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.
“In the beginning God created heaven and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
From the time we are children, we are taught the awesome and inspiring story of creation. Through the verses we see all the cosmic pieces fit together to form a beautiful tapestry of Divine handiwork. The creation story appears simple, yet, we know it has many dimensions and deeper levels of understanding. In fact, many of the commentaries posit that we cannot even begin to understand the esoteric secrets contained in these verses. Yet, God included these chapters in His Torah and as such, there are lessons to be learned. What can we take away from the creation narrative and how can we use it to shape our new year?
When reading through the verses detailing the 6 Days of Creation, we see a pattern:
“And God said, ’Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (ibid 1:3)
“And God said, ’Let the water that is beneath the heavens gather into one place, and let the dry land appear,’ and it was so.” (ibid 1:9)
“’And they shall be for luminaries in the expanse of the heavens to shed light upon the earth.’ And it was so.” (ibid 1:15)
God wills it and it happens. This is one of the most spectacular aspects of the Divine Persona; He can make things happen instantaneously. Va’yomer Elokim Yihi Or, God wants there to be light – Va’yihi Or, there is light. God’s wishes require no effort to actualize. God’s will creates new realities. Not so with man. For man to see the actualization of his efforts, he must be willing to expend much energy, he must be willing to struggle, he must be prepared to experience set-backs and at times even fail. Yet despite all of this, man must possess the strength to keep trying. This is the lesson of creation; it is only God who can produce instantaneous results. We mortals must be willing to work hard and often. The entire story of creation is to teach us the greatness of God and simultaneously remind us that we cannot expect immediate results, gratification and success in our life endeavors. God can create with sheer will; we can only create with extreme effort.
On this Shabbos, Shabbos Bereishis we recite Birkas HaChodesh (we announce the arrival of the Hebrew month of Cheshvon in the week ahead). This prayer reflects the anticipatory hope that the coming month will be filled with blessing and fulfillment. The text we use comes from a prayer created by the great Talmudic sage, Rav. The Talmud quotes this beautiful prayer:
“Rav, on concluding his prayer, added the following: May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, to grant us long life, a life of peace, a life of good, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of bodily vigor (Chilutz Atzamos), honor, a
life in which we may be filled with the love of Torah and the fear of heaven, a life in which there is fear of sin, a life free from shame and confusion, a life of riches and which Thou shalt fulfil all the desires of our heart for good!” (Berachos 16b).
It is intriguing to note that we ask God for a life of Chilutz Atzamos (health, bodily vigor). There are more accurate words in Hebrew for health (e.g. refuah, briyus). If we analyze the phrase more carefully, we will find that it actually means, “strong bones.” Perhaps, we are asking God for “fortitude.” We turn to God on this first Shabbos of the new year, on this Shabbos when Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Succos are behind us and an exciting yet daunting new year is ahead of us and we say, “God, please give me all of the wonderful blessings that life has to offer and please give me Chilutz Atzamos (fortitude) to see my various endeavors and efforts to fruition. Give me the staying power to be able to make it to the finish line of my life pursuits. Give me the strength to know that somehow things will work out.” In a universe where only God can achieve instantaneous results we ask God for the strength, the Chilutz Atzamos to achieve our life objectives.
It is on this Shabbos Bereishis, the Shabbos of creation, that we take stock of our present and begin to plan for our future. We pledge to ourselves to live better and more meaningful lives. We identify the aspects of life that need to change and the aspects that must be enhanced. We create a vision of what we would like the coming year to look like and create an action-plan to make it happen. We begin the year with unbridled optimism and excitement because we have been given another year in which to create a new world. Yet, we realize that we will hit roadblocks, encounter obstacles and sometimes even fall. It is during these moments that we are often tempted to abandon our plan and new life course saying, “I tried and it didn’t work out.” It is during these moments of failure and turbulence that we must remember only God can create the light of life with an utterance of the lips, only God can affect instantaneous results. We must work, struggle and ultimately persevere. It is during these challenging moments that we must look heavenward and ask God for an extra infusion of Chilutz Atzamos to allow us to be successful in the journey ahead.
A new series on Parsha, Rabbi Silber shares some of the basic highlights from the weekly torah portion.
The entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at the desert of Zin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there… The whole congregation saw that Aaron had expired, and the entire house of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days (Bamidbar 20:1,29)
It was the close of a generation. We read of the passing of Miriam and Aharon, the sister and brother of Moshe Rabbeinu and in many respects the partner leaders of the Jewish nation. In addition to this necessary piece of historical information, Rashi explains that the passing of Miriam contains an important message: Why is the passage relating Miriam’s death juxtaposed with the passage of the Red Cow? To teach you that just as sacrifices bring atonement, so the death of the righteous secure atonement (Bamidbar 20:1).
In the preceding section, the Torah discusses the laws of the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer). This was a unique sacrificial procedure to purify one who had contracted ritual impurity through contact with a corpse. From Rashi’s perspective, Biblical juxtapositions are never random, and as such the Torah is linking the purification achieved from the ashes of the Red Heifer to the purification received through the death of Miriam.
Rav Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, the Rebbe of Piacezna in his sefer Aish Kodesh asks a simple question. The Torah is teaching us that the death of a great person atones for the generation in the same way in which korbanos (sacrifices) atone for the owner. Why does the Torah choose to teach us this law through Parah Adumah? Why not teach us this law from other offerings? The book of Vayikra is filled with sacrificial law, why not bring out this idea in the third book of the Torah? Why is this derived specifically from Parah Adumah?
The Rebbe provides an incredible insight. In discussing the symbolism of the Red Cow, Rashi comments: A red cow: This can be compared to the son of a maidservant who soiled the king’s palace. They said, “Let his mother come and clean up the mess.” Similarly, let the cow come and atone for the calf (Bamidbar 19:22).
The Parah Adumah is a form of atonement for the Golden Calf. It is the mother coming and cleaning up the mess made by her child. The Red Heifer is taking responsibility for its young Golden Calf. This was Miriam. Miriam, possessed a love for all “her children” even though they were not her own biological family. Miriam’s heart was filled with compassion, empathy, care and concern for every member of the Jewish nation. This is the nature of the juxtaposition. The same way the Red Cow comes to atone for the sin of its young calf, Miriam spent her years toiling, helping and building her people. This is the deeper meaning of the concept, “the death of the righteous atones.” When Miriam passed away, people felt the void, there was less love and devotion. They took it upon themselves to fill that void and in this way, her death provided atonement.
There are many important lessons to be learned. It is easy to love our family, our friends and our immediate community with whom you identify. But that is not greatness. Greatness is found in those who have an open heart for the entire Jewish nation, not just the ones who are like us. Greatness is found in those who possess the wellsprings of compassion and empathy. Greatness is found in those who think beyond themselves, those who choose to be like Miriam.
There are times when we think about the leaders of yesteryear. We reflect on their greatness and selflessness and feel sad that our world no longer has their light. Where there is a void, we have the ability to step in, roll up our sleeves and continue their holy work. The death of tzaddikim (righteous people) atones, for their memory inspires us to become great and illuminate the world with our deeds and actions.