Preparing Before Disaster Strikes
ויעש נח ככל אשר צוהו ה’ ונח בן שש מאות שנה והמבול היה מים על הארץ ויבא נח ובניו ואשתו ונשי בניו אתו אל התבה מפני מי המבול
“And Noah did all that G-d commanded him… And Noah came, and his sons and his wife and the wives of his sons with him, into the Ark because of the waters of the flood” (Bereishit 7:5-7).
Noah was “among those of lesser belief” because he both believed and didn’t believe that the flood would come, and therefore he didn’t enter the Ark until the waters forced him (Rashi). One is hard pressed to understand how Noah could be considered of “lesser belief.” If he didn’t really believe that the flood waters would come, why would he have worked on building the Ark for 120 years, subjecting himself to intense ridicule? Indeed, the Torah states clearly that “Noah did all that G-d commanded him.” Wouldn’t that indicate that his belief was flawless?
Consider a similar situation in the Torah: When Sarah heard that she would be having a child in her old age, she “laughed within herself.” Rashi (Bereishit 17:17) explains that her laughter betrayed her disbelief. Could it be that our holy matriarch Sarah didn’t truly believe?
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hakohen, known as the Chofetz Chaim, says that this disbelief was in fact present. It is possible for one to have complete belief without internalizing that belief. The Torah devotes so much space to the discussion around Sarah’s diminished belief as a message to future generations when our prayers for the arrival of the Moshiach will eventually be answered. Even those who daily recite (or sing) Ani Maamin in “Thirteen Articles of Faith,” expressing their “complete belief” in the arrival of the Moshiach, may greet the news of his arrival with disbelief. “Hey, I just finished redoing my kitchen! He can’t be here now!”
A person is not one-dimensional. Some pass the written exam of life but fail the driving test. There is no way of knowing whether a fireman who trained for many years will run into a burning building or run the other way.
Rabbi Chaim of Sanz asked some of his chassidim what they would do if they found a wallet with a significant amount of money in it, with identifiable signs as to the owner. One of the chasidim avowed, “I would return it!” The rabbi exclaimed, “Foolishness!” Another sheepishly admitted that he would keep it. “Thief!” the rabbi proclaimed. A third man said, “I really don’t know what I would do, but I hope I’d have the moral resolve to return it to the rightful owner.” “Ahhhhh!” sighed the rabbi, “This is a wise man!”
Knowledge alone doesn’t guarantee results. Although Noah did everything G-d commanded him, there was nevertheless a gap between his belief and the internalization of that belief. Yet this gap did not prevent him from acting.
We can’t know how we’ll react when faced with challenges. But, like Noah, we can still take concrete, positive steps that put us in the best possible position for when those challenges do arise. After all, the best time to buy an umbrella is before it rains.
A Successful Failure
ולא מצאה היונה מנוח לכף רגלה ותשב אליו אל התבה כי מים על פני כל הארץ וישלח ידו ויקחה ויבא אתה אליו אל התבה
But the dove found no resting place for the sole of its foot, so it returned to him to the ark because there was water upon the entire surface of the earth. So he stretched forth his hand and took it, and he brought it to him to the ark. (Bereishit 8:9)
Why does the Torah point out that Noah extended himself to bring the dove back into the ark? Why didn’t it just fly back home?
Rabbi Naftoli Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893), otherwise known as the Netziv, points out that because the dove was not successful in its mission and returned without anything in its mouth, it thought that its master would be angry and not allow it to enter the ark. Noah, however, had compassion on the dove and took it in his hand to warm while it rested from the travails of her journey.
Even though the dove “found no resting place for the sole of its foot” — in other words it did not succeed in its mission — Noah treated it with compassion, and extended his hand to return the exhausted bird to its home.
In the eyes of the Almighty, it is the effort, not the result, that counts. How often do we do everything seemingly right, yet it ends in failure? This idea is apparent in today’s turbulent financial times, where we clearly see that success, or lack of success, is completely in the Almighty’s hands. With regard to spiritual pursuits, it is our responsibility to do our utmost, and we are rewarded accordingly.
A noted lecturer illustrated this idea with the following anecdote:
Dr. Levi was a famous heart surgeon who took his job very seriously. He made sure to keep abreast of all the latest medical developments and to be well rested and alert before beginning surgery. But although he took every possible precaution and reviewed all of Mr. Paloni’s tests and x-rays prior to the operation, Mr. Paloni’s heart stopped suddenly just minutes after beginning surgery, and he died on the operating table.
Dr. Simon was also a famous heart surgeon, but he did not take his job seriously. He laughed at those doctors who wasted their precious time reading medical journals. “After all,” he’d say, “after six years of medical school I should know what I’m doing.” A late night person, he often had to take a break during surgery to down a quick cup of coffee. The night before Mr. Almoni’s operation had been a particularly late one, and the good doctor was exhausted even before he made the first incision. Although he performed the surgery while half asleep, it was incredibly successful, and Mr. Almoni was given a new lease on life.
Although it appears that Dr. Levi failed while Dr. Simon succeeded, in the eyes of G-d it is completely the opposite. Dr. Simon failed — he was lax in his duties — while Dr. Levi was successful, as he did everything humanly possible to succeed.
Just as G-d treats us with compassion and rewards us for our efforts rather than for our accomplishments, we should treat others in the same way. If we ask someone to do something for us, and that person tries yet is unsuccessful, we should behave with compassion and treat him as if he had succeeded in his mission.
Don’t Drink and Build
ויחל נח איש האדמה ויטע כרם: וישת מן היין וישכר ויתגל בתוך אהלה
“Noah, the man of the earth, debased himself and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent.” (Bereishit 9:20-21)
The flood was over and the world lay in ruins. Just as saving the remnant of humanity and all living creatures fell on Noah’s shoulders, so too, did the task of rebuilding the world from its state of devastation.
Noah began by planting a vineyard – but the results were disastrous. Indeed, Rashi explains that the phrase “debased himself” implies that Noah seriously erred in this decision and that his first act should have been to plant something other than a vineyard. (Rashi Bereishit 9:20)
Noah’s decision raises a fundamental question. As the opening verse of this week’s portion tells us, Noah was a righteous man, “perfect in his generation” (Bereishit 6:9). It is therefore highly improbable that his desire was simply to “get drunk.” What, then, was driving Noah to plant a vineyard and drink wine as his first act in the new world?
Rabbi Meir Rubman, the author of Zichron Meir, explains that when Noah saw the destruction wrought by the flood, he was devastated and understandably disheartened. At the same time, he understood that reestablishing a spiritual connection between G-d and humanity could only be achieved by serving G-d with a joyous heart. Remaining depressed would get in the way of serving G-d with joy. Noah believed the wine would help raise his spirits (no pun intended) and revitalize his connection with G-d.
The question then is: If Noah’s intentions were in fact noble, what went wrong? Rabbi Simcha Wasserman notes that although Noach had mostly good intentions, he had other, less noble motivations as well. Noah hoped that the wine would offer a measure of escape as well. While understandable, this choice was considered a failing for someone of Noah’s stature, and accordingly, had a damaging result. Rather than escaping from his pain – or even seeking spiritual accomplishments – Noah should have focused on rebuilding the world.
After the Holocaust, the survivors who emerged from the destruction of their homes, their families and their communities were in a similar predicament. Many wanted nothing more than to escape the pain they had endured. But many others understood that their primary responsibility at that moment in history was to rebuild what had been lost – and they lived to see their lives blessed with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Day Schools, Yeshivot, and an array of Jewish institutions have been established. Vibrant Jewish communities have been created from the ground up.
In our days, there is also no lack of pain and suffering. There are thousands of people in our midst who have lost their jobs, who suffer from terrible diseases, and whose families are no longer intact. We also face an ongoing threat of terrorism. As individuals and as a community, we too must choose how to react.
The story of Seth and Sherri Mandell is a poignant example of two “ordinary” people who chose to rebuild a new world in the face of devastating loss. On May 8, 2001, their son Koby, 13, and his friend Yosef Ishran, 14, took the day off from school to go exploring in a canyon just outside their neighborhood in Jerusalem. A group of Arab terrorists found them, trapped them in a cave and beat them to death with rocks. Despite their grief, the Mandells were determined to transform their tragedy into a greater good for the world around them.
“We understood the horror, the sharpness and the intensity of grief, the way it hurt us and hurt our children,” Sherri said. “We saw other families and children who needed help and that we could find a way to give them that help.” The Mandells chose to create a camp for children whose relatives had died in terrorist attacks. From modest beginnings, the camp now brings 600 children together for two or three weeks a year, three or four days at a time.
Sherri also founded a program for grieving mothers, who often do not have the chance to process their loss given their day-to-day responsibilities in taking care of their families.“Our camp is the happiest place in the world,” Sherri said, explaining that “when you hit the lowest of the lows, you can reach an even greater joy, because you know how great happiness is.”
To escape or rebuild? To be or not to be? These are the questions we each face whenever we encounter setbacks, failures or tragedies in our lives. Escape, as tempting as it may appear, should simply not be an option. The path to greatness lies in moving forward to renew and rebuild.
A Perfect Beginning
ויחל נח איש האדמה ויטע כרם: וישת מן היין וישכר ויתגל בתוך אהלה
“Noah, the man of the earth, debased himself and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent.” (Bereishit 9:20)
After the waters of the flood subsided and G-d commanded Noah and his family to leave the ark, Noah encountered a desolate wasteland, a reminder of the year of unprecedented destruction the world had just endured. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of rebuilding which was necessary to render the world once again inhabitable, Noah chose to begin by planting a vineyard.
In our verse, the Torah criticizes Noah’s actions, noting that he desecrated and sullied himself by doing so. The end result was that he became drunk after drinking from the wine and passed out naked in a drunken stupor. Rashi explains that Noah’s error was that he should have overcome his craving for wine and begun by planting more essential trees.
The Medrash goes even farther, sharply contrasting the fact that prior to the flood the Torah refers to Noah as a righteous man with the fact that this error transformed him into a debased and sullied man. Although it may be true that Noah could have displayed better judgment in his priorities for rebuilding the earth, why was his mistake so catastrophic? As the vineyard also served a valuable purpose, why does the Torah take Noah to task for such a seemingly insignificant lapse in judgment?
The following Medrash may shed light on these questions. The Medrash relates that on the night after the construction of the first Temple was finished, King Solomon got married. The combination of the two celebrations was a cause for tremendous joy.
In order that Solomon shouldn’t wake up early in the morning, his new wife hung a sheet on top of his bed and drew on it pictures of the moon and stars so that when he would wake up, he would think it was still the nighttime and would continue to sleep. On that night he slept uncharacteristically until four hours after sunrise, and the Jews waiting eagerly to offer the morning sacrifice had to wait until that time, as the keys to the Temple were underneath his pillow.
When his mother heard that the sacrifice was being delayed due to his sleeping late, she went and woke him up and rebuked him quite soundly. Although it would have been nice to bring the sacrifice at the earliest possible time, nothing was actually lost as it was offered four hours after sunrise, which is still within its acceptable time range. Further, Solomon did nothing wrong as he was rejoicing with his new bride, and he had only slept late as a result of her deceiving him. Why, then, was his mother so upset with him?
Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro answers that Solomon’s mother understood the importance of a proper beginning, both to the Temple and to one’s marriage, as everything which happens subsequently is an outgrowth of that foundation. She therefore wanted to emphasize to Solomon that no excuse in the world justifies damaging the foundation of a new project.
Similarly, Rabbi Shapiro explains that in harshly denigrating Noah, the Torah is teaching us that although his decision seems to represent a trivial oversight, in reality his planting of the vineyard set the tone for his actions in rebuilding the world. Although it was possible to undo the damage caused by poor judgment, the solid foundation would still be missing.
As the recent holidays fade into the past, we once again focus on our daily lives. Whether we are returning to a new semester in yeshiva or school, to our jobs, or to caring for our families, we should internalize the lesson of Noah and Solomon, making sure to plant solid foundations which will help ensure success in all of our endeavors throughout the year to come.
It’s a Non-Stop
ויקח תרח את אברם בנו ואת לוט בן הרן בן בנו ואת שרי כלתו אשת אברם בנו ויצאו אתם מאור כשדים ללכת ארצה כנען ויבאו עד חרן וישבו שם
“Terach took his son Abram and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of Abram his son, and they departed with them from Ur Kasdim to go to the land of Canaan. They arrived at Charan, and they settled there.” (Bereishit 11:31)
Parshat Noach ends by recording that Terach, the father of Abraham, took Abraham and his wife Sarah, as well as his grandson Lot, and they set out for the land of Canaan. Curiously, the verse concludes by stating that they arrived at Charan and settled there. As we know that the Torah only records information that is relevant to all generations, what lesson could we learn from this seemingly trivial detail about their travel itinerary? Further, if they set out for the land of Canaan, why did they stop in the middle of the journey before successfully reaching their destination?
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, known as the Chofetz Chaim (1838-1933), notes that next week’s parsha – Lech Lecha – contains a similar verse. After G-d commands Abraham to leave his homeland to go to the land which He will show him, the Torah relates (Bereishit 12:5) that Abraham took his wife Sarah, nephew Lot, their possessions, and those they had converted, and set out for the land of Canaan – and they came to the land of Canaan. Why does the Torah emphasize that they left for Canaan and that they successfully arrived there? Why isn’t it sufficient to simply state that they successfully arrived in Canaan, the land to which G-d had directed them?
Rabbi Kagan explains both verses by noting that while our Sages don’t tell us exactly what happened, it’s clear that although Terach set out with a certain itinerary in mind, he wasn’t sufficiently focused and determined to see it to fruition. As soon as the first difficulty arose, his plan was derailed and he aborted it in the middle to settle in Charan. Abraham had been traveling with his father and saw what could happen when one’s commitment to a project is deficient. He understood that at any moment an obstacle could present itself and threaten the success of his entire mission. He therefore harnessed the initial enthusiasm one typically has at the beginning of a new endeavor, constantly reminding himself, “I’m going to Canaan, I’m going to Canaan,” – never letting his guard down to stop, even when he was only a step away from the border of Canaan. The Torah emphasizes that when Abraham began his journey it was with a clear focus on his objective to arrive in Canaan. Not surprisingly, as the Torah reminds us, he succeeded in doing so.
We all have moments in our lives – an uplifting Torah class, Yom Kippur, or a miraculous “sign” from Heaven – when we see, hear, or experience something which gives us a flash of inspiration to make changes in our life or to undertake new projects. The passage of time however, wears away at that enthusiasm and we are left without achieving any of our goals. We should learn from the Torah’s emphasis on Abraham’s itinerary that the best way to seize such moments is to stay constantly focused on our resolutions – and not just set out for Canaan but actually arrive there!
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
After beginning to introduce the descendants of Noah, the Torah pauses (Bereishit 6:9) to praise his piety and righteousness. Rashi explains that this teaches us that the primary “offspring” of the righteous are their good deeds. Why is this lesson specifically taught with reference to Noah? (Darash Moshe Vol. 2)
The prophet Isaiah describes (Isaiah 65:25) the peacefulness which will reign in the times of Moshiach, noting that even natural enemies such as wolves and sheep will dwell serenely side-by-side. Why is this considered such an accomplishment of the Messianic era when wolves, sheep, and every other species in existence peacefully coexisted on one level of the ark (Bereishit 7:8) for an entire year? (Rabbi Meir Shapiro quoted in Peninim Vol. 5)
Although the Torah seems to explicitly testify (Bereishit 6:9) that Noah was perfectly righteous, Rashi writes that some of the Sages maintain that this comment is critical of him, teaching that he was only pious in comparison to his wicked contemporaries. If the Torah says that Noah was righteous, why did the Rabbis knock him?
Rashi writes (Bereishit 6:14) that G-d commanded Noah to build the ark for 120 years so that his contemporaries would question his actions, and upon hearing that he was preparing for a massive flood which would destroy the entire world, they would repent for their wicked ways. Why didn’t Noah use this time as an opportunity to pray that they should repent? (Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh by Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, Yishm’ru Daas by Rabbi Dovid Povarsky)
Q: The Haftorah for Parshat Noach curiously makes reference to מי נח – “the flood-waters of Noah” (Isaiah 54:9). As Noah was the only one found righteous and worthy of salvation in his generation, wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to refer to it as the flood of his wicked contemporaries?
A: The Holy Zohar explains that during the 120 years that Noah spent building the ark, he neglected to pray for the repentance of his contemporaries, and he didn’t successfully influence even a single person to repent his evil ways. Had he been more concerned about them and not sufficed with his own personal piety, he likely could have prevented the flood and its accompanying destruction; hence, it is memorialized as “the flood of Noah.” (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Most of mankind had reached critical lows, and G-d decided to flood the world with a torrential downpour and populate the world anew. The new population would descend from those (humans and animals) who had not succumbed to the sins of the pre-flood generation (Rashi Bereishit 6:12 and 8:19). An ark would carry these survivors for as long as the flood waters raged.
Our Sages tell us (Medrash Rabbah, Bereishit 32:8) that Noah’s neighbors repeatedly threatened his life when he tried to enter the ark. In fact, he required G-d’s help and protection to get in. Since they were so corrupt that they obviously didn’t believe that the flood was coming, why would they care if Noah chose to camp out in an ark with his family and such a strange assembly?
The Torah teaches us that Noah spent a full year in the ark: 40 days of rain, 150 days of rising waters, and the remainder of the year while the waters receded and the land dried (Bereishit 7:17-8:14). If the purpose of the flood was to destroy the world and make it ready for re-population, why would G-d wait a full year to do so? As G-d could surely have done so in one day — why did He take so long?
Noah is described as a “righteous man, perfect in his generations.” However, there are differing opinions as to whether this description is meant to be praiseworthy or derogatory. One opinion suggests that had Noah lived in a more righteous generation, he would have been even more righteous. Others state that had he lived in the generation of Abraham, he would not have been considered to be of such important stature. (Rashi Bereishit 6:9) Generally, the Torah does not compare a leader of one generation to another; each is judged according to his time.
Noah came before Abraham and in fact had no one from whom to draw an example. Why is it fair then to unfavorably compare Noah to Abraham?
Why compare Noah to Abraham altogether – either for good or bad?
Abraham was alive during the lifetime of Noah and learned directly from Noah. According to the opinion that considers Noah on a lower spiritual stature than Abraham, why would the fact that Abraham learned from Noach not be considered in his historical evaluation?
Q: G-d told Noah (Bereishit 9:12-13) that the rainbow will be the sign of His covenant to never again destroy the earth. Does this mean that rainbows never existed prior to the flood and G-d changed the laws of nature in order to bring about their existence, or that they occurred previously but only now achieved a new symbolic meaning?
A: A number of our greatest Rabbis disagree about this very question. After first assuming that if G-d declared that He was creating the rainbow to serve as a sign, it must have been a new creation at that time, the Ramban proceeds to quote the Greeks, who maintained that their advanced scientific knowledge indicated that a rainbow was a natural result of light shining in moist air. As a result, he concludes that rainbows naturally occurred prior to the flood, but only took on new significance at that time. As a proof to this position, the Ramban and Rabbi Saadyah Gaon note that G-d didn’t say, “I am placing my rainbow in the cloud”, which would indicate that the rainbow was created at that time, but rather, “I have placed my rainbow in the cloud as a sign of the covenant.” (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
The Derashos HaRan (Derush 1) and the Gur Aryeh, by Rabbi Yehuda Loew, disagree. The Ran questions how something which has always existed, such as the rising of the sun in the morning, can suddenly take on symbolic properties. They write that although scientists teach that a rainbow is a naturally-occurring phenomenon, the laws of nature prior to the flood were such that the sun’s rays weren’t strong enough to create a rainbow. As far as the proof from the tense of the verb, the Ibn Ezra suggests that it can be consistent with this opinion by reading it as saying, “I have placed – now – my rainbow in the cloud as a sign of the covenant.”
At a time when the entire world was unified, with one language and one purpose, the people settled in the valley and decided to build a huge tower to reach up to the heavens — the Tower of Babel. G-d broke up this rebellion by confusing their language and dispersing them all over the face of the earth (Bereishit 11:1-8).
The building of the Tower of Babel seems like an unparalleled act of rebellion against G-d. Oddly, it is not described in the Torah as such or even as a sin. How can this glaring omission be explained?
Unlike previous and subsequent stories recounted in the Torah, no names are mentioned in association with the Tower of Babel. The verses state: “They traveled from the east and they found a valley, and they dwelled there”; “They said to one another.” Why would the names of the people involved be omitted?
The people were punished by losing their common language. How was this a fitting punishment for their scheme? (Rabbi Label Lam)
Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Arizal, writes that Moses contained within him a spark of the soul of Noah, and part of his life mission was to rectify certain mistakes made by Noah. Moses was the antithesis of Noah and came to correct this inappropriate lack of concern for others. Although Divine Providence brought him to Pharaoh’s palace where he was spared the fate of his fellow Jews, he nevertheless felt their pain from his youth and embarked upon his mission as their communal leader, often sacrificing his own personal growth and honor for their sake. The 120 years that Noah spent absorbed in his own personal salvation through the building of the ark were perfectly rectified during Moses’s 120 years of living for others.
We witness Moses’ ultimate dedication to his people after the sin of the golden calf. G-d desired to eradicate the current Jewish population and to create a new nation consisting solely of Moses’ descendants. Rabbi Yaakov Neiman, in his book titled “Darkei Mussar,” notes that Moses had every right to be upset with his stiff-necked people, who instead of mourning were celebrating (what they perceived as) his death and replacing him with an inanimate object. Nevertheless, he prayed and begged G-d to forgive their actions, adding that should He refuse to do so, then He should also erase Moses from the entire Torah. This pure and unprecedented selflessness represented the ultimate correction of Noah’s errors. Not surprisingly, this is hinted to as the letters in מחני (“erase me”) also spell מי נח – the flood-waters of Noah!
Q: In listing the ten generations from Noah to Abraham and the years of their lives (Bereishit 11:10-26), it is clear that the average lifespan of the generations from Adam to Noah (Bereishit 5:3-32) was significantly longer than that of the post-flood generations. To what may this change be attributed?
A: Maimonides writes (Moreh Nevuchim 2:47) that even before the flood, the average lifespan was only 70 or 80 years, and those who are mentioned as living much longer were exceptions to the rule. Nachmanides disagrees and maintains that these individuals weren’t exceptional, but rather all people prior to the flood had longer life spans. After the flood, natural conditions were no longer as supportive to humans, which resulted in declining life spans. The Sforno suggests (Bereishit 8:21) that prior to the flood, there were no changes in the weather and the seasons, which allowed humans to remain much stronger. After the flood, unnatural changes in the earth and sun resulted in constantly changing weather patterns that left humans less healthy and thus, shortened their life spans. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
“The earth became corrupt before G-d, and the earth became filled with corruption.” Bereishit 6:11
The Earth Was Corrupt – Meaning, lewdness and idolatry…
And The Earth Became Filled With Corruption – Robbery – Rashi
It is not unusual for people to dismiss as inconsequential, actions defined by the Torah as “sins against G-d,” since the only victim is their personal relationship with G-d and not society. The unique sequence of this verse however, informs us otherwise. The verse begins with the story of how the earth turned corrupt in matters between man and G-d, but alas, it didn’t end that way. It rapidly deteriorated into corruption between man and his fellow as well. This is a pattern that is all too familiar with observers of human history.
“In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day, all the fountains of the great deep, burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.” Bereishit 7:11
The Fountains…Burst Forth…The Windows…The Heavens Opened – Shouldn’t the verse first have spoken of the opening of the windows of the heavens, and only afterwards mentioned the opening of the fountains from the deep similar to that found in the verse, “Who will bless you with the blessings of heaven from above, blessings of the depths that lie below” [Bereishit 49:25]? The answer is that since it brought devastation to the world, G-d wanted to stall the destruction and He therefore sought to utilize a less destructive method first. This is the reverse of His method when bringing blessing upon the world. He utilizes the most powerful means available in order to hasten the onset of blessing. – Rabbenu Bachya
In The Six Hundredth Year – This verse alludes to a potentially great spiritual deluge that was to have taken place during this year, in which the Written and Oral Torah would have both been presented to mankind had they been worthy. Instead, a catastrophic flood was brought upon them that almost wiped out the existence of all life on earth. – Zohar
It is clear from the commentators that the Great Flood was a last resort and the result of overwhelming evil by mankind. G-d’s overriding desire was to bring blessing and wisdom upon man, but mankind frustrated that plan and left Him no alternative other than to destroy him. The Talmud [Brachos 4b] echoes this sentiment when it says that the angel Michael (who bears good tidings) is dispatched on a non-stop “flight” to carry out his missions, whereas the Angel of Death is required to stop eight times before arriving at his destination. These interruptions to his mission are introduced deliberately to delay the retribution for as long as possible and allow the offender time to rectify his misdeeds, in which case the Angel can still be recalled. The dispenser of good, on the other hand, is dispatched with the utmost haste so as not to allow the recipient time to cause its annulment through inappropriate behavior.
“Haran died during the lifetime of his father Terach, in the land of his birth in Ur Kasdim.” Beresishit 11:28
Ur Kasdim – There was no place named “Ur” Kasdim. Rather, the place was called Kasdim, and “Ur” is an allusion to the famous incident in which Nimrod, the murderous pagan ruler of that time, cast Abraham into a flaming furnace in an attempt to disprove Abraham’s belief in G-d.
The angels asked the Holy One, Blessed Is He, “Why do You show favoritism to the Jewish people?” He responded, “Because of the sacrifice of their father Abraham, who sanctified My Name to the entire world. When Terach, his father, asked him to sell his recently manufactured idols, Abraham would do all in his power to demonstrate their ineffectiveness to potential buyers. When asked to tend to the “needs” of the idols, Abraham would place food before them and ask them to partake of his food. When they sat there motionless, Abraham pointed out how powerless they truly were. When he was brought before Nimrod, who claimed to be a deity, Abraham challenged him to reverse the course of the sun, to reveal Abraham’s inner thoughts and his future behavior. He also pointed out that Nimrod couldn’t prevent his own father’s death and loudly declared that Nimrod was a fraudulent deity. The outraged Nimrod ordered him cast into a furnace and miraculously Abraham survived, demonstrating the greatness and omnipotence of the G-d who Abraham worshiped: The Holy One, Blessed is He. – Midrash Tanna D’bei Eliyahu Zuta 25
According to some of the commentaries, being cast into the furnace was the first of the Ten Trials that Abraham was subjected to in his quest to prove worthy of producing the Jewish nation. His unwavering conviction in G-d’s supremacy and willingness to forfeit his life for this ideal has served as a model for the Jewish people since time immemorial. We too, must do all that is necessary to ascertain His presence and mastery over the universe, and then loyally cling to that conviction, even in the face of adversity.
“And He blotted out all existence that was on the face of the ground, from man to animals to creeping things and to the bird of the heavens…” Bereishit 7:22
And He blotted out – “Rav Chisda said, ‘They sinned with heat [i.e. promiscuity], and were judged accordingly with boiling water [i.e. the waters of the Flood were scalding]. – Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 108b
There are a significant number of manifestations of the number 15 related to the Great Flood:
“Fifteen cubits upward the waters swelled, and the mountains were covered.” [Bereishit 7:20]
“And the waters strengthened on the earth one hundred and fifty days.” [Bereishit 7:24] This is a total of 10×15.
“This is how you shall construct it: three hundred cubits the length of the Ark, fifty cubits its width, and thirty cubits its height…make it with a lower, second, and third deck.” [Bereishit 6:15-16] At ten cubits height per floor, each floor was a total of 150,000 square cubits.
Kli Yakar (Rabbi Ephraim Lunshitz) explains the manifestations of the number 15 in the following manner. The primary sins that caused the Great Flood were licentiousness and immorality. The Talmud (Tractate Sotah 17a) explains that the Hebrew words for man and woman share the letters Aleph and Shin. Woman, however, has an additional letter Hey, whereas Man possesses the letter Yud. Together, these two letters spell the Divine Name, “Ya-h,” which has a numerical value of fifteen. When man and woman reside together in a G-dly fashion, they merit the Divine presence as symbolized by the Name Ya-h. When they behave immorally, His Presence departs and all that remains are the letters Aleph and Shin which spell “Aish” – fire. The terrible fate of the generation of the Great Flood was brought about by none other than the victims themselves who, through their excessively immoral behavior, drove away the Divine Presence and were consumed by the resultant fire.
“Continuously, all the days of the earth, planting and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, they shall not cease.” Bereishit 8:22
They shall not cease – The celestial bodies remained static and the heavenly mazalos [constellations] were suspended throughout the flood. – Bereishit Rabbah 33
They shall not cease – Immorality manifests itself due to an abundance of materialism and the resultant boredom. Busy societies do not possess the luxury to engage in this sort of behavior. Thus, the Almighty promised that no longer would they enjoy the ease of life which they enjoyed since the birth of Noah and which led to this disastrous state of affairs. From this day onward, “they shall not cease,” – i.e. their workload will be overwhelming and allow little time for immoral activities. – HeEmek Davar (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin)
They shall not cease – They shall not cease their abnormal operation which I instituted following the Great Flood. Prior to that time, the sun constantly orbited at the equator and the earth was not subject to the upheaval and change that comes with the various seasons. The earth was in a constant state of Spring-time. Now it veered off course, resulting in enormous difficulty for the universe. Crops would not grow as before, produce would be less nutritious, human life-spans were severely diminished, and much more. Sforno, Malbim
“Rabbi Yitzchak says, (prior to the Great Flood)…they enjoyed beautiful weather like between Pesach [i.e. Passover] and Atzeret [i.e. Shavuos]. – Midrash, Bereishit 34:11
Sforno concludes on a hopeful note. The verse limits this sorry state of affairs only to, “all the days of the earth.” It will only be this way until the Almighty renews the earth in the End of Days with the advent of the Moshiach and the World to Come. At that time, we will live longer, produce healthier and more plentiful crop, and overcome the limitations of the seasons.
“The whole earth had one language, with identical words.” Bereishit 11:1
One language – This language was the Holy Tongue [Hebrew]. – Rashi
With identical words – They came with one plan and said, “G-d has no right to select the heavens for Himself. Let us ascend to the sky and wage war against Him.” – Rashi
“Gatherings and alliances of the wicked are detrimental for them and for the world at large. Dispersal and disunity of the wicked is good for them and good for the world.” – Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 71b
When the wicked convene, even for an ostensibly moral purpose, little good can ever emerge from such a convention. Instead, they’ll utilize their allegedly moral forum to inflict all sorts of damage upon moral nations and reward immoral nations. It would be better that these bodies be disbanded, than to pretend that their existence is justified by their pretensions of honorable intent.
“And it was after the seven days, that the waters of the flood were upon the earth.” Bereishit 7:10
And it was after the seven days — Anytime the Torah uses the term “VeYehi” — and it was, it connotes anguish. Here too, it is as if the Almighty anguished over the world He created in seven days. That’s why it refers to them as “the seven days,” and not merely, “after seven days,” because it’s referring to the seven days of creation. “Why,” lamented the Almighty, “did I waste all that time creating a world that I would soon need to destroy?” — Sifsei Kohein Al HaTorah
And it was after the seven days — These seven days were the traditional seven days of mourning during which one laments over the loss of a beloved. — Midrash Tanchuma, Shmini 1
The Great Flood was certainly not the Almighty’s method of exacting revenge against that generation. To the contrary, it caused Him great distress and anguish to destroy the universe which He had so carefully crafted to benefit mankind. Often, we act with disregard for the will of the Almighty, reckoning that the only one to suffer from our misbehavior is we ourselves. This Midrash tells us that is not the case. The Almighty too, suffers great anguish when the universe that He created for our benefit can no longer exist as a result of our actions.
“And He obliterated every being that was on the surface of the ground; from man to animals, to creeping creatures, and to the birds of the heaven, they were eradicated from the earth. Only Noah and those with him in the Ark survived.” Bereishit 7:23
Only Noah…survived — This apparently contradicts the Medrash [Yalkut Shimoni 14:72] that says that Og, King of Bashan, also survived the Great Flood? Fascinatingly, the words Ach Noach [Only Noah] have a numerical equivalent of 79, which is the same as the name Og. Thus, the verse says that both Noach and Og survived. — Daas Zekeinim, Baal HaTurim
Only Noah…survived — Earlier, upon mentioning Noah, the Torah crowns him with all sorts of honorifics. It speaks of his righteousness, perfection, and outstanding status in his generation. Why at this point following his salvation is he referred to only by his name and nothing more? Our sages took Noah to task for failing to impact his generation in a positive direction and spare them this terrible fate. One who neglects to act on behalf of others eventually descends as well. Following his salvation, it became clear that Noah was no longer the great person he was prior to the Great Flood. His unwillingness to act to save his generation meant that he was unworthy of these honorific titles any longer. — Rabbi Meir Shapiro zt”l
In blaming Noah for his inaction, our sages did not mean to mitigate the blame on the members of his generation. Their wickedness fully earned them their tragic end. Yet, a truly great person is not content to allow others to wallow in their sinfulness, and he does not rest until he has extricated them from the clutches of their evil inclination. Noah, although personally a very decent and upstanding human being, failed to demonstrate sufficient concern for his fellow man, and this disqualified him from further veneration or adulation, and following the Great Flood, he was no longer the subject of G-d’s special attention.
“Every moving creature that lives, shall be yours for food, like the green vegetation, I have given you everything for consumption.” Bereishit 9:3
I have given you everything for consumption — G-d said: “I did not permit Adam HaRishon (Adam) to eat meat, only vegetables. To you, however, just as the vegetables which I permitted for Adam HaRishon, I have given you everything.” — Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 59b
I have given you everything — From the word “everything” one might deduce that all flesh of all animals is permitted. Therefore, the Torah compared this new authorization to the vegetation of the field. Just as one cannot consume all forms of vegetation and must stick only to those that are healthful and not harmful, so too, one must only consume those forms of flesh that the Torah allows and refrain from those that the Torah forbids. — Rabbeinu Bachya
Why, suddenly after the Great Flood, did G-d permit the consumption of animals and not beforehand? Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin in his commentary titled Oznaim L’Torah, explains that this was to teach mankind about the importance of the human race and its superiority over the animal kingdom, a point that had not yet been fully appreciated before this time. The Great Flood came as a result of two grave sins: adultery and thievery. Both of these demonstrate a total lack of regard for the next person and resemble the behavior of animals, which place no value on the possessions of another. Because they were forbidden to eat the animals, mankind reasoned that they were on par with them and not held to a higher standard. Of course, this is patently not the case. Mankind is the central component in G-d’s universe, without which it ceases to exist or have meaning. To drive this point home, G-d decided to allow the consumption of animals — a clear sign that mankind is superior to animal kingdom and that we don’t share a moral plane.
Hey, I Never Knew That
“Noah walked with G-d” (Bereishit 6:9), Abraham “walked before” G-d (Bereishit 17:1, 48:15), and the Jewish people are enjoined to “walk behind G-d” (Devarim 13:5). The differences between these descriptions of walking with, before, and behind G-d are explained by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook. Noah walked in step with G-d, careful not to deviate from G-d’s path lest he fall into the depravity of his generation. Abraham was a pioneer, who walked ahead of G-d and, based on his understanding of G-d’s will, created a path for others to follow. We have been given the Torah, containing all that we need to know of G-d’s will, and hence we are commanded to follow the Torah, and walk behind G-d (Midbar Shur 13).
Jewish tradition teaches us that humanity was given seven universal laws, known as the Seven Laws of Noah (or Seven Noachide Laws), that obligate every human being. The seven laws are the prohibitions against: idolatry; blasphemy; murder; theft; adultery; eating from a living animal; and the obligation to set up a justice system to administer these laws. A number of authorities in Jewish Law maintain that each command is really an entire category, so that theft includes all business ethics, cheating, etc., and murder includes all physical damage to other people. According to one scholar (Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein, The Seven Laws of Noach) approximately 66 of the 613 commandments of the Torah are included in the Noachide laws. So the ratio of Jewish commandments to gentile commandments is not 613:7 but 613:66, about 9 to 1. If we take into account the fact that in post-Temple times of exile we are in fact only obligated in 270 commandments (Chofetz Chaim, Sefer Hamitzvot Hakatzar) then the ratio is 270:66 or about a 4 to 1 ratio.
Word of the Week
“You shall make a צוהר — tzohar for the ark” (Bereishit 6:16). Rashi cites two opinions regarding the meaning of tzohar. One view maintains that it means a window, the other a luminous rock. Both meanings are based on the connection of tzohar to צהרים — tzoharayim, which means noon, or daytime, a time of maximum light. (Ibn Ezra, ad loc.) The word for olive oil, יצהר — yitzhar (Devarim 28:51) is based on the fact that olive oil is used for illumination (Rabbi Hirsch) and that it is a light color and almost transparent. (Rabbi David Kimchi). Targum Onkelos simply translates tzohar as nehor, light.
Geshem – rain, appears many times in our parsha. It is interesting to note that in Rabbinic Hebrew much later in history, the same word, גשם, was used to mean “matter” and the word for “materialistic” or “pertaining to the material” was gashmiyut — גשמיות. Some explain the connection as expressing a profound and central Jewish belief. Just as rain descends from heaven by the will of G-d, so too all physical existence and all matter only exists as a result of G-d’s will “descending from heaven” and willing it to exist. In a sense, all matter is really an outpouring of G-d’s creative will, as rain is an outpouring of His kindness, so that one could say that all גשם (matter) is really גשם (rain) (Rav Moshe Shapiro).
When one mentions the name of a deceased righteous person is one obligated to praise him or her? At the beginning of the parshah, the Torah mentions Noah, and before listing his descendants, the Torah notes that he was righteous. Rashi comments that “since he was mentioned, the Torah spoke of his praise, as the verse states (Proverbs 10:7) ‘The memory of the righteous is blessed.’” The Talmud (Yoma 38b) derives this obligation from the fact that G-d praised Abraham when mentioning him regarding the destruction of Sodom. The common custom is to append the phrase, “the memory of the righteous is blessed” (usually with the Hebrew acronym, zatzal) after mentioning the name of a deceased righteous person. When a person mentions the name of a deceased parent, the mitzvah to honor parents obligates the child to praise him or her just as he would praise a righteous person (Rabbi Betzalel Stern, Responsa Betzel Hachochmah 5:21).
During the Crusades and the Inquisition, Jews were tortured to force them to convert or openly renounce the Torah. In some cases, if the Jewish victims knew what was coming, they would commit suicide to avoid the torture and subsequent public apostasy. Great Rabbis were asked why this was permissible, and they cite a verse in our parsha to support their answer. The prohibition against suicide is found in the words, “However, of the blood of your own lives I will demand an account” (Bereishit 9:5). The first word of the verse, “however,” seems out of place; what does it tell us? The Midrash Rabba (Bereishit 34:22) maintains that this word excludes certain cases from the prohibition against suicide. One case the Midrash mentions is that of King Saul, who after being wounded by archers, kills himself rather than falling into the hands of the Philistines (Samuel I:31:4). What is the logic of this exemption? Was it permitted for Saul because he was dying anyway and in great pain? Or was the suicide permissible to prevent the desecration of G-d’s name caused by the anointed king of Israel falling into the hands of idolaters? The conclusion of most authorities is that suicide was permitted for King Saul in order to sanctify G-d’s name and prevent a desecration of His name. And indeed throughout history, Jews have been prepared to die and even kill themselves, as did King Saul, in similar situations (Tosfos, Avodah Zarah 18a “Ve’al,” Ritva ad loc.).
“CHILDREN OF ABRAHAM” vs “CHILDREN OF NOAH”?
If Noah was responsible for saving the entire human race, why is he not given the same honor and esteem as the Patriarchs? For example, why do we refer to ourselves as the Children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and not the Children of Noah, even though we descend from Noah as well? For that matter, wouldn’t it also be appropriate to refer to ourselves as Children of Adam, since all of mankind descended from him?
In terms of pure potential, Adam, who was created solely by G-d, had no peer. Nevertheless, his offspring failed terribly. First Cain murdered his brother Abel, effectively reducing the world’s population by twenty-five percent.
Next, within ten generations, G-d had become so repulsed by the actions of Adam’s progeny that He swore to destroy all of them – with the exception of Noah. In fact, even Noah, the sole individual who could lay claim to righteousness in his generation, was not an easy pick for the job.
According to the Medrash, for all of his righteousness, Noah was not that far above the people of his generation. Yes, his actions were better than theirs – but not supremely so. An illustration of this point, according to the author of Meshech Chochmah, is that even though the Flood endured for only forty days, Noah was not allowed to emerge from the Ark until one full year had passed. (Rashi, Bereishit 8:14) The reason for this delay is that Noah was not inherently devoted to or concerned for others.
When G-d revealed to Noah His intention to bring a flood, for example, Noah failed to pray on behalf of his generation. Thus, the full year Noah spent tending to the needs of others on the Ark was designed to inculcate within him the trait of caring for others.
Furthermore, although the world was meant to begin anew with Noah, he did not prove up to the task. His first task upon exiting the Ark was to plant a vineyard. He then proceeded to become intoxicated and debase himself. One explanation given for this is that Noah was overcome with grief over the devastation and loss of the previous generation and sought to numb his pain by drinking himself into oblivion.
Normally, such an act would not be condemned. In fact, it used to be customary to give a mourner wine to drink to ease his sorrow. However, in Noah’s case, this was unacceptable. It demonstrated that he was not prepared to see himself as the forefather of the new humanity that was to emerge after the Flood. Instead, he retained his link to the earth’s previous inhabitants and mourned for them. That was his error.
Given the course of events, neither Noah nor Adam was a suitable candidate to serve as the architect of the ideal man – a nation dedicated to living according to holiness and sanctity. In other words, the Jewish people. The Jewish people are expected to uphold a higher standard of morality. This would require a forefather who dedicated his life to propagating the ideals of righteousness and concern for one’s fellow man.
That individual, Abraham, would not appear for another ten generations. Abraham not only lived by these ideals, but he also taught them to others – at great risk to his own life. Not only did Abraham dedicate himself to spreading the message of monotheism, but he also practiced great kindness, the likes of which had never been experienced in the world before. He prayed fervently and bargained tenaciously with G-d on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, whose culture was the antithesis of everything Abraham stood far. (Bereishit 18:23-33)
In this manner, Abraham outshone all of his predecessors and created a model from which a holy nation would emerge. In addition, he successfully transmitted these ideals to his son Isaac, who, in turn transmitted them to Jacob. No doubt we owe a debt of gratitude to Adam and Noah. However, by virtue of our sacred mandate to be a “light unto the nations,” we are the spiritual inheritors of the legacy of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Wishing you all the best,
Rabbi Elazar Meisels
Parsha at a Glance
This week’s portion, Noach, opens with the moral state of humanity having deteriorated beyond repair. From the breakdown of morality to the spread of violence and even petty theft, all boundaries of human decency had been destroyed.
G-d declared that He would wipe out all the inhabitants of the earth, with the exception of Noah, who had maintained his righteousness against his entire generation. Only Noah, his family and enough animals to replenish the earth after the destruction would be spared.
G-d instructed Noah to build an ark that would protect him and those with him from the impending flood. The construction of the ark was also intended to serve as a warning to humanity. People who saw Noah taking such a long time to build the ark had the opportunity to ask what he was doing and why. This provided an opening for Noah to warn them about the flood and give them a chance to repent. However, rather than seizing the opportunity to change their ways, Noah’s contemporaries mocked him instead.
When all opportunities for repentance had been exhausted, G-d granted one final period of seven days before bringing the flood, which the Torah notes took place in the 600th year of Noah’s life and 1656 years from Creation.
For forty days and forty nights, rain from above and water from the depths below covered the earth. For 150 days, the water continued to strengthen and rise until it reached a height of some thirty feet above the highest mountain peaks.
Every living thing on the face of the earth was destroyed.
At that point, the waters began to recede, in a process that also took several months. In all, the earth was uninhabitable for a full solar year.
When the earth had fully dried, G-d commanded Noah, his family and all of the living creatures with him to leave the ark and go forth into the renewed world. G-d blessed Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth to be fruitful and multiply and to fill the earth. In addition, G-d displayed a rainbow as a sign of His covenant that He would never again destroy the world through a flood.
Despite his righteous stature and his loyalty in saving all living creatures on earth, Noah’s first act in the new world ended in disaster. He planted a vineyard, only to become extremely intoxicated. While Ham mocked his father’s drunkenness to his brothers, Shem and Japheth respectfully covered their father. When Noah awakened and realized what had happened, he cursed Ham and blessed Shem and Japheth.
This episode effectively ended the Torah’s focus on Noah. The Torah now recounted the generations of the descendants of Noah and the seventy nations that arose from his three sons.
Unfortunately, the generations that followed the flood were little better than those that preceded them. True, they had unity and peace between each other, but rather than harnessing this unity in service to G-d, they chose to fight Him. Gathering in one place, they devised a plan to build a great tower into the heavens in order to “battle” G-d and protect themselves from being dispersed across the earth.
Seeing that humanity had come together for this evil purpose, G-d interceded to thwart their plans. Until this point, there was one common language among all people. Now, G-d disrupted this unity by confusing their language and scattering them throughout the world. This was a “measure for measure” punishment: Mankind had sought to create a division between G-d and the world, so G-d created division between mankind. They became known as the “Generation of the Dispersion.”
The portion concludes with a recounting of the generations from Noah to Abraham, ending with Abraham’s departure from Ur Kasdim and settling in Haran, on his way to the land of Canaan.