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Parsha Pearls: Parshas Noach

When the Righteous Fail to Rebuke
G-d Speaks to Us Through Current Events
Accepting the Decree of the King
Not For Us to Avenge

And Hashem said to Noach: Come, you and your entire household, into the ark, for I have seen you to be a righteous man before Me in this generation. (7:1)

The Mishnah in Bava Metzia (44a) says that a person who goes back on a transaction after the money was given but before the kinyan takes effect is cursed with the following words: “He Who punished the men of the generation of the Flood and the men of the generation of the Dispersal, will punish whomever does not stand by his word.” What is the connection between the sins of those wicked generations and the sin of not standing by one’s word? The Satmar Rav explained this based on the Midrash Tanchuma (Re’eh 3), which says that there were many people in Noach’s generation who were as good as he, but were wiped out in the Flood. Why then was Noach chosen to be saved? The Gemara in Sanhedrin 108a says that Noach tried to rebuke the wicked people in his time. But in another place (Midrash Rabbah at the end of Parshas Bereishis) the commentators on the Midrash say that Noach did not rebuke the people. The answer is that for many years he rebuked them, but then he saw that the other tzaddikim were keeping quiet. Noach decided to follow the majority and keep quiet as well. This is the reason why, at the beginning of the Parsha, Noach is called “a righteous man in his generations” – i.e. he rebuked the people for many generations, whereas later Hashem calls him “a righteous man before Me in this generation” – i.e. during that last generation prior to the Flood, he was only righteous in private, before Hashem, but in public he kept quiet. Since his intentions in following the majority were good, he was saved, but the others who were wrong for holding back their rebuke were punished along with the wicked people in the Flood. When a righteous person holds himself back from telling the truth to others in his generation who are mistaken, he is forced at many times to contradict himself – to say words that contradict his actions, or to answer questions in a forced way in order to keep from saying certain things. This is called “not standing by his word.” Thus, one who does not keep his word is cursed like the “men” – i.e. the righteous people – of the generation of the Flood, who were punished for not rebuking the wicked of their time. (Divrei Yoel, p. 189)

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And the dove came to him at the time of evening, and behold, it was grasping an olive leaf in its mouth. (8:11)

Rashi, quoting the Gemara, explains that the dove meant to say, “Let my food be bitter like an olive in the hand of the Holy One, blessed is He, rather than sweet like honey in the hands of a human being.” Rabbi Hillel of Kolomaya in Maskil El Dal (published in 1871) explained that the words “at the time of evening” in this posuk allude to the period immediately before the coming of moshiach. We find this same phrase used in Zecharia 14:7 in reference to that period. And the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 3:8) says that “and there was evening” refers to the deeds of the wicked, who will be powerful in the period before moshiach. Chazal (Sotah 49b) tell us that in that period “the truth will be absent, and those who fear sin will be despised.” The dove symbolizes the Jewish people. If the “dove” at that time will have to take support from the table of the transgressors of the Torah, she will come and complain: “At such a time of ‘evening,’ when the wicked are powerful, let my food be bitter like an olive in the hand of the Holy One, blessed is He, rather than sweet like honey in the hands of human beings like these.” (Maskil El Dal v. 4, 1:1:9)

And all the earth was one language, and of the same words. (11:1)

Reb Shmuel Kraus of Los Angeles, formerly of London, related that when the Satmar Rav was returning from a visit to Eretz Yisroel in 1960, he decided to join him on the ship for part of the journey so as to have a chance to speak with him. He took a ship from England to another port along the way, and then borded the Rebbe’s ship for the return trip to England. On the ship, he asked him about his views on the situation in Eretz Yisroel. The Rebbe quoted the Gemora in Avodah Zarah 18b, which praises Avraham for not following in the counsel of the builders of the Tower of Bavel. “They were such wicked people, so obviously Avraham had nothing to do with them. What is so great about that?” asked the Rebbe. “But the answer is that there were actually three groups of people who built the Tower. Rashi in his commentary to the Torah (Bereishis 11:1) mentions two of them. The first group said, ‘Let us go up to the heavens and fight a war against Hashem!’ The second group said, ‘Once every 1656 years the sky falls in. Let us make support pillars for the sky!’ And the Midrash Osyos D’Rabbi Akiva tells of a third group, who said, ‘Let us go up to the heavens, far from the pleasures of this world, and live there like angels!’ Now, we understand why Avraham did not join the first group or even the second group – it’s foolish to think that the Flood was a natural event, or that we have to help Hashem support the sky. But why didn’t he join the third group? The answer is, Avraham decided that one may not join the first and second groups even for the sake of becoming like an angel. And so it is in Eretz Yisroel – there are three groups. The first group are the people who recently printed a new Bible that contains no mention of Hashem’s name. They are truly fighting a war against Hashem. The second group says, ‘We believe in Hashem, but we need to help Him with our army and our weapons.’ And the third group says, ‘Let us go and built Torah centers in Eretz Yisroel.’ This third group is also wrong, since they have to join the first two groups in order to accomplish their goal. Rather, we must stay completely separate from all groups of Zionists.”

And all the earth was one language, and of the same words. (11:1)

Rashi explains that the people saw that a flood had come to the world and killed millions of people, and they feared it would happen again. Their wisest men gathered and came to the conclusion: “Once every 1656 years the sky falls in. Let us built support pillars for it!”

Rabbi Avigdor Miller said: The Gemora in Yevamos (63a) says, “No misfortune comes upon the world except because of Yisroel.” If an accident occurs in some faraway land where there is not even one Jew, it is a principle of Torah that it happens only because of the Jewish people. Rashi adds, “To scare them so that they will repent.” We are obligated to look from afar and learn fear of Heaven, and not wait until catastrophe strikes closer to home. If we learn fear of Heaven from the misfortunes of faraway lands, then we will be spared misfortunes close to us, G-d forbid.

Scripture states, “You smite a scoffer, and the simpleton becomes wise” (Mishlei 19:25). Here are two types of people: the scoffer and the simpleton. The scoffer refuses to hear any rebuke. He avoids rabbis and scholars, because he doesn’t want anyone to tell him of his faults. The simpleton (pesi) is a person who talks himself (mefateh) into sinning, but he is ready to listen when others speak to him. For a scoffer, no amount of rebuke helps; he must be smitten. Hashem smites the scoffer and he is taken to the hospital, and still he does not change. But the simpleton sees what happened to the scoffer, and learns from it.

Today people read the newspaper, hear the news, but it makes no impression – a terrible waste! Blood is being shed for nothing, with no positive result. If we would gain awareness and fear of Hashem, then all the world with its events would be serving a purpose. But the blood of the nations is shed, and we learn nothing. We gain no fear; we say that it just happened that way, for various reasons, and we need not fear. This is the way of those who lack emunah.

This was the sin of the generation that built the Tower. They saw the Flood as a natural phenomenon, and took steps to prevent it. They failed to recognize that if Hashem caused so many people to die, He must have done it for a good reason. “He Who chastises nations, is He not thereby rebuking them?” (Tehillim 94:10) Hashem punishes only in order to teach those who remain and all future generations. “He is the one Who teaches man knowledge” (ibid. 11) – the entire purpose of all misfortunes and wars is only to teach man knowledge. The purpose of the Flood was only to teach the later generations, and these people showed that they had learned nothing – to them the Flood was a mere accident. If so, Hashem had killed all those people for nothing, and He considered it as if the builders of the Tower had shed their blood.

In our time we have experienced a flood of fire, a flood that has no equal since the creation of the world. What happened to the Jewish people in Europe should terrify us and arouse us from now until the redemption. We should be speaking constantly of the judgment of Hashem – “what is this G-d has done to us?” (Bereishis 42:28) The crematorium and all the other kinds of slaughter and torture that took place should be constantly before our eyes. But instead, a great silence has descended upon the earth. Worse yet, they learn the opposite of the lesson they were supposed to learn. The Jewish world is ruled by wicked atheists who write the newspapers; the Jewish populace, including the religious, read their words and see only the heretical meaning of the Holocaust. They say, “How can we speak critically of that great generation of holy martyrs? The Jews of Europe, as is well known, were all righteous and pious, G-d-fearing and wholesome.” If even on such righteous people Hashem brought a flood of fire, then what good does it do to be righteous? “It is vain to serve G-d.” (Malachi 3:14)

But this great lie could only be propagated by men with closed eyes. We must reveal the truth, the same truth that the Chofetz Chaim spoke when he said that a terrible tragedy was about to come upon the world because they had cast away Judaism. Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman wrote in a letter that most Jewish children were being raised like gentiles, and a great catastrophe was on its way. Today’s American Jews did not see the world of Europe and they refuse to hear the truth, but the gedolim then looked with open eyes and saw what was happening. The general populace had cast away their Judaism. The largest Jewish party in Poland was the Socialist Bund; in Lithuania most Jews were Zionists. Jewish Europe was rotten at the core. Of course there were gedolim and holy men whom we lost, but they were the atonement for the majority.

Today, when an Arab throws a bomb and kills 10 or 20 Jews, isn’t that a hint? Some hint! Once upon a time when one Jew was killed it was a hint. But today – nothing. Hundreds have been killed but they ignore it. They’re waiting for bigger hints, G-d forbid. They’re going to come. Bigger and bigger. And when the hints come, they still won’t get the message; they’ll say, “It’s the fault of the Orthodox who didn’t come to Eretz Yisroel and strengthen the Medinah. You kollel people who are wasting your time, why didn’t you come and join the army?” And they’ll find other ways of corrupting the hint. But we have to find the chest of gold, which is when a Jew learns to take a hint from Hakadosh Boruch Hu. And we don’t wait for big hints. (Lecture in yeshiva; R-57)

Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth. (11:4)

In 1904, Rabbi Dov Aryeh Ritter of Rotterdam published (in the periodical Hapeles) a collection of letters from gedolei hador expressing their opinion of Mizrachi, the new religious Zionist organization. One of them, Rabbi Chaim Berlin, son of the Netziv, used a posuk in Parshas Noach: “And they said, come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” He explained that the wicked king Nimrod and his advisors who were building the tower were trying to rebel against Hashem. But they decided it would be unwise to make this goal public, because the majority of the people would be against it. So instead they told everyone that the purpose of the tower was so that they should not be scattered over the face of the earth. This is the meaning of the words: “A tower with its top” – i.e. its purpose – “in heaven” – to rebel against Hashem – “and let us make ourselves a name” – let us make a good name for ourselves in the eyes of the masses by saying that our purpose is – “lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Mishkenos Haro’im p. 243)

Let us go down and mix up there their languages, so that each man will not understand the language of his fellow. (11:7)

The Gemora in Sanhedrin 109a says that a third of the tower was burnt and a third sank into the earth. The worst of the people were transformed into monkeys, evil spirits and demons. The Midrash says that the sea rose up and overran part of the world. The remaining people were swallowed up by the mountains. If so, the question arises: After making all these miracles to destroy them, why did G-d have to mix up their languages as well? Furthermore, of all the miracles, the only one mentioned explicitly in the Torah is the mixing of the languages. Why was this the most important action taken by G-d?

This problem is addressed in the Zohar: “Why did He have to confound their languages? Because they were all speaking the Holy Tongue, and that language gave them help, for these things depend on actions and words of the mouth…Once their language was changed, their actions had no success. For the powers above do not know or recognize any language but the Holy Tongue, so when their language was confounded their power was weakened and their strength was broken. Come and see that whenever a word is spoken below in the Holy Tongue, all the powers of heaven know about it and are strengthened through it, but if it is spoken in another language, they do not know or recognize it. Therefore, as soon as their language was confounded, ‘they stopped building the city.’ For their power had been broken and they did not know how to carry out any of their plans.” (Zohar 75b)

Thus, it is the greatest misfortune when wicked men speak the Holy Tongue, for this was the only way the builders of the Tower were able to succeed in leading the entire world to rebellion against G-d, bringing bitter punishments upon the world. Although righteous men such as Avraham Avinu, Noach, Shem and Ever were alive at the time, G-d saw that there was no way of stopping the wicked men from success, except by taking the Holy Tongue away from them. (Vayoel Moshe 3:19)

And Haran died in front of Terach his father, in the land of his birth, in Ur Kasdim. (11:28)

Rashi in his commentary to this posuk brings the story of how Nimrod cast Avraham Avinu into the furnace for refusing to bow to the idols. This is counted as the first of Avraham’s Ten Trials (Bartinura to Avos 5:3). The Satmar Rav once asked: why did this trial show the greatness of Avraham Avinu? Didn’t thousands of Jews throughout history – even simple, unlearned Jews who were far below Avraham Avinu’s level – willingly stick out their necks to be killed rather than worship idols? But the answer is that Avraham Avinu’s yetzer hara told him, “You are the only one in the whole world who is teaching the existence of Hashem. If you die, there will be no one left to spread the truth. Better pretend to bow to the idol just this once, and then go on teaching the world about Hashem for your whole life.” Avraham Avinu replied to his yetzer hara, “No! I do not want to bow down to an idol even once, even if by so doing I can correct the whole world!” (Toros V’uvdos Mibeis Raboseinu)

And G-d spoke to Noach, saying: “Go out of the ark, you and your wife, your sons and their wives with you.” (8:15-16)

The Midrash Tanchuma compares Noach’s leaving the ark after the Flood to the story of Chananya, Mishael and Azariah emerging from the fiery furnace of Nevuchadnezzar, told in the Book of Daniel, Chapter 3.

Nevuchadnezzar built a giant golden statue and forced all his officers and state governors to bow to it, among them the three Jewish officers Chananya, Mishael and Azariah. When they refused, they were summoned before the king and threatened with death in the furnace. “They replied and said the king: ‘Nevuchadnezzar, we do not hesitate to answer you on this matter. Our G-d, Whom we worship, can save us from the fiery furnace, and from your hand, O king. But even if He does not save us, let it be known to you, O king, that we will not worship your god, and we will not bow to the golden image you erected’” (Daniel 3:16-18).

When the king heard this, he ordered the furnace heated up seven times hotter than usual, and Chananya, Mishael and Azariah bound and cast into it. But G-d saved them and they were unharmed by the fire. When Nevuchadnezzar saw them walking freely inside the furnace, together with the angel Gavriel, he came to the door of the furnace and said, “Servants of the Most High G-d, come out!” And then they came out (ibid. v. 26).

The Tanchuma explains this story based on the verse in Koheles 8:2, “I keep the word of the king, but on the matter of the oath of G-d – do not be confounded before him.” A Jew must keep the decrees of the king of the land of his exile in all matters, except when the king orders the Jew to violate the Torah. Then the Jew is bound by his oath to G-d and must not be afraid of the king.

Thus, Chananya, Mishael and Azariah called the king by his name, Nevuchadnezzar, to signify: When it comes to paying taxes and other laws, you are our king. But if you tell us to violate the Torah, you are not our king, but simply Nevuchadnezzar.

When the king saw that they had miraculously survived, he told them, “Come out, for the Holy One, blessed is He has already freed you and made miracles for you.” They said, “We will only come out with the permission of the king – I keep the word of the king. Under his authority we were cast in, and under his authority we will emerge.” This conduct, says the Tanchuma, they learned from Noach, who entered the ark by G-d’s command and emerged by G-d’s command.

What parallel does the Tanchuma see between Noach and Chananya, Mishael and Azariah? Noach and his family were the sole survivors of the Flood. The whole world was wiped out and they miraculously survived. Had Noach not been a righteous man, he might have walked out of the ark with pride and arrogance, crediting himself with the ability to survive the Flood. Perhaps he might have initiated plans to prevent another flood. But this would have been missing the lesson of this unique event in human history. Instead, Noach humbly realized that G-d had brought the Flood and saved him, and he stood ready to accept G-d’s next command to come out of the ark.

In the same way, by accepting the laws of gentile kings and rulers during exile, Jews are showing G-d that they accept His decree of exile. The only exception is when the king orders Jews to violate the Torah – then the way to show allegiance to G-d is to disobey the king. Chananya, Mishael and Azariah were placed in a situation where they had to disobey the king, but they wanted to make it clear that this was the exception, not the rule. They told the king, “We will only come out of the furnace when you tell us to do so. We recognize that it was not our own power that saved us, but G-d alone. We therefore show our humility before G-d by displaying obedience to the king.”

We Jews today are survivors of a long exile, and it is clear that we did not survive by our own power, but because of G-d’s special protection, as He promised in the Torah, “And even so, when they are in the land of their enemies, I did not reject them nor despise them, to destroy them, to annul My covenant with them, for I am Hashem their G-d” (Vayikra 26:44). We must humbly recognize this and accept the exile upon ourselves: to live peacefully with the gentile nations and obey their laws, until G-d Himself commands us to emerge from exile.

However, I will hold you responsible for your own blood; every animal I will hold responsible; I will hold every man and a man’s brother responsible for a man’s blood.” (9:5)

The Midrash says that the word “however” comes to exclude certain cases of suicide that are permitted: the acts of Shaul and martyrs such as Chananya, Mishael and Azaryah. “Every animal I will hold responsible” means that G-d will punish a man who causes another man to be killed by an animal. “A man’s brother” means that G-d will punish someone who hires others to kill a man.

Then the Midrash says: Another explanation: “Every animal I will hold responsible” – this refers to the Four Kingdoms [who have subjugated the Jewish people in exile, who are represented as four animals in the vision of Daniel (7:3)]. “I will hold a man’s brother responsible” – this refers to Esav. “A man” – this refers to Israel, as it says, “You are man” (Yechezkel 34:11).

Rabbi Dovid Moshe Avraham Ashkenazi, who lived in the time of the Baal Shem Tov, wrote a commentary on the Mechilta called Mirkeves Hamishneh. He says that according to this second explanation of the Midrash, we can revise the exclusion of the word “however” – it is coming to exclude independent action undertaken by the Jewish people. “Only I will avenge your blood from the Four Kingdoms and from Esav,” says G-d. “You are not allowed to do it yourselves.”

This, says the Mirkeves Hamishneh, is a reference to the oath administered by G-d to the Jewish people not to rebel against the nations who subjugate them (Kesubos 111a). The prohibition includes even cases when the nations have shed Jewish blood; it is forbidden for the Jews to rebel and avenge that blood. Only G-d has the right to do this.

There were, of course, times when G-d instructed the Jewish people to avenge their blood from the nations, such as the wars of Midyan and Amalek. But in exile, this is forbidden under the oath. In this aspect, our status in exile is most similar to that of the Israelites in Egypt. The Egyptians had been enslaving and killing them for over a hundred years, yet when the opportunity arose to take revenge, G-d forbid them to do so. Speaking to the Israelites at the shores of the sea, Moses said, “Do not fear! Stand by and see Hashem’s saving that He will perform for you today, for as you see Egypt today, you will never see them again. Hashem will fight for you, and you will be silent.” (14:13-14).

The Mechilta (Beshalach 2:6) says that there were actually four groups among the Israelites at the shores of the sea. The first group wanted to jump into the sea and commit suicide. The second group wanted to go back to Egypt. The third group wanted to fight a war against the Egyptians. The fourth group wanted to pray. Moshe addressed each group separately: To the first group he said “Stand by and see,” to the second he said “you will never see them again,” to the third he said “Hashem will fight for you,” and to the fourth he said “and you will be silent.”

The Mirkeves Hamishneh explains that the first group held like the first opinion in the Midrash on Parshas Noach: that Shaul was allowed to commit suicide to prevent the Philistines from mocking him. Here too, they would jump into the sea and drown to prevent the Egyptians from mocking them. Moshe told them: You are mistaken. The meaning of the verse in Noach is like the second opinion: that only Hashem will avenge the blood of the Jewish people. This led him to his response to the third group. (Mirkeves Hamishneh, Beshalach)


Rabbi Avigdor Miller