We Are All Lifeguards!

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Parashat Tetzaveh, which we read this month, is unique, in that Moshe Rabbenu’s name does not appear anywhere throughout the parasha.  From the beginning of the Book of Shemot, where we read of Moshe’s birth, through the end of the Torah, Moshe’s name is mentioned in every parashah, except in Parashat Tetzaveh, and in several parashiyot in the Book of Debarim which are narrated entirely by Moshe. 

 

The rabbis explained that this omission is not coincidental, but rather a result of Moshe’s plea on behalf of Beneh Yisrael following the sin of the golden calf.  Gd informed Moshe of His decision to annihilate Beneh Yisrael for worshipping a graven image, and to produce a new nation from Moshe.  This decree was rescinded, however, due to Moshe’s intervention. Moshe stood before Gd and demanded that if He would not forgive them, then “meheni na misifrecha asher katavta – Erase me, if You will, from Your book which You have written” (Shemot 32:32).  Moshe insisted that if the proverbial ship was going to “drown,” then he would go down with it.  He refused to be spared if the nation under his charge was being destroyed.  If Gd was going to annihilate Beneh Yisrael, then Moshe wanted to be erased from the Torah together with them, and not be allowed to remain and lead the new nation that Gd would build in their place. 

 

Of course, as we know, Gd accepted Moshe’s plea, and Beneh Yisrael were spared.  Nevertheless, the commentators explain, a righteous person’s words have an impact even if they are spoken on condition.  Therefore, although the request to be “erased” was made only if Beneh Yisrael would be destroyed, it was still fulfilled in small measure – and Moshe’s name was “erased” from Parashat Tetzaveh. 

 

Let us take a closer look at Moshe’s demand to be “erased,” and what we might learn from his example. 

 

The Waters of Noah 

 

The Arizal (Rav Yitzhak Luria, 1534-1572) drew a fascinating association between Moshe’s plea and an earlier Biblical character, one of whom we read several months ago – Noah. 

 

Like Moshe, Noah was told of Gd’s decree that a population would be annihilated, and only he would be spared.  In Noah’s case, of course, this was not a particular nation, but rather the entire world.  And Noah, unlike Moshe, remained silent.  Whereas Moshe refused to accept the decree, and to be saved while Beneh Yisrael were destroyed, Noah built the ark on which his and his family would be spared while the rest of mankind drowned. 

 

Many centuries later, the prophet Yeshayahu (54:9) refers to the flood that destroyed the earth as “Meh Noah – the waters of Noah.”  Surprisingly, the flood is attributed to Noah, as though he was the person who caused it.  The Zohar explains that Gd blamed Noah for the flood because he did not pray for the people.  He could have prevented  the catastrophe by beseeching Gd on behalf of his generation, but he failed to do so.  In this sense, the flood was truly “Meh Noah,” because he allowed it to happen. 

 

The Arizal, fascinatingly, writes that Moshe Rabbenu was a reincarnation of Noah.  The soul of Noah returned to this world in the form of Moshe Rabbenu, in order to rectify his tragic mistake.  When Moshe was informed of Gd’s plan to eradicate Beneh Yisrael, this was Moshe’s moment, the time for him to realize the mission for which his soul was returned to this world – a mission which, of course, he perfectly fulfilled.  In direct contrast to Noah, Moshe put himself on the line for the people.  He refused to save himself and watch his nation “drown.” 

 

Later writers have noted numerous allusions in the text to this association between Moshe and Noah. 

 

For one thing, the only two contexts in which the word “tevah” (“ark”) appears throughout the Humash is the story of Noah, and the story of Moshe.  The Torah tells that Moshe’s mother, Yocheved, saw “ki tov hu – that he was good” (2:2), and so she decided to hide him from the Egyptian authorities who set out to fulfill Pharaoh’s decree that every Israelite boy be killed.  She proceeded to place him in a “tevah” – a basket – and had it float in the river, where it was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter.  The word “tov” (“good”) in this verse has the numerical value (gematria) of 17.  This verse may thus be read to mean that Yocheved prophetically saw that now, 17 generations after Noah, Noah’s soul had returned to rectify his mistake.  She thus placed Moshe in a tevah in the water, just as Noah was saved from the water by living in a tevah. 

 

Moreover, this explains Moshe’s unusual formulation of his demand: “Meheni na.”  Why did he ask Gd to “erase” him if the people weren’t forgiven?  The answer is that the word “meheni” contains the same letters as the expression “meh Noah – the waters of Noah.”  This was the moment when Moshe rectified his mistake in his previous incarnation, when Noah failed to pray for his generation, and thus received blame for the deluge that destroyed the rest of mankind.  Moshe made reference to Noah’s guilt which he now cleansed, using the word “meheni.” 

 

The word “na” in this verse can also be understood according to the Arizal’s teaching.  This word sometimes means “please,” but can also mean “now.”  Possibly, when Moshe said, “Meheni na,” he meant, “Now, as opposed to the previous occasion, I want to be erased.”  Moshe adds the word “na” in order to contrast his decision at that moment, to save the people whom Gd had condemned to annihilation, with his mistake in his previous life, when he – Noah – failed to pray for his generation. 

 

Our Generation’s Deluge 

 

This concept, developed by the Arizal, emphasizes for us the importance of looking out for the people around us, and, even well beyond, for our nation and even the entire world.  It is not okay to build an “ark” only for ourselves and our families, like Noah did.  We must follow Moshe’s example and assume responsibility for all Am Yisrael. 

 

Today, we are all threatened by a catastrophic “flood,” a tidal wave of decadence, overindulgence, and depravity.  Like a powerful current, the culture of modern society pulls everyone in its path.  So many fellow Jews, precious souls, are “drowning” in the decadence of modern society, unable to withstand the overpowering lures and temptations that abound.  Many have fallen into spiritually harmful behavior patterns, and many have fallen into dangerous addictions, such as alcohol, substances, gambling, or various forms of internet addiction.  This flood of hedonism and pleasure-seeking pulls today’s Jews away from our sacred heritage, away from a Torah lifestyle, away from the sanctity and the unparalleled joy and fulfillment of religious life. 

 

Certainly, everyone’s primary responsibility is to build an “ark” for himself and his family, to try, to whatever extent possible, to protect his household from the spiritual deluge that threatens us.  But our obligation does not end there.  We must not make the same mistake that Noah made, and save only ourselves and our family.  We must assume responsibility for all our fellow Jews threatened by the floodwaters of modern society. 

 

Etz haim hi – It is a ‘tree of life’” (Mishleh 3:18).  Why is Torah called a “tree of life”?  When somebody is drowning, a bystander can save him by throwing him a log or branch that floats in the water.  Torah is the “tree,” the log, that we can and must extend to our beloved brothers and sisters who are “drowning” in the “flood” of decadence.  It is our obligation to try to rescue them with Torah.  Today, we are all lifeguards.  We all have people around us who are “drowning” and whom we need to rescue.  

 

Some readers might, understandably, wonder what this has to do with them.  After all, most people aren’t rabbis, teachers or outreach professionals.  How can they work as spiritual “lifeguards,” handing the “tree of life” to our fellow Jews who are “drowning” in our secular, Gd-less culture? 

 

I draw these readers’ attention to the prayer we recite each and every morning before Shema, in which we beseech Hashem for the wisdom and ability “lilmod ulelamed lishmor vela’asot – to learn, to teach, to observe, and to perform” the Torah’s precepts.  This prayer is recited not only by rabbis and teachers, but by all Jews, each day.  We all ask Gd to help us learn and observe the Torah – and also to teach the Torah.  We are all expected to be teachers.  We are all lifeguards! 

 

All of us can teach in some way.  Even if we do not teach directly, we can teach by example, and we can teach by showing the people around us the beauty and joy of Torah life.  When we conduct ourselves honestly and ethically, when we speak pleasantly and courteously, we are teaching.  When we demonstrate the Torah’s values, when we model the Torah’s ideal of piety and goodness, we are teaching.  We are doing our part to draw our fellow Jews out of the “floodwaters” so they can find spiritual refuge with us, in our safe haven of Torah life. 

 

And, of course, we can open our wallets, and support the efforts to teach and inspire.  We can help fund the institutions and organizations that run classes and lecture series, that reach out to Jews thirsting for inspiration, and that publish Torah material.  We must all do our share to reach out, to help rescue as many fellow Jews as we can.  As important as it of course is to protect ourselves and our families, let us never forget the rest of Am Yisrael, and do what we can to extend to them the “etz haim,” to lift them from “floodwaters,” and to help them live spiritually rich and meaningful lives as precious links in our glorious tradition.