Parshas Noach - Believe in Yourself
Updated: Jan 9, 2021
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אֵ֚לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ:
"These are the generations of Noah, Noah was a righteous man he was perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God." (Bereishis 6:9)
The Torah calls Noach a tzaddik. At first glance that is all there is to it. The entire generation is to be wiped out in a flood and only Noach will be saved.
However, Rashi, based on the Gemara in Sanhedrin (108a) and the Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 30:9), points out that the Torah specifically mentions that he was a Tzaddik "in his generation."
In Rashi's words:
יש מרבותינו דורשים אותו לשבח, כל שכן שאלו היה בדור צדיקים היה צדיק יותר, ויש שדורשים אותו לגנאי, לפי דורו היה צדיק, ואלו היה בדורו של אברהם לא היה נחשב לכלום:
Some of our Sages interpret it [the word בְּדֹרֹתָיו] favorably: How much more so if he had lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. Others interpret it derogatorily: In comparison with his generation he was righteous, but if he had been in Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered of any importance.
So we see that there are two ways of viewing Noach. According to the first opinion quoted in Rashi, had Noach lived in a generation of righteous men his he would have been an even greater Tzaddik. According to the second opinion, Noach was only righteous in his generation. In a generation of Tzaddikim Noach would not have been considered a Tzaddik at all.
However, when considering this Rashi several questions jump out at us.
In both the Gemara in Sanhedrin and the Medrash the opinion that seemingly denigrates Noach is brought first. The second opinion is the one that says Noach would have been an even greater Tzaddik in a loftier generation. Why does Rashi reverse the order?
Furthermore, when we look at the text of the Gemara and the Medrash we find that Rashi has made a critical change.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin says:
אלה תולדות נח [נח איש צדיק תמים היה בדורותיו] א"ר יוחנן בדורותיו ולא בדורות אחרים
“These are the generations of Noah; Noah was a righteous man, and wholehearted in his generations” (Genesis 6:9), Rabbi Yoḥanan says: Relative to the other people of his generation he was righteous and wholehearted, but not relative to those of other generations.
The Medrash says:
רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אָמַר בְּדֹרֹתָיו הָיָה צַדִּיק, הָא אִלּוּ הָיָה בְּדוֹרוֹ שֶׁל משֶׁה אוֹ בְּדוֹרוֹ שֶׁל שְׁמוּאֵל לֹא הָיָה צַדִּיק.
Rav Yehuda says in his generation he (Noach) was a Tzaddik but in the generation of Moshe or in the generation of Shmuel he would not have been considered a Tzaddik.
Rashi uses what appears to be a much harsher language then either the Gemara or the Medrash:
ואלו היה בדורו של אברהם לא היה נחשב לכלום
Had Noach lived in the generation of Avraham he would not have been considered at all.
From the Gemara and the Medrash it is clear that Noach would not have been a Tzaddik in other generations but that does not mean he would not have been a very fine man. Why does Rashi say that he would have been a zero? Let Rashi say he would not have been considered a Tzaddik?
Now perhaps you will argue that Rashi means he would not have been a considered a Tzaddik but is that really what Rashi said? Rashi says he would have not have been considered at all. Why does Rashi seemingly deviate from the Gemara and the Medrash he is quoting?
A careful examination of Rashi indicates that when Rashi quotes those that are doresh Noach in a positive fashion he calls them Rabboseinu but when he quotes the opinion that seemingly disparages Noach he just says ויש שדורשים, there are those that are doresh. Again, one could argue that the original statement of Rabboseinu is meant for both opinions but I am not convinced. Rashi could have just said there are those that are doresh positively and those that are doresh negatively. Alternatively, Rashi could have said some of our Rabbeim were doresh positively while other Rabbeim were doresh negatively. It seems to me that Rashi is saying, some of our Rabbeim were doresh positively while "others" were doresh negatively. What is Rashi trying to say here? Are those that are doresh negatively not Rabboseinu?
When it came to actually going in to the Teiva the passuk tells us:
וַיָּבֹ֣א נֹ֔חַ וּ֠בָנָ֠יו וְאִשְׁתּ֧וֹ וּנְשֵֽׁי־בָנָ֛יו אִתּ֖וֹ אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֑ה מִפְּנֵ֖י מֵ֥י הַמַּבּֽוּל:
"And Noah went in and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him into the ark because of the flood waters." (Bereishis 7:7)
מפני מי המבול: אף נח מקטני אמנה היה, מאמין ואינו מאמין שיבא המבול ולא נכנס לתיבה עד שדחקוהו המים:
because of the flood waters: Noah, too, was of those who had little faith, believing and not believing that the Flood would come, and he did not enter the ark until the waters forced him to do so.
How could Noach, a man who communicated with God directly, be considered מקטני אמנה, a man of little faith? Did Noach think that God was lying to him? And what does Rashi mean that he was מאמין ואינו מאמין, believing and not believing. Noach either trusted God or he didn't. How could he be both? It seems that whenever we have the opportunity to denigrate Noach we pounce at the opportunity. Why would we do so when the Torah calls him a Tzaddik Tamim?
Lastly, many commentators point out that the Torah repeats the word Noach twice? Why?
Elisha Ben Avuyah - Sinner and Scholar
In order to understand the complexities of Noach let us first examine some other interesting stories and personalities throughout our history.
Elisha ben Avuyah was one of the greatest Talmidei Chachamim of his time.
The Gemara in Chagiga (14a-15b) tells us that Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rav Akiva
went to Pardes. The Rishonim (Rashi, Tosafos and the Rabbeinu Chananel) discuss if Pardes (Paradise) was spiritual or physical but in any event it certainly means that they experienced a revelation of the higher spiritual worlds. Obviously to attain such a revelation these men (including Elisha ben Avuyah aka Acher) had to be of great stature. Unfortunately, the journey to Pardes was far from successful. Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma lost his mental faculties and Acher was קיצץ בנטיעות, he uprooted that which had been planted. Of the four, only Rav Akiva was able to depart Pardes unharmed.
Now in truth, when we say that Ben Azzai died and Ben Zoma lost his mental faculties it could means that they attained such spiritual heights that they were no longer connected to our world. Acher on the other hand went off the derech as a result of his experience in Pardes.
The Gemara (Chagigah 15a) explains as follows:
אחר קיצץ בנטיעות עליו הכתוב אומר (קהלת ה, ה) אל תתן את פיך לחטיא את בשרך מאי היא חזא מיטטרון דאתיהבא ליה רשותא למיתב למיכתב זכוותא דישראל אמר גמירא דלמעלה לא הוי לא ישיבה ולא תחרות ולא עורף ולא עיפוי שמא חס ושלום ב' רשויות הן אפקוהו למיטטרון ומחיוהו שיתין פולסי דנורא א"ל מ"ט כי חזיתיה לא קמת מקמיה איתיהיבא ליה רשותא למימחק זכוותא דאחר יצתה בת קול ואמרה (ירמיהו ג, יד) שובו בנים שובבים חוץ מאחר אמר הואיל ואיטריד ההוא גברא מההוא עלמא ליפוק ליתהני בהאי עלמא נפק אחר לתרבות רעה נפק אשכח זונה תבעה אמרה ליה ולאו אלישע בן אבויה את עקר פוגלא ממישרא בשבת ויהב לה אמרה אחר הוא
The Gemara stated earlier that Aḥer chopped down the saplings, becoming a heretic. With regard to him, the verse states: “Do not let your mouth bring your flesh into guilt” (Ecclesiastes 5:5). The Gemara poses a question: What was it that led him to heresy? He saw the angel Mitatron, who was granted permission to sit and write the merits of Israel. He said: There is a tradition that in the world above there is no sitting; no competition; no turning one’s back before Him, i.e., all face the Divine Presence; and no lethargy. Seeing that someone other than God was seated above, he said: Perhaps, the Gemara here interjects, Heaven forbid, there are two authorities, and there is another source of power in control of the world in addition to God. Such thoughts led Aḥer to heresy. The Gemara relates: They removed Mitatron from his place in heaven and smote him with sixty rods [pulsei] of fire, so that others would not make mistake that Aḥer made. They said to the angel: What is the reason that when you saw Elisha ben Avuya you did not stand before him? Despite this conduct, since Mitatron was personally involved, he was granted permission to erase the merits of Aḥer and cause him to stumble in any manner. A Divine Voice went forth saying: “Return, rebellious children” (Jeremiah 3:22), apart from Aḥer. Upon hearing this, Elisha ben Avuya said: Since that man, meaning himself, has been banished from that world, let him go out and enjoy this world. Aḥer went astray. He went and found a prostitute and solicited her for intercourse. She said to him: And are you not Elisha ben Avuya? Shall a person of your stature perform such an act? He uprooted a radish from a patch of radishes on Shabbat and gave it to her, to demonstrate that he no longer observed the Torah. The prostitute said: He is other than he was. He is not the same Elisha ben Avuya, he is Aḥer, other.
While we do not exactly understand what it means that the Malach Mitatron was sitting down in the presence of God it appears that Elisha ben Avuyah understood this to mean that there is another power in control of the world aside from God and this is what led him to his heretical worldview. A bas kol came out and declared that all rebellious children would be welcomed back in Heaven apart from Acher. Hearing this bas kol A cher decided that if his teshuva would not be accepted in Heaven, he may as well enjoy his time on earth.
And how did he get the name Acher?
The Gemara concludes by telling us that Acher solicited a prostitute (on Shabbos) who was shocked by his interest as she knew him to be the great Tanna, Elisha ben Avuyah. To demonstrate that he was no longer observing Torah and Mitzvos, Elisha violated Shabbos and the prostitute said "אחר הוא" you are someone else.
Even after Elisha ben Avuyah became Acher, his talmid, Rav Meir, continued to learn from him. Rav Meir refused to give up on his Rebbe and the Gemara recalls the following incident:
ת"ר מעשה באחר שהיה רוכב על הסוס בשבת והיה רבי מאיר מהלך אחריו ללמוד תורה מפיו אמר לו מאיר חזור לאחריך שכבר שיערתי בעקבי סוסי עד כאן תחום שבת א"ל אף אתה חזור בך א"ל ולא כבר אמרתי לך כבר שמעתי מאחורי הפרגוד שובו בנים שובבים חוץ מאחר
The Sages taught: There was once an incident involving Aḥer, who was riding on a horse on Shabbat, and Rabbi Meir was walking behind him to learn Torah from him. After a while, Aḥer said to him: Meir, turn back, for I have already estimated and measured according to the steps of my horse that the Shabbat boundary ends here, and you may therefore venture no further. Rabbi Meir said to him: You, too, return to the correct path. He said to him: But have I not already told you that I have already heard behind the dividing curtain: “Return, rebellious children,” apart from Aḥer?
The Yerushalmi recalls the same incident but with some minor (and very important) variations:
א"ל דייך מאיר, עד כאן תחום שבת. אמר ליה: מן הן את ידע? אמר ליה: מן טלפי דסוסיי דהוינא מני והולך אלפיים אמה. אמר ליה: וכל הדא חכמתא אית בך ולית את חזר בך? אמר ליה: לית אנא יכיל. אמר ליה: למה? אמר ליה: שפעם אחת הייתי עובר לפני בית קודש הקדשים רכוב על סוסי ביום הכיפורים שחל להיות בשבת, ושמעתי בת קול יוצאת מבית קודש הקדשים ואומרת שובו בנים חוץ מאלישע בן אבויה שידע כוחי ומרד בי.
[Acher] said to him: Enough Meir, this is the Sabbath boundary. He asked him: How do you know? Acher replied: I have measured 2000 cubits based on the footprints of my horse. R. Meir said: You have such wisdom, and you do you not return? Acher replied: I am unable. R. Meir asked: Why? Acher replied: Once, on a Yom Kippur that fell out on Shabbos, I was riding a horse in front of the Holy of Holies and I heard a heavenly voice emerging from the Holy of Holies saying: Return My sons—except for Elisha ben Avuyah, who knew My power, yet rebelled against Me.
Did you notice the difference between the two versions? In the Bavli the bas kol says that all of God's children can return except for Acher. In the Yerushalmi the bas kol doesn't refer to him as Acher but as Elisha ben Avuyah.
Which one did the bas kol actually say???
Furthermore, in the Yerushalmi we are given one detail about the story that the Bavli did not mention. When Elisha ben Avuyah heard the Bas Kol he was at the Kodesh Hakedoshim on Shabbos that was Yom Kippur.
What was Elisha doing on Har Habayis that day? And why on Yom Kippur of all days does Elisha hear a bas kol that his teshuva will not be accepted? And of what significance is it that Yom Kippur that year fell out on Shabbos?
Living a Lie
Have you ever felt like you are two different people? Perhaps when you are with some people you act one way but when you are with others you act completely differently. Maybe you behave one way but on the inside there is a part of you that wishes you could be someone totally else. Of course we are only one person experiencing conflicting feelings but sometimes we feel like we have two totally independent identities.
I would like to suggest that this is what Elisha ben Avuyah was going through. Yes Elisha ben Avuyah was an extraordinary Torah scholar but on the inside he felt conflicted. He felt different than the other great leaders of his time. He felt like he was living a lie.
The Yerushalmi (Chagiga 77b) says:
ובי היה המעשה. אבויה, אבא מגדולי ירושלם היה. ביום שבא למוהליני קרא לכל גדולי ירושלם והושיבן בבית אחד, ולר' אליעז' ולר' יהושע בבית אחר מן דאכלון ושתון, שרון מטפחין ומרקדקין א"ר אליעזר לר' יהושע: עד דאינון עסיקין בדידון נעסוק אנן בדידן? וישבו ונתעסקו בדברי תורה מן התורה לנביאים ומן הנביאים לכתובים. וירדה אש מן השמים והקיפה אותם. אמר להן אבויה: רבותיי, מה באתם לשרוף את ביתי עלי? אמרו לו: חס ושלום! אלא יושבין היינו וחוזרין בדברי תור' מן התורה לנביאים ומן הנביאים לכתובים. והיו הדברים שמיחים כנתינתן מסיני. והית' האש מלחכ' אותן כלחיכתן מסיני ועיקר נתינתן מסיני לא ניתנו אלא באש: והָהָר בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ עַד ֵלב הַשמַים (דברים ד') אמר להן אבויה אבא: רבותיי, אם כך היא כוחה של תורה, אם נתקיים לי בן, הזה לתורה אני מפרישו. לפי שלא היתה כוונתו לשם שמים, לפיכך לא נתקיימו באותו האיש תלמודו.
So it happened with me. Abuyah, my father, was one of the notables of Jerusalem. When he was arranging for my circumcision, he invited all the notables of Jerusalem, among them Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshuah. After they had eaten and drunk, they began to clap their hands and dance. Some of the notables sang songs, and others composed alphabetical acrostics. Rabbi Eliezer said to Rabbi Yehoshuah: These are occupied with what interests them: shall we not occupy ourselves with what interests us? They began to speak words of Torah, and from the Torah to the Prophets, and from the Prophets to the Writings. And fire came down from heaven and surrounded them. At that point Abuyah said to them: My masters, have you come to set my house afire over me? They replied: God forbid! We were merely sitting and stringing words of Torah, then from the Torah we went on to the Prophets, and from the Prophets to the Writings. The words were as joyful as when they were given at Sinai. For when originally given at Sinai, they were given in the midst of fire, as is said: “The mountain burned with fire unto the heart of heaven'” (Devarim 4:11). Elated, my father Abuyah remarked, “My masters, since the power of Torah is so great, if this child stays alive for me, I will dedicate him to the Torah.” But because the intent of my father's resolve was not for the sake of Heaven, my study of Torah did not endure with me.
Think about what Elisha ben Avuyah is saying about himself. He felt inauthentic. From the moment he was brought into the Jewish Nation it was lo lishem shomayim. He was two people. The great Torah scholar and one of the leaders of his generation and at the very same time he felt like a faker.
This explains why the Gemara (Chagigah 15b) says that even before Acher went off the derech he was already exhibiting tendencies that were inappropriate.
אחר מאי זמר יווני לא פסק מפומיה אמרו עליו על אחר בשעה שהיה עומד מבית המדרש הרבה ספרי מינין נושרין מחיקו
The Gemara explains: Aḥer, what was his failing? Greek tunes never ceased from his mouth. He would constantly hum Greek songs, even when he was among the Sages. This shows that from the outset he was drawn to gentile culture and beliefs. Similarly, they said about Aḥer: When he would stand after learning in the study hall, many heretical books, which he had been reading, would fall from his lap. Therefore, he was somewhat unsound even when among the Sages.
It is clear that even while Elisha ben Avuyah was in the Beis Medrash, he thought of himself as two different people. It is no wonder that eventually he believed in multiple Gods.
(fill in title)
Knowing that Elisha ben Avuyah lived in a state of conflict we can better understand the story of the bas kol.
On Yom Kippur the essence of the day is what brings us atonement (see Rabam Hilchos Teshuva 1:3). Yom Kippur is called Shabbos Shabbason. The essence of the week is Shabbos and Yom Kippur is the essence of the essence (hence the double lashon of Shabbos). When Yom Kippur falls out on Shabbos it is the essence of the essence of the essence. This was the day that Elisha ben Avuyah found himself at the Kodesh Hakedoshim.
Yerushalayim is the essence of the world. The Beis HaMikdash is the essence of Yerushalayim. The Kodesh Hakedoshim is the essence of the Beis HaMikdash. So not only in time but also in space, Elisha ben Avuyah is confronting the most inner nature of his essence.
Elsha ben Avuyah did not randomly end up at the Kodesh Hakedoshim on Yom Kippur. His soul drew him there. So then how it could be that while confronting the essence of his being he heard a bas kol that said his teshuva would not be accepted? Especially on a day like Yom Kippur that speaks the pure essence that lives inside of all of us?
Rav Soloveitchik zt"l explains that Acher misunderstood the bas kol. Acher could not return, but Elisha ben Avuyah could. (See "The Rav Speaks," page 193) We all have a part of ourselves that is "acher." This is the part that stands in the way of our relationship to God. In the most essential place in the world, at the most essential time in the world, Elisha ben Avuyha heard a message that his essence remained pure even after all of the aveiros he had done. Elisha ben Avuyah could return to God! All he would have to do is leave the Acher behind.
Sadly, sometimes even when we are being told we are welcome back, we can only hear rejection. No matter how many times his talmid Rav Meir told him that he could return he could not see it. In the mind of Elisha ben Avuyah he had become the acher. On some level, he thought that was what he always was.
At the end of his life Elisha ben Avuyah fell ill and Rav Meir went to visit him. In his last moments on earth Rav Meir implored Elisha to do Teshuva. Elisha asked Rav Meir, "Having gone so far will I be accepted?" Rav Meir responded by quoting the passuk from Tehillim (90:3), "You turn man to contrition" which indicates that until we die our Teshuva can be accepted. Elisha ben Avuyah began to weep and so he died. Rav Meir rejoiced in his heart, saying, "My master seems to have departed in repentance."
Only at the very end of his life, when everything else was stripped away and all that was left was the essence of his being was Elisha finally able to understand that he was not defined by his actions. God would always welcome him back. All he needed to do was leave his acher behind.
Reish Lakish and Rav Yochanan
Knowing the story of Elisha ben Avuyah helps us understand another puzzling story as well.
The Gemara in Baba Metzia (84a) tells us how Reish Lakish met his Rebbe, Rav Yochanan.
יומא חד הוה קא סחי ר' יוחנן בירדנא חזייה ריש לקיש ושוור לירדנא אבתריה אמר ליה חילך לאורייתא אמר ליה שופרך לנשי א"ל אי הדרת בך יהיבנא לך אחותי דשפירא מינאי קביל עליה בעי למיהדר לאתויי מאניה ולא מצי הדר
The Gemara relates: One day, Rabbi Yoḥanan was bathing in the Jordan River. Reish Lakish saw him and jumped into the Jordan, pursuing him. At that time, Reish Lakish was the leader of a band of marauders. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to Reish Lakish: Your strength is fit for Torah study. Reish Lakish said to him: Your beauty is fit for women. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: If you return to the pursuit of Torah, I will give you my sister in marriage, who is more beautiful than I am. Reish Lakish accepted upon himself to study Torah. Subsequently, Reish Lakish wanted to jump back out of the river to bring back his clothes, but he was unable to return, as he had lost his physical strength as soon as he accepted the responsibility to study Torah upon himself.
This is indeed a difficult story to understand.
Reish Lakish at this point in the story is not the Reish Lakish we have to come to know throughout our lives. He was the leader of a group of bandits. Reish Lakish jumps into the river with intent to do to harm to Rav Yochanan who he thought was a woman. Given the circumstances, the dialogue between Reish Lakish and Rav Yochanan is very odd.
Rav Yochanan, seeing Reish Lakish's power, tells him that he ought to devote his strength to Torah. Reish Lakish responds by saying that the beauty of Rav Yochanan is more suited for women. The conversation finishes with Rav Yochanan offering his sisters hand in marriage if only he will turn his life around.
What is going on here? Most of us would run if someone jumped into a river to attack us. Why does Rav Yochanan engage Reish Lakish in conversation?
Rav Yochanan tells Reish Lakish to devote himself to Torah. Reish Lakish responds by telling Rav Yochanan that his beauty is for women. Why is that his response? What does one have to do with the other? Why not simply say, no?
And why would Rav Yochanan offer his sisters hand in marriage to someone who just attempted to harm him? I understand the power of teshuva but Reish Lakish had not even done teshuva yet.
Just as Elisha ben Avuyah was two people so was Reish Lakish. Rav Yochanan saw the power of Reish Lakish and said to him, "I believe that inside of you there is a better version of yourself." Use the power you have been given to become that person.
But Reish Lakish was the person who had heard so many negative things about himself from so many different people. He could not hear the sweetness of what Rav Yochanan was saying to him. To Reish Lakish it was just another Rebbe telling him that he was in the wrong place doing the wrong thing. So he responded by telling Rav Yochanan, I am not the only one who is out of place. You too Rav Yochanan are a misfit. After all, your beauty is better suited for women.
Rav Yochanan was a Rebbe who was able to see Reish Lakish's pain. He understood that for so long the world had told Reish Lakish that he didn't belong in our community. So he said to Reish Lakish, No, I actually mean it. I see inside of you that there is a better version of yourself. We want you in our community. You could even marry my own sister.
At this point the Gemara tells us that Reish Lakish lost all of his powers. Whereas beforehand Reish Lakish was a powerful marauder, the sweetness of Rav Yochanan's words changed him. His power was sapped. It was the first time that anyone had told Reish Lakish that he belonged. The acher was gone. In its place was the true Reish Lakish who would go on to marry Rav Yochanan's sister and become a Talmid Chacham of the highest caliber and a leader of the generation.
Happily Never After
Sadly the story is not yet over and it doesn't end happily.
יומא חד הוו מפלגי בי מדרשא הסייף והסכין והפגיון והרומח ומגל יד ומגל קציר מאימתי מקבלין טומאה משעת גמר מלאכתן ומאימתי גמר מלאכתן רבי יוחנן אמר משיצרפם בכבשן ריש לקיש אמר משיצחצחן במים א"ל לסטאה בלסטיותיה ידע אמר ליה ומאי אהנת לי התם רבי קרו לי הכא רבי קרו לי אמר ליה אהנאי לך דאקרבינך תחת כנפי השכינה חלש דעתיה דרבי יוחנן חלש ריש לקיש אתאי אחתיה קא בכיא אמרה ליה עשה בשביל בני אמר לה (ירמיהו מט, יא) עזבה יתומיך אני אחיה עשה בשביל אלמנותי אמר לה (ירמיהו מט, יא) ואלמנותיך עלי תבטח נח נפשיה דר' שמעון בן לקיש והוה קא מצטער ר' יוחנן בתריה טובא אמרו רבנן מאן ליזיל ליתביה לדעתיה ניזיל רבי אלעזר בן פדת דמחדדין שמעתתיה אזל יתיב קמיה כל מילתא דהוה אמר רבי יוחנן אמר ליה תניא דמסייעא לך אמר את כבר לקישא בר לקישא כי הוה אמינא מילתא הוה מקשי לי עשרין וארבע קושייתא ומפריקנא ליה עשרין וארבעה פרוקי וממילא רווחא שמעתא ואת אמרת תניא דמסייע לך אטו לא ידענא דשפיר קאמינא הוה קא אזיל וקרע מאניה וקא בכי ואמר היכא את בר לקישא היכא את בר לקישא והוה קא צוח עד דשף דעתיה [מיניה] בעו רבנן רחמי עליה ונח נפשיה
One day the Sages of the study hall were engaging in a dispute concerning the following baraita: With regard to the sword, the knife, the dagger [vehapigyon], the spear, a hand sickle, and a harvest sickle, from when are they susceptible to ritual impurity? The baraita answers: It is from the time of the completion of their manufacture, which is the halakha with regard to metal vessels in general. These Sages inquired: And when is the completion of their manufacture? Rabbi Yoḥanan says: It is from when one fires these items in the furnace. Reish Lakish said: It is from when one scours them in water, after they have been fired in the furnace. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to Reish Lakish: A bandit knows about his banditry, i.e., you are an expert in weaponry because you were a bandit in your youth. Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yoḥanan: What benefit did you provide me by bringing me close to Torah? There, among the bandits, they called me: Leader of the bandits, and here, too, they call me: Leader of the bandits. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: I provided benefit to you, as I brought you close to God, under the wings of the Divine Presence. As a result of the quarrel, Rabbi Yoḥanan was offended, which in turn affected Reish Lakish, who fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan’s sister, who was Reish Lakish’s wife, came crying to Rabbi Yoḥanan, begging that he pray for Reish Lakish’s recovery. She said to him: Do this for the sake of my children, so that they should have a father. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to her the verse: “Leave your fatherless children, I will rear them” (Jeremiah 49:11), i.e., I will take care of them. She said to him: Do so for the sake of my widowhood. He said to her the rest of the verse: “And let your widows trust in Me.” Ultimately, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, Reish Lakish, died. Rabbi Yoḥanan was sorely pained over losing him. The Rabbis said: Who will go to calm Rabbi Yoḥanan’s mind and comfort him over his loss? They said: Let Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat go, as his statements are sharp, i.e., he is clever and will be able to serve as a substitute for Reish Lakish.
Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat went and sat before Rabbi Yoḥanan. With regard to every matter that Rabbi Yoḥanan would say, Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat would say to him: There is a ruling which is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Are you comparable to the son of Lakish? In my discussions with the son of Lakish, when I would state a matter, he would raise twenty-four difficulties against me in an attempt to disprove my claim, and I would answer him with twenty-four answers, and the halakha by itself would become broadened and clarified. And yet you say to me: There is a ruling which is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Do I not know that what I say is good? Being rebutted by Reish Lakish served a purpose; your bringing proof to my statements does not.
Rabbi Yoḥanan went around, rending his clothing, weeping and saying: Where are you, son of Lakish? Where are you, son of Lakish? Rabbi Yoḥanan screamed until his mind was taken from him, i.e., he went insane. The Rabbis prayed and requested for God to have mercy on him and take his soul, and Rabbi Yoḥanan died.
To sum up: Reish Lakish and Rav Yochanan disagreed as to when weaponry is mekabel tumah. Rav Yochanan brought up Reish Lakish's youth and said the bandit knows his trade. Reish Lakish responded by saying that he was called a leader by the other bandits and he is called a leader in Klal Yisrael. What benefit does he have from being a leader in Klal Yisrael. Rav Yochanan refused to learn or even to speak with Reish Lakish as he perceived that Reish Lakish did not value being part of Klal Yisrael. Without his Rebbe, Reish Lakish fell ill and died. Without his student, Rav Yochanan found no one to learn with and went insane. Ultimately, he too passed away.
Again, we are puzzled by this story. Did Reish Lakish not value being a Talmid Chacham? If that is indeed true then why would he become ill from losing his relationship with his Rebbe?
Perhaps we can suggest that Reish Lakish's whole existence was predicated on having a Rebbe who believed in him. As long as Rav Yochanan saw him as so much more than the bandit he was as a young man, he was able to come close to God. But when Rav Yochanan brought up the sins of his youth, it felt to Reish Lakish as if his Rebbe no longer believed in him. Even though he was already a recognized leader in Klal Yisrael he felt as if he would forever be a bandit in everyone's eyes.
So he responded to Rav Yochanan, I did not derive any benefit from becoming a leader in Klal Yisrael. I was already considered a leader of the other bandits. The subtext is, I did this because you, Rav Yochanan, believed in me. I did not do it for honor. It was because I finally found a Rebbe in my life who saw me as more than a terrible person.
Rav Yochanan heard the words of Reish Lakish but he did not hear the subtext. He believes that Reish Lakish doesn't value being a Jew. As such he refuses to speak with him. But Reish Lakish could not live without his Rebbe. Without someone who believes in you, who reminds you to be the best version of yourself, what is the point of life. The pain for Reish Lakish was more than he could bare and he tragically passed away. So wrapped up was his existence with his Rebbe, Rav Yochanan.
And in an ironic twist of fate, just as the talmid cannot live without the Rebbe, the Rebbe cannot live without the talmid. Reish Lakish would challenge Rav Yochanan. That is who Reish Lakish was. He was a fighter. Just as he was powerful as a bandit, he was powerful in the Beis Medrash. With a chevrusa like Reish Lakish, Rav Yochanan was able to sharpen his ideas until they were absolutely true. Without Reish Lakish, Rav Yochanan went insane. The pain for Rav Yochanan was more than he could bare and he tragically passed away. So wrapped up was his existence with his talmid, Reish Lakish.
The message is obvious. We all need that Rebbe in our life who reminds us of the truest version of ourselves. They see past the things we do, to the person we can be. They believe in us even when we don't believe in ourselves. Rav Meir never gave up on Elisha ben Avuyah. As soon as Rav Yochanan gave up on Reisk Lakish his life was over.
Reish Lakish and Rav Meir
At this point you may be asking yourself, aside from the thematic connection between these two stories, is there a reason we needed to know both of them? Wouldn't one have been enough to make this point?
Let us journey back to the Gemara in Chaggigah (15a) reagrding Rav Meir and Elisha ben Avuyah. Was Rav Meir correct in continuing to learn Torah from his Rebbe who had strayed off the derech?
ור"מ היכי גמר תורה מפומיה דאחר והאמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן מאי דכתיב (מלאכי ב, ז) כי שפתי כהן ישמרו דעת ותורה יבקשו מפיהו כי מלאך ה' צבאות הוא אם דומה הרב למלאך ה' צבאות יבקשו תורה מפיהו ואם לאו אל יבקשו תורה מפיהו
The Gemara poses a question: And Rabbi Meir, how could he learn Torah from the mouth of Aḥer? But didn’t Rabba bar bar Ḥana say that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek Torah from his mouth; for he is an angel of the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 2:7)? The verse teaches: If the rabbi is similar to an angel of the Lord of hosts, perfect in his ways, they should seek Torah from his mouth; but if not, they should not seek Torah from his mouth.
אמר ר"ל ר"מ קרא אשכח ודרש (משלי כב, יז) הט אזנך ושמע דברי חכמים ולבך תשית לדעתי לדעתם לא נאמר אלא לדעתי
Reish Lakish said: Rabbi Meir found a verse and interpreted it homiletically: “Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply your heart to My knowledge” (Proverbs 22:17). It does not state “to their knowledge,” but “to My knowledge.” In other words, one must listen to the words of the Sages, despite their flaws, provided that their opinion concurs with that of God.
It is no surprise that it is Reish Lakish who defends Rav Meir. From the perspective of Rav Yochanan, if the person is not behaving appropriately then one cannot engage with that person. Rav Yochanan is consistent in his approach. When he perceived that Reish Lakish had gone off, he disengaged no matter the cost. But Reish Lakish knows that people are complex. Just because they are not doing the right thing doesn't mean they don't have what to offer. Provided that what he says is true, you can even learn from those who are not acting in line with the will of God. Reish Lakish knows this to be true because he knew it about himself.
Now that we have a more comprehensive understanding of Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish we can return to Noach. Was he a tzaddik or not? As we look at the entirety of the Gemara, we will not be shocked by what we see.
אלה תולדות נח [נח איש צדיק תמים היה בדורותיו] א"ר יוחנן בדורותיו ולא בדורות אחרים וריש לקיש אמר בדורותיו כ"ש בדורות אחרים
With regard to the verse: “These are the generations of Noah; Noah was a righteous man, and wholehearted in his generations” (Genesis 6:9), Rabbi Yoḥanan says: Relative to the other people of his generation he was righteous and wholehearted, but not relative to those of other generations. And Reish Lakish says: In his generation he was righteous and wholehearted despite being surrounded by bad influences; all the more so would he have been considered righteous and wholehearted in other generations.
Once again we find Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish taking similar positions. Rav Yochanan sees Noach for who he is. Great in his generation but relative to other generations he would not have been considered a Tzaddik.
Reish Lakish looks beyond the actions of Noach. A man who can maintain his integrity in the Dor Hambul would surely thrive in more righteous generations. He had even greater potential then his current actions dictated. All he needed was someone who could bring it out of him.
With this in mind we can now understand why Noachis referred to as a man of little faith.
Learn the holy teaching of Rav Levi Yiztchak of Berdichev:
אך נדקדק בפירוש רש"י ז"ל אף נח מקטני אמנה היה האיך יכול להיות זה כי הכתוב מעיד עליו נח איש צדיק תמים היה בדורותיו. ועוד קשה למה לא היה מתפלל נח לבטל הגזירה... ונח הגם שהיה צדיק גדול ותמים היה קטן בעיניו מאוד ולא היה לו אמונה בעצמו שהוא צדיק מושל ויכול לבטל הגזירה אדרבה היה חשוב בעיניו כשאר הדור והיה חושב אם אני אהיה ניצול בתיבה ואני אין צדיק יותר משאר הדור המה גם כן ינצלו לכן לא היה מתפלל על הדור. וזה שפירש רש"י אף נח מקטני אמנה היה, רצה לומר נח היה קטן בעיניו באמונה שהוא צדיק תמים שיכול לבטל הגזירה שלא היה חשוב בעיני עצמו כלום. וזהו פירוש והנני משחיתם את הארץ, רצה לומר הנני אעשה כרצוני כי לא יש צדיק שמתפלל לבטל הגזירה לכן אני משחיתם את הארץ. ואחר כך אמר ואני הנני מקים את בריתי אתכם, רצה לומר אף על פי שאין הצדיק מתפלל לבטל הגזירה אף על פי כן הנני מקים את בריתי אתכם:
Having said all this, we are faced with the question why according to Rashi, (Genesis 7,7) Noach was of a category described by our sages as קטני אמונה, “lacking in adequate faith.” How could a man be described as perfectly righteous, צדיק תמים, and at the same time display a lack of faith in the Lord? Another question we must ask is why Noach, if he did not feel that rebuking his peers would help, did not at least pray for his fellow human beings prior to the deluge?
Noach, far from being a boastful individual, proclaiming himself as a major deity, was the very opposite, a humble person, to whom it would not have occurred that a prayer of his would influence G’d to reverse a decree which He had certainly not arrived at without first having agonized over it. [He even told Noach that He would delay execution of this decree for up to 120 years, this is why He told Noach when he was 480 years old to start building the ark. Ed.] It was because he did not consider himself as especially righteous, that he reasoned that just as he would be saved, so there must be numerous other people of similar stature who would also be saved. When G’d noticed this, He told Noach (Genesis 6,13) that He would have to proceed with His intention to destroy the human race as there was no one who had tried to intercede on their behalf. Nonetheless, He made plain to Noach, that although he had not interceded on behalf of his fellow humans, He would maintain the existing covenant between G’d and mankind through Noach and his family.
Noach had no trouble believing in God. The problem was that he didn't believe in himself. נח היה קטן בעיניו באמונה שהוא צדיק תמים שיכול לבטל הגזירה שלא היה חשוב בעיני עצמו כלום. Noach did not consider himself a Tzaddik at all. He did not believe that he could break the decree against the generation. He did not believe that he was any different from anyone else. Why should he be saved and they be destroyed?
But in truth there were two versions of Noach. This is why the Torah says the word Noach twice. The Noach that he was and the Noach that he could have been. He was different. He could have saved the generation. If only he had a Rebbe who taught him that there was an even deeper dimension to himself than he realized.
Finally we can understand the two difficulties we had with Rashi above.
Rashi is giving us a phenomenal insight into the nature of a Rebbe.
Rashi switches the order of the Gemara. First Rashi addresses those that are truly Rabbeim. When a real Rebbe sees his talmid he sees him for what he can be, not only for who he is. They are "doresh" their talmidim with positivity. They praise them knowing that they are bringing out their best. They challenge the talmid to see new dimensions of themselves. This is what Rashi means when he says יש מרבותינו דורשים אותו לשבח. These are the Rabbeim who tell their talmidim, look how great you are even in our lowly generation, could you imagine what you would be if you lived in an even loftier generation?
On the other hand, there are those that are שדורשים לגנאי. Rashi does not call them Rabboseinu. He speaks about these people second. These are the people that see others only for what they are and not for what they could be. They are afraid to challenge their talmidim because in truth they don't think they can do it. They tell their talmidim, you can't even imagine how lowly this generation is. You think you are great? If you were in a previous generation you would not have ranked at all. And it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Tell a talmid enough times that they are a zero and that is exactly what they will become. (The famed actor Zero Mostel was actually born Shmuel Yoel. He took the name zero for the stage because that was his nickname. His mother coined the nickname "Zero", noting that if he continued to do poorly at school, he would amount to a zero.)
Moshe and Noach - A Second Chance
The Ari z”l in Sha’ar Hagilgulim says that Moshe is a gilgul of Noach. (See also Midrash Yelamdeynu and Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer for even earlier sources that discuss the Moshe/Noach connection.) This can be seen from the passuk in Bereishis (6:3) which says:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהֹוָ֗ה לֹֽא־יָד֨וֹן רוּחִ֤י בָֽאָדָם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ם בְּשַׁגָּ֖ם ה֣וּא בָשָׂ֑ר וְהָי֣וּ יָמָ֔יו מֵאָ֥ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֖ים שָׁנָֽה
"And the Lord said, "Let My spirit not quarrel forever concerning man, because he is also flesh, and his days shall be a hundred and twenty years."
The Medrash teaches that the word בשגם is the same Gematria as Moshe. With this in mind the passuk reads and Moshe was in the flesh at the time of the flood.
In truth, Moshe and Noach led almost parallel lives.
Both Noach and Moshe are connected to the concept of a Teivah:
Noach was commanded to build a Tevah to save his life:
עֲשֵׂ֤ה לְךָ֙ תֵּבַ֣ת עֲצֵי־גֹ֔פֶר קִנִּ֖ים תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֣ה אֶת־הַתֵּבָ֑ה וְכָֽפַרְתָּ֥ אֹתָ֛הּ מִבַּ֥יִת וּמִח֖וּץ בַּכֹּֽפֶר
"Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with compartments, and you shall caulk it both inside and outside with pitch." (Bereishis 6:14)
Moshe was put into a Tevah to spare his life from the Egyptians.
וְלֹא־יָֽכְלָ֣ה עוֹד֘ הַצְּפִינוֹ֒ וַתִּקַח־לוֹ֙ תֵּ֣בַת גֹּ֔מֶא וַתַּחְמְרָ֥ה בַֽחֵמָ֖ר וּבַזָּ֑פֶת וַתָּ֤שֶׂם בָּהּ֙ אֶת־הַיֶּ֔לֶד וַתָּ֥שֶׂם בַּסּ֖וּף עַל־שְׂפַ֥ת הַיְאֹֽר:
"[When] she could no longer hide him, she took [for] him a reed basket, smeared it with clay and pitch, placed the child into it, and put [it] into the marsh at the Nile's edge." (Shemos 2:3)
Both Noach and Moshe are connected to the number 40.
For Noach the rain lasted forty days and forty nights.
וַיְהִ֥י הַגֶּ֖שֶׁם עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ אַרְבָּעִ֣ים י֔וֹם וְאַרְבָּעִ֖ים לָֽיְלָה:
"And the rain was upon the earth for forty days and forty nights." (Bereishis 7:12)
Moshe spent forty days and forty nights with God on Har Sinai.
וַיְהִי־שָׁ֣ם עִם־יְהֹוָ֗ה אַרְבָּעִ֥ים יוֹם֙ וְאַרְבָּעִ֣ים לַ֔יְלָה לֶ֚חֶם לֹ֣א אָכַ֔ל וּמַ֖יִם לֹ֣א שָׁתָ֑ה וַיִּכְתֹּ֣ב עַל־הַלֻּחֹ֗ת אֵ֚ת דִּבְרֵ֣י הַבְּרִ֔ית עֲשֶׂ֖רֶת הַדְּבָרִֽים
“Moshe remained there with God for 40 days and 40 nights” (Shemot 34:28).
Most significantly, both Moshe and Noach are faced with the destruction of their generation.
Noach did as God commanded him to do but did not attempt to save his generation. He did not daven on their behalf.
Moshe pleads with God for his generation to be saved saying:
וְעַתָּ֖ה אִם־תִּשָּׂ֣א חַטָּאתָ֑ם וְאִם־אַ֕יִן מְחֵ֣נִי נָ֔א מִסִּפְרְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֥ר כָּתָֽבְתָּ
"And now, if You forgive their sin But if not, erase me now from Your book, which You have written." (Shemos 32:32)
Moshe Rabbeinu, as the tikkun for Noach, is ready to have his entire life's work erased rather than see the destruction of Klal Yisrael.
As the Arizal points out, the word מְחֵ֣נִי, erase, is the same letters as מי נח.
Whereas Noach did not believe in himself to save the generation, Moshe did. Even when he was living in the palace of Pharaoh, Moshe knew that he was so much more than an Egyptian prince. He believes in himself so he believes in Klal Yisrael. This is the tikkun for Noach.
The Ramban had a disciple, Avner, who strayed from the path of observant Judaism, left his community, and became an important official in the government.
One Yom Kippur, Avner sent guards to the synagogue, ordering the Ramban to appear before him. In his palace, before the eyes of his former teacher and master, Avner slaughtered a pig, roasted it, and ate it on this holiest of fast days.
The Ramban couldn’t contain his anguish and cried, “What caused you to fall so low?! What compelled you to abandon the holy teachings of your ancestors?”
“It was you, my master!” Avner roared derisively. “Your teachings completely disillusioned me and caused me to reject Judaism.
“You were once teaching the Torah portion of Haazinu,” he explained. “You taught us that in this brief Torah portion of fifty-two verses, the Torah encodes all the details of the long history of the Jewish people until the coming of Moshiach. You claimed, too, that encoded in its verses are the names of every Jew to have ever lived.
“This is obviously preposterous!” Thundered Avner. “How could 4000 years of history and millions of names be compressed in 614 words?”
“What I said is absolutely true,” declared the Ramban.
“If so, then I must be found there too. Where is my name and where is my fate?”
The Ramban’s expression grew serious. He prayed silently to G‑d to reveal this secret.
“Your name, Avner, can be found in verse twenty-six.
אָמַ֖רְתִּי אַפְאֵיהֶ֑ם אַשְׁבִּ֥יתָה מֵֽאֱנ֖וֹשׁ זִכְרָֽם
"I said that I would make an end of them, eradicate their remembrance from mankind." (Devarim 32:26)
The third letter in each word spells out your name! Amarti AfEihem (Aleph) AshBita (Beit) Me’eNosh (Nun) ZichRom (Reish).”
In this passuk, G‑d is rebuking the Jewish people for turning away from the path of the Torah and becoming so evil that He wanted to destroy them.
Avner turned a deathly white and began to wail bitterly.
“Is there any hope for me?” he begged. “Is there anything that I can do to rectify my terrible sins?”
The Ramban looked compassionately at his former student. “The verse itself has provided the rectification. It says that G‑d will scatter them till their memory is erased. You must run away, never to be heard from again.”
Avner boarded a ship and was never seen again.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Hisvaadiyus 5742) pointed out a subtle nuance in this story.
What actually made Avner change?
The first word of the passuk (before the name Avner) is Amarti. The third letter of the word Amarti is Resh which would actually spell out R" Avner.
Though Avner led a life that was completely contrary to Torah, the Ramban still showed him that he had the capacity to be not just Avner but Rav Avner. If only he would look deep inside of himself and discover his true essence then he could change his ways.
This is why the Ramban had such an impact on his talmid. Given the opportunity to give mussar to his talmid he chose to raise him up and challenge him to be the person that the Ramban believed he could be. That the Torah showed him he could be. In this way he brought his talmid back into the fold.