The Book of Genesis
October 11th-12th, 2002
6 Cheshvan, 5763
How very fitting that the Day School here in Savannah has canceled school
this Friday morning, on the eve of the Sabbath when we read the portion of
the Great Flood (Mabul), because of--you guessed it--last night’s heavy
thunderstorms and the resultant flooding in low-lying areas!
Don’t worry: there’s no major deluge here or anything (nothing quite like
the biblical account, nor even the Gulf Coast in recent weeks), but
evidently it’s soaked enough so that the school administration has decided
that kids should remain home today. In my family, the charming holiday
atmosphere--gleeful children unexpectedly rescued from the yoke of
learning, and free to happily frolic about the halls--speedily degenerated
into an awful bout of angry bickering, bullying, screaming, whining and
Aha, I said to myself, as my thoughts sought refuge in G-d’s word from the
chaos around me, Now I have an idea of what it must have sounded like in
the Ark during that year…
It was no luxury cruise ship voyage, no holiday-at-sea, for Noach and his
wife, his three sons and their spouses. Our Sages tell us that it was a
round-the-clock, 24-7, ministry tending to the needs of all the variegated
animals on board. (No leisurely morning coffee breaks, or late-night
cross-legged reminiscing about the antediluvian era.) The Midrash tells us
that Noach emerged from the Ark with battle scars: coughing blood from the
battering physical demands of the experience, or, alternatively, nursing a
wound from the attack of a lion incensed at the slow service. (See Rashi
on 7, 23) I wonder if there weren’t moments when, as spiritually elevated
as he was ("Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations…"—6, 9),
and as cute as those koalas must have been, Noach didn’t just consider
bailing out…walking the plank…jumping Ark!
He must have strengthened himself by repeating a die-hard rule of G-d’s
governance of the world: He never gives us tests that we can’t handle.
(Whether Noach with the animals in the Ark, or the Edelsteins with their
kids in the house.)
But why was such a strenuous regimen necessary? Our faith, after all,
teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, is omnipotent (and benevolent),
and if it wasn’t meant to be Club Med, well, then, it didn’t have to
be—pardon my French—the Voyage From Hell either! What exactly was going
through the Almighty’s mind?
To find an answer, we turn to the great Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, zt’l,
trusty navigator on the often strange seas of rabbinical exposition and
Jewish mystical thought. (Michtav M’Eliyahu: II, pp. 155-56)
Rav Dessler first reminds us of what the Torah tells us about the nature
of the society that G-d decided to destroy. "Now the earth had become
corrupt before G-d; and the earth had become filled with chamas…G-d said
to Noach: ‘The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is
filled with chamas…" (6, 11 and 13).
"Chamas" is a Hebrew word that is difficult to define precisely…though it
may well be approximated by the values of the present-day Palestinian
terrorist group that eerily bears that name! (I don’t know what it means
in Arabic.) Some translate it as "robbery," others as "violence." Onkelos
(the classical Aramaic translation of the Torah) renders it as, "seizing"
or "grabbing." Rabbi Eli Munk, in The Call of the Torah, expounds on its
"…it is chamas [and not open robbery] which leads society to its
The word means a crime committed through cunning or
malice, a crime which human justice has not
the means to pursue, a crime which only the
voice of conscience could prevent."
The Midrash famously illustrates just how deeply the Generation of the Flood
was afflicted with this sin of calculated taking. A person would be coming
from the marketplace with a container of peas, and a group would surround
him and rob him. However, each perpetrator would take only a single pea:
because of its insignificant value, he could not be prosecuted in the courts
of law. (Whether we in our society have reached this level of cunning
criminality, with some of our CEO’s allegedly cooking books with the help of
their accountants, is up to each of you to decide. Best to carry your
umbrella with you in any case…)
Although the Generation of the Flood was guilty of other transgressions as
well, notably widespread sexual immorality, our Sages tell us that the
verdict of destruction was sealed ultimately because of chamas. Rav Dessler
notes that such a "society" destroys itself really, severing as it does all
bonds of trust between people--and this is hinted at in the very language of
the verse quoted above: "The end of all flesh has come before Me." In other
words, G-d says, this society has on its own come to this, it has
spiritually destroyed itself.
If the root cause of the destruction, then, was the spirit (and perfection)
of taking, the only possible salvation—and protection—from G-d’s awesome
decree was the spirit of giving. As Rav Dessler explains, it was only
through the extraordinary and arduous giving that Noach and his family were
called upon to bestow to the remnant of life on the Ark that they were able
to weather the storm of the Mabul (Flood). In natural terms, this poor
wooden Ark, as massive and weather-proof as it was, could never have
survived the boiling and tempestuous waters. What kept them alive, safe and
dry (if utterly exhausted), was the miraculous power of giving and kindness
that they displayed--the saving grace of chesed.
It was this trait of giving that they had to embody in order to survive the
Flood (sent to wipe out a generation of consummate takers). It was only a
life of complete kindness, and other-centeredness, that could prepare them
to be the pioneers in the new world G-d was creating, and to succeed in this
second chance He was granting for His beloved (if frail) free-willed
In short, G-d needed to teach Noach and his family--and the rest of us--that
the only kind of vessel that could possibly make it through the Flood was…a
And, indeed, that is the only way we can really make it through these tough
times for our people, and spiritually grow even as fear and destruction (and
floodwaters) seem to mount in the outside world. To study our Torah of Life,
itself G-d’s greatest gift of kindness to man, and embody the chesed/kindness
to all of Creation that it teaches.
The S’fas Emes beautifully notes that the Hebrew for "ark" and for "word"
are (remarkably) identical: teyva. Our salvation, our Ark (teyva), in this
world of selfishness and grabbing, is every word (teyva) of the eternal
Torah! We need to enter into them, and let their meaning enter into (and
transform) us, and with their help, to strive to become as righteous as
Noach, as Moshe, as Avraham and Sarah and all the rest of our great
forebears. They were conscious of G-d (and His expectations) every second of
their lives…and careful to honor their fellow man, created in His image.
They were consummate givers, every last one of them.
Let me tell you something personal. Not only is this Shabbos that of Parshas
Noach….it also happens to be my Hebrew birthday. And I’m turning—ugh, you
guessed it, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t deny it—40! Yes, the very
number of days and nights that G-d caused it to rain down upon Noach’s
contemporaries…and a number with very much significance in Jewish thought.
(That’s for another time…hopefully before I turn 50.) Our Sages in Avos tell
us that a 40 year-old attains Bena, a deeper level of insight and
intellectual comprehension. I hope that will prove to be true in my case…I
certainly know that I seem to need greater and greater levels of caffeine to
even stay awake to muddle through my days, much less attain profound Torah
But I do have sufficient insight at this point (after three cups of Arabica)
to know that I need on the eve of this awesome day, to thank my parents, the
rest of my family, all of you dedicated and thoughtful friends and readers
for all that you’ve given me. And especially, my dear wife, Ivy, who is the
greatest and most constant giver in my life…in spite of the barking she
sometimes endures from her [considerably] older spouse!
I also thank my beautiful children…to whom, like Noach with his restive
animals, I must now turn my attention…for all that they give me, which is
not only aggravation.
It may not always be fun to get older, as you know—despite rabbinical
reassurances—but I am deeply thankful for the life, joy and health G-d has
kindly given me. (And as they say, it’s better than the alternative.) I
thank You, Hashem, for having brought me to this day…and to the end of this
week’s parsha sheet.
I sincerely wish you all a good Shabbos. May we continue to study Torah
together…and soon rejoice as one people, united, in Jerusalem, speedily in
My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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