By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Motzoei Shabbos was one of the loneliest times of the year. As the decorations were peeled off and the sukkah was taken apart and put away, we suddenly felt exposed and removed from the comforting shelter in which we had been enveloped for more than a month.
From the first time we said “LeDovid Hashem ori” during Elul, we were drawn into a sublime world. B’motzoei Menuchah, we felt the tremors increasing, as we ushered in the days of Selichos. The week reached a crescendo as we stood in awe upon hearing the piercing cry of the shofar that filled our hearts.
We soaked in the “behimatzo“ of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, using those propitious days to inch closer. Finally, we stood as angels dressed in white on Yom Kippur, emerging from Ne’ilah feeling reborn and reenergized.
Then we climbed the next rung, going from teshuvah to simcha, entering the sacred abode of the sukkah, betzilah dimehemnusah. We sang and ate, drank and celebrated, rejoicing with Hashem.
By the time Sukkos began, we felt that the barriers between us and Hashem had come down. Then Simchas Torah arrived and we felt one with the Torah and other Jews. We sang “Yisroel ve’Oraisah VeKudsha Brich Hu chad hu,” grasping the hands and shoulders of fellow Yidden and dancing round and round in circles, all of us equal, joyous and fulfilled, feeling the meaning and beauty of life.
How is a Jew to cope?
Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l once pithily remarked to his talmidim that this is the time of year “when the crutches come off.” Just as a patient undergoing therapy and walking with the aid of crutches must face the painful reality and walk without assistance as part of his recuperation process, so must we confront everyday life without the added Divine gifts of the shofar, lulav and sukkah.
We enter this new period with a fresh enthusiasm and burning desire to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Torah whose completion we just celebrated. We must find a way to take the message of the sukkah and what it represents with us on the road ahead. We are a people who’ve been buffeted about through centuries of exile, moving from place to place, rarely feeling welcome or at home. The small wooden hut of Sukkos represents a place of refuge in the environs of golus.
In this week’s parsha, we are given the opportunity to learn the lessons of Noach and his teivah, with a perfect example of how it can be done.
The posuk states, “Es HaElokim hishalech Noach – Noach walked with Hashem.” Perhaps we can understand this posuk to mean that Noach walked with Hashem because he had no one else to walk with. Noach was essentially all alone. He had no one. No one other than Hashem. He had no one to converse with, so he spoke to Hashem.
For 120 years, Noach attempted to convince the people of his generation to right their ways, to no avail. He was unable to sway anyone to live a life of dignity, honor and respect.
We don’t know how great Noach would have been had he lived in a different period. All we know is what the Torah tells us about him. He was a tzaddik and a tomim, a righteous, upstanding person in a generation in which there were no others.
We study the parsha named for Noach and discern that it is possible to stand out. The entire world may be living deceitful, dishonest, immoral lives, and we can still hew to Hashem’s creed of kindness and goodness.
We learn this week’s parsha and observe that we don’t have to be influenced by those around us. We can be strong, honest and moral in a time of depravity. And if we do, we will find favor in the eyes of Hashem.
The significance of the teivah that Noach built is that he found a way, in a generation of hedonism, immorality and wickedness, to create an island for himself. This is a lesson that is still relevant to us in today’s world.
While our physical situation at the present time is better than it was anywhere over the past 500 years and Torah is being studied around the world in a scope larger than anyone can remember, there are many dark clouds on the horizon and awful winds are blowing.
Enemies of Hashem, His Torah, and those who scrupulously follow His laws have gained power in the land of our forefathers. They are using that brawn and authority in a brazen attempt to stem the growth of the Torah community and starve it into submission.
The brilliant masmid, posek, talmid chochom and leader, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, lies perilously ill in a Yerushalayim hospital as Jews the world over pray for his recovery.
In this country, leadership wanes, crises loom, solutions are lacking, fiction replaces truth, glossy veneers substitute for depth, and ignorance is more popular than brilliance. Amateurs seem to be in charge wherever you look, and we all pay for their mistakes and failures.
The American president cannot be convinced of the truth; instead, he empowers tyrants such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syrian President Bashar Assad and, most recently, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani.
Obamacare threatens to upend the best medical system in the world, yet the opposition party is blamed in a clumsy exercise of finger-pointing as it seeks to protect the health of hundreds of millions of people. A president who sees the pursuit of diplomacy with the axis of evil as an end in itself, and begs for negotiations with tyrants who are changing the balance of power, refuses to meet, talk or negotiate with Republican representatives of the people he was elected to serve.
Spiritual threats abound. The air seems to have been poisoned and no one is able to find the proper antibodies. The culture of this country, which was founded on – and led by – religious values, has sunk to unprecedented lows. The assault on traditional family life is tangible. The deviation from the script of just a decade ago is very strong and is sweeping across the country without anyone even making an attempt to fight back.
New York City, home to so many of our people, is facing a November mayoral election that has the potential to do for the city what the 2008 election did for the country. The city risks being thrown back to the long-forgotten Dinkins days, when crime was rampant, unions and the likes of Al Sharpton had veto power regarding city policy, and businesses and taxpayers were depicted as mean and selfish. The economic climate and safety of New York are very important not only to the people who live in the city, and not only to mosdos located there, but also to Jewish institutions the world over supported by the generosity of city residents who prosper when the Big Apple is strong, healthy and safe.
Chazal say that had the people of Noach’s time followed his example and heeded his admonitions, the Torah could have been given in their day [See sefer Pri Tzadik on this week’s parsha]. Instead of floodwaters, they could have had Torah, which is referred to as mayim. Instead of destruction, they could have had rebirth. Instead of desolation, they could have merited beneficence. Instead of kloloh, being cursed, they could had brochah and been eternally blessed. Because they preferred to follow the path of their desires, they were punished with infamy, shame and violent death.
We look around and take stock. We wonder what we can do to stay afloat in a sinking world. We look to Noach as one who can provide us with inspiration and serve as a guide to us, reminding us not to feel lonely and not to give up, despite the odds being stacked against us.
Noach knew the secret of the sukkah. Noach knew the secret of the teivah.
A mechanech in Bnei Brak related the story of a talmid, who as a young man faced incredible difficulty understanding his learning. The bochur toiled, but he found that he was never able to reach the same levels of comprehension as his friends. Eventually, he fell into a deep depression.
The rebbi, pained by his talmid’s feelings of worthlessness and unable to convince the boy that his life had value, took the young man to speak to the Steipler Gaon. The boy shared his frustrations and grief. He described the difficulty he encountered in comprehending even the most basic ideas of the Gemara. The Steipler asked the bochur if there was any blatt Gemara that he felt he knew. “Yes,” said the boy. “The first blatt in Nedorim.”
“I promise you,” said the aged giant, whose every word was measured and who exuded truth, “that when you learn that daf in Nedorim, it is as important to Hashem as the chiddushim of the illui in Ponovezh or the lamdan in Slabodka. He is listening to you.”
The young man was comforted as the Steipler repeated the assurance. The mechanech attested that, armed with the knowledge that his efforts had value, the bochur succeeded in yeshiva.
The Steipler had given the boy a teivah of his own. He had taught him not to look at those around him. He taught him to look upwards. He taught the boy to walk alone with his Creator.
This is the lesson we received from the sukkah and this is the lesson we are reminded of this week. We aren’t here to win friends or popularity contests. We are told that Noach, one of the less popular figures in his time, found chein in the eyes of Hashem.
The Sukkos weather was the best of the year, but we know that winter is fast approaching. We must prepare ourselves for the cold and the snow. Though we have left the comforting walls of the sukkah, we can still maintain its protection if we preserve the levels we reached over the past months of Elul and Tishrei. If we stand tall, we will be blessed with the fortitude to weather the impending storms and not be swept away by the mabul of a world devoid of character, conscience and integrity.
In our personal teivos constructed and reinforced with Torah, we can breathe purified, rarified air and contribute to the spiritual warming of the global community.
Rav Ovadiah Yosef is known for his prodigious memory, yet, apparently, not everything came easily to him. When a yungerman, who was learning Maseches Bava Kama, asked him for advice on how to remember his learning, Rav Ovadiah told him to open the Gemara to daf 77a, which has only two lines of Gemara and one long Tosafos which fills the rest of the page. Rav Ovadiah proceeded to recite the Tosafos word for word by heart. The yungerman was puzzled. How was this to impart to him the secret of retentive learning? Rav Ovadiah then revealed it to him.
“I learned this Tosafos 200 times!” he declared. “Now tell me, after doing that, is there any way I could not know it by heart?”
One who constructs for himself a teivah of Torah and dedicates his life to its study and observance becomes blessed not only with unforgettable knowledge, but also with the dynamism, excellence, exuberance and leadership for which Rav Ovadiah has earned international and eternal fame as a beacon of light.
The few, the proud and the strong take succor in the story of Noach and his teivah. They freely and bravely walk with Hashem, ignoring the calls of the masses who have lost their way in the fog of life. They remain faithful despite being unpopular, for they know that their dream will never die. Their hope springs eternal. Their chein finds favor b’einei Hashem.
If we have emerged from the holiest days of the year with anything, it is the security and knowledge that His approval is the only one that counts.