Years ago, in my shul in the Bronx, New York, my father, a”h, would stand by the bimah during the Torah reading and, as gabbai, he would recite the MiSheberach for the sick. Generally, he was prepared with a list of names of those who were ill, but, invariably, there were those who would approach the bimah to give over a name that was not in the list. The truth is, I was very impressed at how fluently my father would recite the names—whether Hebrew names or Yiddish, or Polish, or German, etc. But that fascination lasted only until my bar mitzvah. After that I would start timing how long it took to read off the names and wondered why it was so necessary to announce each name and “drag out” the service. Today I know that many Batei Knesset ask anyone who wishes to add a name to the “list” to simply say that name quietly during the short pause before the gabbai finishes the tefillah.
I took this stroll down “memory lane” in order to share with you an important lesson that Rav Soloveitchik taught regarding this week’s haftarah. The Rav quotes the question posed in the Zohar about Yishayahu’s expression found in the haftarah reading. Yishayahu states: “Ki mei Noach zot li—For this (Hashem’s anger) is like the waters of Noach,” meaning that just as the flood waters destroyed quickly and completely but would never again return, so too Hashem’s angry punishment destroyed quickly and completely but would never again be repeated. These words, naturally, create the obvious connection to our parsha. But the Zohar wonders why the navi called the flood waters, the rushing, tempest-tossed waters of destruction, the “waters of Noach.” They were, after all, the waters of Hashem! They were promised by Hashem and brought by Him to punish the sinners! We could understand if the flood had been called the “waters of destruction” or even the “waters of the wicked.” But why call them the waters of Noach??
The Zohar explains that the words of the navi were meant as a subtle condemnation of Noach himself because he was, in a sense, somewhat responsible for the flood’s destruction. After all, nowhere do we read that Noach prayed for his generation; nowhere do we find him warning the people to repent and nowhere do we see him pleading with God to overturn the evil decree. In fact, the Midrash (Devarim Rabbah) compares Noach’s inaction to Moshe Rabbeinu’s action in defending his people and arguing with God to rescind His decree. The Midrash goes on to suggest that Noach was satisfied with the assurance that he and his family would survive even if all others would perish.
And that is why the waters of destruction were called “mei Noach.”
Rav Soloveitchik taught that, based on the Zohar, if one is lax in praying for the ill or indifferent to the MiSheberach (or thinks that it “drags out” the service) he violates the prohibition of “Lo ta’mod al dam rei’echa,” standing idly by while another is in danger.
In light of this understanding I’ve become more sensitive to our tefillah for the sick. The subtle implication of Yishayahu’s words as understood by the Zohar condemns inaction at a time of need. And it therefore also demands that we focus upon the “Tefillah L’shalom Hamedina” as we entreat God to bless the State of Israel and inspire its leaders, and, similarly, that we listen, with sincere intent, to our supplication to Hashem that He protect the defenders of our country.
This haftarah reminds us of the crime of indifference: indifference to the individual in pain, indifference to soldiers in danger and indifference to a nation in crisis.
And it is for that very reason that I urge us all to consider what we do when the prayers are recited in shul. Let us not be guilty of the trespass of the righteous Noach. Let us learn to be different from him.
Let us not be INdifferent.
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.