January 15, 2021   ✦   2 Sh'vat, 5781   ✦   Torah Portion: Vaera, Exodus 6:2-9:35   ✦   Haftorah: Ezekiel 28:25-29:21

Posted on October 20, 2020 (5781) By Rabbi Pinchas Winston | Series: | Level:

The dove returned to him at eventide, and behold it had plucked an olive leaf in its mouth; so Noah knew that the water had abated from upon the earth. (Bereishis 8:11)

FOR THOSE CURRENTLY attending my webinar, “Chaynukah: Finding the Chayn of Chanukah,” this may already seem old hat. But at the very least, it is good review, and more than likely has some additional points not mentioned or emphasized in the webinar.

It is now the month of MarCheshvan for us, and it was for Noach as well when he boarded the ark. The name is really only “Cheshvan,” the but the rabbis added the “mar—bitter” because it is the only month in the Jewish calendar without some kind of holiday or fast day. It was not to give it additional respect by addressing it with “Mr” first.

It is more than just fascinating that the word “bitter” should come up here, since it is an important part of the message of the Flood. It is one that is taught to us by the dove, the bird according to the Talmud that represents the Jewish people, who passed up all kinds of local trees to fly all the way to Eretz Yisroel in search of an olive branch. Apparently, the dove wanted the world to restart on the right track and delivered this message to mankind:

It said: Let my food be as bitter as an olive in the hands of The Holy One, Blessed Is He, and not as sweet as honey in the hands of flesh and blood. (Sanhedrin 108b)

What was the dove saying? He was saying that independence is fine, as long as it doesn’t distance a person from God, as it did to the generation of the Flood. The secret to survival, the dove told Noach, was to never lose sight of the fact that as independent as man may seem, everything he has comes from God. He should appreciate that and always give thanks to God for all of it— 

We give thanks to You that you are God our God, and God of our ancestors forever and ever, Rock of our lives and Shield of our salvation from generation to generation. We give thanks to you and recount your praises, for our lives that are entrusted in your hand, and for our souls that are in your safekeeping, and for your miracles that are with us every day, and for your wonders and good deeds that are with us at all times: evening, morning, and midday. Good One, your mercies never fail us, Compassionate One, your loving kindness never ceases. We always hope in you. (Modim, Shemoneh Esrai)

—a Chanukah message for sure.

Adding the Mem-Raish to Cheshvan is fortuitous for another reason. The extra two letters allow a rearrangement that spell “shomer chayn—guardian of chayn.” This might not have been significant if not for the fact that the Torah ended off last week’s parsha by telling us that this is exactly what Noach was, the shomer chayn. 

It was this very chayn that saved Noach, whose name is the mirror image of chayn, from the destruction that the world suffered in the month of Cheshvan. Given that Cheshvan is the month just in advance of Kislev and the holiday of chayn, Chanukah, there must be some connection.

And to the idea of showing appreciation as well. Unquestionably, there is something very chaynadik about people who seem to appreciate what they have, and make a point of showing it. Little disturbs us more than experiencing ungrateful people, and little disarms us more than interacting with people who see all they have as a blessing. They just seem to radiate a heartwarming light and draw us to them.

If you think about it, it is really the difference between exile and redemption. Before the Jewish people entered Eretz Yisroel the first time, God warned about becoming overconfident and forgetting Him. It happened anyhow, and the Jewish people ended up in exile 850 years later. They lost their chayn, and ended up instead in chain, dragged into the Babylonian empire by Nebuchadnetzar and company. 

Even in exile, they didn’t really get it back. On the contrary, they continued to move further away from God. But redemption harkened, so God, as the Talmud warns (Sanhedrin 97b), raised up Haman who brought the chayn out of them. The threat of extinction humbled the Jewish people, and they spent days fasting and pouring their hearts out to God. Their arrogance faded allowing their chayn to return, and the miracle of Purim followed.

The same thing was true about Mattisyahu and his family of zealots. Their situation, imposed upon them by the Greeks and their Hellenist collaborators, was humbling. And when the profanation of God’s Name became more than he could take, he risked everything to stop it. Little brings out a person’s chayn more than this, and thus was born the beginnings of the holiday of Chanukah. 

And it’s not just that chayn leads to redemption. Chayn IS redemption. We’ve seen this lots of times; we just didn’t take note of it or appreciate what we were seeing. It’s the result of mentality that is the basis of freedom. This is why physically free people can live enslaved, like the Jews who left Egypt and died in the desert, and incarcerated people can often act like free men, despite their situation. Freedom exists first and foremost in the mind.

About 30 years ago when I lived in Har Nof on the outskirts of Jerusalem, my appreciation of showing appreciation was given a dramatic boost. I was on a bus home, and, at some point, when someone got off without thanking the driver, the driver had a mini-fit about how this generation thinks everything is coming to them. Welcome to Israel, where you can learn mussar from bus and taxi drivers.

Though it made the situation awkward somewhat, I knew he was right, and you can be sure that when I got off the bus, I went out of my way to thank him. It could be that he had just been having a bad day, but he was still right about what he said. And I’ve thanked each driver I could since then, among a whole host of others I used to take for granted.

Ten years later, I got another boost. I just happened to be listening to a rabbi give a short drush between Minchah and Ma’ariv, and he was addressing the same topic. Then he asked us, “How many of you have ever thanked the one reading the Torah, whether you had an aliyah or not?” No one answered out loud, but I’m sure than many, like me, answered in the negative.

Some may have argued to themselves that it was their job, what they get paid for, in this world and the next one. But first of all, many “lain” for free, and even if they do get paid, it is usually a fraction of what they should get paid. A lot of work goes into learning and preparing the parsha each week so that the congregants can fulfill their all-important mitzvah of the weekly Torah reading.

I remember the look on the face of the ba’al koreh, the one who reads from the Torah, the first time after I made a point of thanking him. He didn’t know what to do. He was used to people just taking him for granted, and he was fine with that. My “thank you” was like a tip for him, and smiling from side-to-side, he stumbled to say you’re welcome. After that, he expected it from me, and was ready when I gave him a little appreciation for his efforts.

It certainly endears a person to others, and to yourself. I can’t tell you how much enjoyment I get from giving a sincere thank you to someone who has done something worthy of appreciation. I can’t tell you how good I feel when someone does the same. It just feels so…so…uplifting, even if you don’t get a chance to say thank you, but know you wish you had.

But the dove is saying more than this. He doesn’t just say that you have to want to get your sustenance from God instead of from humans. He adds something. He told Noach that you have to want it from God so badly that you’d prefer to have it bitter than sweet. The dove is saying that the real pleasure in life is not from the things we physically consume, but from spiritual consumption, i.e., closeness with God, the true source of chayn.

Ironically, as hard as it may be to integrate such a lesson, we see that it is true. Selfish people repel us (or should). Selfless people do not. They attract us. Without trying, they just emit chayn. And it is not a coincidence that such people tend to place more emphasis on the spiritual than the material, because when the reverse is true, we’re not drawn to them, unless we’re the same way. 

So, in a way, the dove was giving mankind a way to test itself. If you want to know if you have chayn, and therefore the approval of God, then ask yourself, “Do I agree with the dove? Would I prefer bitter like an olive from God or sweet from the hand of man?” The answer to that question not only determines your quality of life and portion in the World-to-Come. As we learn from Noach, it is the key to survival at a time that the world is undergoing strict judgment.