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A Tale of Three Noachs

What I Heard from Benny Fishoff About Holocaust Survivors

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

    2807 views
  • October 7, 2021
  • |
  • 1 Cheshvan 5782

Jewish survivors of the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp arrive at Haifa port in 1945. Photograph: Zoltan Kluger/Getty images

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Class Summary:

Summary:

The Midrash, always sensitive to nuance, wonders why the single verse in the opening of the portion mentions Noach not once, not twice, but three times? The repetition of a name three times in a single sentence or verse is obviously superfluous. The Torah could have stated: “These are the generations of Noah, who was a righteous man, perfect in his generations. He walked with G-d.”

The Midrash offers the following extraordinary insight. The Torah is intimating that there was not one Noach; there were three Noach’s. As the portion continues, we are being introduced to three distinct Noach’s. There is Noach before the flood, during the flood, and after the flood.

An entire generation of Jews understood this Midrashic insight all too well. Many of our parents, grandparents, or great grandparents, some even sitting right here today, have grown up in pre-War Europe. Despite the many challenges facing many in the beginning of the 20th century, scores of them enjoyed a relatively calm and serene childhood. The world was not a perfect place, but it was a fine place, with many pleasant moments, experiences, and joys.

And then, as Hitler took Europe by storm, their entire universe was shaken up and brutally destroyed, as Germany unleashed its awesome torrents of genocide, abuse, and horrific brutality against our people. They were forced to discover a new person in themselves. And then, when the war ended, they needed to find a new “Noach” inside of their souls.

In a far different way, this remains a challenge for many of us, even if in a far more benign way. Many of us, in our own little or big way, experience three worlds, demanding of us to reinvent ourselves again and again and yet again. We live not one life, but at least three lives.

Dedicated in loving memory of the unforgettable Reb Yechiel Benzion ben Reb Dovber Fishoff, who passed away 14 Tishrei, 5782.

Three Lives, Three Worlds

There is a fascinating and insightful Midrash on the opening of this week’s portion. The Torah begins:

נח ו, ט: אֵ֚לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ:

Genesis 6, 9: These are the generations of Noach, Noach was a righteous man; he was perfect in his generations; Noach walked with God.

The Midrash, always sensitive to nuance, wonders why the single verse mentions Noach not once, nor even twice, but three times? The repetition of a name three times in a single sentence is obviously superfluous. The Torah could have stated: “These are the generations of Noah, who was a righteous man, perfect in his generations. He walked with G-d.”

The Midrash offers the following extraordinary insight.

תנחומא נח ה: אלה תולדות נח נח וגו' את האלהים התהלך נח, ג' פעמים בפסוק למה? זה אחד משלשה שראו ג' עולמות נח, ודניאל, ואיוב. נח ראה עולם בישובו, וראהו בחרבנו, וחזר וראהו בישובו, דניאל ראה בנין בית ראשון וראהו חרב וחזר וראהו בנוי בבנין בית שני, איוב ראה בנין ביתו וחרבנו וחזר וראה בישובו.

The Torah is intimating that there was not one Noach; there were three Noach’s. We are being introduced to three distinct Noach’s. There is Noach before the flood, during the flood, and after the flood.

Noach, explains the Midrash, was one of the few individuals in history who lived three lives, in three completely different worlds. First, Noach saw a settled, safe, and predictable world. That was Noach #1. Then Noach saw his entire world destroyed by the flood—that was Noach #2. And then he saw the world rebuilt and civilized after the flood. That was Noach #3.

To survive and thrive in each of the three eras, you need a completely different set of skills and resources. The first Noach grew up and came of age in a world that he, his father, grandfather, and great grandfather were accustomed to. There is routine, order, and comfort.

But then Noach encounters a new reality—one that reduced the entire planet to an ocean, without a single survivor, not among humans, or animals, birds, insects, or even trees or bushes. Just imagine what that does to a person. Everything you knew is suddenly gone. The “skills” required to cope and survive in such a world are of a different nature; it is about resilience and alertness.

But then Noach was forced to reinvent himself yet a third time, as he was summoned to leave the Ark and rebuild the world; to get back into normal life. How do you do that after living on the edge in a world gone mad? How do you integrate back into normal living after you faced the abyss and watched your boat submerged in a titanic flood, and your planet consumed in the waters? How do return to civilization as a normal person?

Now you need a new set of skills—the ability to recover after such devastation; the power to smile again, not the innocent idyllic smile of youthful innocence; rather the joy that comes from conviction and resolve to still believe in the possibility of love, joy, and kindness.

It was far from simple. The only story we know of Noach after the flood is that he planted a vineyard and became inebriated. Did Noach suffer from PTSD? Did Noach need to numb his tremendous pain from the devastation?

An Entire Generation

An entire generation of Jews understood this Midrashic insight all too well.

Many of our parents, grandparents, or great grandparents have grown up in pre-War Europe. Despite the many challenges facing them in the beginning of the 20th century, many of them enjoyed a relatively calm childhood. The world was not a perfect place, but it was a fine place, with many pleasant moments and experiences.

And then, as Adolf Hitler took Europe by storm, their entire universe was shaken up and brutally destroyed, as Germany unleashed its torrents of genocide, abuse, and brutality against our people. Some of our relatives watched parents, children, siblings, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, relatives, and friends, be sent to breathe their last breath ingesting Zyklon B and their bodies burnt in the crematoriums. Six million vibrant lives were cut down through bullets, fire, gas, beatings, hanging, torture, disease, or live burial.

Nobody prepared anybody for this harrowing experience. As I once heard from former Chief Rabbi of Israel Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau, when he tried describing his experience in Buchenwald, at the age of six: “I was six-year-old, surrounded by the stench of death. I would compare myself to a cockroach or a little bug. They may not have large brains, but they have an instinct to do anything they can for survival. They will try everything. And that is what I also understood and did.”

And then the survivors had to yet reinvent themselves, a third time. The survivors of the War now faced the challenge of “normalcy.” Can you ever be normal again? Can you ever laugh again as though the world was a fun place? How do you transform yourself from a creeping insect, trying to find a droplet of water, or a crumb of bread, without an SS guard shooting you, into a dignified human being who has the freedom to live, breathe, and love?

This was not easy—and will one day be recorded as one of the great miracles in the annals of human history. For the most part, the survivors recreated a new world for themselves and all of us, a world of generosity, love, and moral dignity.

From the Furnace

Last week the Jewish world lost a unique and extraordinary individual, a personal family friend, a philanthropist, an activist, and a Holocaust survivor, Mr. Benny Fishoff, at the age of 97. Born in Lodz, Poland he lost his entire family during the Second World War.

He once shared with me the following moving reflection:

The third chapter of the book of Daniel describes the Jewish exile to Babylonia. The king of Babylonia (present-day Iraq), Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE had three Jewish attendants, Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah. When they refused to bow down to a Pagan idol which he erected for people to worship, the king had them thrown into a burning furnace to be burnt alive. Yet miraculously they emerged unscathed. From that moment on, their names are not mentioned any longer in the Tanach as part of Jewish life in Babylonia.

The Talmud asks this question:

סנהדרין צג, א: רבנן להיכא אזול? אמר רב בעין הרע מתו. ושמואל אמר ברוק טבעו. ור' יוחנן אמר עלו לארץ ישראל ונשאו נשים והולידו בנים ובנות.

What happened to the three sages? The Talmud offers three explanations. The third was offered by Rabbi Yochanan: “They went up to the Land of Israel; they married, and they gave birth to sons and daughters.”

The Talmud states this as a novelty because it was no small feat. When people have a near-death experience, and they are saved by a hairs-breath, the trauma often leaves them paralyzed. They can’t function normally in the world. Here, three Jews were plunged into the burning furnace because of their loyalty to Judaism and the G-d of Israel. What did they do afterward? They did not withdraw; they did not give up on life and on Jewish destiny. They returned to the Holy Land from where they were exiled, they got married, and they brought a new generation of Jews to the world.

Benny said to me words I will never forget: You want to know the greatest miracle of the generations of survivors? That we tried to rebuild normal lives! Yes, we were not always successful; yes, we have our share of challenges that we transmitted to our children. But we try our best to be normal. We try to smile, to be happy, to love, to help people, to give our children a dignified future.

Think about it: Unlike Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah who emerged unscathed, the Jews who survived the holocaust watched the burning furnaces of Auschwitz and Treblinka consume their loved ones. Their families were not saved from the crematoriums of Belzec, Chelmno, and Majdanek. Here then is a far more dramatic question: What did the survivors of this unspeakable calamity do when they came out of Hitler’s furnace?

The words employed in the Talmud provide the best answer: “They went up to the Land of Israel; they married, and they gave birth to sons and daughters!”

The generation which exited the gates of the Nazi hell rebuilt the Land of Israel, literally and figuratively—rebuilding Jewish life the world over. Second, most of them got married, and third, they chose to give birth to a new generation of Jews.

And this, Benny, told me, is the greatest miracle in human history.

We often lament about our parents and grandparents, who surviving the Holocaust, often did not lead the most emotionally functional lives. Children of survivors have suffered from the silence, from the repressed pain, from the mid-night screaming, from the PTSD. The pain is deep and real. What we sometimes fail to realize is that after the hell they have been through, that was expected. The miracle is that most of them fought courageously to lead normal lives—to find love once again, to raise families, to trust, to be happy, to celebrate life. And because they did it, we are here today.

From the ashes, they recreated life.

Our Own Three Worlds

In a far different way, this remains a challenge for many of us, even if in a far more benign way.

Many of us, in our own little or big way, experience three worlds, demanding of us to reinvent ourselves again, and again, and yet again. We live not one life, but at least three lives.

We begin our youth often in a “civilized, settled world.” We enjoy the innocence, calmness, stability, and security of youthfulness. We expect things to be a certain way, we rely on routine, and we are sheltered by the feeling that life is good, beautiful, and fragrant.

If you can stay in this world forever—by all means! Do not leave!

But not all of us get this privilege. Sooner or later, spaghetti hits the fan. Some of us encounter a new reality, where our old world is devastated. Our sheltered cocoons blow up and we become vulnerable to sadness, madness, suffering, and loss. The loss of a loved one; the divorce of our parents and the breakdown of our family; mental or emotional challenges; financial crisis; broken relationships; trauma and anxiety—all leaving our hearts shattered into one thousand pieces. Some of us have known the pain of abuse and molestation, physical, verbal, or emotional. Some of us have known the pain of addiction and self-destruction, following or preceding the experience of our world inundated by a massive “flood.” All we search for is an Ark, where we can run and hide.

But then we must have the courage to reinvent ourselves yet a third time—to become yet a new “Noach,” one who can create a new world—a world of laughter, love, light, hope, and promise; a life of healthy attachments, faith, and joy; a life filled with the conviction that goodness is more powerful than evil, and light can dispel darkness.

Yes, this new world lacks that idyllic innocence and ignorance of childhood, but it contains a depth, maturity, and profundity that allows it to become a real foundation that can’t crumble.[1]  

G-d says to Noach, “go out of the ark,” and build a new world. Even when it raining outside, look up and you might see a rainbow, knowing that above the clouds, the sun is always shining. At every moment, you are a manifestation of the infinite light and love of the Divine. The clouds will pass, and your sunlight and sunshine will emerge.

___________

[1] See at length Sichas Shabbos Bereishis 5721

Please leave your comment below!

  • R

    Ralph -2 years ago

    Reading the article post-holocaust and mabul reminds me of something my grandfather z"l told me.

    He came from a chasidish family, his father and he dressed in chasidish garb and he had payos and beard. After he was clean-shaven and short jacket.

    A relative once asked him u look so different than prewar. He answered look noach went in a ish tzadik and after the mabul was a ish hadama. I am not so bad.....

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • Y

    yisroel -2 years ago

    Thank you Rabbi Jacobson for a truly beautiful article.
    Yisroel

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • D

    dina -2 years ago

    Very nice ! Beautiful. Thank you.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • Anonymous -2 years ago

    Eye opening

    Wow wow I'm so speechless!!

    Thank you so much Rebbi YY Jacobson, your classes have so much information in them. 
    I can listen a few times to a class and each time take away another lesson. 
    you always connect the parshah to our daily life.
    The more I listen the more I see how the Torah is our blueprint and every single situation can be found and it teaches us what our role is and what hashem wants from us now. 
    the more I learn and see the more amazed I become and the privileged I feel.

    Thanks for all this eye opening!!

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • CYB

    Chaim Y. Bochner -2 years ago

    Excellent Essay, Rabbi Jacobson, like always. I can relate to this somewhat as both sets of my grandparents went through the hell of the concentration camps and their parents and most of their families were brutally killed in the holocaust. My mothers parents are still alive B"H and I hear stories from them all the time and am BAFFLED by the way they continued building a yiddishe family. They now have over 100 offsprings KY"H.

    Can you please show how I can find the Sichas Shabbos Bereishis 5721? I would love to read it.

    Thanks so much.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • MI

    malki indich -2 years ago

    So powerful and so uplifting!

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • EZ

    Efraim Zaltzman -2 years ago

    grerat article !!!  keepem comin Rabbi YY

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • F

    Fruma -2 years ago

    The essay of Parshan Noach and Benny Fishoff was one of the most beautiful, deep, and moving essays I’ve read from Rabbi Jacobson.

    The comparison to the holocaust, the appreciation for that generation, and the healing of our generation, the essay covered it all so well and so completely. Thank you! 

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • Anonymous -2 years ago

    Wow

    gives explanation both to understanding our parents

    and strength and dignity to understanding and learning from our past generation we too have 3 lives

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • J

    Joe -2 years ago

    Well reasoned & meaningful

    To Rabbi Jacobson: This was a well reasoned, clearly written & very meaningful explanation of Parshat Noach

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Noach

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • October 7, 2021
  • |
  • 1 Cheshvan 5782
  • |
  • 2807 views
  • Comment

Dedicated in loving memory of the unforgettable Reb Yechiel Benzion ben Reb Dovber Fishoff, who passed away 14 Tishrei, 5782.

Class Summary:

Summary:

The Midrash, always sensitive to nuance, wonders why the single verse in the opening of the portion mentions Noach not once, not twice, but three times? The repetition of a name three times in a single sentence or verse is obviously superfluous. The Torah could have stated: “These are the generations of Noah, who was a righteous man, perfect in his generations. He walked with G-d.”

The Midrash offers the following extraordinary insight. The Torah is intimating that there was not one Noach; there were three Noach’s. As the portion continues, we are being introduced to three distinct Noach’s. There is Noach before the flood, during the flood, and after the flood.

An entire generation of Jews understood this Midrashic insight all too well. Many of our parents, grandparents, or great grandparents, some even sitting right here today, have grown up in pre-War Europe. Despite the many challenges facing many in the beginning of the 20th century, scores of them enjoyed a relatively calm and serene childhood. The world was not a perfect place, but it was a fine place, with many pleasant moments, experiences, and joys.

And then, as Hitler took Europe by storm, their entire universe was shaken up and brutally destroyed, as Germany unleashed its awesome torrents of genocide, abuse, and horrific brutality against our people. They were forced to discover a new person in themselves. And then, when the war ended, they needed to find a new “Noach” inside of their souls.

In a far different way, this remains a challenge for many of us, even if in a far more benign way. Many of us, in our own little or big way, experience three worlds, demanding of us to reinvent ourselves again and again and yet again. We live not one life, but at least three lives.

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