|Third Temple Torah, True Teachings|
From the Book of Bereishis (Genesis)
Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!
This week's Torah portion opens with the following statement: "Noach was an ISH (man) TZADDIK (righteous person) TAMIM (who was completely righteous)" (Gen. 6:9). The word ISH is complementary in its own right, and the additional descriptions heap honor upon honor on Noach. No other personality is described with so many consecutive praises in one verse! It seems that Noach was an outstanding individual.
The Book of Psalms teaches, "Fortunate is the man (ISH) who has not gone in the counsel of the wicked, and has not stood in the path of sinners, and has not sat in the company of scoffers" (1:1). The midrash Socher Tov, in the name of R' Yehuda, comments that the phrase "Fortunate is the man (ISH)," refers to Noach, since Noach is called ISH, as we just saw above. Why was Noach fortunate? According to the midrash, Noach was fortunate that he did not follow the ways of the three categories of people (wicked, sinners, scoffers) cited in Psalms. These three negative categories correspond to the three generations that arose in the world over the course of Noach's lifetime: the generation of Enosh (Adam's grandson, who initiated the practice of idolatry); the generation of the flood (immersed in immoral behavior); and the generation of the dispersion (who built the Tower of Babel in order to wage war against G-d). It was Noach's good fortune that he did not go in the path of any of these three generations.
The midrash's explanation teaches us that Noach spent his entire life surrounded by evil and wickedness. Yet, notwithstanding this corrupt environment, Noach managed to make himself into one of the most righteous people who ever lived! This is a remarkable feat. How is it possible for a person to maintain such a high level of spirituality while surrounded by people who are living lives of utter depravity and corruption?
A passage from Ethics of the Fathers will help us resolve this question. Ben Zoma says, "Who is a wise person? One who learns from everyone" (Pirkei Avot 4:1). This is a strange statement. It seems reasonable for us to want to learn from righteous people Ð but what is wise about learning from the wicked? Although many commentaries present famous answers to this question, the Berditchiver Rebbe (Kedushat Levi, end of Parshat Bereishis) takes a novel approach. He remarks that righteous people are able to perceive positive qualities in even the most negative situations. This enables them to learn, from everything they encounter, how to serve G-d better. For example, if a righteous person were to witness someone passionately engaged in sinning, he would recognize and appreciate the tremendous motivating power of passion. However, instead of taking that power and using it to accomplish negative goals, the righteous person would redirect it for a meaningful purpose. The correct channeling of passion has the potential to change rote, sterile performance of G-d's mitzvot into mitzvah observance driven by enthusiasm and fire!
Noach epitomized this ability to channel negative forces toward a higher purpose. A hint to this idea is found in his name. The Torah tells us (Gen. 6:8) that Noach found CHEN (favor) in the eyes of G-d. The name NOACH, when reversed, spells CHEN! Noach found favor in the eyes of G-d by mastering the art of reversal. He had the ability to redirect every energy from a negative goal to a positive one. This is why a wise person learns from everyone. From the righteous, we learn what to do Ð and sometimes, from the wicked, we learn how to do it. Wicked people have an impressive array of tools Ð passion, anger, jealousy, zeal Ð that enable them to successfully achieve their negative aims. Instead of being corrupted by these emotions, however, Noach used all of them as opportunities for spiritual growth. This explains how Noach was able to become such an outstanding individual, despite being surrounded by filth, decadence, and corruption. Noach had the best teachers available! The three immoral generations that surrounded him had established powerful driving forces to achieve their abominable goals. All Noach had to do was learn to take their ingenuity, arrogance, passion, jealousy, and zeal, and use them in a productive, constructive way to get closer to G-d.
May we all learn how to transform the power of every energy and drive into positive action in order to become the best we can possibly be.
Shabbat Shalom - Aba Wagensberg