By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
We begin the study of Parshas Noach and we cringe. We read that the world became corrupt – “Ki malah ha’aretz chomos” – and it sounds like our woarld today. Behavior never imagined a few years ago is front and center, inescapably flaunted.
Accusations are accepted as fact, reputations ruined by insinuations. People are guilty until they can prove their innocence to a lynching populace and media. Justice is no longer just, and fairness is a word with no meaning. Intelligent thought is so yesterday, and rational conversations are as rare as discussions based upon facts.
People are targeted, intimidated and trashed. People act out of fear and are afraid to speak out and confront bullies who dominate them. Only the politically correct are permitted to speak; others are vilified and not tolerated and vilified. People are afraid to be frank and truthful lest the thought police destroy them. People are divided and at each other’s throats; friends who disagree become enemies.
Our culture has become overtly hedonistic, as people worship and pursue pleasure. Honesty, decency, helping others and contributing to the common good are not cool. Accomplishments don’t count anymore. Vanity is in and modesty is out.
Regrettably, our communities are not immune. The same ills confronting the general world are all too apparent in ours. We cannot closet ourselves. Ignoring the world’s depravity makes it more dangerous, as it seeps in through insipid ways. We must face the truth and confront the decadence before it sweeps us up as well.
In the headlines over the past few weeks were daily depictions of what happens when politicians abandon simple basic principles of fairness to advance an agenda. From the day the candidate for the Supreme Court was nominated, before his past and his rulings were studied, the Democrat party leadership announced that they would vote against him. They didn’t have to know anything about him other than his party affiliation and the man who nominated him and they knew that he was unfit for office.
A circus developed as they searched for ways to torpedo the nomination. Never was his judicial leadership questioned, even as everything else about the man who had seemed the perfect candidate was publicly destroyed. After decades of an exemplary public life, uncorroborated stories were splashed in front of the country as fact to tarnish an opponent.
Thankfully, most of this took place over Yom Tov and we were otherwise occupied, but the stain on the nation as well as the ensuing acrimony and division remain. There is no need for us to become engrossed with the details, but there are lessons to be learned about public and private behavior.
The sorry saga portrayed how ego and the deep desire for power can sink man. The Sefas Emes (556) writes that the Chiddushei Horim related in the name of the Kozhnitzer Maggid that the reason the parshiyos of Kayin, the dor haflogah and the dor hamabul are included in the Torah is because every person possesses the failings that caused those three periods of destruction.
Chazal teach (Avos 4:21) that “kinah, jealousy, ta’avah, lust, and kavod, the drive for honor, motzi’m es ha’adam min haolam, cause man’s death.” Kayin was brought down by kinah, the dor haflogah by kavod, and the dor hamabul by ta’avah.
By studying their failings and what transpired to them, we are reminded to rectify ourselves.
Just last week, we studied in Parshas Bereishis the creation of man, formed when Hashem blew His spirit into a clump of dirt, “afar min ha’adamah” (Bereishis 2:7). A combination of dirt and G-dliness, man has the ability to rise to the heavens, yet he can also sink to the dirt. The physical body and spiritual soul are in a constant struggle. Our challenge is to allow the soul to control the body.
Hashem waited ten generations from Adam until Noach. Until Noach, man had become dragged down by his physicality. Noach was the first glimmer of hope. When he was born, his father declared that this child will bring us comfort and help us derive food from the ground, which Hashem had cursed following the sin of Adam Harishon (Bereishis 5:29 and Rashi ad loc.). In his younger years, Noach was of great assistance to mankind, as he developed farming tools and implements, but he was destined for greater things.
While Noach found favor in the eyes of Hashem, licentiousness overtook man and the populace was overcome by the pursuit of physical gratification and self-indulgence. As the base tendencies overcame man, the world became full of tumah. Hashem decided to kill all living beings, destroying a civilization defiled by evil and decadence, allowing Noach to give the world a second chance and a new beginning.
This week’s parsha reintroduces us to Noach, defining him as an “ish tzaddik tomim hayah bedorosav” (6:9). We accept the Torah’s testimony as fact, and for all time Noach is known as a righteous person. But the rabbis disagree whether Noach was only great in comparison to his generation, when everyone else was evil, or if he would have been considered great in a righteous generation, such as that of Avrohom Avinu, as well. We wonder about the need to minimize the greatness of the man through whom Hashem refashioned the world.
The Chofetz Chaim (Chofetz Chaim Hachodosh) answers the oft-repeated question and says that those who point out that Noach was only great in his time want to teach us that a person who behaves properly in an inferior generation is considered a tzaddik tomim. Observing the type of world we live in is not an excuse for us to give up and say that we cannot be great.
Everyone can achieve greatness. Everyone can achieve greatness, no matter their surroundings and the cultural milieu in which they find themselves.
Living in a period such as ours obligates us to strengthen ourselves and work to support Torah and goodness. The value of – and reward for – engaging in meritorious acts to improve ourselves and our brethren in times such as these is so much greater than in times when such efforts are not as vital. Those who remain apathetic and self-centered risk being affected by the decadence and forfeit their chance at living a blessed life.
But there is the dichotomy of man. As great as a man is, he can never rest. At the beginning of the parsha Noach was referred to as an ish tzaddik, but later he became an ish ha’adomah. Life is a constant battle. We must always remember that and dedicate ourselves to what is real and eternal. If we forget our obligation, our resolve becomes weakened and we lose.
Rav Yeruchom Levovitz notes that many of the stories of the Torah involve people’s battles with the yeitzer hora (Daas Torah, Noach 8:21). A person can’t say that he doesn’t want to be involved in fighting his whole life, for man is born with a yeitzer hora (Rashi, Bereishis 8:21).
All through life, we are confronted by a choice of life and good, or evil and death (Devorim 30:15). There is no middle ground; there is no option for neutrality. We either do good or we do bad. We must choose. We can be an ish tzaddik tomim or an ish ha’adomah. It is up to us.
If we remain cognizant of the greatness we can achieve, we can succeed despite the many prevalent challenges. We can err and slip, but we have the ability to raise ourselves and prevent the failure that leads to destruction and death. With proper faith, we are able to confront all of life’s provocations.
Like Noach, we can act with moral clarity and decency, improving the world and ourselves. We can be dedicated to winning battles for ourselves and others and earn the blessings of the tzaddik who is blessed with chein and protection.
When Rav Meir Shapiro erected the building of Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin, which he headed, he was burdened by crushing debt that would have broken a smaller man. He always maintained his faith that Hashem would help him in his mission to teach Torah and never faltered.
On the day the yeshiva moved into the building, his beloved students gathered around him for some words of inspiration. He told them that his perseverance in getting the building completed was a credit to Chaikel the water carrier. He explained.
The Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah (16a) teaches that man is judged on Rosh Hashanah. The Gemara (ibid.) cites Rabi Yosi, who says that man is judged every day.
The Baal Shem Tov explained that there is no dispute. He illustrated this with a story about Chaikel the water carrier.
One day, Chaikel passed the home of the Baal Shem Tov. The founder of chassidus asked him how his day was going. Chaikel unhappily responded that he worked too hard and earned too little.
The next day, Chaikel again passed the door of the Baal Shem Tov, who again asked him how he was doing. Chaikel happily told the rebbe that thanks to Hashem, he still had strength to earn an honest living.
The Baal Shem Tov explained that the money a person will earn throughout the year is decided on Rosh Hashanah (Beitza 16a), but every day a person deals with his fate differently. One day he is sad about it and one day he is happy with his lot.
“I was like Chaikel,” said Rav Shapiro. “There were days when the difficulty of my task weighed on me and setbacks weakened me. But the next day, I became encouraged when considering that I was constructing this magnificent yeshiva, and with joy I was once again empowered.”
In our lives, as well, the daily pressures are ever present. Challenges test us. Problems seem to set us back. If we maintain our faith and proper perspective, we can overcome all obstacles and thrive.
May we be blessed with the strength of body and purpose to be tzaddikim in our day.