Thursday, October 26, 2006

In Our Generation Too

Parshas Bereishis ends by recounting that Hashem observed that human behavior had degenerated to the point of such wickedness that He regretted having created man. Hashem declared that he would wipe mankind and all animal life off the face of the land. The parsha concludes by saying that Noach found favor in the eyes of Hashem. Parshas Noach continues this theme by stating that Noach was a tzaddik tomim who walked with Hashem.

Every time I begin learning Parshas Noach, I have the same question. The Torah states that Noach was a tzaddik tomim in his generation. Rashi immediately tells us that some interpret this posuk as laudatory of Noach and others interpret it in a critical vein. The detractors say that had Noach lived in the generation of Avrohom, he would not have counted for anything.

If the Torah describes Noach as a person with tzaddik and tomim credentials, why must we pounce on him and seek to minimize his greatness? Why can’t we take the posuk at face value? If the Torah states that the entire world had become defiled except for Noach, isn’t that enough to establish his spiritual grandeur? Does it really make a difference to us what level of greatness Noach would have attained had he lived in the generation of Avrohom Avinu?

The world was about to be destroyed and the only people Hashem found worthy of being saved were Noach and his family. The whole future of mankind would be perpetuated through them; they must have been good and worthy people. If not, they would have been swept away by the flood along with the rest of humanity. Why does Rashi interject that some looked upon Noach unfavorably?

The K’sav Sofer, in his commentary discussing other aspects of Noach, explains that the people of his day regarded him as a tzaddik tomim bedorosov because he didn’t reproach them; es haElokim hishalech Noach. Noach walked with G-d, not with man. He was occupied with his own personal service of G-d and didn’t seek to improve his fellow man. People love a tzaddik who doesn’t bother them; who doesn’t try to improve them.

Perhaps that is the explanation of Rashi’s words: “Ilu haya bedoro shel Avrohom lo haya nechshav leklum.” Had Noach lived in the time of Avrohom, he would not have been considered a great man. Avrohom was one who lived with his fellow man and sought to improve them. The method of avodah which Noach performed - a self-contained, self-oriented avodah - would not have been considered great in the time of Avrohom. Avrohom Avinu showed that it is possible to be a tzaddik, live among the people, chastise them when necessary; and still be respected by them and affect their behavior.

Noach apparently felt that since G-d had already decided to bring the flood, it would be futile to be mochiach, or chastise, his dor. Avrohom, in his discussion with Hashem prior to the destruction of Sedom, showed that a tzaddik should never despair for his people’s fate and should never hesitate to seek their salvation.

Some tzaddikim are blessed with the gift of communication; there are great people who by virtue of their personalities convince people to repent and straighten their ways. A tzaddik who truly cares about his flock cannot hide from them, worrying only about himself and his family. There is no valid excuse for failing to influence others to do good and follow the path of G-d.

This is why Rashi takes pains to tell us that although Noach was a tzaddik tomim, we should not seek to learn from him. His way should not be our way. As children of Avrohom, we must follow in the path Avrohom Avinu hewed for us. We have to accept responsibility for those around us who are confused and lost. We have to be able to rise above the moral dissolution in which society attempts to drown us. We have to find the skills and the intelligence to be able to effectively reach out and touch people.

If we cared enough, we would find the right words at the right time to let people know what they mean to us. If we cared about G-dliness and goodness as much as Avrohom did, then we would try as hard as he did to spread it in our world. We wouldn’t suffice ourselves with lame excuses that the people we could sway are too far gone. Parents who suffer with a child who has fallen under bad influences and is struggling with addiction never give up. They never stop loving their child and they desperately seek ways to convey that love.

Eventually, with Hashem’s help, parents with this level of devotion are successful. The smoke and fog clear and the message gets through.

“Ilu haya bedoro shel Avrohom lo haya nechshav leklum.” Although Noach was a tzaddik and although he found favor in Hashem’s eyes and was chosen to have the world rebuilt through him, once Avrohom came on the scene, Noach’s greatness was eclipsed. It is now Avrohom’s path - his actions and example - that we must emulate.

In our own day, when we witness injustice and impropriety, we should not shirk the responsibility of intelligently addressing the source of these lapses. When we see bizayon haTorah, it should shake us to our core and we should not be too weak to express it. Following Avrohom’s example, we must be engaged with others, not withdrawn from them.

When we see people wronged, we should not stand by and shrug our shoulders saying, “Who am I? What can I do?” We should rise to the occasion. We should imagine it was our family being wronged. We should imagine that the transgression took place in our teivah. We should raise our voices and use our other G-d-given talents to attempt to right the wrongs.

We can not content ourselves by only educating our children to follow in the path of the Torah and halacha; we have to see to it that those with whom we come in daily contact do the same. We cannot say that we are helpless to bring about change.

Noach was a great man. Undoubtedly, it required super-human strength to withstand the temptations of his period. Certainly, he was outstanding in that he remained true to the word of G-d, despite all the corruption surrounding him. The posuk testifies that Noach found favor - chein - in the eyes of Hashem. And the Gemorah in Sukkah (49b) states axiomatically that anyone who has chein also possesses yiras Shomayim.

Yet, although Noach had yiras Shomayim and all of mankind is his offspring, he is not referred to as the av hamon goyim - father of the nations. That appellation is reserved for Avrohom Avinu who treated all of mankind as his children, as dwellers of his own ark, whom he was responsible to care for and love. When he gave others tochacha, he did so with love and care. He didn’t mock them; he sought to raise them. He touched their hearts, reached their souls, affected their psyches and thus improved them and they joined his flock.

Avrohom went further than Noach; not only did he have yiras Shomayim, he was also the first convert to Hashem’s service. As the Gemorah in Sukkah (ibid) expounds on the posuk, “Am Elokei Avrohom, shehaya techilah l’goyim,” which Rashi explains to mean that he was the first person in the world to convert.

Noach never took that step. He didn’t care about G-d as much as Avrohom did. And therefore, he didn’t go around trying to straighten out the people he lived with and he wasn’t mispallel for their salvation as Avrohom habitually did. He didn’t sit out in front of his tent waiting to bring them under the canopy of G-d.

“Ilu haya bedoro shel Avrohom lo haya nechshav leklum.”

Perhaps Rashi is telling us that we should seek to follow in the path of Avrohom Avinu, without minimizing our talents and abilities. Let us not excuse inaction by contending that those around us are too far gone to merit our intervention. Let us find the right words of reproach and outreach to portray our love and determination. Let us merit that our actions be judged favorably by G-d and man.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Bum Bidi Bum

Sukkos is over; Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are behind us. All the planning and preparing for Yom Tov—and the joy and inspiration of those days—are fading memories. As the winter begins its steady descent, we attempt to keep the embers of the Yom Tov warmth glowing inside our hearts for as long as we can.

As we slide from the mode of the yemei kodesh to the yemei chol, we ought to hit the pause button and try to recapture the lessons of those sacred days and understand how to apply them in the days and months ahead.

To do otherwise would be to rob ourselves of the full benefits of the special days of Tishrei.

Sukkos is a sort of half-way house. During the days of Elul we sought to raise ourselves to a higher level of holiness and increased devotion to mitzvos and our fellow man. Rosh Hashana and Aseres Yemei Teshuva brought us to a new level of appreciating our obligations in this world. Yom Kippur was the apex of that evolution. In shul all day with our machzorim and tefillos, nothing came between us and Hashem as we communicated with Him in a way we don’t do all year. Klopping ahl cheit, we went through the list of temptations which can affect man and promised to never fall prey to them again.

But then Yom Kippur is over and we are confronted by our old foibles again. Sukkos comes along and we become ensconced once again in a cloak of holiness. The Yom Tov of z’man simchaseinu helps us adapt once again to the real world. While no longer on the lofty plane to which the Yomim Noraim carried us, we are nevertheless enveloped in kedusha and separated for eight days from the mundane stress and pressures that dominate the rest of the year.

As we resolve to tackle life with our renewed attitudes, the simcha of the Chag reaches out to us and gives us the strength and skill to do so. Thus, even on days which are not as awe inspiring and uplifting as Yom Kippur, we work on being better people, stronger in our yiras shomayim and in our bein adom lachaveiro.

It is interesting and noteworthy that Simchas Torah never falls on a Shabbos. Simchas Torah teaches us how to live during the six days of chol. The simcha and lessons of the day carry over to make every day like Shabbos, even days on which we have no choice but to work and engage in the profane. We celebrate the Torah, we celebrate that Hashem gave the Jews the Torah and we celebrate that we are members of the nation which received the gift.

On Simchas Torah every Jew can reconnect to Torah and begin its study once again with a renewed intensity that has been building up since Rosh Chodesh Elul. Sukkos renews a Jew’s feelings for kiyum hamitzvos and on this day he is suffused with an otherworldly joy. On this day, as Vezos Habracha is read, he can appreciate that the Torah is the essence of bracha, blessing. He begins his study of Torah again with Parshas Bereishis armed with a fresh perspective, and a determination to understand it better than he did last time around.

He opens up a Chumash and begins learning the first posuk. He then turns to the first Rashi we are all so familiar with, which asks why the Torah begins with the story of creation. Should it not have begun with the parsha of Hachodesh Hazeh Lochem which describes the first commandment given to the Jews as a nation?

He reads the answer: “So that if the nations of the world accuse the Jews of being land robbers for stealing the land of Eretz Yisroel from other nations, you will be able to answer them and tell them the entire world belongs to Hashem; He created it and He can give it to whom he pleases. First he gave Eretz Yisroel to the other nations, and then he took it away from them and gave it to us.”

But do the goyim really care what it says in the Torah? He wonders. Will they be satisfied with an answer based upon what it says in the Torah? Even if it is important to establish Hashem’s exclusive ownership of the earth, why must the Torah begin with this fact?

He continues on to the next Rashi. “Bereishis, b’shvil Torah shenikrah reishis ub’shvil Yisroel shenkiri’u reishis…Why does the Torah open with the word Bereishis? Because it signifies that the world was created for the Torah which is also referred to as reishis, and to teach us that the world was created for Am Yisroel, which is called reishis.”

He ponders the connection between the two Rashis. Rashi doesn’t actually mean to say that the goyim will be influenced by the arguments of the Torah. Perhaps Rashi’s intent is for us to continually remind ourselves of some fundamental truths that dictate our purpose in this world: Hashem created the world and singled out the Jewish nation as His chosen people for all time. He designated them as the recipients of the Holy Land in which they could elevate themselves through Torah to perfection.

Since time immemorial Jews have been singled out for hatred by the nations of the world. They have accused us of every conceivable sin and have sought to evict us from their lands and wipe us out. The Torah opens with the statement of creation and Hashem’s dominion over the world to remind us that where ever we are and no matter what the nations of the world accuse us of, we should not become dejected.

The aleph bais of Torah is to know that Hashem created the world and fashioned a special place for us in that world. This is why the second Rashi tells us that the world was created for Torah and Am Yisroel.

The Jew appreciates this and is able to stand up to all the scoffers who mock his devotion to Torah. The Jew recognizes that the Torah is not a history book designed to trace the odyssey of a people. It is the Creator’s “guidebook” whose purpose is to teach His people how to live in the land he created in six days. Nothing that anyone says or does can change that immutable fact. We cleave to its every word and base our lives upon it.

On the day we end a cycle of study and begin anew, our celebration and joy are unparalleled. On this happiest of days, we dance and sing songs of praise of Hashem and thank him for choosing us and for giving us the Torah. We sway to tunes which express our love for Torah and our devotion to it.

The pesukim of the Torah come alive and infuse the Jew with intense joy as he repeats over and over again, “Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu umah naim goraleinu.”

He realizes that the Torah is as relevant today as the day it was delivered to the Bnei Yisroel on Har Sinai, and on the first day of creation. That awareness increases the fervor of his dance and heartfelt simcha.

As it sinks in that the world was created for Torah, he wonders, isn’t it strange that davka the holiday we celebrate by leaving our homes and moving outside into a primitive structure is singled out as the holiday of happiness and joy?

And he recognizes that it is precisely during these few days when we retire to a small, chilly, dimly lit hut that we celebrate and begin to experience true happiness.

When we are stripped of life’s luxuries and comforts, when we are alone peering up to the heavens and the stars; when we take shelter in a temporary structure, that is when we experience true joy.

True joy belongs to the person who went through the Yomim Noraim and found himself changed. He davened as he never had before in his life, he studied sifrei Mussar and their words punctured and penetrated his soul. He heard the call of the shofar and decided he will do what he can to make the world a better place. He will learn more Torah, daven better and give tzedaka in an improved fashion. And following these resolutions, he went to learn or to work and faced the frustrations of life. And he controlled himself as he had promised he would. And he kept on course.

As the day wore on, the nisyonos kept on piling up, one after another, as if they were arranged on purpose to trip him up. But he made it through till Yom Kippur with his kabbalos intact.

On Yom Kippur, he was back at it. He went through those seforim again, he davened like never before.

And he worried about tomorrow.

But as he danced away until he felt as if his feet could no longer carry him, he understood why Sukkos follows Yom Kippur and why Simchas Torah follows Sukkos.

Because following the spiritual levels that he attained on Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur he needs a little sukkah to wrap it all together and to enable him to hold onto it.

He can only do that if he detaches himself from all that is temporary, all the figments of his Olam Hazeh-ish imagination. He’s got to get back in touch with what is real and permanent.

And he sits in his little sukkah, surrounded by his children’s little decorations, and he looks up to the heavens and realizes he is not alone. He is happy. For once in his life, he has attained true happiness.

He has learned a lesson in what is real and what is not. What is temporary and what is permanent.

And by the time Simchas Torah comes around, he can contain himself no longer. As soon as Maariv is over, he grabs his children and his chaveirim and dances and dances. He sings “Toiv Li Toiras Peechah” again and again and keeps on going. He doesn’t run out of strength. He doesn’t look at his watch. He shoos away those who are timing the hakafos. Then he drags them into his circle. Come on in. Experience Toiv Li Toras Picha. Experience simcha.

He is happy. He is full of joy.

Because now he knows the secret of simcha, of simcha that comes from breaking his head to learn Torah, of simcha that comes from knowing that a Jew is never alone, of the simcha that is contagious. And nothing will deter him from being b’simcha.

He can now move back into the temporary world and still keep that simcha in his heart. He will pass it along to his children and to all he comes in contact with. Permanently.

He resolves that he will remember that simcha, that feeling of joy, of finally understanding what is important in life and what is temporary foolishness as he returns to his job or to school, to face the countless pressures and challenging moments that comprise our lives. Nothing can take that feeling of satisfaction he attained on Simchas Torah away from him. Wherever he goes, no matter what he has to confront daily, the Aye ti di dadam, Aye ti di dadam, Aye ti di dada da da da, of the hakafos plays in his head. The words Olam Habah iz a gutteh zach, lernen Torah iz der besteh zach play over and over again and chase away all the kelipos and nisyonos which seek to ensnare him and bring him down.

It’s hard to be freilach ah gantz yohr, but keeping alive the memory of Simchas Torah and etching into our souls its profound lessons will certainly help.

Ah gutten, freilechen, un gezunter vinter to all.