A lot has been written about the greatness of Rabbi Noach Weinberg. Starting a movement to bring the Jewish people back to God, inventing the concept of a baal teshuva yeshiva, awakening the potential of so many Jews to be able to take leadership roles in helping their people, packaging Torah philosophy in ways that could be appreciated by totally secular Jews -- any one of those would enough to ensure greatness for a person.
But Rabbi Weinberg had another ability that was not so generally appreciated except by those students who studied with him for many years. He was a tremendous innovator who came up with original and deep Torah ideas, especially in the Chumash, the Five Books of Moses. His way of learning the Chumash provided deep insights into what God is teaching us about life through the stories of the Torah.
As one of the early students of Aish, I remember Rav Noach coming with his family to the Old City to be with the yeshiva when he was in Israel and not away fund-raising. He would always have questions on the weekly Torah portion and brilliant answers. His weekly talks to the yeshiva would bring more questions and answers.
In my teaching for Aish HaTorah over the years, I used his way of approaching Chumash to develop many of my own insights. Many times an idea from him could be built on to reach a whole new level of understanding.
His system for learning Chumash (which he never wrote down, but which could be worked out from watching him) was as follows:
1. See the Torah as real. The stories are telling you about real people doing real things. Examine it and learn from it just as you would if the event was taking place in front of you. When dealing with Rashi or the Midrash, instead of asking "what's bothering Rashi" or "why did the Midrash say that," take the information from Rashi or the Midrash and consider it as really happening, then learn from it.
2. Once you see it as real, ask the most basic questions you can about it.
- How can the Almighty put the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which represents the purpose of life, in the Garden of Eden, and then say ‘don't eat from it'?
- After Abraham listens to God and leaves his family and home to go where God wants him to go, how can God make a famine in that very land that forces him to go to Egypt?
- Why would Abraham go out to fight four kings, against impossible odds, for this nephew Lot, but he won't fight the Egyptians for his wife Sarah?
- If God promises Abraham that his reward is great in the World-to-Come, as Rashi says, how can Abraham say to God "that's all nothing, because I don't have children"? And so on.
3. From the answers to the questions, extract something deep and meaningful that applies directly to living.
The following are a few examples of Rav Noach's approach.
Abraham and Eliezer
After Abraham has fought a war with four kings and won through a miracle, he is worried. According to Rashi, he is worried that he lost his reward in the World-to-Come because the Almighty did a miracle for him. God comes to tell them that, contrary to what he is worried about, his reward in the World-to-Come is very great.
Abraham says to God: "My Lord, HaShem/ Elohim: What can You give me seeing that I go childless, and the steward of my house is the Damascene (literally, Dameshek) Eliezer." Rashi says Eliezer, his servant, is called Dameshek Eliezer as a description of who Eliezer was—not just Abraham's servant, but Abraham's chief disciple, who would "ladle out and give to drink (doleh v'mashke, in Hebrew, hinted to by the word ‘dameshek') from the Torah of his master to others".
Rav Noach first asks: how could Abraham tell the Almighty that reward in the World-to-Come is nothing ("what can you give me seeing I go childless")? Children is a wonderful thing in this world, but how can it compare with ultimate reward in the World-to-Come?
Rav Noach answered: For Abraham, having a child meant the opportunity to build the Jewish people, to fulfil his mission to change the world and bring it back to God. To fulfil the purpose of the Almighty in creating the world is greater than any reward in the World-to-Come. Abraham knew that his students wouldn't do that, only the child he would have could do that.
But Rav Noach continued: But why is Abraham worried that none of his students will take up his mission, when he has such a great disciple like Dameshek Eliezer?
The answer is that Eliezer would "ladle out and give to drink from the Torah of his master to others". He didn't add to it himself. If you don't take what you learn and build from it your own understandings, it will not go anywhere.
Abraham and Lot Pray
When God tells Abraham that he is about to destroy Sodom, Abraham prays for God to spare the city. He asks for it to be saved if there are fifty righteous people in the five towns of Sodom. Then he tries forty, than thirty, than twenty, then ten. In the end, he doesn't succeed in saving anyone.
Lot, when he is being rescued from Sodom, is told by the angel who is rescuing him to head for the mountains (according to Rashi, go back to Abraham, who lived in the mountains of Hevron). Lot is afraid of doing that, because he thinks he will look bad in comparison with Abraham, so he prays to God. He points out that one of the five towns of Sodom, Tzoar, was founded a year later than the rest, and therefore has one year less of sins. He asks for that town to be saved so he can go there, and God listens to his prayer and saves Tzoar.
Rav Noach asks: how was it possible that the prayer of the greatest man in the world was unable to save anyone, and the prayer of Lot was able to save an entire town?
He answers: In prayer, you get what you ask for. Abraham only asked for Sodom to be saved if there were ten righteous people, and there weren't. Lot asked for saving Tzoar because they were slightly less developed in sinning than the rest, and it was a legitimate difference, so Tzoar was saved.
But Rav Noach continued to question: Wasn't Abraham's intention to save the people of Sodom? If one year less of sins was enough to save a town, why didn't Abraham ask for it?
His answer: For prayer to work, the one praying has to be real about what he is asking for. For Abraham, it was a reality that, if there were ten righteous people in Sodom, that there was hope for the city—ten righteous people could bring back the rest. But he couldn't see how one year less of sins could make a difference.
Lot, who was living in Sodom, and needed the city of Tzoar for himself, was able to see that the subtle difference of one year less of sins made the people of Tzoar more capable of change. He could ask it, and mean it, while Abraham couldn't.
Rav Noach used this idea to explain why, when we daven for the meshiach every day in the Amidah, we have a chance to be answered when so many greater people have davened in the past for it and not been answered. Sunk in the weakness and sins of our generation, we can appreciate the subtle differences that give some hope for change—and we need it more.
Yaakov Prepares for War
When Yaakov is coming back from his years with Lavan, and hears that Esau is coming to get him with four hundred men, Rashi points out that Yaakov does three things, one after the other. He gets ready to fight Esau: "he divided the people with him, and the flocks, cattle, and camels, into two camps. For he said ‘If Esau comes to the one camp and strikes it down, then the remaining camp shall survive'". Then he prays to God and asks God to save him from Esau. Than he separates a gift, and sends it to Esau, hoping to buy him off.
Rav Noach asks: why do it in this order? Esau isn't coming until the next day, so you don't have to prepare for war under time pressure. So shouldn't the first thing you do be to pray to God, who can help prevent the war? And shouldn't the second thing be to separate the gift, since Yaakov would rather buy Esau off than have to fight him?
Rav Noach answered: We can understand why Yaakov would prepare for war before sending the gift. If you want to make peace with an evil man, you have to show him you are willing to fight him, otherwise he won't take you seriously. Appeasement never works.
But why prepare for war before praying?
Because you have to recognize that when God is sending something bad, He is sending you a message. You need to change in some way. The effort you have to make in dealing with the negative situation is part of the change. You need to show God that you are willing to accept his message, you aren't running away from it. Than you can pray for him to send the message in an easier way.
Yosef has Dreams
The Torah tells us that Yosef, Yaakov's favourite son, tells bad things about his brothers to his father. They were false things, and Rashi points out how he was punished for them by being sold as a slave and having Potiphar's wife go after him in Egypt. In addition, they created the hatred that led to his brothers plotting to get rid of him.
After that, Yosef has dreams that he will be the leader over his other brothers, and they will bow down to him. Although the brothers thought they were the dreams of a megalomaniac, the dreams were true.
Rav Noach asked: What did Yosef do to merit being the leader over his brothers, as announced by the dream? All the Torah has told you up to now was that he was an immature kid who told bad reports about his brothers.
His answer: What Yosef did to deserve leadership was to tell bad reports about his brothers! Although he made mistakes in what he reported—the brothers weren't doing what he accused them of, despite what he thought--his intention was to help them. He saw that they were not reaching their potential, and reported to his father in the hope that his father would get the brothers moving. Even though he was punished for his mistaken suspicions of his brothers, he was rewarded for caring enough to make the effort to change them.
The message Rav Noach taught from this is that the person who takes responsibility for his fellow human beings and tries to make them successful will be the one who deserves to lead them, because that is the purpose of leadership.
Yaakov tells Yosef why he buried his mother in Kever Rachel
When Yosef hears that his father is ill, he brings his two sons. Ephraim and Menashe, for a blessing. Yaakov greets Yosef by announcing to him that God had told him that he would be able to give the gift of an extra tribe, and he is giving that gift to Yosef by making Ephraim and Menashe both founding tribes of the Jewish people.
Than he says something that seems very out of context: "But as for me—when I came from Paddan, Rachel died on me in the land of Canaan on the road, while there was still a stretch of land to go to Efrat; and I buried her there on the road to Efrat, which is Bethlehem".
Rashi, explaining what Yaakov is telling Yosef, says that Yaakov is saying: Even though I asked you to take me and bury me in the Cave of Machpela, and I know you have held it against me that I didn't do that to your mother, I am telling you now that I did it because I had ruach hakodesh that she should be buried in that spot so she could pray for the Jewish people when they went into exile.
Rav Noach asked: Why is Yaakov only bringing this up now? Rachel's death was almost 50 years before. His favorite son was holding a grievance against him for almost 50 years—and it could have been cleared up easily! And even if you say that Yaakov's asking Yosef to bury him reawakened the grievance—then explain it to him at the time he asked him, why wait until now?
Rav Noach answered it by asking another question: If you were a prophet, if God spoke to you, would you tell other people? Would you use that great experience, that great closeness, as a way to get more respect from human beings?
The answer is no. Although his children may have guessed that Yaakov was a prophet, he never told them. Even to clear up a grievance that his favourite son had been holding against him for almost fifty years.
So why does he tell him now? Because, in order to explain to Yosef where this gift of making his two sons individual tribes came from, he had to tell him that God had spoken to him and given him the right to confer that gift. Once it was necessary to let Yosef know that, he could tell him that he had had ruach hakodesh (which is less than prophecy) about where to bury his mother.
Rav Noach used this to teach a lesson that applies to all of us. When you do a mitzvah, don't look for recognition from others. If there is no need to let them know, keep it a secret between you and God. Don't make your relationship with God something you sell out for the respect of people.
The above examples are just a drop in the bucket from the well of wisdom that Rav Noach left to his students. May he merit, when we teach over his wisdom, that his soul reaches greater and greater heights.