Thursday, October 30, 2008

Noach - an ark of words

There is a short vort of the Tiferes Shlomo on this week's parsha that needs some background elabortion to appreciate. The countless essays, books, poems, and blog posts composed by the great minds of the ages all share the aim of trying to explain, describe, and understand a reality that exists "out there". The intellectual world of words and ideas is a representation of this reality -- a means of grasping some small measure of the larger picture which lies outside the mind.

The B"esht taught exactly the opposite. "B'dvar Hashem shamayim na'asu" -- the true reality is the reality of words; what is "out there" in the physical word is the mere physical representation of deeper truths. G-d uniquely enpowered humankind over this dimension of words and granted us the ability to be a "ruach m'malela" (as the Targum puts it), a creature endowed with the power of speech, or, in other words (excuse the pun), a creature endowed with the power over words.

The beautiful landscape causes the poet to reflect and put words to paper; the tzadik's words of Torah and tefilah that draw G-d into the world cause the beautiful landscape.

Of course, it would be nice to know how to make beautiful landscapes and other beautiful things out of words. Is there some celestial scrabble board with letters that we can re-arrange to get the desired results? Unfortunately, that discussion will have to wait. It's enough for now to appreciate the basic shift in perspective.

Before jumping into the Radomsker's torah on the beginning of the parsha let me just throw in my own two cents with an observation on the end of the parsha. If the physical world is impacted by the power of words, the relationship between the ultimate failure of the dor hapalagah (--for you language purists; dor haflaga for others) to build their castle to Heaven and the devolution of language becomes that much more poignant. The failure of language is not just a practical impediment to building, but reflects an existential failing of mankind to be builders in a positive sense.

Getting to the opening of the parsha, Noach's charge to build a teivah taken on a double-meaning -- teivah means ark, but it also means "word". The Tiferes Shlomo comments on "tzohar ta'aseh la'teivah" that Noach's true task was to transform words, to make "tzarah" to "retzeih" -- meaning, to transform the presence of G-dliness manifest in the world from a force of punishment to a force of munificense. Noach unfortunately failed at that task. He could only transform "tzarah" into "tzohar", which Rashi explains to mean a diamond or window that allowed light into the ark. Noach could draw the light of G-d into his own life, but could not use that light to influence and benefit others.

Rashi describes Noach as "m'ketanei amanah", of little faith, a description seemingly at odds with the Torah's praise of Noach as a tzadik. The Radomsker explains that Noach the tzadik did not lack for faith in G-d, but he lacked faith in himself. He transformed himself, but did not believe he could influence the words and world around him.

This play on words reveals something of Noach's character and his mission, but it is not the complete story. Noach is described as a "tzadik… b'dorosav", which Rashi explains that some interpret to mean that his righteousness stood out only in his generation, but had he lived in Avraham's time he would be thought of as nothing. Chazal teach that "Yiftach b'doro k'Shmuel b'doro", that we must accept each leader on his/her own merits irrespective of their rank compared with other leaders in other generations. What purpose is there in engaging in such speculative comparisons of which tzadik is greater, Avraham or Noach? Is there a ranking system that we need to formulate?

Here too, a torah of the Radomsker sheds light on Rashi's meaning. Rashi does not mean to compare Noach to Avraham, but to reveal Noach's inherent potential. For all the greatness of Avraham, even after the test of the akeidah, he as able to say to G-d that he was "afar v'eifer", dust and ashes -- the embodiment of humility. Had Noach lived in Avraham's time he would indeed have been nothing -- not because of any ranking or comparison, but because he would also have been able to achieve that height of tzidkus and embody the same trait of nothingness!

I think putting these two torahs of the Radomsker together gives a more of a complete picture of Noach. Noach's lack of belief in his ability to rescue his generation, or at least ask G-d to mitigate punishment, was not a mark of humility. Quite the contrary. Noach did not lack a sense of self-worth; he did not think of himself as nothingness in the way that Avraham did. I would suggest that it is precisely because Noach did not have this trait of "afar v'eifer", he was not the most humble of men in the way Avraham was, that led to his failure to speak out. Who but someone who is completely self-effacing would be willing to stick his/her neck out for the sake of the residents of Sdom or the generation of the flood?

Noach was certainly a tzadik, but his words were directed inward more than outward perhaps because he believed that only he was capable or worthy of hearing those words. The teivah closed to the outside world may have kept the rains out, but it also kept in the light that might have dispelled some of the outside gloom.

What does this all mean for us? A few things:
1) An ark of words, concepts, ideology is what keeps the physical ark afloat -- not vica versa. You can lock yeshiva students in an ivory tower ark for 16 hours a day, but unless they absorb the words of Torah, physical barriers against secular culture are of little use.
2) G-d's presence is always immanent. It is up to us to determine whether it is manifest as ratzah, tzarah, or something in between.
3) Even if Torah permeates your life through your tzohar, your job is not done until the outside world shares those values.
4) The lack of belief in one's ability to help others may be a mask for a simple lack of belief in other's potential for redemption. The best cloak for ga'avah is the mantle of humility.


  1. Anonymous2:56 AM

    Amazing combination,THANKS

  2. The machlokes on whether the light source --- the tzohar-- in the teva was a window or an illuminating stone brings up the question of self-sustained inside vs. open to the outside.