By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Once again, as the hue and glow of the greatest month of the year begins to fade, we find ourselves reading the story of Noach. As we slip from the joyous days of Sukkos into the inevitable chill of winter, we find that the parshas hashovua offers warmth, compensating for the dips and turns of the calendar.
There is a lesson inherent in the parsha as we battle to adapt the inspiration and spiritual highs of the Yomim Tovim to the practicalities of everyday life. Schools are open once again. Yeshivos are beginning the longest zeman of the year and working people are back at the grind. We are all attempting to rise above the bleakness confronting us.
The Torah introduced us to Noach at the end of Parshas Bereishis. After telling us that man had veered from the path Hashem had intended for him to follow, the Torah relates that Noach found favor in Hashem’s eyes (Bereishis 5:32, 6:8).
This week’s parsha (6:9) reintroduces us to him. Rashi explains that since the Torah mentioned Noach, it found it necessary to praise him (Bereishis Rabbah 49:1). The posuk states, “Aileh toldos Noach – These are the offspring of Noach.” Again, Rashi enlightens us and teaches that the main toldos, literally offspring, of righteous people are their positive actions (Bereishis Rabbah 30:6).
Apparently intending to list his attributes, the posuk states, “Noach ish tzaddik tomim hayah bedorosov.” He was an ish, a tzaddik, and a tomim, bedorosov.
Let us study the posuk, word by word.
When the Torah says that the toldos of Noach will follow and Rashi adds that the intention is to praise the tzaddik, we understand that what follows are words of praise of a giant. Toldos is translated as offspring, but it also means biography. The Torah is stating that what follows is the short version of Noach’s biography. Rashi comments that the primary “offspring” of a tzaddik are the maasim tovim he performed. Thus, if you want to encapsulate the life of a great person in a few words, the way to do that is by recounting his good deeds. This does not mean that everything else about him and his life are not important, but rather that this defines his essence.
Noach was such a person. While there is much to say about him and his accomplishments throughout his long, productive life, a condensed description is that he was an ish, a tzaddik, and a tomim, bedorosov.
If you wish to sum up a person, it boils down to his maasim tovim, his willingness to do for others, and his concern and selflessness. Each person writes his own epitaph and decides how he will be remembered, as we see from Noach.
The first appellation the Torah uses after mentioning Noach’s name is ish. Perhaps we can understand that attribute by studying the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (2:5) which states, “Bemakom she’ein anoshim hishtadel lihiyos ish,” which literally means, “Be a man in a place where there is none.” The Rambam (ibid.) explains this lesson to mean that if you have no one to teach you Torah, you should endeavor to study it on your own. Rabbeinu Yonah (ibid.) takes it a step further, stating that if you are in a place where there is no one to help you with your mitzvah observance and set you on the right path, work on yourself to independently do what is right and proper in the eyes of Hashem.
We can understand the Torah’s description of Noach as an ish to mean that despite the fact that the entire world was lacking in moral character and justice, he brought himself, on his own, to the level of a tzaddik, which is the next adjective the Torah uses to describe him. We commonly refer to a righteous person as a tzaddik, but, as the Ramban on this posuk states, the word means that Noach was undeserving of any punishment that befell the rest of the world, because he was a zakai bedin. A tzaddik is one who emerges victorious and innocent in a judgment. A rasha is one who is found guilty. Noach was the consummate innocent person. Despite all that went on around him, he was free of sin.
The definition of the word tomim is complete. Either the Torah is defining Noach as a complete and perfect tzaddik, pure in his tzidkus (see Ramban ibid.) or it is an appellation on its own, praising Noach as also being a tomim. Perhaps we can understand it in accordance with the Vilna Gaon, who says in Even Sheleimah that a tzaddik gomur as referred to in the Gemara (Brachos 7a) is one who is not only exceptional in his actions, but also in his middos. [See also Gemara Avodah Zora 6a]. The Torah testifies that Noach wasn’t only a person who was righteous, learned and innocent of wrongdoing, but also the consummate baal middos tovos.
Bedorosov. Since the Torah is listing Noach’s positive attributes, we must assume that the word bedorosov also intones positive notions about him. He maintained his independence, doing what was right, being an ish, despite all that was going on around him. He lived in a generation of evil and wicked people, but he was not influenced by them. He stood above them and even reached out to them in an attempt to raise their level and return justice and morality to the world.
Much has changed since then, but some things remain constant. Here we are, each of us struggling, just as Noach did, to be an ish in a dor gone mad.
Yes, we are surrounded by the good fortune of being able to live as proud Jews. We are surrounded by like-minded people who endeavor to study Torah and observe the mitzvos. Our generation is light years ahead of that of our parents, who came of age when Orthodoxy wasn’t given much of a chance and a Torah way of life was not in fashion. Their social lives were crimped. Their ability to succeed was viewed as hampered, as people like them were few and far between. We have been gifted, yet we don’t always appreciate the gift. We sit in spacious, attractive sukkos, while a generation ago, many towns sufficed with kiddush in a shul sukkah and one set of Dalet Minim for the entire kehillah.
But even with our blessings, we are still in golus. All around us, the world sinks deeper into immorality. Social standards and norms accepted just a decade ago are now considered old-fashioned. Our way of life is regularly mocked. Our chastity and charity are treated by the mainstream media as puns in an old Yiddish Theater joke. Instead of praising the chesed of Lakewood, NJ, the New York Times call it “Beggarville” in a long, snide article published this week.
Metzitzah b’peh has been roundly condemned by supposed scientists. The very same people who played down Ebola are the ones who characterized us as baby killers, backward Neanderthals who care more about ancient traditions than modern science and health. Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the Center for Disease Control, who confidently assured the country that he had Ebola under control, was shown to be a liar, knave and fool, whose word is meaningless and whose knowledge of infectious diseases is sorely lacking. It’s hard not to remember his patronizing lectures when he served as New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s health commissioner, the two of them joining forces to save us from our own supposed lack of hygiene.
Rabbeinu Yonah, on the Mishnah quoted above, advises someone living in a time and place of simple people to reach beyond, to imagine himself surrounded by learned, sophisticated people and act accordingly. He understands Chazal‘s directive to be an ish in a place where there are none as a mandate not to hold yourself back from gaining wisdom even if you reach a level where there is no one in your city who is a greater chochom than you are. If you find that in the entire generation there is no one with more chochmah than you, imagine that you are studying with the chachmei haTalmud. If you feel that you have reached that level, imagine that you are with the neviim, until you reach Moshe Rabbeinu. This way, you will always endeavor to improve and grow, not being held down by the people around you.
Perhaps we can apply this insight to this week’s parsha as well. Noach was a tzaddik “bedorosov, in his generation,” meaning in the generation he created for himself. It was his own. He ignored everyone around him and visualized a new generation in which he could thrive, and he made that his reality. It was dorosov – he lived in the generation he formed in his mind.
People have an ability to rise above their surroundings and live bigger. Over Yom Tov, I met a delightful Yerushalmi Jew who told me about his Hungarian grandfather, a Jew from Toshnad who met the same fate as the bulk of Hungarian Jewry. Taken to the concentration camps with his wife and children, only he survived. “Of all the awful experiences of the war,” this grandson asked him, “which was the worst?”
The grandfather answered that for him, the worst moment came after the war had ended and he had been freed. He emerged from the concentration camp alone, barely alive. Seeking solace, he made his way back to his hometown of Toshnad, but the Jews were gone. A non-Jewish family had assumed ownership of his house. He walked up to the door, wanting to get a final look at the place where he had lived with his family. It was his home, and he had left it without saying goodbye.
The family nameplate was still firmly fastened to the door. Emboldened upon seeing that, he knocked on the door and asked permission to enter. The squatter was kind enough to let him in. The owner entered and looked around at the walls that had absorbed the laughter and song of his murdered family. Everything was just as he had remembered it. The dining room table that had been the scene of festive meals, with the Torah and zemiros of so many Shabbosos and Yomim Tovim, was still there. Even the leichter that his wife had lit candles on for many years was right where it had always been. As he stood there, lost in his memories, the poacher chased him out. “Okay, Jew,” he commanded, “your time is up. Get out.”
The fellow walked out to the street and paused. Decades later, he recounted to his grandson that he had never felt so degraded and distraught in his entire life. All the pain and heartache he had experienced came to the fore in those moments. He recounted that he stood at the gutter and thought to himself, “I have a choice. I can either let the anguish pull me down and give it all up or I can summon the strength to rise above it.”
Rise above it he did, finding his way to Yerushalayim and remarrying, giving birth to a new family of children and 150 grandchildren.
The decision he made on that awful day, the worst of his life, returned his vitality to him and enabled him to go on living the way he had before the calamitous period interfered. He triumphed.
Life is about choices. Thankfully, we are not faced by choices such as the one the lonely survivor had to cope with. But we, in our world, feel the despair and longing for the sweet days that have just passed us by. As we do, we can make the decision to use them as a springboard to live bigger, taking the elevation of the Yomim Noraim, as well as the na’anuim and hakafos and yeshivas sukkah, and the shofar and Kapparos and Ne’ilah, and using it to paint the winter days ahead with color, meaning, depth and joy.
During hakafos, you see people dance with heavy Sifrei Torah. Though clearly weighed down by the large scroll, they march on, lovingly holding their weighty packages in their right hands, close to their hearts. The knowledge that they are bearing the object that gives their lives meaning and defines their very existence energizes them, pumping the physical strength to match the spiritual. Their feet dance on, being swept along in the joy of the moment. They continue moving in the circle, men and boys, one after another, a group comprised of individuals, each of them an ish.
Learning this parsha, we should think about what others would say about us if they tried to encapsulate our lives. Which maasim tovim will be our toldos? Are we as kind to others as we should be? Are we as charitable and forgiving as we should be? Do we feel the pain of others? Do we live for ourselves or do we live for others? Do we stand as Noach did for 120 years trying to convince people to right their ways and prevent catastrophe? Are we selfless and caring and sharing, or do we always think about what is in it for us? What is our legacy?
As we leave the beautiful world of Sukkos, parting from the protective shield of the Tzila Demehemnusa, standing on the precipice of the olam hamaaseh, we would do well to utilize the beam of light we just encountered to point the way through a dark winter, lighting up each day and night for growth and aliyah, for ourselves and for others.