Little Noachs

The end of Sukkos is one of the loneliest times of the year. As the decorations are peeled off and the sukkah is taken apart and put away, we feel exposed and removed from the comforting shelter in which we had been enveloped for more than a month.

From the first time we said “L’Dovid Hashem ori” during Elul, we were drawn into a sublime world. B’motzoei Menucha, 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 v’Oraisah V’Kudsha Brich Hu chad hu,” grasping the hands and shoulders of fellow Yidden and dancing, all of us equal, joyous and fulfilled, feeling the meaning and beauty of life.

And then, suddenly, it all ended and we were thrust out of that cloud of Yom Tov joy and sanctity back into the mundane world once again, with only echoes and happy memories to accompany us.

In the zemer of “Azameir Bishvochin,” authored by the Arizal and sung in Jewish homes on Friday evenings at the Shabbos meal, we say, “Yehei rava kamei d’sishrei al amei.” The words of the zemer contain great depth of meaning, hidden from many of us. Yodei Chein explains that the forementioned words are a request that the influences of Tishrei remain with us throughout the year.

We enter this new period with fresh enthusiasm and a desire to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Torah whose completion we just celebrated. We seek to take the messages of Tishrei and what they represent with us on life’s road.

We began the Torah anew, studying Parshas Bereishis this past week. We studied the first posuk, “Bereishis bara Elokim – In the beginning, Hashem created heaven and earth,” and are confronted by the first Rashi in Chumash. He quotes Rabi Yitzchok, who posits that the Torah should have begun with the parsha of hachodesh hazeh lochem instead of the stories of creation and the lives of the avos and the Jews through avdus Mitzrayim. He says that the Torah begins with creation so that when the nations of the world question our ownership of Eretz Yisroel, we can answer them that Hashem created the world and decided that this land belongs to the Jews.

This is difficult to understand, for the vast majority of the nations of the world, as is evident, do not accept that answer, on many levels.

We may explain that the Torah begins with Bereishis to teach us that Hashem created the world for the Jews and for Torah, as Chazal say. Every Jew, upon setting out to navigate his way through Torah, is reminded that everything in Torah is Divine, as is everything that transpires in this world. Nothing happens by itself. It happens because the Creator wanted it to be that way.

Eretz Yisroel is the land of the Jewish people because Hakadosh Boruch Hu willed it so, and nothing the nations of the world say or do can change that fact. Everything that happens there is because Hashem decided that the behavior of the Jewish people there caused it through their observance – or lack of – of Torah and mitzvos.

We study that first posuk and are energized to note that our actions make a difference; that we were created for a purpose and our lives have meaning.

The parsha concludes that man lost his way and became engaged with evil. Hashem, kevayachol, regretted creating him and decided that He would wipe man off the face of the earth. There was one exception. A man named Noach found favor in the eyes of Hashem, as the posuk states, “V’Noach motza chein b’einei Hashem.”

Noach found favor, and although everyone else was slated for destruction, he stood out and would be spared, for he had “chein.” What was that special chein and what caused it?

Noach was unimpressed by the rest of the world. He studied the lessons of bereishis and they guided him. He knew the world was created for him. He knew that his life had meaning and value, and he knew that to maintain it, he needed to follow the wishes of the world’s Creator.

This week’s parsha provides us the opportunity to learn the lessons of Noach and his teivah, observing how one person’s behavior affected not only himself, but the entire world.

I once wrote that we are all little Noachs and some people didn’t understand what I meant and were critical of my description. But I still think that in essence, we are all little Noachs, seeking to stay afloat in a conflicted world, challenged by many issues, spiritual and physical. We need to make a living without succumbing to dishonesty, chicanery and disloyalty. We need to bring up a fine family of healthy, well-behaved, intelligent children in a world gone mad. We have untold pressures to contend with at all times and things to balance out. Yes, we are little Noachs trying to construct little personal teivahs to keep us afloat and straight and honest and good.

The posuk states, “Es HaElokim hishalech NoachNoach 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 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 all have within ourselves the ability to remain bnei Torah despite where the world is holding, because we were created that way. If Hashem created the world and He formed the Torah and our people, then it stands to reason that whatever happens, we can remain loyal to Hashem and his Torah.

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 in a generation of hedonism, immorality and wickedness, he was able to create an island for himself. This is a lesson that is 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 on a scope greater than anyone can remember, there are dark clouds on the horizon and awful winds are blowing.

Enemies of Hashem, His Torah, and those who scrupulously follow His laws are using brawn and authority in a brazen attempt to stem the growth of the Torah community and starve it into submission. The Israeli president just handed the ability of forming a government to the leader of the party whose ticket to electoral victory was a vicious campaign against religious Jewry. In a flash, the vile politician who holds the balance of power went from a friend of the religious parties to a sworn enemy.

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.

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.

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 Tzaddik 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 have had brocha 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 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 against us.

A young Israeli yeshiva bochur was having incredible difficulty understanding his learning. The bochur worked hard, but he found that he was never able to reach the same levels of comprehension as his friends. Feeling worthless, he fell into a deep depression.

His rebbi was pained by the talmid’s feelings of worthlessness, and as hard as he tried, he was unable to convince the boy that his life had value. He took the young man to speak to the Steipler Gaon, a leading gadol of the time. 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 an illui in Ponovezh or the star lamdan in Slabodka. He is listening to you.”

The young man was comforted as the Steipler repeated the assurance. The rebbi attested that from that point on, the bochur succeeded in yeshiva. Once he was assured that his life had meaning and that his work in Torah had value, he shot up.

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 and talk 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.

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.

Bereishis, the world was created for us, for me and for you, whether we are brilliant or not. Every life has value; every person’s efforts are noted and rewarded.

There was a man I would always see in shul who would come consistently with his young sons. This was back in the pre-ArtScroll days. One day, I noticed that the man could not read Hebrew. He couldn’t daven. I noticed that his lips never moved. He would come to shul and look at the siddur, flipping the pages now and then, answering amein and yehei shmei rabbah. He came for the benefit of his children. He wanted them to learn, he wanted them to daven, and he wanted them to grow up to be ehrliche Yidden, so he would come to shul and make believe.

I pitied him, the poor guy, never given the benefit of knowing the Alef-Bais. And then I began to be jealous of him. He couldn’t daven through his lips, like everyone else. He davened from his heart. Every day – summer, winter, spring and fall, in the freezing cold and in the boiling hot, through the rain, snow, sleet and hail – this nice, fine man was in shul with his siddur.

I became convinced that Hashem waited for his arrival every day. Hashem heard his prayers, which emanated from a simple good heart. Who knows what he davened for? Good children for sure, parnossah no doubt, good health, peace in the world, Moshiach, and everything else that is important. Hashem heard those prayers, just as he did those of everyone else in that shul. Everyone counts.

How many of us break our heads learning something, going through a sugya, or a perek, a masechta, or a siman in Shulchan Aruch, only to forget it a few weeks later? We can begin to feel like that young boy whose life was changed by the Steipler. What worth is my learning if I can’t retain it?

A yungerman was learning Maseches Bava Kama, and as soon as he turned the page, he forgot what was on it. Rav Ovadiah Yosef was known for his ability to quote extemporaneously from all areas of Torah scholarship. The man went to him and asked him for his secret.

There is a famous Tosafos on page 77a of the masechta that fills 98% of the page. “Are you familiar with this Tosafos?” Rav Ovadiah asked the man before proceeding to recite it by heart. “Do you know why I can recite it perfectly from memory? It’s because I studied it 200 times! Now tell me, after doing that, is there any way I could not know it by heart?”

Rav Yosef had many detractors and was occupied at different stages of his life with different challenges. In his younger years, he was poor. Then he was involved with matters involving the rabbinate, and then with botei din, and then with politics. As he grew in Torah and became increasingly famous, he had more outside pressures and things clamoring for his time. But he continued to grow and remember, because he constructed for himself a teivah of Torah and dedicated his life to its study and observance, becoming blessed not only with unforgettable knowledge, but also with the dynamism, excellence, exuberance and leadership for which Rav Ovadiah 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. They are the ones whose lives are filled with chein and they are the ones who find favor in the eyes of Hashem and mankind.

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