These divrei Torah were adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Tapes on the weekly portion: #1048 – Zichrono Le’vracha: On A Living Person? Good Shabbos!
Rav Meir Shapiro Analyzes the Symbolism of the Rainbow
Following the Mabul [Great Flood], Hashem gave a sign that He would never again flood the entire world. That sign, as we all know, is the rainbow. Rav Meir Shapiro, z”l, gives a beautiful comment as to why specifically the rainbow was made the Heavenly sign that the Ribono shel Olam would never again destroy the world with water.
Rav Meir Shapiro comments on a question that many people ask. It took Noach 120 years to build the Teiyva [Ark]. During that entire period, he apparently did not have an effect on anyone in his entire generation. The only people that were saved were his immediate family. He had an extremely unsuccessful career as a “kiruv worker.” After 120 years, for not even one person to become a believer in the Almighty and the principles of universal morality is a dismal career in “outreach.”
Many commentaries take note of this and try to explain why this was the case – particularly in terms of trying to reconcile that with the Torah’s description of Noach as “Tzadik, Tamim” [righteous and perfect]. Such people usually do have an impact on their generation.
Rav Shapiro speculates as to why in fact Noach was not successful. He suggests that Noach believed that the people of his generation were beyond salvation. He had no faith in the people and felt that they sank to such a low level of spiritual darkness that there was no hope for them. In any endeavor, a person must believe in what he is doing and believe in his ability to have an effect. If, in his heart of hearts, a person does not believe that he can have an effect, then he cannot make the case. For this reason, Noach was never successful in bringing anyone “under the wings of the Shechina.”
Rav Shapiro says that with this hypothesis, we can understand why the Divine sign that the world would never again be totally destroyed by flood was the rainbow. As we all know, a rainbow occurs when there is a beautiful day and suddenly it becomes terribly cloudy and terribly dark. There follows a downpour, and shortly after the downpour, the clouds dissipate. It becomes light again, it becomes bright again, and when the sun hits the rain, a rainbow is formed, which is a beautiful multi-colored illumination in the heaven. The message of the rainbow is that no matter how dark the world may be, after the darkness, the light can shine and can in fact make a beautiful image that brightens the world.
This was the pointed message to Noach: Your assessment of your generation — that they are living in such darkness that light cannot help – is wrong. The rainbow is a metaphor which teaches that this is not necessarily the way things work. The message to Noach was to never give up on people. No one is beyond redemption. Every single neshama is pure at its base. There is a “pintele Yid” or a “pintele of spirituality” in every single person. As a result of that, there is hope for seeing the light of the rainbow at the end of the period of darkness.
The Lesson of Migdal Bavel
We all know the story of the Migdal Bavel [Tower of Babel]. There were people that wanted to do battle with Hashem. They built a tower in order to “strategically position themselves to fight the Almighty.” The Ribono shel Olam descended and He introduced different languages so that the people were not able to communicate with one another. Therefore, their plans fell by the wayside.
In every incident in Sefer Bereshis, in fact, in every incident in the Torah, there needs to be a lesson for us. What is the lesson of the story of Migdal Bavel? What is the Torah trying to teach us? Obviously, it is something more than just “we should not contemplate doing battle with Hashem.”
I saw an approach to this question in a sefer by Rav Chaim Friedlander (Sifsei Chaim). He explains that the story contains a lesson that is crucial for all human beings to know. The pasuk states in Parshas Bereishis, “And G-d said, ‘Let us make man, in Our image, in Our likeness.'” [Bereishis 1:26] The Seforno (as well as other classic Biblical commentaries) says that the import of man being created “in the Image of G-d” is that every person has certain qualities that exist in the Almighty. Human beings possess these same qualities. We possess character traits and strengths that the Ribono shel Olam Himself possesses.
One of the traits of the Almighty is something called Ratzon [Will]. When Hashem Wills something, it becomes a reality. Baruch she’amar v’haya ha’Olam [Blessed is He who spoke and the world came into existence]. All the Almighty needed to do was to Will that the world come into existence and so it did. Hashem has that amazing infinite power that by merely Willing something, it happens.
Obviously, human beings do not have this power of Willing to that extent. But nevertheless, this concept of Ratzon – of human desire — the ability to will something and want something is a powerful force even among human beings. The fact that people Want something can create a reality.
In fact, the Maharal says a very interesting idea in a totally different context. There is a halacha called “Eidim Zomemim.” Two people come into Beis Din. They falsely testify that Reuven killed Shimon. They go through a process called “hazamah” and the result is that for wanting to kill Reuven by testifying that he is deserving of the death penalty, we put the witnesses to death! How does this work?
The Maharal explains a fantastic concept. The fact that these witnesses WANTED someone to die, created a reality in this world, and therefore that WILL for someone to die does not dissipate. In fact, this reality boomerangs and comes back to attack them. Such is the power of human will.
But the question must be asked, if the fact that I want something is so strong that it can create reality (we are G-d-like in that sense and just like G-d Wills something it becomes something, so too by man), why is it that when we want something, it does not automatically become a reality?
The Ponnevizher Rav asked the Chofetz Chaim this question. The Chofetz Chaim responded that it is because our wants do not have a laser-like focus. I want to become the biggest talmid chochom in the United States of America… but I have not achieved that because I also want to sleep at night. I also want to read the newspaper and I also want to relax. Although I WANT to become the biggest talmid chochom, I want to do other things as well. Therefore, my ratzon [desire] is not focused, I have competing desires as well.
People who are in business typically want to become fantastically wealthy. They may want to become Bill Gates or “the Sage of Omaha” who is worth 40 billion dollars. I WANT IT, they insist. So why are we not all billionaires? The answer is because we all want other things as well. To become fantastically wealthy like that, a person can have no other ratzon. There can be no other desire in a person’s life.
For this reason, our desires do not create the realities that they could potentially create.
We all want to be bnei Olam HaBah – we all want to acquire this promised portion of the World-to-Come. However, in the meantime, we all want Olam HaZeh [this world] as well. Given that acquiring Olam HaZeh often conflicts with acquiring Olam HaBah, it does not happen as well as it could. If, in fact, we could have pure, unadulterated, undissipated and focused ratzon – there is nothing that could stand in our way. It would just need to happen. This is a quality that human beings have that is just like the Ribono shel Olam. We are “in the Image” of He who is Blessed and Spoke so that the world came into existence (Baruch she’Amar v’haya ha’Olam).
The Ponnevizher Rav cited a Medrash to buttress this point. The Medrash gives the following parable: There was a man who became a drunk. He loved drinking so much that he began selling all the furniture in his house to pay for his habit. His children said to themselves: “We are going to be left with nothing. We need to bring our father back to reality.” They took their father when he was stone drunk and dragged him to a cemetery. In his drunken stupor, he fell asleep there and they left him there. They figured he would wake up and look around and see that he was in the cemetery. He would panic and say “Oy vey! Look what happened to me!” The hope was that this would put the fear of G-d into him and he would give up drinking.
The Medrash continues that there were wine merchants who were coming to the city and there was also an army that invaded the city. The wine merchants were afraid to come into the city for fear that the soldiers would confiscate all their wine. They decided to hide the wine in the cemetery and enter the city without their merchandise. The fellow woke up from his drunken stupor. He looked to his right and saw a large barrel of wine. He was thrilled and began drinking all over again. The kids came back to the cemetery the next day, expecting to see their father all ashen white, shaken, having the fear of G-d in him. What do they find? He is sitting next to an empty barrel of wine, drunker than when they left him.
The kids came to the conclusion: This is our father’s ratzon (primary will in life), and the Almighty is making it happen! Because when a person wants something so badly, we see that even the Ribono shel Olam becomes a partner in helping carry out man’s will!
Unfortunately, we see the same thing, may Heaven save us, when people are addicted to drugs. Nothing stands in their way. They will sell everything including themselves just to be able to keep their habit going. Because their WILL is so strong that nothing will stand in their way, to such an extent that even the Almighty will be a partner in making that happen.
We see this quality called Ratzon in the story of Migdal Bavel. What does the Torah say? The Almighty descends and He says that these people want to make a fight with Me. They have this strong desire and they have begun to build their tower. “And now, it will not be withheld from them all they propose to do.” [Bereshis 11:6]. Hashem Himself testifies: They are going to make it happen! It as if He is saying, “I can’t stand in their way. There is nothing I can do.” Why? Because when you get together an entire society of people united with one desire, nothing can stand in their way.
Many times, the reason my desire does not necessarily lead to what I am hoping for is because somebody else wants something else which conflicts with my desire. However, if everybody is on board, everybody wants the same thing, everybody has a passion that points in the same direction… then the Ribono shel Olam says “What am I going to do? I can’t stand in their way!”
However, the Almighty said that there is one thing He could do to stop them – that is to break up their unity. If I break their unity, their greatest power will be removed from them. What did the Almighty do? He descended amongst them and created 70 languages. This guy wants bricks and his friend gives him mortar, this guy wants mortar and his friend gives him bricks. They start fighting with each other. The unity is broken. Once the unity is broken, the Ratzon is broken and therefore they cannot complete the project.
The lesson of the story of Migdal Bavel is what Chazal tell us – Ayn davar ha’omed bifnei haRatzon –Nothing can stand in the way of human desire. Ay – we see it is not true; many times we do not get what we want? That is because our Ratzon is not strong enough.
We can look at athletes who train for the Olympics. They train for hours and hours and hours. Look at the native Baltimorean Michael Phelps (swimmer; most decorated Olympian of all time with 28 medals including 8 Gold Medals in the 2008 Beijing games). Do you know how many hours a day this fellow spent practicing for the Olympics? It was 10 or 12 hours a day. The guy had no life. His entire life was swimming. Your entire life is swimming? That is all you want out of life? Nothing stands in the way of a person’s will!
Many people want to become great Olympic swimmers. Many people want to become great talmidei chachomim. Many want to be very wealthy. We all want many very nice things, but the problem is we want other things as well. Our “Will” is diluted; therefore our “Will” is not decisive.
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem [email protected]
Technical Assistance by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected]
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly Torah portion. A listing of the halachic portions for Parshas Noach is provided below:
- # 027 – The Abortion Controversy
- # 069 – Ma’ariv and Mitzvos in the Land of Midnight Sun
- # 118 – Suicide: Is it Ever Permitted?
- # 165 – Euthanasia
- # 211 – Animal Experimentation
- # 255 – Preventing a Suicide
- # 301 – Teaching Torah to Non-Jews
- # 345 – Milah for Non-Jews: Is it Permitted
- # 389 – Abortion to Save a Baby?
- # 433 – Assisting in a Suicide
- # 477 – Tzedakah and Non-Jews
- # 521 – The Ben Noach & the Nectarine
- # 565 – The Golam
- # 609 – Cosmetic Surgery
- # 653 – The Har Habayis — The Temple Mount in Halacha and Hashkafa
- # 697 – The Case of the Fascinating Ger
- # 741 – Your Wife’s Medical Bills: Who Pays?
- # 785 – Spreading Bad News
- # 829 – Bending the Truth of the Torah
- # 873 – Stem Cell Research
- # 917 – Did Shimshon Commit Suicide?
- # 960 – Geshem Reigns — Mashiv Haruach U’moreed Hageshem? Hagoshem?
- #1004 – Shinui Hashem: Changing the Name of a Choleh
- #1048 – Zichrono Le’vracha: On A Living Person?
- #1091 – V’Sain Tal U’Matar – Starting Too Early?
- #1134 – Are Non-Jews Only Obligated in “The Seven Mitzvos”?
- #1177 – Teaching Torah To A Potential Convert?
- #1221 – Plastic Surgery for Shidduchim Purposes
- #1265 – All You Ever Wanted to Know About the Bracha on a Rainbow
A complete catalogue can be ordered from the Yad Yechiel Institute, PO Box 511, Owings Mills MD 21117-0511. Call (410) 358-0416 or e-mail [email protected] or visit http://www.yadyechiel.org/ for further information.