By Nosson Chayim Leff
This class is dedicated by Ephraim Sobol in loving memory of his
Shlomo Mordechai ben Yaakov a"h.
The parsha begins (Bereishis, 6:9): " ... Noach ish tzadik ...; es
HaElokim hishalech Noach." ("Noach was a righteous man ...; Noach walked
with God."). Chazal -- and Rashi -- note the contrast with Avraham, of
whom the Torah says (Bereishis, 17:1): "... walk before me ... ". Chazal
and (Rashi) comment that, to conduct himself as a righteous person, Noach
needed heavenly support. That is, he needed HaShem to hold his hand. By
contrast, Avraham was able to attain and handle the role of tzadik on his
The Sfas Emes begins this maamar by telling us that, certainly
("be'vdai"!), in contrasting Noach with Avraham, it never entered Chazal's
mind to diminish Noach's stature. (Parenthetically, note the Sfas Emes's
koach hachiddush -- his unhesitating, sheer innovative power to view
received texts through his own discerning eyes.)
Rather, the Sfas Emes tells us, the world had to progress with a certain
unavoidable order. Thus, first there had to appear on the scene a tzadik
who needed HaShem's support. Only thereafter could someone come who could
fill the role of tzadik wtihout needing HaShem to hold his hand.
Why so? The Sfas Emes tells us that the cosmos simply could not function
with a tzadik like Avraham unless it had first experienced a tzadik on the
level of Noach. Note: This explanation does not really answer the question
of "why so?". But we may find it comforting to know that the world
functions with a fixed order. From that perspective, the question of "why
so?" in this context is as meaningless as asking "why so?" regarding the
law of gravity.
The seforim speak of three fundamental domains in the world "Olam, Shanna,
vNefesh" (space, time, and soul). And the seforim tell us to expect
similar patterns in each of these three domains. Hence, we should not be
surprised to see the Sfas Emes applying this perspective in the present
context. Thus, he tells us that the nefesh (soul) of a Jewish person also
goes through a pattern of growth in stages. The first stage is that of a
child. The Sfas Emes describes a child as "tohu" -- as in Bereishis,
1:2: "tohu vavohu." (ArtScroll: "astonishingly empty". A more colloquial
translation: "a complete mess.") Parents and teachers may find consolation
in the Sfas Emes's certification of their charges as "tohu".
But just as HaShem intervened to save Noach and his family from the
disaste that awaited the rest of humankind, so too does HaShem protect a
particle of kedusha (sanctity) within a child. And that bit of kedusha can
subsequently expand within the child as he/she grows, and enables him to
develop midos tovos (proper behavior).
Continuing with this perspective, the Sfas Emes now refers us to the
maxim "Derech eretz kadma laTorah." That is, proper behavior must precede
and is therefore a prerequisite to the proper observance of Torah and
mitzvos. In support of this sequence, the Sfas Emes cites the lives of
Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov. It was necessary for the lives of the Avos,
with their exemplary personal conduct, to precede our people's receiving
The necessity of this sequence is neither self-evident nor easily grasped.
For this reason, the Sfas Emes concludes with a phrase of advice and
admonition that he rarely utters: "Vedok vehavein" That is: "think it
through, and you will understand!"
The Sfas Emes has taught us a two-fold mussar haskeil (take-home lesson)
in an area in which he, as Gerer Rebbe, had special knowledge. First, he
has told us that, in fact, people can grow in their Avodas Hashem. And
second, he advises us that growth does not come in a linear fashion, but
rather in stages ; i.e., unevenly. For this reason, we should not become
discouraged if we see that, despite a serious effort to progress, we are at
any given time only treading water in ruchniyus (spiritual matters). The
Rebbe is telling us: Persist!