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Noach 5784    October 21, 2023 

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom (the shalom can’t come fast enough)

My friend, Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein lives in Jerusalem and is living through the nightmare that life there has become. My prayers for the safety of all those in Israel includes him and his family. I have made it a point to be a sponsor of his commentary and I often find gems in his writings that I sometimes pass on to all of you. Today is such a day. In the middle of this war and terror, he writes about the Haftara for today, a selection from Isaiah that brings light to these dark days.

Isaiah writes, Unhappy and storm-tossed one, uncomforted! I will lay carbuncles as your building stones and make your foundation of sapphires. I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of precious stones, the whole encircling wall of gems. (54:11-12)”

A city built of gemstones would indeed be a wonder to behold. A city so protected by God that the city walls were made of precious gems. I would assume that it would be a city without poverty or homelessness. Such a city would be an amazing miracle to behold. Rabbi Silverstein notes that the Sages also understood this vision as a miracle and this is the story they tell to understand the lessons to be learned from a city of precious stones:

Rabbi Yehoshua stood with Eliyahu (the prophet) of blessed memory. He said to him: 'Will my lord not show me these stones [mentioned in the verses of this vision]? Eliyahu responded: 'Yes'. He showed them to him by way of a miracle. There was a ship sailing in the Great Sea. On board, all of the passengers were gentiles except for one Jewish child. A terrible storm came upon the ship at sea. Whereupon, Eliyahu appeared to the boy and said to him: 'Go on a mission for me to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and show him these precious stones and I shall save the ship on behalf of your merit. The boy hesitated. He said: 'But Rabbi Yehoshua is the greatest man of the generation. Why should he believe the likes of me?' Eliyahu answered: 'Indeed, but he is very humble, and he will believe you. However, when you show him the stones, do not show them to him in front of other people. Take him to a cave that is three miles from Lod and show him the stones there.' The miracle occurred and the ship was saved. The boy went to Lod and found Rabbi Yehoshua in a session of the great court. He said to him: 'My lord, I have something private to say to you.' Rabbi Yehoshua got up and because of his humility followed him for three miles and never asked him: 'What do you want of me?' When they arrived at the cave, the boy said to him: 'These are the stones [that you asked Eliyahu about.]. When he saw them, he was dazzled by their light and dropped them to the ground, and they were buried." (adapted from Pesikta d'Rav Kahana 18:5 Mandelbaum ed. pp. 296-7)
My friend, Rabbi Silverstein then explains the esoteric meaning of this Talmudic midrash. Rabbi Silverstein writes, “Isaiah's prophecy stretches the imagination. It is no surprise, then, that the stories brought to put it in perspective should be no less fantastic. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi cannot get his head around what Jerusalem will look like, so he appeals to the Jewish arbiter of the miraculous, Eliyahu. Rabbi Yehoshua is shown what he wants to see but only after a miraculous mission where a young boy promises Eliyahu that he will carry out his requisite mission. The boy’s willingness saves the lives of his shipmates. Rabbi Yehoshua, a truly great man, gets what he wants but only because he is humble. When his wish is granted, it is only for a moment because the miraculous light cast off by the stones causes him to drop them so that they again become hidden in order to illustrate for us how elusive these human qualities are.
The rebuilt Jerusalem, then, is a miraculous phenomenon. It requires the faith and tenacity of a boy willing to carry out Eliyahu's mission despite all odds and the humility of Rabbi Yehoshua, who does not let his ego get in the way of that which is ultimately important. It is the product of a miracle, but like so many miracles, it is built upon human virtues which are no less miraculous than any that God performs.

We are living through some of the darkest days we can imagine. There is the horror of a massacre, the hostages who have become pawns in high stakes games. There are the politics that lie behind the savagery we have experienced and there are the innocent people, without food, water or medical care who are also pawns of the terrorists who have no concern for human life at all. All we have today is the inhumanity of the terrorists and the steady hand of Israel looking to bring them to justice for the murders they daily commit.

Our Haftara comes to remind us that the dark side of being human can bring tragedy and pain into the world. But the good side of humanity can bring us light and life. One does not have to be a person of heroic stature to make a miracle possible. A child can bring salvation to a ship in danger of sinking and bring understanding to a great sage. What makes the sage great is not his wisdom or his understanding, but his humility.

Why does it have to be such a miracle that human beings should act humanely?  A Nobel prize for peace is given to a young woman in an Iranian jail. She is jailed because she spoke up for the rights of Women in the Islamic state. She is awarded not because she destroyed a city or killed unarmed civilians, but because she seeks to destroy laws that are meant to suppress and to discriminate. Hamas did not attack because they believe in Palestinian rights. They attacked because they feared peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The evil in people is used to prevent the good from rising. What is it that all of us can do to help bring peace when there are all too many who wish humanity to descend into the darkness?

In our Parsha, we read at the very beginning, that among all the people on earth, only Noah walked with God. It is high praise from the Torah, but the later Sages looked at this verse and understood it as limiting the favor that Noah had from God. They note that later on in Genesis, Abraham refers to the “God, before whom I walked.” (Gen 24:20) Noah may have walked “with” God but Abraham walked in the place of honor “before” God. It was the later Hasidic masters who understood the subtle meaning of this text.

Rabbi Arthur Green, of Boston, who comments extensively on Hasidic texts wrote in his commentary this week, “The contrasting of Noah with Abraham is a feature of comments on this passage throughout the generations. Here they are depicted as two sorts of devotees. Noah needs to be awakened “from above,” i.e., by external forces or events. He only “walks with God” after being awakened. Abraham wakes up on his own; by doing so, he arouses an awakening above as well. This is what Y-H-W-H wants of us, that we wake up and witness to Creation as divine handiwork and act to save and protect it. In this way, we restore the vitality implanted with us to its Source, re-energizing, and “awakening” the One.”

Dr. Green’s comment this week cut deeply into the events that are unfolding in Israel and in our hearts. The attack by Hamas woke within us all of our old demons of hatred, antisemitism, of pogroms and fields of slaughter. It awoke within us our new power of self-determination and our promises made in past generations to never again allow those who attack us to walk away unscathed. We will take into our own hands the instruments of war and bring the killers to justice. We were “awakened from above” it was the external attack that brought us out of our slumber and put us on full alert. It took a day of slaughter to remind us that those who hate us will always hate us and will always look for the right time to attack.

The question before us now is what will happen when justice will be served; when the dead are avenged, and the murderers’ punishment will be decreed? What will we do then? Will we go back to sleep until the next attack, until evil arises against us again? Or will we walk a different path?

If we wish to bring peace to Israel and to the Jewish People, we can’t wait to be “awakened from above.” We can’t just wait until the next time our enemies catch us sleeping. We need to be awakened from below. Like our patriarch Abraham, we need to wake ourselves up and thus cause God to be awakened to our needs before things become critical. Israel can no longer afford to live by its strength, by her army, by the men and women of the IDF. They do protect us from the evil that is all around, but we need to awaken to the evil first, not with soldiers and guns, but with diplomats and allies. We need to strengthen the bonds of peace between Israel and the other democracies of the world. We need to strengthen the bonds of peace between Israel and her neighbors. We need to strengthen the bonds of peace between the Jewish people and all the other religions and nations around the world. And yes, that also means opening ourselves to the possibilities of peace with the Muslim world as well. It was Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who taught us “You don't make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies.”

There will be days ahead where we will wonder where all this hatred and bloodshed will lead us. If it leads us down roads to more war and more killing than we are already at a (pardon the pun) dead end. But if we can take this war and decide that peace is more important than defense, then we will work all the harder to give other people reasons to work with us and not against us. Perhaps we can convince, even our enemies, that peace is a better path to travel.

I am a realist. I always have been one. I know there will never be an end to hate and injustice, to murder and senseless hatred. But if we can find ways to be awake to the possibilities of peace, perhaps we can be better prepared when faced with future trials and tribulations. I am a realist; but I also have faith, faith in the goodness of humanity, in the possibilities of the future, and faith in a world where peace is real.

May God bless all those who risk their lives to protect us today and every day. And may God bless those who work every minute, every hour, and every day to bring peace to this world. Bless the works of their hands, God as we say ….   Amen and Shabbat Shalom


Sat, June 22 2024 16 Sivan 5784