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Friday, 16 October, 2015 - 1:33 pm

A Jewish immigrant who arrived during the war needed to renew his immigration status several years later. He was asked by a clerk to give the date of his immigration. Not knowing the language and getting confused with the numbers, he wanted to say 1941. Instead he said 1491.

The clerk, who was also a Jew, tells him: Ah! It’s a pity. You could have waited one year and arrived with Columbus!

This week in Parshat Noach, we meet the first Jew of all time, Abraham.

But why was Abraham the first to earn that moniker? Is it because Abraham was the first to recognize the existence of the One True G-d. Right? NO.

The Torah gives Noah an introduction unparalleled in all of the Tanach. Not even Moses is introduced in these marvelous words:

“These are the generations of Noah, Noah was a righteous man he was perfect in his generations; Noah walked with G-d.”

Noach not only spoke and believed in G-d, but was sent by G-d on a mission to preserve a remnant of humanity, and animal life, and then spent 120 years building an Ark despite the scorn and derision he faced from the world around him. Why wasn’t that enough to be considered a Jew?

Abraham is not the first human to discover the one G-d. He is not the first man to embrace Monotheism and believe that the world was created by a just G-d, with a purpose. Adam, Chanoch, Noah, Shem, Ever—just to name the most famous—all held the same faith and lived it! Why, then, was Abraham chosen as the first Jew? What set him apart?

The Torah tells us that Noach was informed by G-d that the wickedness of mankind had been mounting for years, and they were deserving of destruction by a Flood. He was to build a lifeboat to contain his family and representatives of the animal kingdom. At this point he was 500 years old, with a wife, three sons and daughters in law. In all, 8 people.

More than a century later, the Flood finally begins. How many people came aboard the Ark? Eight. In the 120 years Noach spent building the Ark, was he unable to inspire one more person to live a more ethical, righteous life? Could he not have prayed to save the life of even one more person?

We can’t judge him. You have to understand his psychology. He was afraid to engage the world for fear that he might get caught in it. If you are an inexperienced swimmer, and jump in to save someone drowning in the ocean, the victim may pull you down with him. Now, two will die. This was Noach’s rational. I can’t jump into a turbulent ocean if I am not the best swimmer myself.

Now contrast this to Abraham, who also faced a world in crisis, or what the Midrash calls, “a palace on fire.” He also faced a world in complete denial of the duty of humanity to be kind to each other. But his response could not be more different from Noach’s. in the words of the Torah: “And he [Abraham] called there in the name of G-d, Master of the world.” Says the Talmud: Do not read it “He called” but rather “He made others call.” This teaches that Abraham our father taught all the passersby to call out the name of the Almighty.

The Torah makes reference to the “souls [Abraham and Sarah] they made in Charan,” they taught and inspired - whom they “brought under the wings of the Divine Presence. Abraham would inspire the men, and Sarah would inspire the women.”

Maimonides describes how Abraham traveled from city to city, lecturing to the masses on the life they can possibly embrace. Abraham was not the founder of Ethical Monotheism. Many good and noble people lived before him. But until Abraham came along, living with G-d was the lonely province of a few lonely mystics, They were shut off from the rest of the world, and had little impact on it. Suddenly, Abraham burst onto the scene with a radical new perspective, forever transforming the relationship between divinity and the world.

What made Abraham different? He had a confidence in himself and his faith that others lacked. Further, Abraham knew that deep down this is what humanity is craving for. People craved meaning and purpose in their lives; they were thirsty to hear the truth of reality. The fact that G-d made Abraham the father of the Jewish people is a powerful testament of the ideals and values that are essential to our role, and purpose, as Jews.

In Crown Heights, there was a Jew, Yankel, who owned a bakery. He survived the camps.

He once said, “You know why it is that I’m alive today? I was a kid, just a teenager at the time. We were on the train, in a boxcar, being taken to Auschwitz.

“Night came and it was freezing, deathly cold, in that boxcar. The Germans would leave the cars on the side of the tracks overnight, sometimes for days on end without any food, and of course, no blankets to keep us warm,” He said. “Sitting next to me was an older Jew – this beloved elderly Jew - from my hometown. I recognized, but I had never seen him like this. He was shivering from head to toe, and looked terrible. So I wrapped my arms around him and began rubbing him, to warm him up. I rubbed his arms, his legs, his face, his neck. I begged him to hang on.

All night long; I kept the man warm this way. I was tired, I was freezing cold myself, my fingers were numb, but I didn’t stop rubbing the heat on to this man’s body. Hours and hours went by this way. Finally, night passed, morning came, and the sun began to shine. There was some warmth in the cabin, and then I looked around the car to see some of the other Jews in the car. To my horror, all I could see were frozen bodies, and all I could hear was a deathly silence.

Nobody else in that cabin made it through the night - they died from the frost. Only two people survived: the old man and me… The old man survived because somebody kept him warm; I survived because I was warming somebody else…”

Let me tell you the secret of Judaism. When you warm other people’s hearts, you remain warm yourself. When you seek to support, encourage and inspire others; then you discover support, encouragement and inspiration in your own life as well. That, my friends, is “Judaism 101”. This is why Abraham was the first Jew.

Noach is defined in Chassidic literature as a righteous man in a fur coat.” There are two ways of keeping warm on a cold night. You can wear a fur coat or light a fire. Wear a fur coat and you warm only yourself. Light a fire and you warm others. We need to light a fire.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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