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10/23/2020 01:41:24 PM


Rabbi Barry Gelman’re being a bigger blessing than you realize

10/23/2020 11:09:16 AM

Rabbi Barry Gelman
I dedicate this Dvar Torah in the merit of a Refuah Shleimah for Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

I got the most amazing email a few weeks ago from a president of a Congregation in a different city.

Hello Rabbi,

XXXXXXX is kind enough to forward your mailings to me.  You were so kind to give me permission to quote you…

I want you to know the mitzvahs you’re building up because of this.  We’re a very small congregation with no rabbi, closed since March due to COVID19, and I'm struggling, along with our Board, to keep us in touch.  Your writings have given me opportunities and ideas I would not have considered.

Sometimes it’s nice to be told you’re being a bigger blessing than you realize… 

We will come back to this email later.

If I were to ask you, who is the greatest biblical figure, what would your answer be?

I do not think many people would say Noach, but that, at least at first glance, may be a mistake.

The Torah goes out of its way to praise Noach in ways that even the greatest biblical figures are not praised!

Rabbi Sacks puts it this way.

“The praise accorded to Noah is unparalleled in Tanach. He was, says the Torah, “a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God.” No such praise is given to Abraham or Moses or any of the Prophets. The only person in the Bible who comes close is Job, described as “blameless and upright (tam ve-yashar); he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). Noah is in fact the only individual in Tanach described as righteous (tzaddik).”

Noach’s righteousness is clearly noted in God’s summation of the time. “You alone have I found righteous in this whole generation” (Gen. 7:1). 

His righteousness is implied in the fact that only Noah and his family are saved fro the flood waters. 

Yet, despite these accolades, it is a fact that Noach was unable to have a positive impact on his generation and to thereby stop the destruction. 

In fact, Rabbi Sacks suggests that Noach’s righteousness and his lack of influence are connected.

“Noah preserved his virtue by separating himself from his environment. That is how, in a world gone mad, he stayed sane.”

I wonder why that is. Why did Noach sequester himself thereby forestalling any possibility of influencing his neighbors?

Rabbi Sacks suggests that it is because Noach did not think anyone would listen to him . He felt that the generation was so far gone, that it was pointless to even try. 

The fact of the matter is that in the story of the Garden of Eden and in the story of Cain and Abel we see examples of people explicitly disregarding the word of God. How could Noach have any confidence that people would listen to him?!

There is an amazing Talmudic story that demonstrates this idea:
R. Aha b. R. Hanina said: Never did a favourable word go forth from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, of which He retracted for evil, except the following, where it is written, “And the Lord said unto him: Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and cry for all the abominations that are being done in the midst thereof” (Ezek. 9:4). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Gabriel, “Go and set a mark of ink on the foreheads of the righteous, that the destroying angels may have no power over them; and a mark of blood upon the foreheads of the wicked, that the destroying angels may have power over them.” Said the Attribute of Justice before the Holy One, blessed be He, “Sovereign of the Universe! How are these different from those?” “Those are completely righteous men, while these are completely wicked,” He replied. “Sovereign of the Universe!” said Justice, “they had the power to protest but did not.” Said God, “Had they protested, they would not have heeded them.” “Sovereign of the Universe!” said Justice, “This was revealed to You, but was it revealed to them?” (Shabbat 55a)

Rabbi Sacks learns an important principle from this text: “when bad things are happening in society, when corruption, violence and injustice prevail, it is our duty to register a protest, even if it seems likely that it will have no effect. Why? Because that is what moral integrity demands. Silence may be taken as acceptance. And besides, we can never be sure that no one will listen. Morality demands that we ignore probability and focus on possibility. Perhaps someone will take notice and change their ways – and that “perhaps” is enough.”

According to this view, the Noach story is a tragic tale of lack of leadership.  We are all responsible for one another and therefore, we are obligated to at least try to influence our surroundings...even if we do not think people will listen.
I would add to Rabbi Sacks’ comments and suggest the Noach story can also be read as narrative chronicling a lack of self confidence which led to Noach misunderstood his abilities and God’s confidence in him. 

Consider this powerful teaching from the Zohar commenting on God’s compliment to  Noach: 

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ לְנֹ֔חַ בֹּֽא־אַתָּ֥ה וְכָל־בֵּיתְךָ֖ אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֑ה כִּֽי־אֹתְךָ֥ רָאִ֛יתִי צַדִּ֥יק לְפָנַ֖י בַּדּ֥וֹר הַזֶּֽה׃

Then the LORD said to Noah, “Go into the ark, with all your household, for you alone have I found righteous before Me in this generation.

Says the Zohar:
Our rabbis taught: How did God respond when Noah left the ark and saw the world had been destroyed and began to mourn, and cried before God, “Master of the Universe, You are called compassionate. You should have had compassion for Your creation.”        God responded, “You are a foolish shepherd. Now you say this?! Why did you not say it when I told you that I saw you were righteous among your generation, or afterward when I said that I would bring a flood upon the people, or afterward when I instructed you to build an ark? I constantly procrastinated and said, ‘When is [Noah] going to pray for mercy for the world?’... And now that the world is destroyed, you open your mouth to cry before Me and to ask for supplication?” (Zohar Hashmatot, Margoliot edition, Bereishit 254b) 

Rabbi Yechiel Halevi Epstein powerfully notes that from the words of the Zohar we see that God was not simply complimenting Noach, He was trying to embolden Noach with the confidence that he could influence his generation and in turn save the entire world from destruction. 

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichav takes a similar approach when he writes ( Kedushat Levi, Parshat Noach)

הגם שהיה צדיק גדול ותמים היה קטן בעיניו מאוד ולא היה לו אמונה בעצמו שהוא צדיק מושל ויכול לבטל הגזירה אדרבה היה חשוב בעיניו כשאר הדור והיה חושב אם אני אהיה ניצול בתיבה ואני אין צדיק יותר משאר הדור המה גם כן ינצלו לכן לא היה מתפלל על הדור. וזה שפירש רש"י אף נח מקטני אמנה היה, רצה לומר נח היה קטן בעיניו באמונה שהוא צדיק תמים שיכול לבטל הגזירה שלא היה חשוב בעיני עצמו כלום

"Even though Noach was pious, great and pure, he diminished himself in his own eyes and did not believe that he was a powerful righteous person who had the power to overturn the decrease. In fact, the opposite was true, he considered himself like the other people in his generation. He thought to himself: “ Since I am not more righteous than those in my generation and I will be saved, then so will they” This Is why he did not pray for them. This what Rashi means when he says that Noach אַף נֹחַ מִקְּטַנֵּי אֲמָנָה הָיָה - Noah, also, was of those people who are lacking in faith” - meaning that Noach lacked faith in himself, not believing that he was righteous and pure and able to cancel the decree. He did not consider himself worthy at all. "

Rabbi Sacks interprets the story of Noach and flood as one about a failure of  leadership. It certainly was that. Why Noach, a  person with so much potential did not even try can be explained by his lack of confidence.

We have more ability to influence than we think. Consider this. When we insult someone or say something not nice, people take it to heart. They get insulted. This is one indication that what we say matters to others. 

If people see us as living our life with integrity, then what we say and the stands we tke do, in fact, have an impact. Just because we do not see it, does not mean it is not happening.

Rabbi Sacks concludes as follows: “It seems, though, that the Torah sets a high standard for the moral life. It is not enough to be righteous if that means turning our backs on a society that is guilty of wrongdoing. We must take a stand. We must protest. We must register dissent even if the probability of changing minds is small. That is because the moral life is a life we share with others. We are, in some sense, responsible for the society of which we are a part. It is not enough to be good. We must encourage others to be good. There are times when each of us must lead."

I come back to the very kind email I received and this sentence: “Sometimes it’s nice to be told you’re being a bigger blessing than you realize…”

The truth is, we all are bigger than we realize and we all can have and should believe in our ability to affect our surroundings. 

Tue, May 18 2021 7 Sivan 5781