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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Noach 5774 "Sunrise; Sunset"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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“Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly flow the days
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers
Blossoming even as we gaze

”Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly fly the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears[1]

On Sunday, 25 Tishrei 5768, our family had a unique emotional experience. Our then friends and neighbors with whom we shared a wall, Mendy and Yehudis Rosen, celebrated the b’ris of their son, Chananya Yom Tov Lipa. At the same time, our other neighbor across the hall, Mr. Aryeh Leib (Leopold) Joseph was buried.

It was strange to leave the joyous atmosphere of an immediate neighbor’s b’ris in order to attend the funeral of our other immediate neighbor just a short distance away.

Although Mr. Joseph was 86 years old and is survived by his children and grandchildren, we felt a special kinship with him and were very saddened by his passing. I was given the honor to say a short grave-side eulogy about Mr. Joseph. I began by mentioning our family’s special relationship with Mr. Joseph. We viewed him not only as a grandfatherly friend and neighbor, but also as a role model. When we would see Mr. Joseph walking slowly toward his apartment on Shabbos morning with his tallis bag in hand we would rush outside to greet him. When he would see us approaching his eyes would light up and, after wishing my children a Good Shabbos, he would always ask me, “How is your wife? How is everything?” As we escorted him down to his apartment he would make playful small-talk with my children.

My children enjoyed the Friday afternoons when Mr. Joseph’s grandchildren would come to visit him. The doors to both of our apartments would remain open as our children and his grandchildren ran freely between the two. Mr. Joseph, whose wife died five years ago, awaited those visits all week. In years past he was a baker and in anticipation of his grandchildren’s visits he would bake pastries for them each week. On occasion, all the kids would pile into his little blue wagon and he would pull them around his little apartment. That was our friend and neighbor, Mr. Joseph.

There was another aspect of Mr. Joseph however, that my wife and I realized that our children couldn’t appreciate. Mr. Joseph was a survivor! He rarely - if ever - related his experiences during the war. We only knew that he came from Czechoslovakia and that he had suffered in the heinous Nazi Labor Camps. But we also knew that he rebuilt and never lost his smile and pleasant demeanor. He would often tell us how difficult it was to live alone. But then he would smile sadly and, with his European accent, would say, “Vell, vhat can you do? Dat’s life!”

At the funeral I related the following incident: About 25 kilometers southeast of Warsaw, on the banks of the Vistula River, lies a small town. In Polish it is called Gora-Kalwaria; in Yiddish it is known as Ger. It was the foundation of Gerrer Chassidus, one of the strongest and most influential sects of Chassidim in pre-war Europe.

During the Holocaust, the Nazis destroyed most of the 200,000 chassidim. The saintly Gerrer Rebbe, the Immrei Emes[2] escaped to Eretz Yisroel with few family members. Despite his fiery spirit, he was heartbroken after witnessing the destruction of his Chassidim. He died in Jeruslaem during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, while the Jordanians were shelling the city.

His son, Rabbi Yisroel, immediately assumed the leadership of the fledgling chassidus. His wife, daughter, son and grandchildren had been killed in the Holocaust, a fact he did not learn until 1945. Although he remarried after the war, he never merited having more children.

During the next 29 years until his passing in 1977, Rabbi Yisroel rebuilt Ger into one of the world’s leading sects of chassidus. With incredible resiliency and an indomitable spirit, he rekindled the spark that the Nazis sought to extinguish. The Rebbe was a staunch and stoic personality with a fire in his eyes that penetrated the soul of anyone he gazed at. His Chassidim knew he loved them above all else, despite his uncompromising quest for purity and holiness.

Although the Rebbe rarely showed emotion, on one occasion, he expressed a hint of inner-emotion. In discussing Noach and the flood, the Torah relates that Noach was righteous and adhered to the word of G-d. When he was told that the world would be destroyed and that he alone would be responsible for the survival of mankind and humankind, the Torah relates, (6:22) “Noach did everything that G-d had commanded him, so he did.”

Rashi explains that the verse is specifically referring to the fact that Noach constructed the Ark. A few verses later (7:5) it again states that, “Noach did according to everything that Hashem commanded him.” Rashi there explains that the verse is referring to Noach’s entry into the Ark. What great praise is it to say that Noach undertook the arduous task of constructing the Ark if it was his only means of salvation? What kind of fool would not build an Ark under such dire circumstances? Furthermore, what merit is there in the fact that he entered the Ark when the flood was imminent, and in fact had begun?

The Rebbe explained (in not so many words) that, in truth, it may not have been in Noach’s best interest to survive. Would a person in that situation want to be the lone survivor of a decimated and obliterated world? Can one even imagine the horrible sight that greeted Noach when he emerged from the Ark? It is conceivable that it would have been far easier for Noach to simply allow himself to be destroyed along with everyone else. But G-d did not give Noach that prerogative. He commanded him to live and survive and Noach obeyed.

I have occasionally heard survivors painfully admit that they often did not feel lucky to have survived. “Do you think we wanted to survive when our families, friends, communities, and everything we knew, was mercilessly and ruthlessly destroyed?” It would surely have been easier to jump on the electric fence or simply not get up for the infamous roll call during the cold early morning. But those who survived shared the feeling of Noach. G-d willed them to live and therefore it was incumbent for them to try to do so.

Mr. Joseph was a role model for us because he personified this concept. He rebuilt his life with that feeling of responsibility and he lived out his final lonely years in the same vein.

After the flood, Noach emerged to begin the challenge of rebuilding the world. At that point, G-d instructed Noach about the preservation of mankind and the value of human life. (8:5) “However, your blood which belongs to your souls will demand, of every beast will I demand it; but of man, of every man for that of his brother I will demand the soul of man.”

Hakesav Vehakaballah notes the seeming redundancy of the verse, “Your souls…but of man, of every man…the soul of man”. He explains that there are two forms of murder. One class of murder is when one kills someone in order to usurp his money or to exact revenge. The second class of murder is when one does so for the benefit of the person being killed, in order to spare him pain and suffering. The verse repeats, “of every man for that of his brother” to include one who kills another in order to spare him pain and suffering. It is forbidden even to kill a person who is one’s “brother”[3], even of such a person G-d states: “I will demand the soul of man.”

Rabbi Moshe Scheinerman[4] relates that he once heard someone quip that, “While the world is concerned about quality of life, Klal Yisroel is concerned about holiness of life.” Dovid Hamelech expressed the same sentiment “G-d has severely afflicted me but he has not given me over to death.[5]” Even a life of pain and affliction is better than death.

Noach endured and Noach persevered. Our parents and grandparents in the previous generation had the same resilience and obdurate dedication. They too have persevered and we are the beneficiaries of their sacrifices.

“Noach did everything that G-d had commanded him”

“Vell, vhat can you do? Dat’s life!”

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[1] Fiddler on the Roof

[2] Rabbi Avrohom Mordechai Alter zt’l

[3] i.e. he loves him and is acting in his best interest

[4] Ohel Moshe

[5] Tehillim 118:18

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