It is well known that the cycle of Torah reading concludes on Simchas Torah while also beginning anew on that same date. The stated reason for this minhag stems from the idea that on Simchas Torah we display our strong feelings of love and commitment to the Torah. It is therefore only appropriate for us to use this day as the one with which to mark both the completion of the past Torah cycle and initiate the next one. However, there may be yet another idea behind this practice.
One of the central themes of the month of Tishrei is renewal and reconnection, something which is accomplished on multiple levels and at different stages throughout the month. During the Yamim Noraim we focus on reestablishing Hashem as our Lord and king. We also attempt to renew our personal role as an eved Hashem as we beseech Him for forgiveness for the iniquities which we have committed, while also pledging to improve our behavior in the year to come.
As we celebrate Succos, we move our attention away from the highest levels of ascetic spirituality and focus on building our relationship with Hashem even within the context of joyful physicality. On Shemini Atzeres / Simchas Torah our attention shifts yet again, as we aim to sustain that joyful connection with Hashem while reaffirming our commitment to His most holy gift, the Torah.
It thus makes perfect sense that during this period of renewal we begin the Torah once again and read about Adam and Noach, the two individuals with the greatest opportunities in all of history to establish a new society based on the will of their Creator.
From the beginning… the Holy One, blessed be He, appointed for each one the lot which was fitting for him. He appointed Adam to be head of all creatures… Noach the first of those saved from calamity… (Esther Rabbah Pesichta 11)
Adam, the first human, had the easiest go at it. His life began in Gan Eden, where he could enjoy a reality of pure spirituality, unencumbered by the need to earn a livelihood or pursue materialism. Evil was an external reality; he had no internal yetzer hara to pull him away from achieving perfection. The world was his for the taking; all he had to do was to follow Hashem’s will and the world would quickly achieve its desired degree of completion and enter directly into the messianic era.
Yet, things unraveled quickly for Adam. Within but a few hours, he had succumbed to the arguments of the nachash and ate from the eitz hadaas, thereby internalizing the struggle between good and evil within his very self. Adam was duly expelled from Gan Eden. At that same time the world’s first murder occurred, when Cayin took Hevel’s life in a moment of intense envy.
The impact of these negative actions would be felt for centuries to come. During the days of Adam’s grandson Enosh – while Adam was still living – the first steps towards idolatry occurred, as people began to heap praise upon the celestial beings as a means of showing respect for Hashem.
In the days of Enosh, mankind succumbed to a grave error, demolishing the advice of the wise men living at that time. Enosh himself was amongst those who were caught up in this mistaken idea… They argued that Hashem created stars and spheres with which to control the world, placing them on high and giving them honor. These creations are then servants who minister to Him and it is therefore fitting to praise, glorify and honor them…Following this false line of reasoning, they began to build temples to the stars and offer them sacrifices…This is the foundation of idol worship. (Rambam, Mishna Torah, Hilchos Avodas Kochavim 1:1)
Hashem punished man for this idolatrous conduct with a deluge which flooded much of the earth.
The Nefilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward… (Bereishis 6:4) “In those days” (refers to) the days of the generation of Enosh and the children of Cayin, “and also afterward”. Although they had seen the destruction of the generation of Enosh, when the ocean rose up and inundated a third of the world, the generation of the Flood did not humble themselves to learn from them. (Rashi ibid)
Rashi’s comments make clear that the people stubbornly refused to heed Hashem’s message. Not only did the sinning continue but it even intensified. It reached such a degree that the only viable solution was to destroy all of humanity and begin again.
As we know, this occurred during the days of Noach, a man of personal greatness (“Noach was righteous; perfect was he in his generation” – Bereishis 6:9). Yet, despite his own achievements, Noach was criticized for not successfully influencing his generation to repent their evil ways and thereby avert destruction.
Fortunately for Noach, he was given the opportunity to start again, with a world that consisted only of himself and his immediate family. He disembarked from the teiva with the promise of a better tomorrow, with the ability to establish a “kinder, gentler” society that was no only cognizant of Hashem, but duly prepared to fulfill His will.
Sadly, the exact opposite result occurred. Noach’s failure was so pronounced that subsequent generations, most notably that of Nimrod, rose up in great rebellion against Hashem. Their mutiny was of such intensity that they even came to completely deny the miraculous, divinely orchestrated nature of the mabul, a supernatural event which their own living ancestors witnessed firsthand!
(The dor haflaga – generation of the dispersion – justified their building of the tower of Bavel in Nimrod’s day by saying), “Once every 1,656 years the sky totters, as it did in the time of the Flood. Come and let us make supports for it.” (Rashi to Bereishis 11:1)
The eventual result of this colossal failure was Hashem’s decision to narrow the scope of spiritual achievement and perfection to Avrohom, and his offspring. They alone would now be charged with achieving the lofty spiritual levels originally conceived for all of mankind.
When we read about these stories of opportunities lost during these parshiyos, we should be inspired not to allow the same failures occur with us. Obviously, we do not possess the same singular opportunities as Adam and Noach to make a unique imprint on the future of humanity. However, that should not discourage us from taking advantage of the unique chances that we do receive to improve our lives as well as the lives of those around us.
Rabbi Naphtali Hof is an executive coach and President of Impactful Coaching and Consulting. He can be reached at 212.470.6139 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.