawing at me: During my years as a mechanic, I had been running a lucrative business which was not very honest. I was ripping off my customers with exorbitant prices, often for work that was unnecessary. How was I to perform teshuvah for the petty and often not-so-petty theft? I went to my rebbe, who was guiding me on my journey of return to Torah and asked his advice. He told me that since there was no way of identifying my victims, my teshuvah would have to be of an all-encompassing nature: offering my expertise to whomever was in need - free of charge. This is what I do. Twice a week, I drive the highways looking for people in trouble. I carry with me a complete set of tools and many vital parts. Whenever I notice someone in need, I offer my services. This is my teshuvah. You have enabled me to draw one step closer to Hashem. Thank you!"

Make for yourself an Ark of gopher wood. (6:14)

The Teivah which transported Noach, his family and the multitude of creations on board is the symbol of salvation. Noach's Ark personifies an island of calm in a sea of storm. The Chidushei HaRim, cited by his grandson, the Sefas Emes, translates teivah alternatively as "word." The Teivah of old refers to the words of the Torah and tefillah, prayer, which are contemporary man's salvation. The Talmud Makkos 10a compares the Torah to the Arei Miklat, Cities of Refuge, detailed at the end of Sefer Bamidbar (35:11). When we immerse ourselves in the words of the Torah, when we employ the holy words of prayer to entreat Hashem, we connect ourselves to the spiritual source of Creation and take refuge from the outside world. The words of the Torah serve as the medium which connects us to the spiritual lights within each Hebrew letter. Indeed, as the Shalah Hakadosh notes, the name Yisrael is an acronym which stands for the words, yeish shishim ribo osisyos laTorah. There are 600 thousand letters in the Torah, each letter corresponding to a soul. The words of the Torah are, indeed, our only true refuge from a morally bankrupt world which is drowning in a sea of iniquity.

Perhaps, the significance of "words" receives greater efficacy in Torah She'Baal Peh, the Oral Law. We have been in galus, exile, for over two thousand years. Yet, we have survived and, in many ways, even thrived. Am Yisrael, the nation of Yisrael, survives because of its adherence to Torah - especially Torah She'Baal Peh, which gives meaning to Torah She'b'ksav, the Written Law. The Romans developed the concept of nationalism, national autonomy and power. This is in direct contradistinction to the vision of Hashem, His Torah, His nation. We are not autonomous. We belong to Hashem, and only to Him we have fealty. Those of our brethren who refuse to capitulate to national and nationalistic values and culture are the enemies of the state, its successors and the church.

This is indicated by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai's reply to Vespasian. He did not ask for Yerushalayim's sovereignty. He asked for Yavne v'chachameha - Torah, its laws, and the chachamim, its teachers. The Torah does not stand as a religion while the nation submits to the demands of the host nation in which it finds itself. The Torah demands our total subservience to it. Our overriding attention is to be to the Torah. This is why we are called the Torah "nation."

We are called the "People of the Book." Actually, we are the People of the Speech, since this defines our essence. Through our clinging to Torah She'Baal Peh,we are able to bring Malchus Shomayim, Heavenly sovereignty, to the world. Torah is the lifeblood of our nation, and, through it, we retain autonomy to Hashem. The Torah - its laws, and Divine scope of life - is taught to the youngest children in elementary school. It is not an abstract set of laws which govern a nation. It is what makes up the core of the nation. It is our national identity.

Torah She'Baal Peh is alive and well in the bais ha'medrash. It is the dynamic force that binds and elevates us. It is the words of the Torah She'Baal Peh that have maintained us as a nation devoted to Hashem. It is our pathway to shleimus, perfection, and our refuge from the dangers of a godless society.

Va'ani Tefillah

Oseh shalom u'Borei es hakol. He makes peace, and creates everything.

In addition to the countless physical phenomena which Hashem must cause to harmonize with one another, Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, notes, that are also many super-physical forces which must be directed in such a manner that they yield to - and cooperate with - one another. The Torah and Talmud are replete with many hanhagos, principles and ways of Hashem, all of which are true, but which seem, to the limits of our human perception, to be naturally incompatible with one another. According to our line of thinking, when one of these ways are being followed, it leaves no option for opposing principles. Yet, Hashem manages the execution of these opposing principles in the most incredible manner, allowing them to function with collaboration and without clashing. It was the understanding of this system that Moshe Rabbeinu sought from Hashem. He, too, wanted to know how it all worked out so well. He asked, Hodieini na derachecha, "Make Your ways known to me" (Shemos 33:13). He focused on one contradictory set of principles. In the Talmud Berachos 7a, Chazal interpret this as: "Why are there righteous who are happy, and righteous who are unfortunate?" Hashem has countless ways of harmonizing these and other principles. He makes "peace" among all of them. We just have difficulty understanding His ways.

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