July 17, 2024
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July 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Professor Elie Wiesel wrote about his lonely and difficult years after arriving in New York as a broken, exhausted refugee. Born and raised in Sighet in the tradition of Viznitzer chasidim, a turning point in his life came when he met the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Wiesel attributed his gaining hope and redemptive strength to move forward and rebuild his life after the war, to this relationship.

In his memoir, “All the Rivers Run to the Sea,” Weasel describes one of his meaningful visits to 770 Eastern Parkway for yechidus, a private audience with the Rebbe on Simchas Torah. He was welcomed into to Rebbe’s room and was offered to “say l’chaim”:

The Rebbe handed me a glass filled to the brim with vodka.

“Rebbe,” I said, “in Viznitz, a chossid does not drink alone.”

“Nor in Lubavitch,” the Rebbe replied.

The Rebbe emptied his glass in one gulp. I followed suit.

“Is one enough in Viznitz?” the Rebbe asked.

“In Viznitz,” I said bravely, “one is but a drop in the sea.”

The Rebbe smiled; “In Lubavitch as well.”

He handed me a second glass and refilled his own. He said, l’chaim, I replied l’chaim, and we emptied our glasses.

“Let me bless you so you can begin again….

~

Our sedra (parsha) chronicles the story of the destruction and rebuilding of the world during the generations that precede and follow the mabul (flood). Alighting from the teiva (ark) to find the world completely wiped out,

וַיָּחֶל נֹחַ…וַיִּטַּע כָּרֶם…וַיֵּשְׁתְּ מִן־הַיַּיִן וַיִּשְׁכָּר וַיִּתְגַּל בְּתוֹךְ אָהֳלֹה

“And Noach began … he planted a vineyard … And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself inside his tent (9:20-21).

Rashi comments: in “beginning” by planting a vineyard, עָשָׂה עַצְמוֹ חֻלִּין, “he profaned himself (as in chol),” as he ought to have started rebuilding society by planting something else. The ‘new world’ should have begun with something that would lead to goodness in life and peace.

After the murder of his family (including his great father and teacher, Rav Elchonon Hy”d), Rav Simcha Wasserman and his wife spent their lives spreading Torah and rebuilding yeshivos and kollelim in the United States and Eretz Yisrael with incredible sacrifice and dedication. In shiurim, Rav Simcha often referred to the demise of Noach and the tragic conditions which Noach faced. “Can we even begin to understand the despair and loneliness he must have felt in stepping out of the ark and viewing the world in total destruction? How can we judge him for seeking out a bit of comfort in a glass of wine? The Torah has numerous references to the uplifting qualities of wine: יין ישמח לבב אנוש, “Wine brings joy to the heart of man” (Tehillim, 104:15). The wisest of all men, Shlomo Hamelech, himself suggested that we “give wine to those who are bitter of soul,” (Mishlei 31:6).

Reb Simcha answered with self-revelatory insight, reflecting on his own life’s mission. Chazal’s indictment against Noach was in fact justified. Hashem had entrusted Noach with a mission to rebuild the world after the devastating Flood. Instead of wallowing in his own personal misery and seeking an escape from his sorrows, Noach was to have planted wheat, to sustain the new world emerging from the ruins.

Another great builder who emerged from the ruins, is Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, shlita. In “Out of the Depths,” the former Chief Rabbi recounts the harrowing episode of the last conversation he had with the tormented survivor, Yiddish poet, Itzik Manger in the hospital. Suffering from alcoholism and depression, the bedridden and emaciated poet poured out his heart to Rav Lau, struggling to reconcile the Torah’s description first of Noach as a tzaddik (6:9) and then later as an ish ha’adamah, “a man of the earth” and a lowly drunkard.

“I have reached the stage where I understand Noach,” sighed Manger. “When he went back home after the mabul (flood) and began to look for his hometown, his shtetl (town), he found nothing. He wanted to visit his neighborhood shtiebel, his beis medrash, but found no trace! Where was the postman he knew, the wagon driver? No one was left. No house or street, no neighborhood or friends—not a living soul. In order to forget his solitude, he drank of the wine and became drunk.”

Manger continued his lament by naming family members, communities and yeshivos throughout Europe—all gone. It seemed to him that “all existence on earth had perished” (7:23): “No one is left. I remained alone in the world. So you will excuse me…if sometimes, in order to forget the horrors, I drink a little, like Noach after the flood.”

~

“HaYom Yom” is a collection of daily aphorisms and sources compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, with the instruction to “live with each day.” In it, the Rebbe shares two versions of how one might respond to the blessing of l’chaim.

Citing the downfall of Noach in our parsha, we are advised to respond, l’chaim tovim u-l’shalom, “For good life and for peace!” A second response, recommended by the Maggid of Mezritch, is l’chayim v’livracha, “For life and blessing!” Livracha may also be read as leiv racha, ‘sensitive heart’, reflecting the true avodah and goal of sharing a drink with another Jew—opening our hearts to feel and connect with the other, to begin life again together, acknowledging the Source of life and goodness and blessing.

Having spent years of solitude and hard labor in Siberia, Reb Mendel Futerfas, zy’a, had tasted the bitterness of Soviet persecution, yet maintained his faith and joy. He was known for his lengthy farbrengens and for embracing the avoda of ‘making a l’chaim. After all, the problem was not that Noach planted a vine and prepared a drink; it was that Noach drank alone, and did not bless another with l’chaim.

Whatever flood, challenge, or difficulty we may face, may we be healthy, happy and well; may we be blessed to open our hearts and share with friends, and to ‘begin again’ with revealed good: L’chaim, l’chaim u-livracha!

~

לע”נ הרב אלעזר שמחה בן הרב אלחנן בונים זי”ע

In memory of Rav Simcha Wasserman, zt”l, whose yahrzeit is this week.


Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpiah of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife Ora and their family.

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