There’s a lot we can learn from the early generations of humanity. We read about it in last week’s parsha, Bereishit, and this week’s parsha, Noach – exploring the very first human beings and societies, what they grappled with, what they succeeded at, what they failed at. We can learn from them what it takes to build a society and a family, and who we are as people. On the other hand, we can learn about actions that can lead to destruction. So much of what we know of them is the story of failed societies and mistakes, of where things went wrong. It’s important that we stop and look at what happened so that we can learn from their mistakes.
What led to their disasters? There was the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; Cain murdering his brother, Abel; the complete destruction of the generation of the flood, which literally wiped away the entire world; and then, right at the end of Parshat Noach, the generation that built a great tower, which was meant to be an incredible edifice of glory and strength, but led to the dispersion of people and fragmentation of humanity. When we look at these four events, what pattern emerges?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on the Chumash, points to the mishna in Pirkei Avot, which says: “Jealousy, desire and the pursuit of honour drive a person out of this world.” The formula to understand what happened to these early generations lies in this.
Adam and Eve wanted the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. The Torah says that the fruit looked so good that they took it and they wanted it. That was desire. With Cain and Abel it was about jealousy – Cain was jealous that G-d accepted Abel’s sacrifices. The generation of the flood was actually a combination. This generation was steeped in terrible jealousy, which led to theft, unethical behaviour and even violence. They were also submerged in the pursuit of physicality and sexual immorality, according to our sages. The generation of the Tower of Babel was in pursuit of honour and glory. They wanted to build this enormous, incredible edifice that would bring them glory and make them into a society that would spread their fame all over the world.
I think it’s important to stop for a moment and reflect on this mishna. What is so interesting is that it says that they “drive a person out of the world.” What does it mean “out of the world”? The Tiferet Yisrael, one of our classical commentators on the Mishna, says that it means out of both this world and the next. How do we understand this?
Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abarbanel, one of our great commentators of the Middle Ages, says that the root of all sin is contained in these three driving forces within the human being. We have all kinds of mitzvot – ones that relate to how we should deal ethically and compassionately with our fellow people; others that guide us on how to connect with G-d – but the root cause of these mitzvot being overturned are these three things. When people are filled with jealousy, it drives them away from ethical conduct, compassion, sensitivity and decency in dealing with other people. When people are consumed with a pursuit of physical desires, it causes them to pursue behaviour that is not a reflection of the sanctity and dignity that G-d wants from human beings. And the pursuit of honour and recognition drives a person to do things that violate their most basic principles and their real sense of conscience. That’s how these three things drive a person out of the next world.
But how do they drive a person out of this world? Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran, in his commentary on Pirkei Avot, answers this question. He says that they destroy a person’s quality of life, even on a physical level. He quotes from a number of sources within Torah thinking that say jealousy has a physical impact. When a person wants what others have, it actually damages them physically, and is emotionally destructive. The blind pursuit of physical pleasure and indulgence can lead to excesses that are damaging to a person’s health. The pursuit of honour is also enormously damaging, which other commentators like the Pirkei Moshe have also noted. It leads to conflict between people, and conflict destroys a person’s sense of well-being, something that is profoundly negative.
But this is the really challenging part. One of the great commentators on Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yosef Ya’avetz, says the reason the mishna singles out these three things is because G-d has planted them within us, so that we are naturally prone to jealousy, desire and pursuit of honour. A person could say, “I can see how destructive this all is, and that it destroys us in this world and the next. It destroys societies and people, but how do I overcome it?”
There are many different approaches to this, but the one that I would like to share with you, especially in the context of this week’s parsha, is a point made by the Sheim MiShmuel, the Sochatchover Rebbe. He quotes from the Zohar that says Noach is symbolically linked to Shabbos. The generation of the flood was consumed by all three of these traits – jealousy, desire and the pursuit of honour – but Noach, representing the power of Shabbos, comes as the antidote to that.
G-d has given us the incredible gift of Shabbos as the counterbalance that nurtures us to be able to overcome jealousy, desire and the pursuit of honour. The three holy meals of Shabbos correspond to the counteracting forces for these three negative forces in our lives, says the Sheim MiShmuel. How does Shabbos do that?
When it comes to controlling and channelling physical desire, Shabbos guides us. On the one hand, it is a day dedicated to physical pleasure. It’s about eating good food, wearing nice clothes, sleeping, relaxing – it’s full of celebration and enjoyment. Yet that celebration and enjoyment is bound up with service of G-d, with holiness, with sanctity, bonding with family and friends. Shabbos teaches us how to deal with physical desire. It is not there to be smothered and ignored. It can’t be; it’s a natural part of who we are. It needs to be used for the good. When physical desire controls us, we become overwhelmed by it, but when we can control it, it brings joy, happiness and excitement to life.
Shabbos also teaches us how to overcome jealousy. The Ibn Ezra explains this in his commentary on the last of the Ten Commandments, which says “do not covet”. He says if we have faith in G-d, then we believe that whatever we have and whatever other people have is what is meant to be, because that is what G-d wants. Trust in G-d means that we believe the world is full of abundance and G-d could give us anything we want. What we do have is precisely what we need to fulfil our mission in this world. Sometimes we don’t understand. We wish we had more, and it’s fine to want and pray for more, but ultimately, trust in G-d means making peace with our lives – they are the way they are meant to be.
Shabbos brings to us so powerfully the concept of trust and faith in G-d because it reminds us we are in His hands. The Jewish people were first introduced as a nation to the idea of Shabbos in the desert when the manna was falling from heaven. It fell for six days – never on Shabbos – and on Friday, there was always a double portion for Shabbos. That double portion is why we have two challahs on the table at all our Shabbos meals. They remind us that our sustenance, everything we have, comes directly from G-d. Even today, when we go out and earn a living, purchase food and do whatever we do to sustain ourselves, it’s still a great miracle directly from G-d, like manna from heaven. Shabbos reminds us to have trust in G-d, and in this way we can overcome jealousy.
The third potentially destructive dimension of human nature that Shabbos addresses is the need for honour and recognition. On Shabbos, we remind ourselves that, actually, we are not the king of this world – G-d is, and we bow our heads in humility. We read in last week’s parsha, Bereishit, that G-d told us to be fruitful and multiply and to fill the land and subdue it, so we are called on by G-d to conquer this world and impose ourselves on it – but only for six days. On the seventh day, we step back from dominating the world and remind ourselves that G-d created us and our world and that, ultimately, He is our King. This is humility.
When we have this deep humility, it helps us recognise that we are just like every other human being on earth. We are all created by G-d, and we recognise the intrinsic honour of what it means to be created in G-d’s image, that we are all equal. That’s what the Ramban says to his son in his famous letter: When you recognise the majesty and the sovereignty of G-d, you will see that all people are equal, and that will bring you to humility.
G-d has given us this incredible gift of Shabbos to be the balancing force in our lives. It shows us how to direct physical desire in a way that we can control it and use it to enjoy life and to be productive, as contributing servants of G-d. It teaches us faith in G-d so that we can overcome jealousy and resentment towards other people. And it teaches us that there is only one King, which helps us absorb humility. We can now see how Shabbos restores us as people, as families, as communities, as societies, so that we can go out into the week with the right frame of mind, with the right approach, and live lives of blessing.