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Parashat Noach 5774 — 10/02/2013

Parashat Noach 5774 — 10/02/2013

They came to Noach two by two. (Bereishis 7:9)

In Midrash Shochar Tov (also in Yalkut Shimoni), we find the following account. Before the Flood, Shikra (deceitful gain) approached Noach, in order to enter the ark. Noach said to him, “You cannot enter unless you have a mate.”

   Shikra later met Pachsa (loss), who asked him, “From where are you coming?.

   Shikra answered, I am coming from Noach. I wanted to enter the ark, but he conditioned my entry upon having a mate. Maybe you will consent to be my mate?”

   Pachsa asked, “What will you give me?”

   Shikra answered, I am willing to make a pact with you that whatever I profit, you will take’ They agreed that everything that Shikra would profit, Pachsa would subsequently take. And with their agreement in hand, the two came to the ark together, and were allowed on board.

   After the Flood, Shikra would go around and gather [his deceitful gains], which Pachsa would take [and dispose of], one by one. Shikra complained, “Where have all my profits gone?”

   Pachsa retorted, “Did you not make up with me that whatever you gain [through your deceit] will be lost to me?” Shikra was dumbstruck. There was nothing he could answer. About this it says, Harah amal v’yalad shaker – “He conceived trouble, and gave rise to falsehood” (Tehillim 7:15).’  (Chafetz Chaim)

If you see everywhere around you exploitation of the poor, injustice and lack of fairness, do not be jealous of the sinners because the contract between Shikra and Pachsa is still in full force. If one accumulates wealth unjustly, it will leave him already in midlife (Yirmiyahu 17:11), for Pachsa is very careful that the pact’s terms are always fulfilled. Happy is the man who puts his trust in Hashem (Tehillim 40:5), and does not cheat or steal. [As we know:] No one can touch what has been allotted to his fellow.  (Ma’asei laMelech: Commentary on Chafetz Chaim’s interpretation)

 Unfortunately we see in our contemporary society much of the behavior hinted at in the above quotes.  We see individuals and corporations routinely cheat, lie, steal, bully, bribe, extort and coerce one another, all in the name of profit.  The difference is, we often do not see the perpetrators getting their just deserts.  Think John Corzine/MF Global for example.  As I was writing this, another example, George Zimmerman, was thrust upon the national consciousness as well.  Apparently Pachsa has been left out in the cold in his case.  And yet we are told (Pirke Avot 1:7) Never despair of retribution.  Apparently, we are told, all these things work themselves out somehow, if not on a visible level, then on a subtle level, and if not immediately, at some time in the future.

What exactly is the relationship between Falsehood and Loss?  Perhaps we should first try to understand what Falsehood actually is.  Our Sages (Shabbat 55a) tell us that “the Seal of the Holy One is Truth (Emet).”  Therefore, whatever is closer to Gd is more truthful, and whatever is further from Gd is more permeated with falsehood.  In one sense then, all of Creation is Shikra (Sheker in Hebrew), because Gd had to contract Himself to allow the finite to exist.  From this point of view, there is a separation between Gd and Creation, between Truth and falsehood, and that separation is absolute.  Since the separation is associated with the distinction between Gd and the Creation, which is not-Gd, it is easy to see how this involves loss.  There is nothing smaller than the finite when compared to the infinite, and the further away we move from the infinite, the greater the loss.  Thus, the process of Creation, at least the outward stroke of this process, is characterized by increasing values of Shikra.

There is a sense, however, in which the finite can reverse the process of loss.  As it grows and ramifies, Creation can assume greater and greater levels of structure and complexity.  As these structures grow in orderliness they can better reflect the infinite nature of the Creator.  So, for example, a hummingbird is a marvelous creation, and reflects beautifully the qualities of intellgence from which it sprung.  Yet even such a creature has its severe limitations.  (Why does a hummingbird hum?  Because it can’t remember the words!)  It acts by instinct – it eats, mates, raises its young and dies.

Human beings are on a significantly higher level of complexity; we are able to self-reflect, communicate with one another, and connect with Gd.  If our awareness is fully expanded, it can actually encompass the infinite within it.  And certainly, groups of human beings can create larger structures – societies, which can also reflect the perfect order inherent in the Creator.  This is, I believe, the underlying purpose of Torah’s social legislation, to create such an ideal society.  (We have seen the unfortunate results when we fail to follow Torah’s rules and guidelines.)  In the movement of an individual from limited awareness to fully expanded awareness, and of society from a lower level of organization to a higher level, we have a move from Shikra back to Emet.  As we move from Shikra to Emet we move out of the realm of loss and into the realm of gain, fulfillment and satisfaction.  Thus when Ya’akov met his borther Esav after returning from Lavan’s household, we find Esav, the archetype of Shikra, saying “I have a lot” but feeling the need to take Ya’akov’s gifts.  Ya’akov responds, “I have everything.”  I am connected to Gd, the infinite Source of all material goods; I can never lack for anything.  As we say at the end of Birkat haMazon, lo ra’iti tzaddik ne’ezav / I have never seen the righteous forsaken.

We can take this thinking one step further.  From Gd’s point of view, there never was any contraction, and the finite Creation never separated from Gd.  It exists, as it were, within Gd.  It is bathed in Emet full-time.  From this point of view Shikra doesn’t exist at all, nor is there any Pascha, as every little bit of the finite is fully infused with infinity.  A person who can live on this level of awareness can never indulge in any kind of falsehood, any more than you and I could stick our hand (voluntarily) into a burning oven.  Why would this person feel a need to cheat anyone else – he already is everything!  Such a person’s every action would spontaneously be in accord with Gd’s Will, and anything else would be terribly painful even to contemplate, like sticking one’s hand into a burning oven.

In Pirke Avot (2:1) R. Yehudah haNasi tells us to balance the loss incurred in performing a mitzvah (e.g. the expense of buying a lulav and etrog) against its (infinite) reward, and the finite gain of a transgression against the infinite loss of closeness to Gd that it brings in its wake.  Let’s wake up to who we really are and return to our Father in Heaven so that we never more have to live with loss and lack.

Shemoneh Esrei

Blessed are You, Gd of our forefathers, Gd of Avraham, Gd of Yitzchak and Gd of Ya’akov.

The Gd, great, might and awesome, the Supreme Gd

Grantor of good kindnesses, the Possessor of all, Who remembers the kindnesses of the forefathers, and Who brings the Redeemer to their descendents for the sake of His Name, in love.


Well begun is half done.  (Indian Proverb)

Before discussing the first b’racha I want to make a general comment about prayer.  There is a debate in the Talmud whether performance of mitzvot requires specific intention (kavvanah) to perform the mitzvah.  Now a certain degree of intentionality is surely required – if one is on his way to work on Rosh HaShanah and happens to hear someone blowing the shofar, he has certainly not fulfilled the mitzvah – he’s just had a random occurrence happen to him.  The indication that this is so in this case lies in the blessing one says before hearing the shofar: Blessed art Thou … who has commanded us to listen to the sound of the shofar.  To listen to something implies an intentionality over and above simply hearing the sound.

This distinction applies to prayer in spades.  In fact, it it hard to conceive of prayer without intentionality.  If we recite our prayers without putting our minds to what we are saying, and without feeling in our hearts that we are speaking to Gd and that Gd is listening, we are just reciting empty words.  My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go (Hamlet III:iii).  Nonetheless, it is the experience of everyone who prays that, despite the best of intentions, one’s mind can wander far afield, and one has to continually focus and refocus on the task at hand.

In prayer, there are actually two different kinds of kavvanah that are required.  The first is a general kavvanah: we must maintain awareness of the One to Whom we are praying, the infinite Gd, and His infinite majesty and distance from us, and simultaneously His infinite love for and closeness to us.  The second is a more specific kavvanah: we must be aware of the meaning and significance of the words we are reciting, and the concepts and feelings to keep in our mind and heart as we proceed through the various b’rachot that we recite.  (It is this latter area that I hope to enhance in these columns.)  There are other, more profound levels that advanced Kabbalists access, but they are completely beyond my ken and I will not even attempt to address them.

For those of us for whom maintaining kavvanah is a constant challenge, there is good news.  The halachah actually only requires that we have kavvanah at the end of the first blessing.  This is not to say that not having kavvanah is OK, only that it doesn’t vitiate the entire prayer.  But it seems that, besides its own qualities and meanings, the first b’rachah somehow sets the stage for the prayer experience to follow.  If we can gain sufficient control of our mind to have kavannah at this one point, it appears to reset and refocus us for the rest of the b’rachot in shemoneh esrei.

So the next time you’re praying, before you say Baruch atah H,” magen Avraham, stop, take a breath, and think about what you are saying and Whom you are saying it to.  It’s a good start and it can only lead to a good continuation!  Having made this start, next week Gd willing we will look at the actual words and the structure of this first blessing.