“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.
A new series on Parsha, Rabbi Silber shares some of the basic highlights from the weekly torah portion.
It must have been a startling conversation. God tells Noach the world must be destroyed. The evil of man had become so unbearable and dramatic action was necessary. Noach was tasked by God to build the ark and rebuild humanity in the aftermath of the flood. Noach was to become the new father of mankind, a second Adam. But Noach’s responsibility was not only for mankind; he was to serve as the caretaker of the animal kingdom as well.
“And the Lord said to Noah, “Come into the ark, you and all your household, for it is you that I have seen as a righteous man before Me in this generation. Of all the clean animals you shall take for yourself seven pairs, a male and its mate, and of the animals that are not clean, two, a male and its mate. Also, of the fowl of the heavens, seven pairs, male and female, to keep seed alive on the face of the earth (Bereishis 7:1-3).”
God commands Noach to gather up the animals and prepare the ark with all the necessary provisions to sustain them for the duration of the flood. Yet, something very interesting occurs:
“And Noah went in and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him into the ark because of the flood waters. Of the clean beasts and of the beasts that are not clean, and of the fowl, and all that creeps upon the earth. Two by two they came to Noah to the ark, male and female, as God had commanded Noahc(Bereishis 7:7-9).”
It appears that the animals came to Noach; he didn’t have to collect them after all. God told Noach to “take for yourself” and then “two by two they came to Noah to the ark ….” What changed? Why did the animals suddenly come to Noach?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) explains, “A Jew is tasked with fulfilling his mission (shlichus) and should not worry regarding other details. For once he undertakes to fulfill his mission, the other pieces will fall into place.”
Can you imagine what Noach thought when God told him to collect of the animals for the ark? Really?! How am I supposed to track down every different type of species and get them onto this boat? How can God possibly task me with this impossible endeavor? Yet, Noach begins the task by building the ark and amazingly enough, when it is complete the animals come to him. When you have a mission and a destiny, sometimes you just have to start down the road of accomplishment and actualization and believe that God will help you cross the finish line. God never really intended for Noach to run after all the animals. He wanted to see Noach’s reaction to the Divine task. There are times when we are asked to do something beyond our present reach and ability. We say to ourselves, “Why even bother? There is no way I can be successful. What is point of trying if there is no probability of success?” But we must learn to think differently. We must say to ourselves, “It would appear that the shlichus, the mission is way too difficult; let me start, I will do what I can, and I believe that God will pick up the slack. I believe that if God wants this to happen He will extend His hand to me to help me reach my intended destination.”
This was message that God conveyed to Noach and a message which Noach clearly understood. When your mission in life looks impossible – just get started, just take a step and believe that God will help. You may have no idea how to possibly gather all the animals, you may be overwhelmed at the prospect of gathering the various pieces which ensure life success; just begin to build your ark, just begin to build and the results will ultimately materialize.
And God spoke to Noah saying: “Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons, and your sons’ wives with you.” (Bereishis 8:15-16)
The flood waters receded, the land had dried, and it was time for Noach to begin his sacred task of rebuilding. God tells Noach, “Tzei min ha’teyva –Go out (leave) the ark.” The commentaries point out that “Tzei” is a command. God commands Noach to leave the ark, almost as if to tell us that Noach was reticent and unsure about leaving. But how could this be? After having spent all of this time cooped up with animals of all types and stripes, I would have imagined Noach throwing open the door and getting out of the ark as quickly as possible. Yet, the commentaries sense a pause in his reaction. Noach isn’t ready to leave; he does not yet want to disembark. Therefore, God must order him off the ark. How are we to understand Noach’s behavior? Was it fear of change? Perhaps Noach had grown accustomed to his new life and was unwilling to start all over again. Or was it something else?
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) provides an incredible insight. The Teyva (ark) was a spiritual cocoon. Noach packed up whatever provisions he could fit but had to place his complete faith in God. The Torah goes through an incredible amount of detail when discussing the construction of the ark. Yet, there seems to be one important feature missing – there is no rudder, there are no oars. There is no way to steer the ark. This was by design The ark was not to be steered by man; it was to be directionally oriented by God. The ark was a microcosm of what the world was supposed to be, man and animal placing their collective faith in the Master of the Universe. The ark gave Noach the opportunity to work on his relationship with God and his fellow man and to focus on his spiritual growth and self-actualization. But then the flood ends, the waters subside, and it is time to leave the confines of the ark. And Noach doesn’t want to. “Why should I leave this little perfect world? God is my skipper, I have everything I need and that which I lack God will provide.” To which God responds, “Get out! I don’t want you to live in the ark. The cocoon, the spiritual womb in which you spent the last number of days was an accommodation, not an aspiration. I don’t want you to live life in an ark, I want you to go out and build a new world.”
Thus, explains the Rebbe was the tension between Noach and God. Noach wants to live in the spiritual utopia of the ark and God wants him to get into the earthly mud and build.
The Rebbe continues and explains that we face this same tension. We often think that holiness can only be found by retreating into the ark. It is true that we must bolster ourselves with the strength of teffilah and chessed from our Shuls, Torah learning from our Batei Midrash (study halls) and kedusha (holiness) from our homes. Our job is not to live in the ark, but to go out, build and repair the world. We take all we have received from our spiritual cocoons and we bring it to bear in the world around us. When we see something or someone who is broken, we take our ark holiness and we try to fix the situation. The Ribbono Shel Olam (Master of the Universe) wants us to make a difference in His world. He invites us to partner with Him and in building and fixing creation. We must fight the urge to remain in the ark.
Noach ultimately leaves the ark and plants a vineyard. Rashi quotes the Midrash which finds fault in Noach’s decision. He should have planted something more life-sustaining and necessary in his first act of working the soil. Perhaps, Noach was accepting the message of God. Wine is used in all stages of life. A cup of wine is used at a bris milah (circumcision) and in the times of the Talmud, a large glass of wine was given to mourners immediately following the burial (kos shel tanchumin). Wine is used on Shabbos and Yom Tov. Wine is used to celebrate the creation of a new home as we recite the berachos of marriage under the chuppah. Noach planted the one thing we use all of the time, in happiness and sadness, during life and death. Perhaps, Noach was saying, “My beloved Creator, I now understand. I have left the ark and will remain committed to building your world during times of joy and sorrow in my youth and as I age.”
May we appreciate our ark moments of inspiration and may we find the strength to use them in building our world and ourselves.