The parashah tells us: "These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a man, righteous and pure in his generation."[1] The Hebrew word for man is "ish," for which the Yiddish equivalent is "mentsch." The Torah teaches us that first and foremost, each of us must try to be a mentsch. The word mentsch connotes integrity, respect, kindness - goals toward which we must all strive. The first questions that Jewish parents traditionally ask regarding a potential spouse for their daughter is, "Is he a mentsch? Does he have fine character traits?"

DO WE SEE OURSELVES AS GOD SEES US?

A famous Midrash based on this week's parashah asks, "If there are so many ways through which God could have saved Noah, then why did He make him go through the difficult, arduous task of building an Ark that took 120 years to complete?"

The Midrash answers that Hashem, in His infinite mercy, did not want to bring the Flood upon the world. God desires to preserve life, not destroy it. Even as a father yearns for his estranged children, so too, God was hoping that His errant sons and daughters would heed His call, abandon their evil ways, and return to Him. Thus, if Noah were seen to be busily building his Ark day in and day out, people would ask him what he was doing. Then he would inform them about the impending Flood and tell them that they could cancel the evil decree through repentance. It was all in their hands.

But this Midrash begs yet another question: Why couldn't Noah speak to the people directly? Why did he need the Ark as a prop? Why couldn't he inspire the people to mend their ways? The answer to this question can be found in the beginning of the parashah: "Now the earth had become corrupt before God,"[2] teaching us that it was only in the sight of God that the earth was corrupt; man saw nothing wrong with his lifestyle. How does it happen that man can be so blind to his own faults and corruption?

The generation of the Flood was obsessed with hedonism and the pursuit of pleasure; in such a climate, the laws of God, which require discipline, are eclipsed. In a society without Torah guidelines, even the most depraved acts become acceptable. So Noah had no one with whom to talk; no one was willing to listen, for they all saw themselves as "righteous people," and it never occurred to any of them to ask how God viewed them.

Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement, explains the process that brings about this moral blindness: The first time a man commits a wrong, he feels guilty, but if he repeats that act often enough, his conscience will no longer bother him and eventually he will even see himself as a paragon of virtue. So it is that immorality, decadence, and degeneracy become the accepted way of life and are no longer considered sinful.

This lesson is of special significance to our generation, for ours is also a hedonistic society that does not recognize boundaries or discipline. We regard self-gratification as an end in itself and delude ourselves into believing that as long as we are happy with ourselves that is all that God requires of us. We never ask ourselves the all-important question, "How does God see us?"

How can we overcome this spiritual blindness?

Ongoing Torah study is the most effective remedy. When we study God's Word we hear His voice, and we come to realize how far we have departed from His path. We can then take steps to come closer to Him.

ARK REHAB

Still, you might ask why Noah had to enter the Ark. Why couldn't God have saved him in a different manner? The answer is that God wanted to make certain that when Noah and his family emerged from the Ark and undertook the task of rebuilding the world, they would be fortified with righteous deeds. In the Ark they had to care for all the animals that God had commanded them to gather; backbreaking labor consumed them day and night. Yet through that labor they learned the meaning of chesed - reaching out with gemilus chassadim (acts of loving-kindness) - one of the pillars on which God built His world.

It is in this light that we can understand the Midrash that relates that on one occasion, when Noah was slow to feed the lion, the lion injured him. Noah cried out in pain, and a Heavenly voice declared, "If only you had cried out in pain when the future of mankind was at stake!"

GOD'S INFINITE PATIENCE - HIS HAND IN OUR DAILY LIVES

Noah was involved in the construction of the Ark for 120 years. We ask ourselves why it took so very long for Noah to complete God's command. Surely, he could have completed his task in much less time, especially since Hashem gave him specific instructions on what materials to use and told him the exact dimensions of the Ark.

Once again, we behold God's compassion and infinite patience. Although He foresees the future, He nevertheless hopes for our repentance and gives us time - even 120 years - to mend our ways. Tragically, people mistook His love for His absence, but the lesson of the Ark continues to speak to us and demands that we see God's Hand in our daily lives, even if it is not always readily apparent. Another lesson that we can learn is patience. Even as the Almighty was patient with that generation, so should we try to be patient with the members of our family and our fellow man.

THE ARK - THE HOLY TABERNACLE - THE JEWISH HOME

In the Torah we find that God commanded the construction of two edifices: Noah's Ark, and centuries later, after our forefathers left Egypt, the Mishkan (the Holy Tabernacle).

While these two structures were built light-years apart, for different reasons, and under different circumstances, they do share a common denominator: they serve as role models for the ideal Jewish home. The Ark represents security, protection, a safe place … which every home should embody, while the Tabernacle reflects a spiritual haven - a Bayis Ne'eman, a home that is a true bastion of faith … a place where husband, wife, and children live in peace and harmony; a place where the sacred light of Shabbos banishes all darkness; a place where loving-kindness and Torah wisdom prevail; a place where the Shechinah (the presence of God) dwells.

If ever there was a time when we needed such a dual-purpose home, with a fusion of the physical and the spiritual, it is today. Let us strive for it.

FEEL THE PAIN OF YOUR PEOPLE

God tells Noah to build an Ark in order to save his family and all the different animal species. Then God issues the somewhat puzzling command that Noah make a tzohar for the Ark.[3] There is a question as to what this light really meant. Our Sages explain that tzohar can mean "a window" or "a brilliant jewel that sheds light." But these definitions are problematic. What possible reason could God have for placing a window in the Ark? After all, how much light could enter as a fierce storm raged outside for forty days and forty nights? And what is the meaning of "a precious jewel"? Could a precious stone actually illuminate the entire Ark?

God wished to impress upon Noah his responsibility to humankind, for although Noah and his family were spared, he had an obligation to create windows through which he could see others and be sensitive to their pain and suffering. If he did, he would emerge from that painful tragedy kinder, wiser, and more caring. Thus, his windows would be converted into jewels that would illuminate his soul and enable him to better understand his obligation to his fellow man.

During the 120 years that Noah constructed the Ark, he didn't quite get that message. In contrast to the actions of Abraham, who pleaded with God to save the evil inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Moses, who put himself on the line to save his people after the fashioning of the Golden Calf, Noah remained silent and was content to merely construct the Ark. As a result of this lack of compassion, Noah is not reckoned among our Patriarchs or Sages.

Today, this lesson speaks to us anew. We have a responsibility to gaze through our windows, empathize with our brethren, and do everything within our power to alleviate their suffering. Every challenge in life, every difficulty, becomes more bearable if you know that there is someone to share it with you and feel your pain.

So when we hear of hardships and when others around us are suffering, let's learn from the lessons of the parashah: let us make windows and create jewels.

NOTES

1. Gen. 6:9.
2. Ibid 6:11.
3. Ibid. 6:16.

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