Being “Tamim” In New Realities

A co-worker of mine shared the following idea with me a few days ago: At the beginning of our sedra, Noach is described as “איש צדיק תמים היה בדורותיו- a tzadik, pure in/for his generation” (בראשית ו:ט). Rashi famously writes that Chazal are divided on explaining this qualification- “יש שדורשים לשבח ויש שדורשים לגנאי.”

Some believed that “תמים היה בדורותיו” is a praise to Noach’s greatness, for he turned out to be an “איש צדיק” despite the fact that for the first six hundred years of his life, he was surrounded by people so evil that they caused G-d to destroy the world in order to save humanity. If Noach would have been in even a marginally better world, say the generation of Avraham, imagine how great he would have been.

Conversely, others believed that this qualification is a less than positive assessment of Noach’s character. Noach was an “איש צדיק” because he was surrounded by bad people. If we would have lived in even a slightly better generation, for example that of our forefather Avraham, then, in the words of Rashi, “לא היה נחשב לכלום, he wouldn’t have been anything special at all.”

My colleague asked a very obvious question which I had never even begun to think about. Among all of the toledot written in these week’s and last week’s sedrot, it emerges that Noach was born in the year 1056 after creation, and passed away 950 years later, in year 2006. If we do the math of the chronicles at then end of our sedra, from Arpachshad until Terach, it becomes apparent that Avraham was born in the year 1948 after creation, fifty eight years before Noach’s death. Effectively, Noach did live in Avraham’s generation, and Chazal‘s seemingly random choice of Avraham’s generation as a point of comparison and contrast to dor hamabul seems poor at best and careless at worst.

Making the safe assumption that our Rabbis of blessed memory were aware of this overlap, my co-worker explained, a deeper message emerges. Yes, Noach did technically live during Avraham’s lifetime, but he didn’t truly live in Avraham’s generation. He never accepted the changes over that happened during his expansive life, so by the time he reached a much better generation, Noach treated them just as he treated the evil people of his younger years, and for this, many of Chazal criticize him. Effectively, he lived and died in dor hamabul, and never really experienced Avraham’s generation.

The lesson here is obvious. Every day, the world changes just a little bit, and we must also be aware of these changes, and adjust our perspective on the world. The difference between the Avraham’s (described as “תמים”) and the Noach’s (less flateringly dubbed “תמים… בדורותיו”) is that the former is able to keep up with new realities and remain “pure,” while the latter loses his “צדקות” with every change, having a difficulty finding truth and righteousness in changing situations.

This bombshell D’var Torah hit me particularly hard as scarcely an hour later, the sound of sirens filled our office as it became clear that on Malhei Yisrael st, less than three blocks away from our building, a terrorist had driven his car into a bus stop. The twisted fiend had then jumped out of his vehicle, and proceeded to stab and kill a Jew standing there, injuring others nearby. People had already been on edge after hearing about an earlier stabbing attack in the coastal town of Ranaana, and it became worse as news began to filter in of a shooting and attempted hijacking of a bus in Armon Hanaziv, and another stabbing in Ranaana.

By the time I left work to go to my classes, the running count for the day had been 3 casualties and over 20 injured, on or near transportation in Israel. So, naturally, as I got on the bus that would take me to school, I was quite nervous and on the lookout for any suspicious characters who would try to change my final destination from Giv’at Mordechai to the Olam Ha’emet, to do to me what had already been done to Rav Yeshaye Krishevsky, Haviv Haim, and Alon Guverg (Hy”d) only hours earlier.

As my bus made its second-to-last stop, at the Gesher HaMaytarim (Bridge of Strings- incidentally where another bus shooting had been narrowly foiled less than twenty four hours earlier), I saw a pair of very seedy characters step on the bus. Appearing to my Oleh eyes as possibly Arab, and quietly whispering to each other in what I thought to be Arabic, these two walked very closely together to the middle of the bus and stood there, one facing in each direction, ignoring open seats nearby.

My heart began to race, and I grabbed tight hold of the pepper spray in my pocket, wondering if the sight of the traffic-packed Begin Expressway would be the last thing I would ever see. As I kept my eyes on these would-be terrorists, waiting for the moment they would take out their knives and begin massacring me and the other passengers, one of them started to bend down. I felt my blood turn cold, waiting for him to take a weapon out of his shoes. But, instead of reaching into his shoe, he started tying it instead. At that moment, I also noticed that he was wearing a small, darkkippah, on the back of his head, and his collaborator… no, I realized, his close friend… had turned around, and was in fact wearing a Magen David necklace.

As I began to catch my breath, it became clear to me that I had mistaken a pair of Jews, possibly Jerusalem’s most sketchy arsim, for terrorists. What had I done? How could I let my fear of dying let me confuse brother and enemy.

Thinking back now, I think that my gut reaction, though incorrect in the end, was the right perspective to have. Israel’s large immigrant population from North African Muslim countries, where Jews usually didn’t wear kippot in public and often don’t start to after making aliyah, can often lead to confusion between brothers and cousins in the Jewish State. During the majority of the time when rampant unjustified violence (a silent intifada, if you prefer the universally accepted terminology) is not an issue here, it rarely makes a difference if the man walking opposite me believes in the World to Come or in seventy virgins. However, after more than thirty incidents of walk-by stabbings and shootings in the past two weeks, one is left with a difficult decision every time they pass someone in the street- “Are they going to try to kill me? Do I walk out of my way to avoid them or not?”

Returning to my colleague’s D’var Torah, there are two schools of thought. There are the Noach’s, who were correct (using another translation for תמים, if you’ll allow me) in previous times of peace, where they had nothing to fear from passers-by in the streets of Jerusalem. Even in these more dangerous times, they give each pedestrian the benefit of the doubt, and put themselves at risk in the process (many liberal Israelis, such as another co-worker of mine, strongly believe in this school of thought, and go out of their way especially now to get chummy with Muslims in the street).

However, others are Avraham’s, who adjust their “street smarts” to the current situation, and follow the the famous advice of the second peek of Avot- “איזהו חכם? הרואה את הנולד” – by treating every suspicious figure in the streets with the appropriate caution. It seems very obvious to me that Chazal in both Noach and Avot, as well as the text of the sedra itself, make it clear that we must be careful and appropriately suspicious, even if we mistakenly are threatened by innocents in the process.

One of the biggest debates raging the news networks and discussion forums on the internet now, unfortunately even more viral than the volatile situation in Syria, the apartheid in Iran and Iraq, and even the still-distant 2016 Election which has dominated the American mainstream for three years already, is whether or not Israel security forces and civilians are correct in their track record of shooting to kill terrorists on the spot. Critics claim that even based on Israeli law, the current situation is classified as a “law enforcement situation,” where gun holders are not allowed to shoot to kill, or to discourage further attack, as opposed to a “war situation,” where it would be allowed. They complain that since the attackers are individuals, and not an organized group, it is difficult to know who exactly is a threat, so it is illegal to shoot to kill, even if a terrorist in running at you with a knife.

Even though these critics seem to be beyond reason, I would like to refer them to my co-worker’s chiddush on Rashi on our sedra. Whether or not the brainwashed Palestinian maniacs currently terorrizing Israel have come up with a collective name to call themselves or not, it is clear that this is war. Six platoons of the IDF have been called into Jerusalem to help strengthen the security forces and, at the time of this writing, two stabbings have already happened right under their noses. A battle is being fought right now, and it’s happening in a city full of our civilians.

Anyone who thinks previous rules of armed conduct apply in this situation are (להבדיל אלף הבדלות), just like Rashi’s negative perspective on Noach. The critical observers in Eruope and America may think they are morally correct, but they are beyond wrong in these difficult times. We’re not living in a generation of masked, armed militants firing rockets and guns at innocent civilians- now, they’re sending their brainwashed, teenage kids to do their dirty work, right in the middle of our populated, uncontested cities. As long as we worry about the human rights of the same population which is trying to kill us, our own numbers will continue to lessen.

With Hashem’s help, we’ll return to times when Noach’s naivete was more appropriate, and will merit a lasting peace, a permanent removal of our enemies and their brethren from their illegal occupation of part of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and the building of the third and final Bet Hamikdash on the spot of the abominable dome that they blame this entire conflict on, very very soon. Shabbat Shalom and Besorot Tovot.

About the Author
Born and raised in Teaneck NJ, Tzvi Silver moved to Israel in 2012 after catching aliyah fever while learning abroad. Tzvi is now pursuing a degree in Engineering from the Jerusalem College of Technology, and works on the side as a contributor for local newspapers in the New York Area. Tzvi's interests include learning Torah, rabble-rousing, and finding creative ways of mixing the two.
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