This week is the famous story of Noach and the flood. The entire generation had fallen to the Sitra Achra (the Other Side), and Hashem calls Noach righteous and perfect. Noach built an ark and rain fell for 40 days. Hundreds of days later, after a dove was sent out and returned with an olive branch in its mouth, Noach knew redemption had come and it was time to fully move forward. This story represents something that everyone faces at one point or another in their lives. How much each of us has to become the hero in our own story, building our own ark, filling ourselves with hope and reaching redemption. It is up to each of us to strengthen ourselves continually to do so.
אֵ֚לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ. וַיּ֥וֹלֶד נֹ֖חַ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה בָנִ֑ים אֶת־שֵׁ֖ם אֶת־חָ֥ם וְאֶת־יָֽפֶת.
This is the line of Noach.—Noach was a righteous man; perfect in his generation; Noach walked with God. Noach begot three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
Rashi explains the first verse of this parashah: that mentioning Noach’s righteousness at this point is to teach that the main offspring of the righteous are good deeds.1
R’ Moshe Feinstein expounds on this in a beautiful way, suggesting that while Rashi comments that the main offspring of the righteous are their good deeds, that perhaps the Torah is coming to teach us that we should perform good deeds with the same love a parent has for their children, the sort of love that causes them to desire to help them and not just because they may be compelled to do so. And that perhaps we should learn that just as a parent loves his children even when they fall short of expectations, a person should love the good deeds they have done, and not regret that they should have done more. Yet, Feinstein goes on to suggest that we should examine every good deed we have done for imperfections that need improvement, just as a parent scrutinizes their children for any failings that may require correction. And lastly, just as a parent works to ensure that their children lack nothing that they may need to become the best they can be, we should do the same with our good deeds, improving them so as to come to a place to perform them in the best way possible.
Jumping back into the first verse, in regards to Noach, when it adds “in his generation”, some Rabbis say that while Noah was righteous in his generation, had he been in the generation of Avraham, he wouldn’t have been considered so. However, most see this as praise, arguing that in a generation of righteous people, Noach would have been even more righteous. The Chatam Sofer points out that the three characteristics used to define Noach – a man (איש), righteous (צדיק), and perfect (תמים).- are referring to a particular time/phase in his life. Prior to the flood, when the world was filled with strife, Noach was a man of peace (איש); while confined to the ark, Noach acted righteously (צדיק) by not complaining about his difficult surroundings and by not acting with any sexual immorality or spilling seed, and lastly, during the time when the builders of the Tower of Babel challenged Hashem’s sovereignty, Noach remained faithful and loyal (תמים).2 Even his one flaw of not praying for those outside his family could be justified, as Rabbenu Bachya points out how futile it would have been for such an extremely wicked generation. In the generations since, wrong has been a conscious choice at least on some level, but in that generation, one so far gone and steeped in evil, the concept of right and wrong was so far gone, the possibility of teshuva (return) was not even in the cards. And so only Noach, his wife, three sons, their wives and Methuselah were to be saved, as they were the only hope left.
It says in Talmud Sanhedrin, “the World Was Created for Me,” 3 and Rambam teaches that we are to see every one of our actions impacting on ourselves, our communities, and the world at large.4 We see this clearly with Noach– had he not been righteous, we would have no world at all. It was his very actions and those of his family, and how he chose, despite everyone else in his generation, to walk with God, that saved creation.
It says Noach walked with God, while Abraham walked before God. In his generation, Noach walked with God because he needed the support of his strength, but in regards to Avraham, Rashi explains that he would strengthen himself and walk in righteousness on his own.
Ramban points out that scripture mentions that Noach was guiltless and perfect in his righteousness in order to inform us that he was worthy to be saved from the flood without any punishment whatsoever, since he was wholehearted in his righteousness. Reb Natan of Breslov teaches that NoaCh (נח, Noach) symbolizes ‘peace’, as his name shares the same root as NaCh (נח, rest). Elohim, the Holy Name of Hashem, refers to din (judgments, דין). NoaCh and his name represent the perfect tzaddik in every generation who continuously seeks to mitigate and sweeten the din of Hashem. Both tzaddik and mercy are in the following phrase, which means to sweeten the judgments, לצדק את הדין. 5
We know that water is fundamental to all life; our bodies are mostly water, and the brain and heart, in particular, are composed of 73% water. The same way the tzaddik sweetens the din, water, which is synonymous with life and Torah, has incredible life-giving force and healing abilities. Water represents truth and Torah, as we say, “ein mayim ela Torah,” which means, “the only water is that of Torah”.
So while a flood to wipe out most of the world sounds incredibly negative, what is the positive from it? We know that it wiped out the evil, but what we might not recognize is the level of holiness that it added to the earth. As King Solomon wrote in Mishlei, “when evil is destroyed, there is joy”6 We see this from the HafTorah reading which is read after we read the Parashah every Shabbat, the haftorah refers to the flood as the “waters of Noach. Noach in Hebrew means, rest, peace, tranquility and it is the same with the flood, it brought holiness through blessings as blessings come with peace.
Flood (MaBUL, מבול) is similar to the Hebrew word for confusion (bilBUL, בלבול), because confusion in the mind feels like a flood, and we need to tap into emunah (faith) to get closer to clarity and peace.
The flood was symbolic of both trouble and tranquility at the same time. While it came through negativity, hardship and destruction, it ultimately raised the earth and humanity. The lesson of gam zu letova – “this too is for your benefit” is seen through this act, that hardship is often necessary in order for us to reach a higher place both spiritually and physically.
Many of us, while going through something difficult personally or speaking with someone who is, say the phrase, it’s for the best. The origin of this phrase of “This is also for good (Gam zu l’tovah)” is traceable to Rabbi Nachum Ish Gamzu who was Rabbi Akiva’s teacher. Rabbi Nachum got his name ‘Ish Gamzu’ because he would repeat that phrase often. R’ Akiva learned his emunah from his Rebbe, R’ Nachum, and from that he would often repeat his own version of the phrase which was, “Kol man d’avid Rachmana l’tav avid,” which in Aramaic means “All that the Merciful One does, He does for good.”
The Talmud records stories where these phrases play out in real life for each of them. With R’ Nachum, the story is quite remarkable and miraculous. With R’ Akiva, the story is something we, if our eyes are opened clearly enough, would see similar things, perhaps to smaller degrees, continue to happen to each of us in our lives.
Talmud Taanit relays the story of R’ Nachum’s journey to Rome as he attempted to persuade the Roman Emperor to be more kind to the Jews. He thought it best to bring and gift a precious box filled with gold and diamonds special for the Emperor. On the way, he needed to stay for a night at an inn. Upon waking up the next day, he continued on his journey, not knowing that the innkeeper had stolen the contents of the box and had replaced it with sand and soil with similar weight, hoping the Rabbi wouldn’t notice.
When R’ Nachum had finally reached Rome, he presented himself and the gift to the Emperor. The Emperor opened the box and was insulted when he found worthless dirt. Filled with anger, he reasoned that this Rabbi’s mocking proved the Jews did not respect the Emperor at all. The Emperor immediately threw R’ Nachum in prison to await certain death. R’ Nachum kept to his faith, awaited the trial, and thought to himself, “Gam zu l’tovah” – “this is also for good.”
At the trial, Eliyahu the Prophet appeared as one of the Emperor’s advisers, and said, “the Jews would certainly not have dared to mock you [Emperor]” and suggested that perhaps this was not ordinary sand and soil but something more. Eliyahu relayed a story of when Avraham, the first Jew, had gone to battle against Chedarlaomer and his kings, and threw sand and soil at them, which G-d turned into arrows and deadly weapons. Avraham won the battle, so maybe this was the same sort of sand and soil!
The emperor had been at war for a long time and unable to defeat his enemies, so the possibilities of this sounded more precious to him than more gold and diamonds, which he had in abundance. He immediately ordered that this sand and soil be used and, indeed, the miracle happened and the enemies were defeated. The Emperor ecstatically ordered that R’ Nachum be freed, and not only was the petition of the Jews granted, but they were given many gifts.7
There’s a famous story in Talmud Brachot about when R’ Akiva went to a town where he camped out in the woods with his donkey which he used for travel, his rooster that was his alarm clock, and the one candle he had on him. While he was in the woods, one after another, things started to fall apart: a fox ate his rooster, another animal of prey killed his donkey, and a strong wind blew out his candle. Akiva figured this was God’s will. Yet still, each time R’ Akiba said, “All that the Merciful One does is for good.”
In the morning, as R’ AKiva arrived in the city he was traveling to, he learned that a group of vicious robbers had passed through the very forest he slept in and attacked the town at night. R’ Akiva then realized the violence that would have befallen him had his rooster crowed, his candle shown, or his donkey made a noise, they would have noticed him. We rarely have perspective in the moments of adversity, but faith is a way to rise above until the time that perspective shows the good.8
I met a woman by the name of Nili Salem a couple times when she visited L.A. to spend time with her family. She had always gone back to Israel where she lives, but for the past couple months she has stayed in L.A., and Naomi Solomon, wife of the famed Yehuda Solomon of both the Moshav band and Carlebach Moshav, told Nili, “you are giving a class here in Pico-Robertson.” I went to the class this week to show my support and catch up with some friends that I figured would be in attendance. Nili is a special soul; she brings the amount of enthusiasm one gets when winning a raffle to every moment of her shiur, often beginning or ending it with a song she composed around a biblical theme.
One thing that jumped out at me beyond the thunder and lightning that lit up the Beverly Hills sky as she was talking about nature, the flood and signs from God, was something she had learned from her Rabbi (Rabbi Schloss) from the Old City of Jerusalem. Which is that you can learn everything you need to know about life, and solve any problem, from just the first four names of the first four parshiot of the Torah – that is Bereishit (In the beginning), Noach (comfort/relax), Lech-Lecha (Go forth/Go to yourself), and Vayeira (And you see). When you get hit with hardship that inevitably befalls all of us, in the beginning it will be difficult, just like it was for Noach and for R’ Nachum and R’ Akiva, but you have to relax and tap into your emunah (faith), go inward, as we are all created in the image of Hashem, formed as a reflection of Hashem’s attributes and characteristics. And so the light, the truth, and the answers are within all of us, and it is then that we will see.
There is a famous Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) that reads, “.. in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.”9 This is what I take away from the lesson of Noach, whether he was the most righteous in his generation but would not have been in another generation, or he is the most righteous in any generation, I don’t think the distinction is as important as the lesson. From Pirkei Avot we see the importance of rising above your circumstances to act, inspire, and become the most righteous you can be. It is that act that, as we see, will save you from a flood, not only you, but the future of the world. Because the world was created just for you.10