Noach תשפ”ג

            The Prophet Yirmiyah [Jeremiah] (1 Kings 8:2) called the Hebrew month of Tishrei “ירח האתנים“ the Mighty Month. One of the reasons for this designation is the powerful, life-changing holidays that engage us for most of the month. 

Its first day, Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment, determines a person’s fate for the next year The judgment, however, is not “sealed” until Yom Kippur, ten days later, and one can still repeal a negative judgment if he repents during those special days. Yom Kippur, the tenth of Tishrei, is a deep day of fasting and praying to secure a good outcome for the year to come. 

Our Sages teach us that after an intense first ten days, we may assume that our prayers and feelings of remorse have been accepted, and that news brings great reason for celebration. From that point on, the month transforms into a month of joy and celebration. The holiday of Sukkot on the 15th day of Tishrei, and Shemini Atzeret-Simchat Torah on the 22nd and 23rd, are calledזמן שמחתינו  – the time of our rejoicing.  

            What about the Sukkot holiday awakens within us such feelings of joy and festivity?

The sukkah, in which we dwell for the week, brings home to us two fundamental concepts of Judaism, each of which can bring great joy to a person. 

The Sukkot Festival commemorates the miraculous exodus from Egypt. While Passover commemorates the actual exodus event, Sukkot corresponds to the continuous protection that Hashem provided the Jewish people throughout their 40-year journey through the wilderness. 

A wilderness is fraught with many life-threatening dangers. The most obvious, the lack of food and water, were miraculously addressed through the manna that descended from heaven daily and the special “well” that travelled with them and provided enough water for all to drink. But during their travels they were still out in the open; what of the relentless heat of the sun beating down on them all day without reprieve? And the numerous deadly snakes, scorpions, and the many other dangerous creatures that inhabit these barren and forsaken places who would find such a large group of people a delicious feast? And, what of the treacherous terrain–hills, valleys, pit holes, mounds, cracks, and the like, just waiting to trip someone up?  

To address these issues, Hashem provided the Jewish people with the ענני הכבוד “Clouds of Glory,” which enveloped and protected them like a cocoon. The clouds created a barrier from the sun’s lethal rays and smoothed out the pending terrain to remove any pitfalls in their way. They also killed and cleared away any deadly creatures waiting to strike them.

The sukkah reminds us of these clouds of protection that Hashem provided around the Jewish nation as they travelled through the wilderness. But how does going into a flimsy, insecure place like a sukkah remind us of Hashem’s protective clouds? The sukkah provides no real protection at all! 

Alas, that is exactly the point! Why would we leave a secure home with locks and bolts on the windows and doors to live in a place that provides no protection whatsoever? Because we realize very clearly that our locks and bolts really provide us no protection at all. Only Hashem protects us, and, as such, in the sukkah we are in His protective embrace just as the Jewish nation was as they travelled through the wilderness. 

King David expressed it so eloquently when he said (Psalm 127:1) 

אִם יְדֹוָד לֹא יִשְׁמָר עִיר שָׁוְא שָׁקַד שׁוֹמֵר

  1. If Hashem will not guard the city, in vain is the watchman vigilant.   

Even the most secure homes with state-of-the-art alarm systems can be breached. We ultimately remain at Hashem’s mercy to protect us from thieves. 

This is the sukkah’s lesson and the greatest reason for joy. Going into a sukkah for seven days proclaims that, even though we cannot see Hashem’s protective clouds surrounding us, we understand that we are constantly under His watchful and protective eye. Why else would a person do a seemingly foolhardy thing like live in a sukkah for a week? Knowing that Hashem is our protector provides the greatest source of joy because Hashem is infallible. Nothing can get by Him, and He never takes a vacation or sleeps on the job. How fortunate we are to know that! How fortunate we are to have the Great Hashem as our protector. 

The sukkah’s second theme is that it must be a temporary dwelling. It may not be higher than 20 cubits, about forty feet, because then it would have to be built as a permanent structure. (If it is lower than 40 feet, even though it has permanent walls, it is still kosher) The Torah instructs us (Leviticus 23:42), 

(מב) בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים

42) You shall dwell in sukkot for seven days… 

Our Sages explain these instructions to mean that, for seven days, we should live in the sukkah just like we live in our houses. That is, perform all of your normal activities in the sukkah instead of in the house. 

How is this a source of joy

Knowing that the time spent in the sukkah is limited to seven days enables us to get by without many of the conveniences and luxuries that we build into our houses. Why put in a bathroom, when I can just go into the house and use the one in there? Why bring out the sofa? For seven days I can sit on a chair. Knowing that the inconvenience is temporary enables us to deal with it. We don’t get upset or depressed about the situation because we know it will pass soon enough. 

The sukkah is a metaphor for this world, which is also just a temporary dwelling for every human being. We come into the world for a limited time, and then we are off to the next world. Internalizing this message can help us deal with many of life’s challenges. This is just a temporary inconvenience! Why get upset about it? I can handle it for a while. 

Two people came to Rabbi Chaim Volozhin זצ”ל (d. 1821) with a dispute over a tract of land. One claimed that it was in his family for many years and that he inherited it from his father, while the other claimed that he knows hisfather purchased the piece of land from the other fellow’s father but just cannot find the deed. 

After hearing their positions on the matter, Rabbi Volozhin asked them to take him to the piece of land; he wanted to see what they were talking about. 

When they arrived, the rabbi asked each of them to repeat his claim. After hearing what each one said, the rabbi dropped to his knees and put his ear to the ground, acting as if he was listening to something that the ground was telling him. When he arose, the men asked him what he had just done. 

Addressing the litigants, he said: “Well, I heard what each of you had to say about the land, but then, I wanted to hear what the land had to say about the case.”

Following his joke, they asked him, “Nu, Rabbi, so what did the land have to say?”

Rabbi Volozhin responded. “The land said, ‘I don’t know what these two men are arguing about; they are both going to be mine soon, anyway.” 

In this way, the sukkah reveals to us a great source for joy. Living in a sukkah for seven days allows us to put things into their proper perspective. It teaches us that it doesn’t pay to get upset or bent out of shape about anything material, since this world is only a temporary dwelling. We can handle it for a short time. 

A wealthy American businessman was travelling through Europe and made a point of visiting the most important and holy Jew of the time, the Chofetz Chaim (d. 1934). When the businessman entered the Chafetz Chaim’s simple unfurnished home, he was flabbergasted. Here he was in the home of the greatest rabbi of that time, and all that he saw was a table, a few chairs, and a few beds. 

The visitor couldn’t hold back his wonder and asked the holy rabbi, “Rabbi, where is all your furniture?” 

The rabbi responded with, “And where is yours?” 

The guest replied, “Rabbi, I don’t need it; I am just passing through.” 

The Chofetz Chaim answered, “So am I.”

After basking in Hashem’s coddling protective embrace in the sukkah for the seven days of Sukkot and internalizing the profound message that our existence is but a temporary one, we are now spiritually ready for Shemini Atzeret, an even higher level of connection with Hashem. 

On Sukkot, we connect to Hashem through the protective medium of the sukkah. On Shemini Atzeret, we reach the point where we can connect to Hashem directly. How? Through the Torah that He gave us. Hashem’s essence is embodied in the Torah and to the degree that we have mastery over the Torah, we have access to Hashem Himself. 

The first word of the Ten Commandments is unusual. Instead of using the regular wordאני  which means “I”, Hashem used the rarer word, “אנכי”, which means the same thing. Our Sages teach us that Hashem conveyed a profound message in this word. It stands for: 

אנא נפשי כתבית יהבית

Hashem says, “I, My soul, have written down and given to you!”

The Torah is the printed version of everything that is on Hashem’s mind, so-to-speak. If you want to know Hashem, study His Torah. 

Shemini Atzeret is the day we can rejoice with Hashem himself, so-to-speak, by rejoicing with the amazing, wonderful Torah that He gave us. 

By this time, you have probably picked up that the “Mighty Month” of Tishrei is designed to condition us for maximum spiritual growth. 

We start with a bang, Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment, jolting us into reality; something very important is happening here! The fate of next year hangs in the balance. We then have ten days to shape up and crown those ten days of teshuva with Yom Kippur by fasting and depriving our physical elements of their wont. After this rigorous spiritual cleansing, we are ready to internalize some lofty ideas: Hashem is our protector, always, and this world is but a temporary existence. After experiencing these concepts for seven days, we are ready to approach Hashem Himself by rejoicing with the Torah, the essence of Hashem. We have reached the highest spiritual point a human being can achieve. 

The goal of the entire month is to serve as a runway, so-to-speak, for the new year. By starting off at such a high, we launch into the new year on a higher level than ever before, and we hope that we will continue on that trajectory for the entire year. 

* * *

What dovetails into this and actually facilitates this continued growth throughout the coming year is the reading of the Torah, portion after portion, starting from “Bereshit,” Creation, once again. On Simchat Torah we completed the cycle of reading the entire Torah, and the first Shabbat after Simchat Torah (this past Shabbat) we began the new cycle. We have recreated ourselves, and we are now more capable of fulfilling Hashem’s purpose for creating us. 

(א) בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ:

In the beginning, Hashem created heaven and earth (Genesis 1:1). This simple statement must give us great pause. 

Hashem went to the trouble of creating this amazing world, and me? Why did He do that? He must have had a purpose for doing so. What could that be? For what would He need a world or me? He is perfect and complete. 

And, it was Hashem who created it? Who is Hashem, and what is He like? 

The “Mighty Month,” which is still upon us, affords us the answers to our inquiry. Hashem is Loving and Merciful. We have just spent seven days in His protective embrace, and two more with Him and His Torah. He has created us and this world to share His goodness with us. 

We are in this temporary world to collect mitzvahs that we will redeem in the next world. Our purpose here is a spiritual one, so there is no need to get bent out of shape over materialistic matters. They, too, are only temporary. 

The Torah clearly illustrates these ideas right from the outset. 

Hashem places Adam in the Garden of Eden with thousands of delicious fruit trees from which to eat leaving just one from which man is not permitted to partake, the Tree of Knowledge. Why did Hashem put that tree there to trip Adam up? 

The Torah tells us (Genesis 2:15):

(טו) וַיִּקַּח יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקים אֶת הָאָדָם וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן עֵדֶן לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ:

15. Hashem G-d took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to guard it.

Our Sages ask: What need was there to work and guard the Garden of Eden? The Torah had just told us that the trees grew on their own accord, and a river flowed through the garden providing the necessary irrigation. The answer is that Adam was to “work” the garden through the study of Torah and the performance of the positive commandments, and to “guard” it and thus preserve it, by refraining from the forbidden activities. Instead of indulging in the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam needed to curtail his desire and refrain from eating the fruit. 

Through choosing to do Hashem’s will—the positive mitzvot–and refraining from transgressing the Torah’s prohibitions, we earn our reward in the world to come. 

We see the same concept in the story of Cain, who brought Hashem an offering of his worst produce. When Hashem rejected Cain’s offering, Cain became furious and depressed. Hashem then said to him (Genesis 4:6,7): 

(ו) וַיֹּאמֶר יְדֹוָד אֶל קָיִן לָמָּה חָרָה לָךְ וְלָמָּה נָפְלוּ פָנֶיךָ:

(ז) הֲלוֹא אִם תֵּיטִיב שְׂאֵת וְאִם לֹא תֵיטִיב לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ וְאֵלֶיךָ תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ וְאַתָּה תִּמְשָׁל בּוֹ

6) And Hashem said to Cain: “Why have you become furious and depressed? 7) If you do good                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        deeds, you will be elevated, but if you do evil deeds, on the day of judgment your evil deeds will be waiting to punish you if you don’t do teshuva. But if you do teshuva you will not have to pay for your evil deeds (This translation is based on Targum, per Rashi).

Hashem has really spelled it out here. If you do good deeds, you will be rewarded; but if you do not, your evil deeds will be waiting for you to incriminate you at the gates of Heaven on your day of judgment. 

Other commentaries explain the words more literally, referring to the evil inclination. 

וְאֵלֶיךָ תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ וְאַתָּה תִּמְשָׁל בּוֹ

You will always be his (the evil inclination’s) desire, but you can rule over it.

This is the human condition. Man will always be tempted by sin, but he has the ability to control himself, and for that he receives his reward in the world to come. 

As we progress through the first portion of the Torah, Bereshit, things do not improve. On the contrary, they deteriorate. The Torah tells us (6:5-8) that mankind became so morally depraved that Hashem came to the point where He regretted having created Man and wished to obliterate humanity from the face of the earth. Once again, instead of seeing their station in this world as a temporary passageway to the world to come, humanity saw the pleasures of this world as their purpose, and sought to have as much as possible.   

This brings us to this week’s portion, Noach, which begins by telling us of Noach’s righteousness and how he saved Mankind. Hashem found him and his three children and their wives worthy of being a new beginning to humanity. 

From the story of Noach and the flood that destroyed the rest of mankind, we again see the importance of good deeds and the consequences of deplorable deeds. Those who saw this world as a preparatory world and pursued good deeds, were elevated and saved, while those whose actions were unacceptable seeing this world as a place to enjoy the pleasures of life, perished in the flood. 

The story of Noach teaches us a further lesson about the importance of every individual’s deeds. Here was Noach, just minding his own business, but keeping all of the rules and regulations set down by Hashem; at this time, there were six. 1. Believe in Hashem, the Creator. 2. Do not curse Hashem. 3. Do not murder. 4. Do not steal. 5. Do not commit adultery. 6. Have a court system to enforce those rules.  Everyone around him was pursuing the pleasures of the flesh, idol worship, and theft. In a sea of immorality and depravity, was an islet of one man and his family who were moral and upstanding. When Hashem sought to destroy mankind, He knew of only one family that withstood the pressures of the surrounding society and was keeping His laws. Because they were righteous, Hashem couldn’t destroy them. 

When introducing us to Noach, Hashem is careful to tell us that Noach is a צדיק  – a completely righteous person. This portion begins (Genesis 6:9)

ט) אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו

9) These are the generations of Noach; Noach was a righteous person, a complete צדיק   in his generation.

            The seemingly unnecessary words, “in his generation,” spark a controversy among the Sages. 

Some say that these words reflect great praise for Noach, for he lived in a generation with very evil people who were immoral, worshipped idols, and stole from one another.  Despite all of this, Noach remained righteous. Hence, if Noach was able to be aצדיק  (righteous) even in a generation of degenerates, could you imagine how much greater he would have been had he lived in the generation of Avraham our forefather? 

Others take the opposite approach, explaining these words as derogatory to Noach. It was only compared to the degenerates of his generation that he was considered a צדיק; but in the generation of Avraham Avinu, he would not have rated as a צדיק  at all. 

Harav Eliyahu Dessler (d. 1953) in his work Michtav MiEliyahu explains that these two opinions are both true and, moreover, complement each other. While, compared to Avraham Avinu, Noach would not have been considered a צדיק, this is precisely because he lived in a generation with such evil people. It took all of his effort just to survive in the tide of evil that prevailed in his society. Had he not needed to expend that effort just to remain righteous, he would have used it to go forward and thus would have become a much greater צדיק. 

This lesson applies to each of us as well. We live in a world that shuns belief in Hashem and enlisting in His service. Those who successfully swim against the tide, seeking a greater relationship with Hashem, would be righteous giants in earlier generations.  

* * *

So begins our entrance into the new year. Having imbibed the lessons and spiritual accomplishments of the just completed “Mighty Month,” we are better equipped to incorporate these essential lessons into our lives than ever before. 

The Torah is not a book of stories; rather, it is a book of instructions. As we travel through the new year, we look into the Torah for guidance and inspiration. It never lets us down. Remarkably, it is always fresh with ideas and relevant to a Jew’s life. 

I am hoping that you will join Partners Detroit (and invite your friends!) as we journey through the new year, learning and growing together.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. sarah Krakauer

    thank you so much for the amazing summary of the whole period of the beginning of the Jewish Year that should guide us through this year and till the coming of Mashiach

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