Thursday, Jul 18, 2024

Children of Rocks and Hills

On one day of Chol Hamoed, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer asked his talmid and relative, Rav Dovid Finkel, if he could bring him a pen. Rav Dovid, a grandson of the Alter of Slabodka, was especially beloved in the eyes of his rebbi because of his quick and penetrating mind, his cleverness and his yiras Shomayim. He was a ben bayis by his rebbi, often learning with him until late at night. This close relationship allowed the talmid to closely observe every one of his rebbi's moves to glean tidbits regarding how to better serve Hashem. While Rav Isser Zalman was adept at hiding his greatness, his protégé was quite capable of noticing when something was up and would often uncover the motive behind his rebbi's deeds.

Thus, when he heard this request for a pen, his eyes and ears perked up, as he knew that Rav Isser Zalman did not usually write on Chol Hamoed.


“It’s Chol Hamoed,” he reminded his rebbi.


“I did not forget that it is Chol Hamoed,” answered the tzaddik. “Nevertheless, I must write something down.”


“What heter is there?” probed Rav Dovid. “Does it involve money?”


“My dear Rav Dovid, it is really nothing, but for me, personally, it is a matter of pikuach nefesh.”


“Pikuach nefesh?” exclaimed Rav Dovid. “Should I call for help?”


“No, no. It’s not that kind of emergency, but for me, personally, it is pikuach nefesh.”


This only aroused the talmid’s curiosity even more. He knew full well that every word and every move of his rebbi was measured and thought out. He got up and brought a pen. Rav Isser Zalman promptly jotted down a few words on a piece of paper and slipped it into his pocket. “Now we can continue learning,” he said.


Rav Dovid was bewildered. Just moments ago, his rebbi said that this writing was a matter of saving a life. Then, he merely writes a few words, the problem is solved, and he calmly continues learning! It just seemed odd. Seeing the look of wonder on his talmid’s face, Rav Isser Zalman was forced to explain.  


“As you are aware, many people come to visit me on Chol Hamoed. By the sheer numbers of people, it is inevitable that I notice some deficiency in certain individuals in middos or derech eretz. Now, tell me Rav Dovid, is this right of me? A Yid makes the effort to visit me and wish me a gut Yom Tov. Is it right that I notice his faults? What can I possibly do to avoid this, as I am deeply disturbed by it?


“So I jotted down a posuk: ‘Einecha lenochach yabitu vafapecha yeishiru negdecha’ (Mishlei 4:25). The Nesivos explains this homiletically to mean, ‘When your eyes look at the person facing you and you notice his faults, change the focus of your vision to look at yourself. See how small you are and how much you are lacking. This will cure you of seeing the imperfections of others.’ I will keep this note with me and look at it from time to time during the day to remind me of my own imperfections, so that I will not notice the flaws of others.”


Rav Dovid Finkel related this anecdote to Rav Sholom Schwadron. After Rav Isser Zalman was niftar, his son-in-law, Rav Yitzchok Meir ben Menachem, and daughter moved in to his house. Rav Sholom related this story to them and the daughter promptly went to another room and brought in a sugar bowl that was constantly on her father’s table with a note taped to it. Written on the note was this posuk – the reminder. Now, for the first time, she understood the meaning of this cryptic note. Those present when Rav Sholom told this story were overcome with emotion, amazed by Rav Isser Zalman’s purity of heart and refinement of character. 


– – – – –


If this is the measure that one must take to see the good in people and not their faults, then there is something in this week’s sedrah that is most puzzling: “These are the children of Noach – Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations” (Bereishis 6:9). What is meant by the words “in his generations”?


Some of the chachomim interpreted this as praise. If Noach was a tzaddik even in his own corrupt generation, then how much greater would he have been had he lived in a generation of tzaddikim in an environment of justice? Others, however, view this as criticism. Only in his generation, in comparison to the depraved society in which he lived, was he considered exemplary. Had he lived in the times of Avrohom Avinu, he would have been insignificant.


If it is the way of tzaddikim to see the good in others and one can interpret this posuk as a compliment to Noach, why, then, would other chachomim construe it in a negative way? If one looks a bit further into this, it would appear that, in fact, Noach’s detractors are correct, for although he was a tzaddik and it was only because of his mesirus nefesh that the world was rebuilt, we find a number of his weaknesses alluded to throughout the entire sedrah.


Right from the get-go, the Torah says, “Noach walked with Elokim.” Rashi contrasts this with what it says regarding Avrohom Avinu: “Walk before Me and be perfect” (Bereishis 17:1). Noach needed Hashem standing by his side to support him, whereas Avrohom was strengthened as he walked in righteousness on his own.


“And Noach, with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives with him went into the teivah because of the waters of the Mabul” (Bereishis 7:7). This implies that Noach and his family entered the teivah only when he was forced to take refuge because of the rising water and not before. Rashi says that, apparently, Noach’s emunah was less than perfect, for without the water compelling him to do so, he would not have entered.  


After Noach and his family emerge from the teivah, when the earth had dried up from the deluge, the posuk says, “And Noach the man of the earth debased himself and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent” (Bereishis 9:20-21). There is definitely a basis for those who do not fully sing the praises of Noach. But why, in fact, does the Torah have to point out these frailties?


The answer to this is based on the central theme of the entire Sefer Bereishisi, as I once heard it expressed so eloquently by Rav Avigdor Miller. On the first posuk in the Torah, “Bereishis barah,” Rashi explains, “For the sake of Yisroel, who are called ‘reishis,’ Hashem’s first, He created the world.” Now, it seems unfair that already from the world’s inception, Hashem played favorite with Yisroel, thus alienating all of the other nations from the outset.


We must understand, however, that, originally, the name Yisroel was “a blank.” Anyone in the entire world could have earned this title. Based on the behavior of individuals, Hashem determined who would be worthy of this noble accolade. Yisroel can be read as “Yoshor Keil,” meaning the ones who remained perfectly straight on the path of Hashem. Only the most select individuals who were chosen for this lofty honor would be the progenitors of this holy nation. Sefer Bereishis is, in essence, a description of the sifting process, where the imperfect fell by the wayside and the perfect became the personages who formed Klal Yisroel.


Adam Harishon had three sons. Obviously, Hevel did not live to have descendants. Kayin, the first murderer in history, determined by his actions that he and his descendants would not be Yisroel. Sheis was thereby selected to be the one on the straight path. Of Sheis’s descendants, many were immoral and idolaters, eventually leading to the Mabul. Of all of his offspring, only one found favor in the eyes of Hashem: Noach.


“And Noach had begotten three sons: Sheim, Chom and Yofes” (Bereishis 6:10). With the shameful act of dishonoring his father when he was uncovered in an inebriated state, Chom was cursed by his father to be a slave to his brothers. When Sheim and Yofes covered their father, Sheim, who initiated the act, was blessed that Hashem will dwell in his tent and that the nation of Yisroel will emerge from him, while Yofes, who merely followed, was blessed with beauty and sensitivity. Now the sifting process continued.  


Of all the descendants of the chosen son Sheim, Hashem revealed Himself to Avrohom. Eventually, Hashem told him that from Yitzchok will come his seed. By their ways of life, it was determined that Eisav would not be considered the seed and that Yaakov would be the chosen one, eventually to be given the additional name Yisroel. From here on, all of his descendants are Yisroel (See Rashi, Vayeishev 37:1).


Now our question is answered. Why are Noach’s faults mentioned? To tell us why Avrohom is considered our original ancestor, but not Noach. “For from its origins I see it rocklike, and from its hills do I see it” (Bamidbar 23:9). The avos and imahos are likened to massive rocks and hills that are firmly established without any weakness. This is why Noach is not our forebear. While definitely a tzaddik, he was not perfect and rocklike. This is why the Torah alludes to his flaws. The avos, on the other hand, were so perfect that they became a chariot for the holy Shechinah.


This is the secret of our survival as a nation for thousands of years. Through the exiles, the edicts against us and the pogroms, we continued forward, maintaining the tzurah of our ancestors. For we possess their spiritual genes like the rocks and the hills, firm and unwilling to cave in to the various pressures we encounter.


It is something that we can wear as a badge of honor. Our progenitors were perfect in every way and our leaders in every generation followed in their footsteps. Unlike the nations of the world, who admire power, wealth and men of fame no matter how depraved they may be, our heroes are the ones who emulate the avos and imahos who strived for perfection in serving Hashem.




How Did It Happen?

      Once again, we have seen that we are living in historic times. Very rare occurrences are transpiring on a regular basis, dramatically

Read More »


    Treading Water Anyone who’s ever taken an advanced swimming test knows the drill. Along with demonstrating proficiency in all types of swimming strokes

Read More »


Subscribe to stay updated