Noach – Nimrod the Circus Master and Hashem’s Master Plan

Nimrod was a powerful ruler who had thrown Avraham into the burning furnace for not believing in idols.  Avraham was miraculously saved . Nimrod is first singled out in this week’s Torah portion of Noach amongst the genealogy of Cham. “And Cush begot Nimrod; he began to be a mighty man in the land. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, ‘Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.’ And the beginning of his kingdom was Babylon and Erech and Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. From that land emerged Asshur, and he built Nineveh and Rehoboth ir and Calah. And Resen, between Nineveh and between Calah; that is the great city” (Breishis 10: 8-12).
The Radak on these pesukim says the reason why Nimrod was singled out from the rest of the children of Kush, son of Cham, was because of his power and kingship that was mentioned in the Torah. He used his power and strength to capture many nations and became king over them. Before him there was no person who had the desire and will to fill his heart with such power to rule a whole nation. The Torah mentions all the nations he conquered because he was the first king, before him each nation was led by a group of judges or leaders (possibly like a democracy. This all took place after the incident of the Tower of Babel.

The Torah also mentioned how Nimrod controlled and overpowered vicious wild animals, trapping them with his strength and tricks, to the point that people were so awed over how he controlled them. They created an axiom when people of that generation and generations after saw someone subdue and catch vicious wild animals, they would say he is like Nimrod. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
 It’s striking to point out that Nimrod became more known for his hunting than his monarchy. He was the first person to overpower and impress upon nations to rule over them as an authoritarian king. He set a precedent for all kings after him, all that power and wealth, the way kings carry themselves, the aura of royalty all stemmed from Nimrod, yet the Torah testifies he was not known for his kingship but rather people  remembered him for being a keen hunter, a circus master in essence, why is that?

It would seem that dazzling tricks and a show of “cool prowess,” in a nutshell, celebrity fame is more memorable than cunning skill and force to mobilize and build up an empire, in the eyes of people.

The Radak goes on to say that Nimrod first captured Bavel and ruled over it and then he captured Erech, Achad, and Kalneh. Those 4 were in the land of Shin’ar. He then captured other lands that were not mentioned. But then Ashur, who probably came from the line of Shem (see pasuk 22 here) settled in the land of Shina’ar. Ashur (predecessor of Assyria) either captured it from Nimrod or from his children after Nimrod died and he became king of that land. Ashur was King of Bavel and the surrounding areas. The children of Cham were displaced from those areas, the children of Kesed, the kasdians, from the lineage of Shem, also settled there.

This entire story is to inform us, “the whole world and everything within it belongs to Hashem” (Tehillim 24:1). “And not by strength does man overtake another” (Shmuel Alef 2:9). And He can take the kingship of a land and give it to another, whatever He sees fit, as it says: “And He gave to who He saw fit in His eyes” (Yirmiyahu 27:5). Everything depends on their deeds “for He is a G-D of faith, and there is no injustice” (Devarim 32:4). All this story, as we already wrote, that even though Ashur conquered many lands and built great countries, and the monarchy of Assyria ruled over them for a very long time, still in all the monarchs of Bavel took them over, namely, Merodach, Baladan Ben Baladen, Nevuchadnetzar, and his children, and after that the kings of Persia conquered them, and so on and so forth from king to king. This is how it is in  all the lands throughout history, in order to prove that the land belongs to Hashem. 
If one delves into the history of one nation conquering another they might find methods and strategies for how it happened but to understand why empires are constantly being toppled, and seemingly powerful kings like Nimrod and nations like Bavel, Assyria, Persia, and even Greece and Rome all topple, the logic only points to the fact that there must be an All Powerful G-D that runs the world and He is in charge of how history ultimately plays itself out. Learning about history through a Torah perspective will enhance your appreciation and strengthen your belief and trust in Hashem. The very fact that Nimrod was known as the hunter and not as the father of all kings throughout history is a testament to this fact that ultimately Hashem is the King Of All Kings and He’s the one who ultimately runs the world.

What’s incredible to contemplate is the fact that all the displacement and even loss of life during each war and conquest all ultimately are for the sake of realizing Hashem’s authority and power in this world. By focusing on this and getting more clarity that the only answer to all the mysteries is that there must be a G-D running the show, will bring one closer to Him and it will ultimately be a great comfort to know that someone is “running the show” in a world which on face value seems to be so chaotic, but on a deep level there is a master plan and we have the ability to watch it all unfold with peace of mind and serenity.

Good Shabbos,
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder

Noach -It’s Within Our Grasp to Win

After Hashem destroyed the world with the flood, the waters receded, and the survivors left the ark. “And Noah built an altar to Hashem, and he took of all the pure animals and of all the pure fowl and brought up burnt offerings on the altar. And Hashem smelled the pleasant aroma, and Hashem said to Himself, ‘I will no longer curse the earth because of man, for the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth, and I will no longer smite all living things as I have done’” (Breishis 8:20, 21). The Ramban explains this pasuk as an excuse not to immediately and utterly punish every wrongdoing, “FOR THE INCLANATION OF MAN’s HEART IS EVIL FROM HIS YOUTH. He (G-D) ascribes merit to men because by their very creation they have an evil nature in their youthful days but not in their mature years. If so, for these two reasons, (First, that by his very creation, man’s heart is evil, and second, that this evil persists only when he is young but not when he matures. Therefore, for these two reasons it is not proper that every living thing be smitten on account of man.) it is not proper to smite every living thing.”

However, the Medrish Tanchuma blames man for developing his yetzer hara from his youth and not keeping it in check, which is not in contradiction with this Ramban, or the Medrish Rabba that states, “Rebbe Chiya Rabba said, pathetic is the dough which the baker admits is bad, ‘for the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.’” The Yefeh Toar explains that even though it sounds from this medrish that one is naturally born with an evil inclination, that is a reason to not act with strict judgement every time man sins, but it is still within man’s power to overcome his nature. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

For this reason, the Medrish Tanchuma says after Adam sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, “Hashem the G-D said, ‘This is The Man’” (Breishis 3:22), this is what the pasuk in Koheles means when it says, ‘See, only this one have I found, for G-D made man straight’ (Koheles 7:29). Hashem only created man to be called righteous and upright in His image, in order so that he will be righteous and upright like Him. If that’s the case then why did He create a yetzer hara, evil inclination, which it says about it, ‘for the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth’? If You say it is bad who then can do good? Hashem said back, ‘actually you make him evil! Why? A child 5, 6, 7, 8 ,9 years old does not sin, but from 10 onward he develops the evil inclination.’ If that’s the case then no person can protect himself!? Hashem responds, ‘you make him bad.’ Why? Because you were a baby, and you didn’t sin, now you grew up and sinned. There are many worse things than the yetzer hara, they are more bitter and you sweeten them. There is nothing more bitter than a type of bean called a turmos, and you strive to boil and ultimately sweeten it in water 7 times, so to mustard, capers, and many other things. So just as something bitter which I created in that fashion, you sweeten them for your own needs, all the more so the evil inclination which is given into your hands.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The Anaf Yosef actually asks: isn’t the evil inclination bad by itself? He answers by quoting an Alshich based on a Zohar, that Hashem gave the yetzer hara to a person as a good thing, in order to give a person reward for not listening to the yetzer hara. If a person would not have a yetzer hara he would not be able to earn his reward, but a person seduced by his yetzer hara switches it to be corrupt with one bad decision.
Practically, how can we save ourselves from the seduction of the yetzer hara? It is not easy to use the yetzer hara for good and not fall into his trap. The Mesillas Yesharim says in the first chapter, “The Holy One, blessed be He, has put man in a place where the factors which distance him from the blessed G-D are numerous. These are the physical lusts which if he is drawn after them, behold, he draws away and goes ever further from the true good. Thus, we see that man is truly placed in the midst of a raging battlefield. For all matters of this world, whether for the good or for the bad, are trials for a man. Poverty from one side versus wealth from the other. This is as Shlomo said: “Lest I be satiated, and deny You, and say, Who is G-d? or lest I be poor, and steal…” (Prov.30:9). Tranquility on one hand versus suffering on the other, until the battle is waged against him from the front and from the rear.” Where is the light at the end of the tunnel; is there truly any hope in winning the war against our evil inclination? How can the medrish say that dulling, or even sweetening, the yetzer hara is easier than making mustard seeds and the like edible?

However, the Nesiv HaYam, a commentary on the Medrish Tanchuma, gives some practical insight on how to tackle the yetzer hara. He explains the medrish with it’s kal vachomer (fortiori), “Hashem tells the angels that man is like one of us, righteous and straightforward, but man can make himself bad, for the yetzer hara was created for the good of man, in order so that we can earn a lot of reward, if we don’t listen to it. So only man makes it bad. The intention of creation was for man to be righteous and straightforward just like the One G-D of the world, and only he would know good from bad, but then it becomes possible to enlarge the yetzer hara. But just like a turmos, which is a very bitter bean, when boiled 7 times, then becomes sweet and good to the point that it is a tasty side dish at mealtime, and just as all these bitter substances that Hashem created bitter, and didn’t command anyone to sweeten them, all the more so the evil inclination that Hashem created and gave into the hands of man to sweeten, is in truth very good.”

A person is faced with a lifetime of challenges, and when there is a will there is a way. People over the centuries have discovered different foods, have taken raw materials from the earth and figured out how to use them for there own good. But they do it not only to use them but to make them better, to perfect the substance, for example the chocolate (cacao) or coffee bean. There are always innovators who try to make them taste better, look and smell more appealing, and become more useful. If people can create such progress with something they were not commanded to do, which they had to search for, harvest, and develop on their own, then all the more so the yetzer hara, which is literally given to us in our hands, and G-D commands us to work with it and use it for the good, all the more so all the potential bitterness and side effects can be cut out and put aside and one can develop sweet scrumptious and tremendous reward when using the yetzer hara in the proper manner.

By having the attitude that the evil inclination is a product that might look, taste, feel, smell, and sound ugly but it’s a challenge that can be worked on and developed into something of value, scraping away all the dark sides and revealing all the positive and constructiveness that can come out of using the yetzer hara for the good, and knowing that Hashem gave us this product in our hands, it is in our control to sculpt it for the good, to bring out its sweetness and positivity, then one can reap the fruits, which might take much labor but is exciting and worthwhile to discover and perfect. With this approach, it will make it harder for the yetzer hara to entice a person into a murky, bitter path which a person is not supposed to walk though, that is the evil inclination which one is trying not to listen to. In that way an abundance of reward and a well meaningful life will be well earned.

Noach – What is Righteousness

This Dvar Torah is dedicated in memory of Dr. Bill Ladner, who was the inspiration and reason of why I started Food for Thought. He passed away in his 90s last Thursday night. May this dvar Torah and all subsequent Food for thoughts be a merit to his Holy Neshama, Yehi Zichro Baruch.

This Dvar Torah is based on a shmuz I heard in Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim Yerushalayim by Rav Moshe Chait zt”l in 2001. 

There are different ideas what a tzadik, a righteous person, is.

 This week’s Torah portion of Noach begins by saying: “These are the generations of Noach, Noach was a righteous man he was perfect in his generations; Noach walked with God” (Brieshis 6:9). Rashi there observes, “בדורותיו IN HIS GENERATIONS — Some of our Rabbis explain it (this word) to his credit: he was righteous even in his generation; it follows that had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Avraham he would have been accounted as of no importance (cf. Sanhedrin 108a).”

Rashi states the argument that “In his generation” means a praise that he was righteous in his generation and all the more so, he would have been an even greater tzadik if he was in a generation among other righteous people, since being righteous among a generation of wicked people takes a lot of inner strength. However “In his generation” could also be an insult; for it can mean that while he may have been a tzadik in his generation, if he had lived at the same time as Avraham Avinu then he wouldn’t be considered anything special. He was righteous compared to the wicked; but compared to others he was nothing important.

Either way he is still called a tzadik. He has some level of righteousness which sets him apart.

There is a medrish Yalkut Shimone in parshas Vezos Habracha that elaborates on a pasuk from Eishes Chayil, “Many women have acquired wealth, but you surpass them all” (Mishlei 31:29). Chazal say about this pasuk that there are many righteous people in this world, but you are better then all of them, which allegorically refers to Moshe Rabbeinu. Adam HaRishon said to Moshe, “I am greater than you because I was created in the Image of Hashem, b’tzelem Elokim. Moshe said back that your greatness did not last too long. You could not even stay in that lofty state overnight, but for me the glory that was given to me from Hashem lasted for the rest of my life as the pasuk says, “Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died. His eyes had not dimmed, nor had he lost his [natural] freshness” (Devarim 34:7). Moshe admitted that being a tzelem Elokim, having been created by Hashem Himself without physical parents, is a very high level, but what counts is lasting at a spiritually high level.

The medrish continues with Noach approaching Moshe and saying that he is greater than Moshe because he was the only one saved with his family. Since he was able to withstand all the wickedness and stay righteous, he was greater than Moshe. Moshe replied that Noach didn’t have the power to save his generation, but Moshe was able to change the evil decree cast on the Jews by Hashem, caused by the sin of the golden calf. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
There is a state of righteousness that doesn’t show greatness (like Noach). But changing the decision Hashem makes is greatness (like Moshe). It wasn’t enough that Moshe led them through the desert but Moshe rose to a level of righteousness that could even change Hashem’s decision!

Chazal say that Noach’s generation was so evil that Hashem said they don’t have a right to live and yet Noach didn’t let them influence himself and his family. However this wasn’t enough to fulfill his purpose in life, for Moshe was saying he could have gone farther in righteousness by affecting others for the good just as Moshe did.

It is not enough to become a Tzadik for yourself. Gadlus ha’adam, the greatness of man, is to recognize how much Hashem endowed man. One is not here for oneself; rather one is here, in this world, in order to make a change in the world around him or her.

At one-point Moshe said he’d rather be non-existent than harm a fellow Jew. This is selflessness.

The Rambam says that everyone is affected by external influences. It is just a question of what we do with these influences.
What is the essence of a leader, a gadol? He is concerned for others. It is very important for everyone to think about what I am doing for others, and how am I influential?

It is not enough to be a “righteous man in his generation;” Moshe was the person to emulate because he had an impact on others. We must be conscientious about what we do in and around the beis medrish, our workplace, our shul, in our home etc.

Noach – The Animals Owe Us

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In this week’s Torah portion of Noach there is a hint to the Seven Noahide Laws, which are: (1)idolatry, (2) cursing the Divine Name, (3) murder, (4) illicit relation, (5) theft and civil law (6) court systems (7) eating a limb torn from a live animal.

It would seem that when Hashem created the world He only allowed man to eat vegetation until after the flood, when he permitted Noach to eat meat; but not from a live animal. Why is this so?

The Torah says: “Every moving thing that lives shall be yours to eat; like the green vegetation, I have given you everything” (Breishis 9:3). Rashi explain, “לכם יהיה לאכלה SHALL BE FOOD FOR YOU — For I did not permit Adam Harishon to eat meat, but green herbs alone; but to you — just as the green herbs that I gave the full use of to Adam Harishon — do I give everything (Sanhedrin 59b).”

The Sifsei Chachamim on Rashi explains why Adam Harishon was not permitted to eat meat and what changed in the times of Noach. He says: “The reason why meat was permitted to Noach and not to Adam, I humbly believe is because man and animal were equally the creations of Hashem, one was no better than the other, so why should one be allowed to kill the other? But at the time of the flood, when they all sinned, and all of them deserved to be destroyed, but they survived in the merit of Noach, for this reason man is now better than the animals.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

How is it possible to logically entertain the possibility that man and animal are equal? Animals are completely made up of physical, world-driven instincts. Man was created “in the image of G-D,” with a spiritual soul interconnected to his and her physical body, with the ability to speak on an intellectual level, make deep cognitive decisions, and think on a very profound and creative level. Man also has free choice to choose between good and bad, with the ability to reach great heights in connecting with Hashem. Whereas animals, any corruption that happened to them in the days of the flood or at any other time, is due to instinctive reactivity to their surroundings. So why does the Sifsei Chachamim say they were once equal?

It must have been talking  in terms of damaging or killing another life force; animals and men were equal because we are both creations of Hashem, and how can it be justified to ruin or destroy such a precious and valuable entity. Hashem only allowed vegetation to be taken apart and eaten for the purpose of man and animals’ sustenance, which is why they were created in this world; without food we cannot live. What then changed? Aren’t animals still the same creatures created by Hashem just as man is?

We see from here the power of indebtedness. Since it was only in Noach’s merit that the animal kingdom was saved, it is as if he and his progeny own the animals and it is within our right to make productive use of them. (Albeit within reason, which is why there are limitation, like the prohibition of eating a limb torn from a live animal).

For this reason we are allowed to eat meat and, even more so, there is now a natural fear that animals have of mankind, as we see in Rashi from the previous pasuk: “So long as a baby, even one day old, has life you do not have to guard it against the attacks of mice, whilst Og, king of Bashan, when dead needs to be guarded against the attacks of mice, as it is said, ‘And the fear of you and the terror of you shall be [upon the beasts of the field etc.].’ When will the fear of you be upon the beasts? So long as you are alive (חתכם) (Shabbat 151b)” (Rashi 9:2).

The sense and reality of gratitude can be absolutely transformative!