In this week’s Torah portion (Genesis 6:9-11:32) we read the story of Noah and the Flood.
These divrei Torah were adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Tapes on the weekly portion: #741, Your Wife’s Medical Bills: Who Pays? Good Shabbos!
The sequence of expression in the opening pasukim [verses] of our parsha [Bereshis 6:9-10] is noteworthy. The Torah begins “And these are the offspring of Noach” (Eleh toldos Noach), which would lead us to expect that we will be immediately told the names of Noach’s children. However, the Torah first says, “Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations.” Only after that does the Torah continue, “Noach had begotten three sons: Shem, Cham, and Yafes.” It seems that the description of Noach’s righteousness is out of place in the narrative. Rashi comments on this unusual sequence and says this teaches that the main offspring (i.e. creations) of righteous people are their good deeds. The true descendants of a Tzadik are not the physical children he leaves behind, but his acts of kindness.
This is truly an amazing statement. Each of us is here because of Noach. What is the greatest legacy that Noach left the world? I would say that the answer is simple: humanity! The fact that there are people in this world is the greatest legacy that Noach could leave. Yet Chazal explain that the pasuk is teaching us that this is not true. Noach’s greatest legacy (as is the case with all Tzadikim) is his good deeds! We are commanded to have children but children are also human beings. They are not eternal. They will die and ultimately leave this world. However, there is something we can do in this world that is eternal and never ceases to exist, namely our good deeds! This is an amazing statement.
The Midrash says that the wife of Noach was Na’amah, a descendant of Kayin. We are told about some of Cain’s other descendants [Bereshis 4:20-22]. One was Yaval, who founded the cattle and shepherd industry, which has been around for thousands of years. Another was Yuval. He was the first musician. A third descendant, Tuval Kayin, was the first metalworker. He fashioned metal into swords. All of these individuals died. The flood wiped out their descendants and their legacies. Na’amah, on the other hand, is the only descendant of Kayin to survive. Why did she survive? Chazal say that she was called Na’amah because her actions were “Naim u’neimim” — they were pleasant and brought pleasure to others.
The point is that accomplishments, even creating major industries, music, and so forth are all fine and good but they are not eternal. They do not last forever. The only thing in this world that is truly eternal is spirituality and good deeds. This is the point of the aforementioned teaching of our Sages: The major offspring of the righteous is their good deeds.
The Rainbow’s Reminder Is For The Sake of Mankind
After the flood, the pasuk says, “I have set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth… And the bow shall be in the cloud, and I will look upon it to remember the everlasting covenant between G-d and every living being, among all flesh that is on earth.” [Bereshis 9:13-16]. The Torah herein states that after the flood, G-d made a promise that He would never again destroy the world through a flood. Apparently, the Almighty needed a reminder that He made such a promise. Therefore, He created the phenomenon of a rainbow. Whenever He gets very angry at the world and is tempted to destroy it again with another flood, He has — as it were — this “string around His finger”. He looks at the rainbow and reminds Himself of His promise.
This simple reading of the psukim is both patently ridiculous and heretical. G-d does not need reminders or strings around His finger, as it were. What is the true meaning of these pasukim?
Rashi and the Seforno explain what this really means. The Almighty is doing the world a tremendous favor. He uses the rainbow to send a message to humanity that He is once again very angry at the world. The Almighty does not need a rainbow in the sky as a reminder. We need a reminder. We look at the rainbow and we are supposed to take note that it is a time of Anger before the Almighty. At such times, we should think that the Almighty is so angry at the world that were it not for His Promise, He would again destroy the world. Therefore, we should hasten to repent and do Teshuva.
The Sforno writes that when the righteous see the rainbow and are therefore motivated to pray and repent, they stand in the breech so that they may appease the Almighty’s Anger and temptation to destroy humanity.
The Ramban cites a passage from Tractate Chagiga [16a] that one should not stare at a rainbow and one who does so, it is fitting that he not have come into this world. What is the meaning of this Gemara? The rainbow is a beautiful thing. What is wrong with looking at it? In the “Confession of Rav Amram Gaon” one of the items for which we “confess our sins” on Yom Kippur is that “we stared at a rainbow”. What is the problem with looking at a rainbow?
Rav Simcha Zissel – in his writings – says a very interesting thing. When we see a rainbow, our reaction is “beautiful”. We admire the colors, the shape, the impact, and so forth. We admire the rainbow and are inspired by it.
Consider the audacity of this typical reaction. G-d is Angry. He is placing a rainbow in the sky as a message to us to get serious, to repent, and beseech His Mercy. What is our reaction? “Beautiful!” This is the great chutzpah of staring admiringly at a rainbow.
Rav Zissel compares the situation to a father who was terribly angry with his child and who raised his hand to strike him. The father is livid and his expression manifests extreme dissatisfaction to his child. The kid looks up and is amused or entertained by his father’s facial expression. Such a reaction will anger the father even more. That is the situation with our reaction of admiration and pleasure at the rainbow’s beauty.
Rav Zissel takes issue with a comment of the Mishneh Berura who quotes in the name of Chayei Adam that one who sees a rainbow should not tell this to his friend. Rav Zissel says he does not understand the logic in this. If one sees a rainbow, he argues, that should inspire us to repent and to get others to repent as well. On the contrary, one should alert as many people as possible to the presence of the rainbow so that they too will be able to take proper spiritual action.
The Gemara [Brachos 59a] says that the purpose of thunder is to put the fear of G-d into people’s hearts. When the Chofetz Chaim used to hear thunder, besides making the appropriate blessing, he used to say, “What does Father want?”
A rainbow should generate an even more dramatic action on our part. In our lifetime, we have seen many more dramatic “klaps” in terms of historical occurrences than both thunder and rainbows put together. Under these circumstances, it is our responsibility to emulate the Chofetz Chaim and say: “What does Father want from us?”
In Parshas Noach, the Torah states: “Go into the tayva, you and all your family, for you I have seen as righteous before Me in this generation.” [Bereshis 7:1] Rashi comments that the Parsha begins [Bereshis 6:9] with the words “And Noach was a COMPLETELY righteous person (tzadik tamim) in his generation.” However, here when Hashem tells Noach to enter tayva, He merely calls Noach righteous, not completely righteous. This teaches, Rashi says, that it is appropriate to only say part of a person’s praise in his presence, saving the full description of praise for a time when the person is not present.
This Rashi is based on the Talmud [Eruvin 18b] which states this prinicple in the name of Rav Yirmiya ben Elazar. As a matter of fact, this is not the only place in Chumash where Rashi invokes this teaching. Rashi mentions the exact same idea in Parshas Beha’aloscha. Miriam and Aharon have problems with the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu separated from his wife. G-d addresses them critically regarding the fact that they spoke against their brother, but He first told them to step outside. Rashi [Bamdibar 12:5] attributes the reason that G-d told them to step outside, away from the presence of Moshe, to the fact that He wanted to emphasize the uniqueness of Moshe to them and “one says only part of the praise of a person in his presence and all of his praise when the person is not present.” In describing to Aharon and Miriam who their brother was, the Almighty was going to spare no detail. He described “all his praises.” Therefore, the message had to be delivered away from Moshe’s presence. This Rashi in Beha’aloscha, which is almost identical to the Rashi here in Parshas Noach, is based on a teaching in the Sifrei in the name of Rav Elazar ben Azarya.
Rav Elazar ben Azarya is a Tanna (sage of the Mishnaic period). He taught the principle of “saying part of the praise of a person in his presence and all the praise of a person not in his presence.” Rav Yirmiya ben Elazar (the source of this teaching in Tractate Eruvin) was only an Amora (sage of the later Talmudic period). He was, in fact, a latter day Amora. The question can therefore be asked: What was Rav Yirmiya ben Elazar adding — several generations later — to what was already taught by Rav Elazar ben Azarya many years earlier?
Furthermore, we should note that in our Parsha, Rashi’s expression is “From here we learn…” (m’kaan anu lomdim). In Parshas Beha’aloscha, Rashi’s language is “Because we say…” (l’fi she’omrim). What is the difference between these two expressions?
I saw what I think is a beautiful answer to these questions in a Sefer called Heimah Yenachamuni from the current Tolner Rebbe in Jerusalem. He asks whether the principle of saying all of a person’s praise in his absence and part of his praise in his presence is an “issur” or a “mitzvah”. Another way to express this is — is the emphasis “do not say all of a person’s praises in his presence” (a prohibition) or is the emphasis to say the praises of a person (mitzvah), but we are advised that when we say them in front of him, we should only say part of the praises.
Rav Elazar ben Azarya in the Sifrei (quoted by Rashi in Beha’aloscha) and Rav Yirmiya ben Elazar in Eruvin (quoted by Rashi here in Noach) were speaking about two different things. Rav Elazar ben Azarya was speaking about a case where the Almighty had to set the record straight. He had to say compliments about Moshe Rabbeinu to impress upon Aharon and Miriam his true nature. Therefore, Hashem took them outside so they would be away from Moshe’s presence. But this narrative gives us no indication that it is appropriate to say nice things to a person (the idea of “partial compliments in his presence”). There the emphasis is on saying “complete compliments outside his presence”. Therefore Rashi explains there why they were asked to step outside: “Because one does not say complete praise in the presence of the subject”.
In Noach, however, we see something else. G-d could have merely told him “Come inside the Ark”. The sentence could have ended there. But the Almighty adds something: “For you I have seen to be a righteous person before Me in this generation.” This superfluous expression teaches us something new: “From here we see that it is part of the Attributes of G-d to give compliments.”
No matter who one is, no matter how successful and how acclaimed a person may be, everyone likes a compliment. A compliment does something for a person. It strengthens him. This is the novelty that Rav Yirmiya ben Elazar is teaching us from Parshas Noach. “From here we see that one says (partial) praise to a person.” This idea was not found in Parshas Beha’aloscha and it was not taught by Rav Elazar ben Azarya.
It could in fact be that this “compliment” of the Almighty to Noach was the key to Noach’s salvation. The Midrash Rabbah in Tehillim indicates that it was Noach who spoke the words: “Thou wilt destroy those that speak lies; the man of blood and deceit the L-rd abhors. But as for me — due to the magnitude of Your kindness I will enter Your house:…” [Tehillim 5:7-8]. …The Midrash says that Noach says “As they (the generation of the flood) did, so did I.” In other words, “I was as bad as they were”. (The Talmud in Sanhedrin teaches a similar idea, that really Noach himself should also have died in the Flood, based on personal shortcomings.) But Noach adds (according to the Medrash) that God did him a favor and therefore “I — due to the magnitude of Your kindness — will come into your house” “Because”, Noach says, “You told me that ‘You I have found to be righteous before me in this generation’, I was motivated to be righteous.” “What made me change,” says Noach, “is that You, Almighty, complimented me. That is why I changed — because of the ‘partial praise’ I heard You say before me.”
Rabbi Gissenger of Lakewood, New Jersey, was a student of Rav Pam and a very distinguished Rav in his own right. Several years ago, his shul honored him at a dinner and they invited Rav Pam to come speak about his disciple. Rav Gissenger was given the honor of introducing his Rebbi. He said, “When I was 16 years old in Rav Pam’s shiur, before we left for the summer, Rav Pam encouraged us to try and write him our Chiddushei Torah (novel Torah-based thoughts) over the summer.” Rabbi Gissenger in fact did that and sent his Torah insights to Rav Pam in the mail. Rav Pam sent him back a postcard in which he wrote, “I enjoyed very much your Chiddushei Torah…” whereupon Rav Gissenger whipped out the postcard that Rav Pam had sent him 30 years earlier!
He kept that postcard. Why did he keep it? He was so inspired and thrilled by the fact that Rav Pam stated he enjoyed his Chiddushei Torah that it made his decade! It inspired him for life! This is what a compliment can do.
“From here we see that one says partial praise of a person to his face” — it is a good, advisable, practice to engage in! This is teaching us a mitzvah (meritorious practice), not an issur (prohibition). It is the behavior of the Almighty and it is a behavior worth emulating. When someone davens for the amud, if he is half decent tell him “Yasher Koach! I enjoyed your davening! Good job!” Give a person a compliment. It won’t cost you anything and it is emulating the ways of the Ribono shel Olam.
By: Rabbi Ari Enkin
For more insights by Rabbi Ari Enkin on this week’s Torah reading, click on the links below: