“And he sent forth the raven, and it went out, back and forth until the waters dried up off the earth” (Genesis 8:7)
The floodwaters had receded, and Noach sent the raven to seek dry land. The raven circled the ark but came back. The story seems simple enough – no dry land to be found, no journey to embark upon, come back to the ark. Yet, Rashi shares a fascinating comment:
The simple explanation is its apparent meaning, but the Midrash Aggadah (Gen. Rabbah 33:5) [explains that] the raven was destined for another errand (shlichus) during the lack of rain in the time of Elijah, as it is said (I Kings 17:6): “and the ravens brought him bread and meat.”
This wasn’t the destined mission for the raven. The raven had another shlichus (agency/mission) to bring bread to Eliyahu HaNavi when he was hiding from King Achav (a story for another time). Rashi is teaching us an all-important lesson – everyone and everything has a mission and purpose in this world. Rashi’s words are reminiscent of the Mishna in Pirkei Avos, Ethics of Our Fathers:
He (Ben Azzai) used to say: do not despise any man, and do not discriminate against anything, for there is no man that has not his hour, and there is no thing that has not its place (4:3).
The raven had a different mission, and therefore, was unable to fulfill the one Noach assigned to it. What is true for the raven is even truer for us. We each have a mission. We each have a purpose. At times, the mission may align with my skill set and be easy to execute. However, at times, the mission I am called upon to fulfill is difficult and arduous. The Torah is filled with stories of great men and women who had to undergo challenges and adversity to fulfill their shlichus (mission). But unlike the raven who had but one mission, man can have multiple missions over the course of life. Different stages and seasons come with their own mission and mandate. Yet, as different as we are from the raven, often we behave in the same fashion. We too tend to circle the ark of existence. Too often, we are afraid to embrace our shlichus, we are frightened to venture into the unknown even though it promises so much success and fulfillment. Instead, we choose to remain close to the ark of the known. We prefer to play it safe and settle and hover in familiar territory. It is scary to venture out into the unknown. But my mission can never be found in the comfort of what is known. It requires me to take flight, it requires to at least step foot into the unknown, it requires me to take chances. Hovering around the ark works for the raven; it can’t work for us.
The new year is upon us. The coming months are filled with promise and potential. It is now that we each must try to figure out what our shlichus is. It could be identifying my mission for today or defining my mission for life. We must give significant thought as to why we have been placed on this earth and what Hashem wants from us. We must resist the temptation to be a raven and just hover in comfort. We must take flight and find the courage to embrace the mission.
“These are the generations (toldos) of Noach, Noach was a righteous man; he was perfect in his generations; Noach walked with God.” (Genesis 6:9)
The commentaries point out something peculiar in this verse. Whenever it says, Eyleh toldos (these are the generations), we list of the name of the father followed by his offspring. As such, we would have expected the verse to list the sons of Noach.
Rashi comments, “Another explanation [for why the names of the children are not mentioned immediately following, “These are the generations of Noah”]: To teach you that the main generations [progeny] of the righteous are good deeds.”
With this simple statement, Rashi teaches us a powerful life lesson. The real offspring of the righteous are not their biological children but rather, their good deeds. You cannot control how your children turn out. Every parent has a responsibility to create a holy and wholesome home, model the right behavior, and lead by example. But at some point, the child leaves the home and must decide who he or she wants to be. I can do everything “right”, yet my child may choose something different. Eventually, every parent realizes, I cannot control my child’s decisions. But it is not just with our children. There are many things we like to control. And as we get older, we realize we simply cannot. Over the last number of months, we have truly learned what it means to lose control. Yet, there is one thing that I do control and that is, me. I control the person I want to become, the dreams I dream, and the aspirations I yearn to see materialize. I control if I work hard or if I hardly work. I control the attitude I have and the perspective I adopt. I control me. This is the deeper meaning of Rashi, Eyleh toldos Noach. What was the real offspring of Noach? What did Noach birth into this world? Noach. His true offspring, his true progeny was himself. Our greatest creation in this world is not our children, our careers, or our worldly accomplishments. Our greatest creation is our self. This is the only creation you truly control.
We spend so much time trying to control the things we cannot control while neglecting the things we can. We get upset when we people do not do what they were “supposed to do.” We get angry when circumstances do not materialize as they “should have.” I cannot control another person (even my own child), and I certainly cannot control many of the circumstances and situations which unfold around me. We must stop trying to control the uncontrollable, and instead, direct our efforts inward. We will have many types of offspring. We will hopefully be blessed with biological offspring, accomplishment offspring, and career offspring. But the most important offspring, the only one you really control and shape – is you.
“When Noach left the ark, he fell to his knees and began to sob upon seeing the complete destruction of the world. He turned to God and said, ‘Master of the Universe, where was Your compassion, where was Your mercy? You should have exhibited greater compassion to Your creations?’ God responded, ‘Foolish shepherd, when I told you to build the ark, you should have advocated for humanity. When I told you that you were righteous, I was telling you that you had the power to make a difference. Yet, when it began to rain, you entered the ark with your family and closed the door on humanity. And now you ask about my lack of compassion?’” (Zohar, Noach 39:1)
A powerful conversation: Noach wondering what happened to the compassion of God and God wondering what happened to the compassion of Noach. There are many sources which highlight Noach’s lack of advocacy for his generation. It is easy to categorize Noach as self-centered and lacking compassion for the plight of the other. But this approach has always bothered me. After all, the Torah calls Noach a Tzaddik, a righteous man, a term that neither God nor the Torah use lightly. If so, how do we understand Noach’s behavior? Why didn’t he try to save the generation and lobby God on their behalf? Why didn’t he try to intercede and prevent the cataclysmic destruction of humanity?
The great Chassidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) provides an incredible insight:
“Noach was completely righteous, he did not comprehend the ability to leave his righteous state, engage with the wicked and raise them up. He did not understand his ability to pray for them, help them discover their spark of goodness and holiness and allow them to rebuild.” (Likutei Halachos, Shabbos 7:69)
Noach didn’t believe in change. Noach thought that the world had two different types of people – the righteous and the wicked. Once you chose a team, you had a lifetime contract. When Noach looked at his wicked neighbors he saw people who were broken beyond repair. Their only hope would have been God’s mercy and compassion. When God told him to build the ark, for He was going to destroy the world, Noach said “ok.” There was nothing to do, only God could save the day. And so, upon disembarking from the ark, Noach wags an accusatory finger at God and asks, “Where was your mercy?” God proceeds to explain to Noach his profound mistake. “People make bad choices and at times do terrible things, but they never lose the ability to change. Noach, had you believed in humanity’s capacity for change you could have gone out to the masses and taught them the error of their ways and the path to salvation. You could have inspired them and encouraged them to be more. But you didn’t. I told you of My plans, you accepted My words, built the ark and closed the door behind you.”
The Rebbe provides us a powerful perspective on the Parsha and on life. Noach was a pious and righteous man who didn’t understand the profound, cathartic power of change. At times, we too make the same mistake, assuming that who we are is who we will always be. Change is the most incredible gift given to us by God Himself. The ability to invent and reinvent oneself as many times as needed is a treasure, privilege and obligation. Humanity was lost because no one believed in the power of change. We must learn this lesson and remember that we each have the power to transform. Whether one need to change a behavior, a perspective, a relationship or a way of life – the power rests in our hands. May we find the courage and strength to use it wisely.
Shiur given in Toronto at home of Mel and Karen Rom.
A new series on Parsha, Rabbi Silber shares some of the basic highlights from the weekly torah portion.