Friday, October 27, 2006

Parshas Noach by Reb Jay Spero

In this week’s parsha we have the famous story of Noach and his ark. As we know, every story that is mentioned in the Torah is not mentioned merely as an historical guide. It is mentioned to us as information that is relevant and meaningful to our lives.

What are we to glean from the story of Noach and the water that rained down on the earth?

“Hashem said to Noach: The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with robbery through them; I am about to destroy them from the earth” (Bereshis 6:13). When Hashem tells this to Noach, He is not telling him something that will happen in the next week. In fact, it took Noach one hundred and twenty years to build the ark. The Midrash mentions that Hashem gave Noach specific instructions on which trees to plant in order to obtain the proper wood for the ark. The Zohar explains that the reason for this was that the ark had a strong degree of holiness, similar to the Tabernacle. That just as the tabernacle was a place where Hashem “concentrated” His Shechina—Divine presence— so too the ark was a place on earth where Noach and the Shechina would be able to dwell while the world underwent a purification process (obviously Hashem does not need a place to dwell, as He has no physical needs, but one of the reasons He created the world, was that man should perfect it enough that He would be able to dwell amongst man, which is precisely what He was doing here.)

What was supposed to happen in these one hundred and twenty years? Noach was meant to have an effect on the people around him. That when they would see him building the ark, they would ask him what he was doing, and he would tell them that he was preparing for the end of the world. He would then explain to them why Hashem desired to destroy His own handiwork. Although the people themselves had not heard the voice of Hashem there is an obvious imperative to be a moral human being, and in this society, the thievery was so rampant, that it was not worthwhile for them to continue to exist.

From this we learn an extremely important lesson: the ability for one person to make a difference.

Hashem would not have had Noach build the ark for all those years if He didn’t think it there was potential for change. This shows the tremendous power we have to effect change. And although at the end, Noach did not have a positive effect on the world, he did have a positive effect on his family and himself.

The significance of the water was a purification process. “I will send rain upon the earth, forty days and forty nights” (Bereshis7:4). The number forty has a lot of meaning in Jewish thought: forty days of the flood, a mikvah—ritual bath—requires forty s’ah (a s’ah is a measurement), forty days from conception to formation of fetus, etc. This number signifies change, from nothing to something, from impurity to purity.

When Hashem made it rain for forty days, He was purifying the world. This is a lesson for us, because as we know, each person is a miniature world, and we have the ability to purify ourselves, just as Hashem purified the world.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Breishis by Reb Jay

In this week’s parsha, the Torah brings the story of Kayin and Hevel. Kayin and Hevel are famous in history for being the first known case of fratricide. Their story is thought to be a simple one. Two brothers, who were unable to get along, the tension rising until one finally killed the other.

The reality of this story is much more complex than that. What really happened between Kayin and Hevel contains lessons and implications that can used to learn from, even today, some fifty seven hundred years later.

Kayin and Hevel were the children of Adom and Chavah. They literally had the whole world for the taking. Kayin was a farmer, and Hevel a shepherd.

Although popular perception has Kayin as the “bad guy” and Hevel as the “good guy”, Kayin, in fact, was the first of the two brothers who thought of offering up a sacrifice to Hashem. Offering up a sacrificial offering is meant to be a difficult thing. It is hard for human beings to part with their physical possessions. When we offer them up to Hashem, our giving shows our love for Him, as giving is a sign of love (obviously Hashem does not need these offerings, as He has no needs; sacrificial offerings, as all commandments, are done for us). For Kayin this was particularly difficult. Kayin’s name means acquisition. He was a person who desired to acquire possessions. For him to bring an offering from the ground was very difficult - so difficult, that Kayin’s offering was of an inferior quality.

Hevel, although it was not his idea to bring an offering, offered up the choicest sheep of his flock.

Hevel’s offering was accepted, and Kayin’s was not: “Hashem turned to Hevel and his offering, but to Kayin, He did not turn. This upset Kayin and his face fell”. Hashem told Kayin: “Why are you upset and why has your face fallen? Surely if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, your sin is preserved, its desire (“it” being the evil inclination, which is the part of us that demands instant gratification) is toward you, yet you can conquer it” (Bereshis 4:5-7).

Kayin’s despondency was understandable, having just had his offering rejected by Hashem. But Hashem does not reject him. He simply tells him that he has sinned through his lack of gratitude. But this is easily rectified. All Kayin must do is improve. But Hashem warns him that if he does not improve, sin will overtake him. The nature of man is not to be stagnant, but rather to improve or, Hashem forbid, regress.

What does Kayin do after Hashem reaches out to him? He ignores Hashem’s entreaties. He goes to Hevel and provokes him into an argument and kills him. The Midrash (Bereshis Rabbah) explains that Kayin proposed to Hevel that they divide the world. Kayin’s intention in making this formal split was to provoke Hevel into an argument and kill him, a ruse that worked.

Kayin kills Hevel because he is jealous. If there had been no Hevel, Kayin would not have found it difficult to achieve atonement for his sin. But once he saw that Hevel’s sacrifice had been accepted he could not bear it.

The commentators ask, why did Hevel deserve to die? The Maharal explains that Hevel was complicit in this tragic story, because he brought his offering to trump Kayin. Obviously, this was not the only reason, as his offering was accepted, but nonetheless, it was a strong motivating factor of his offering (the Gra learns differently; see the Gaon's peirush to Koheles). These are the tragic results of jealousy: the death of one brother and the exiling of the second (to wander the earth was the punishment Hashem meted out to Kayin).

The Mishna in Pirkei Avos counts jealousy as something that pulls a person out of the world (Chapter 4 Mishna 21). The meaning is obvious. When a person focuses not on what he needs to accomplish, but on his friend’s accomplishments, he has lost his purpose, i.e., he has pulled himself out of the world.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Painting your Masterpiece

Read painting-your-masterpiece by Rabbi Frand. Neil Harris from Chicago wrote it over and he did a masterful job. Chazak U'Boruch!