I vividly remember the first day of school after my family moved to Israel in the summer of 1990. It was a huge school, with at least five times as many kids as the small school I attended in Cleveland, but the size wasn’t the starkest difference; the language was. Everyone was speaking rapid-fire Hebrew, and despite learning Chumash in Hebrew for years and watching some Learn To Speak Hebrew videos, I was totally lost. People were swarming around me; teachers barking orders to kids, kids shouting gleefully to friends they hadn’t seen for months, and bus drivers yelling at kids just because that’s what they do best. I didn’t know where to go, how to get there, and if I should tie a rope to myself so that I could always make my way back out of the labyrinth of steel and concrete in front of me. 

Recess was the next level of purgatory, not only was everyone running around me speaking a language I didn’t understand, they were playing games I’d never seen before! There were lots of kids sitting on the floor, playing with “five stones,” an Israeli version of jacks, and others were playing with apricot pits, which l later learned doubled as a currency and source of entertainment. I just sat there watching from my desk. But the worst was yet to come. 

Lunchtime was when six hundred kids piled into a massive room with forty foot tables and benches a plenty. There were lines to get the questionably clean plastic cups, plates and silverware, there were lines to get the questionably food slop in big cauldrons on the other end of the room, and then there were the tables filled with shrill kids, slurping and talking, and yelling, and eating, and talking, and yelling in a language I couldn’t comprehend. I sat at the end of the bench and scanned the room to see if I could spot any of my brothers, and I couldn’t, so I just sat there and stared at the food, eating it slowly and praying for lunch to end. 

My experience as an immigrant in a big school is not unique, millions of people experience the exact same thing all over the world each year. But only one of them did what Denis Estimon did about it. Denis moved to the US from Haiti as a first grader, and landed in a massive public school in Florida, only speaking Haitian Creole. He spent many recesses and lunches all by himself, and it haunted him. He worked hard, learned English, and was a very positive child, so that by the time he got to Boca Raton high school he was very popular, well dressed and well spoken, with lots of friends and a high spot on the high school totem pole. But he never forgot those desperate lunches, sitting by himself, feeling invisible, hiding himself in a book or cell phone so that he could tell himself that no one was talking to him because they saw he was “busy.”

In his senior year, Denis launched a program called We Dine Together. He enlisted a bunch of his friends to join him on his mission, and every lunch break they would spread out and scout the grounds for people sitting alone. Boca Raton high school serves 3,400 students, so there were always people sitting alone, and Denis or one of this friends would just walk up, offer a handshake, and say, “Hey, I’m Denis, what’s your name?” Over the course of the year, the program grew, with many students joining, and not just people who otherwise would be sitting alone, many of the coolest kids in the school joined! One boy even left the football team so that he could be more involved in We Dine Together, he simply found it more meaningful to help engage people in the lunchroom than tackle people on the field. 

By the time the school year came to a close, the only people sitting alone during lunch were those who truly wanted some quiet time to themselves, everyone else was engaged by a team of dedicated smiling friendly high school students determined that no one should be left out. The program picked up attention; it was featured on national TV a few times, and the buzz was contagious! The founders started branching out, helping other schools in Florida, around the country and eventually around the world open their own branches of We Dine Together. I’m sure that many high schoolers are still eating alone, but hopefully we are well on the way towards eradicating that social illness!

Denis is a perfect example of the concept of someone taking their personal pain and turning it into other people’s salvation. The suffering he went through as a child didn’t shut him down, it fired him up, and he used that fire to light up so many children suffering in darkness. We see this phenomenon frequently. Bonei Olam, an organization that has helped close to 10,000 couples have children despite facing significant fertility challenges, was started by a couple who unfortunately couldn’t have children. They turned their loneliness and the quiet in their home into the sounds of laughter and joy in so many other homes. Hatzala, an organization that saves tens of thousands of lives all around the globe with their volunteer rapid response EMS teams was started by a man whose uncle died while waiting for an ambulance to show up. It’s always the same formula:  Traumatic painful experience + Hero who is willing to convert that pain into a solution for others = outsized benefit to humanity.

It is important for us to look at our own pain through this lens. We all have been through traumatic experiences, and perhaps the only reason we went through that was so that we could understand the pain of others and seek to alleviate it. What can we learn from our own trauma? Who can we save because of our pain? How can we change our sense of victimhood into empowerment? When we can see our own pain as an instructional guide for helping others as opposed to a crippling force crushing us, we not only find a measure of relief from that pain, but we also come to see that the pain we thought was a curse from G-d, was actually a wonderful present wrapped in barbed wire ribbon. 

Parsha Dvar Torah

So there is a Great Flood with only 8 human survivors. They spend a year and change drifting around in a massive wooden boat, with thousands of animal, bird, and insect shipmates. Finally, the land lust starts running high. Afraid to venture out on his own, Noach sends out a couple of different birds hoping that one of them will find dry land. The raven refuses to leave the ark’s vicinity, but the dove, ever brave, courageous, and chivalrous, and sets out to find land.

The first time, the dove returns empty handed, not having found anything. However, the second time he is sent out, he returns with a branch from an olive tree, indicating that the floodwaters had subsided. The third time the dove does not return – clear proof that he has found a peaceful resting place on the newly washed earth. 

One might wonder why it was an olive branch that was the mechanism chosen by G-d to show Noach the world would be inhabitable once again. G-d could have used any one of hundreds of fruits, yet He chose the olive. Why? (I personally would have hoped for an avocado branch, After spending about a year in the Ark, I would really appreciate a fresh guacamole!) 

I lived in Israel for four years and went on many hiking trips in the beautiful and picturesque Galilee. There one can find olive trees growing in the wild, clear reminders of olives status as one of the 7 fruits Israel is blessed with. Being that I love olives (there is no place better than Israel for olive lovers – one can go to stores with tens of varieties of olives of every color and size), one day I decided to taste one of the many olives lying on the ground around one of the trees. Imagine my surprise when I found this natural, organic, fresh olive to be entirely inedible! It was bitter and tart, and I couldn’t even finish the one olive I had bitten into.

Wikipedia helped me with an explanation: “Olives freshly picked from the tree contain phenolic compounds and a unique glycoside, oleuropein, which makes the fruit unpalatable for immediate consumption.” (You see, you learn something new every day. I bet you didn’t know that!) There are a number of ways of processing olives to make them palatable. One can use one of several fermentation techniques to make olives edible, or crush them to make olive oil. But it is clear that olives need extensive processing in order to have any value to human beings.

Maybe this was the message of the olive branch. G-d was hinting to Noach that if he wanted to be able to repopulate the world properly he would need to undergo extensive processing. Naturally, man has a lot of evil in his heart. As the verse says in this weeks parsha, “For the inclination of man’s heart is evil from [the time of] his youth.” (Gen. 8:21) His physical body pulls his mind toward the lowly ground from where it came, while his soul draws it upward to the spiritual world from where it originated.

The generation of the Flood was one that didn’t try to process at all. They just let themselves follow their raw, natural, and physical desires. This led to a world so evil that it needed to be washed clean, so it could have a fresh start. When the flood was over, G-d sent the olive to Noach as the instruction manual for the New World Order.  The only way that man will be able to survive is by processing constantly, pressing and fermenting himself, to extract the best he has to offer world.

Parsha Summary

This week’s parsha talks mostly about the Great Flood. The basic idea behind this cataclysmic event was that mankind had had such a negative effect on the earth that a complete overhaul was necessary. G-d returned the earth to its most primitive state, and the few survivors were able to rebuild on a clean slate. If they had tried to program the new world order on top of all the existing filth, immorality, and depravity, it would have been nearly impossible to succeed, so instead G-d washed the world clean, and let them paint on a fresh canvas. The opening verses of this Parsha express that concept, while also teaching us another important lesson.

These are the offspring of Noach. Noach was a righteous man, flawless in his generation; Noach walked with El-him. Noach fathered three sons, Sheim, Cham and Yafes. The earth was corrupt before El-him, and the earth was filled with violent crime. G-d saw the earth and beheld that it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth. G-d said to Noach, The end of all flesh has come before Me. The earth is filled with violent crime because of them, and so I will destroy them with the earth. (Gen 6:9-13)

One lesson that is not readily apparent without the benefits of Rashi’s wisdom is the explanation of the first two verses. It says, “these are the offspring of Noach” but then, before mentioning his offspring, the Torah tells us that Noach was a righteous man. How did that get stuck in there? Rashi explains that the primary offspring of a person are his actions and the effects they have on others. His children are certainly important, and he can have a powerful positive effect on them but, ultimately, what he bequeaths to the world are his actions not those of his children.

G-d commanded Noach to build the ark a hundred and twenty years in advance of the flood. He did this in hope that people would ask, “Hey Noach, what is this woodcraft project you’ve been working on for the last eighty years?” and Noach would explain to them that earth was about to become a really wet place for a while due to man’s evil actions. This would hopefully inspire the people to repent. However, in typical bad-people fashion, they instead chose to mock Noach and tell him that if he dared try to enter the ark, they would break his 120-year project and then kill him (see, I told you they were bad guys). 

The ark was pretty big, about 600 feet long, 100 feet wide (or, as you yachters would say, “it had a beam of 100 feet”), and 60 feet tall, 22 of which were below the water line. Despite the large dimensions of the ark, it was a massive miracle that Noach was able to fit thousand upon thousands of animals into this area.  The ark was split into 3 floors, waste on bottom, animals in the middle, and humans on top. It had a light source which some say was a skylight, while others posit was a special luminescent stone.

When the time for the flood came, animals starting miraculously trekking to the ark from all corners of the world. G-d commanded Noach to take a male and female from every non-kosher species and seven pairs from every kosher species. The ark would not allow any species that had mated with other species to enter (some say that this is when dinosaurs died out). When the rain started coming down thick and fast and the aforementioned bad guys came to stop Noach from entering the ark, G-d set up a ring of lions and bears around the ark preventing anyone from getting near it. Check. Mate.

For forty days and nights the flood waters raged, with rain falling heavily from heaven, and underwater boiling springs erupting and spewing out steaming sulfuric matter from below. The waters came down until the highest point on earth was thirty feet below the water line. Then, after the forty days, the waters stopped coming down and up, but the existing water stayed put for another 150 days. The waters then slowly started receding. 

Noach sent out a raven to see if there was any dry land, but the bird didn’t even check, he just flew around the ark, afraid that someone was going to steal his mate. Next, Noach sent out a dove three times. The first time he came back empty handed, the second time he brought with him an olive branch, showing that the water level had dropped substantially, and the third time he stayed out, confirming that there was dry land once again. Soon after that, exactly a year after the flood began, Noach left the ark with his wife, his three children, their wives, and all the animals.

When they left the ark, G-d gave them a blessing that they be fruitful and multiply, to refill the now desolate world. They immediately brought offerings to G-d. Then, tragedy struck. Noach planted a vineyard, made wine, got drunk, and fell asleep in an uncovered position. One of his sons, Cham, debased his father in his nakedness, and then went out to tell his other brothers. Shem enlisted Yafes, and together they covered their father, while looking the other way, so as not to see their father in a compromised position. Noach awoke, and understanding what happened, gave Cham a severe curse, and gave Shem and Yafes blessings.

From Noach and his family sprouted all of the nations of the earth, and the Torah goes into great length telling over the genealogy of Noach’s children and grandchildren, as each of these grandchildren would be the father of a nation that would arise later in history.

Humans simply don’t seem to learn their lesson. Only a few generations after the Great Flood, under the leadership of the wicked king Nimrod of Babel, mankind devised a plan to take G-d out of the picture. They attempted to build a tower that would reach the heavens itself, so they could then challenge G-d, and chase Him away. These people, although wicked, had one merit – they presented a united front, there was no bickering and arguing between them. However, since this unison was being used for an evil purpose, G-d punished them by introduced the concept of language to mankind. Suddenly, people were speaking 70 different languages! As you can imagine, the building of the Tower of Babel went downhill quickly (I speak the same language as my contractor yet I never feel I can get exactly what I want over to him, imagine if we didn’t speak the same language!). From Babel , the people began to spread out to all four corners of the earth, where they are until this very day!

Quote of the Week: The bridges you cross before you come to them are over rivers that aren’t there. ~ Gene Brown

Random Fact of the Week: Benjamin Franklin invented crop insurance.

Funny Line of the Week: I like rice. Rice is great when you’re hungry and you want 2,000 of something.

Have a Supernal Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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