Holy Smokes

RABBI WAGENSBERG
PARSHAS NOACH
“Holy Smokes”

In this article, we are going to discuss Hashem’s choice to change the way He guides the world by creating a new phenomenon known as “the rainbow” which serves as a sign to guarantee that He will never again destroy the entire world with a flood of water (Parshas Noach, 9:12-17). Apparently, it was not sufficient for Hashem to just promise that he would never bring such a catastrophe to the world, but rather, He had to produce a rainbow as a sign to back up His promise.

This indicates that there must be some message buried within the rainbow which moved Hashem to make such a decision about never wreaking havoc on the world again in such a manner. This begs us to ask, “What was the message that was contained within the rainbow that caused Hashem to make such a decision?”

We will begin to address this question based upon a teaching from the sefer Nachalas Ya’akov (Parshas Noach) which was written by Rabbi Ya’akov Lorberbaum from Lissa, Poland (1760-1832), more famously known as Reb Ya’akov m’Lissa. Reb Ya’akov m’Lissa also authored the Chavas Da’as on Yora Deah, and the Nesivos Hamishpat (widely referred to just as “The Nesivos”) on Choshen Mishpat.

The Nachalas Ya’akov makes an observation between how Dovid Hamelech and Yechezkel Hanavi referred to the Divine light that God causes to shine down to Earth. Dovid Hamelech compared God’s Divine light shining down upon us to the light of the sun (Tehillim, 84:12), whereas Yechezkel Hanavi compared God’s Divine light shining down upon us to the light of a rainbow (Yechezkel, 1:28).

The reason why there are these two categories [sun and rainbow] is to teach us that when the Jewish people are doing God’s will by engaging in Torah study and mitzva performance, the atmosphere is spiritually pure and clean. Therefore, when Hashem shines His Divine light upon us, we receive it in full measure because there are no blockages obstructing the light from reaching us.

In the days of Dovid Hamelech, the Jews were doing God’s will. As such, the air was spiritually pure. This is why Dovid compared God’s light to the sun’s light which comes down unincumbered, without any interference. It is because that was Dovid’s experience with the light.

However, when the Jews are involved in sinful activities, they create spiritual clouds of impurity which serve as a partition dividing between God and the people, as it says, “Because your iniquities have separated between you and your God” (Yeshaya, 59:2), and like it says, “You wrapped yourself in a cloud that prayer cannot pierce” (Eicha, 3:44).

In spite of those spiritually pollutant clouds, Hashem still causes His Divine light to shine down upon us, but we do not receive the full measure of that light because of the spiritually polluted clouds which get in the way. In the days of Yechezkel, the Jews were engaged in sinful activities which wound up destroying the first Beis Hamikdash. Therefore, when Yechezkel described God’s Divine light, he compared it to the light of a rainbow, which is surrounded by clouds, because Yechezkel’s experience was that God’s Divine light was partially blocked by spiritual clouds of sin.

The Nachalas Ya’akov goes on to say that this will help us understand the difference between the generation before the flood occurred and the generation after the flood happened. Before the flood transpired, that generation sinned so much that they created so many spiritually polluted clouds that no Divine light was capable of reaching the inhabitants of earth whatsoever.

Yet, after the flood, Hashem forged a covenant with the inhabitants of Earth that even if they sinned as much as the generation which lived prior to the flood, Hashem would still shine His light upon them penetrating the spiritually polluted clouds. This was the sign of the rainbow. The rainbow is seen amidst clouds. Those clouds represent clouds of sin. However, the rainbow can still be seen because the light from the sun penetrates those clouds, bouncing off of the moisture in the atmosphere, creating the formation of the rainbow. Therefore, the very essence of the rainbow demonstrates that God will still shine His light upon us even through spiritually polluted clouds of sin.

This is the message buried within the rainbow. The very existence of the rainbow teaches us that Hashem decided to shine His light upon us even though we may be sinners. This means to say that God will not settle for a situation of distance between Himself and the people, but rather, there will always be a connection between us.

One could still ask why there was a change before the flood and after it? Why was it that before the flood, Hashem destroyed the world, whereas after the flood, God decided that even if people would misbehave like the generation of the flood, they would not be destroyed?

The Shvilei Pinchas says that the difference was korbanos (offerings). After the flood, Noach brought korbanos to Hashem. That practice was later adopted by the Jewish people in the Mishkan and in the Beis Hamikdash. Since korbanos to Hashem would become the accepted practice, Hashem decided never to destroy the world again. The reason why korbanos has this effect is as follows.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (5:5 or 7) talks about the ten miracles which occurred in the Beis Hamikdash. The sixth miracle was that the ruach (wind) did not disperse the vertical column of ashan (smoke) from the mizbeach (altar).” This means that the vertical column of smoke went straight up to heaven without any interruption.

From the way this Mishna expressed itself, it seems as though there was some sort of “wrestling match” between the ruach (wind) and the amud ha’ashan (vertical pillar of smoke), but the ruach did not succeed in overcoming the amud ha’ashan. What was the nature of that wrestling match between the two?

The Shvilei Pinchas addresses this question by citing a Zohar Chadash (Parshas Teruma, pg. 43) which says that when the Jewish people were deserving, the amud ha’ashan would ascend straight up to heaven without bending to any side. When that occurred, the Jewish people knew that it was a favorable time for their prayers to be answered.

However, if the amud ha’ashan would begin to sway or bend to the sides, the Jewish people knew that it was not a favorable time for their prayers to be answered. In his sefer Sha’arei Orah, the great kabbalist, Reb Yosef Gikatilla (1248-1305, Spain) expounds upon this passage from the Zohar. He says that the Zohar can be understood in light of a verse which says, “Guard your foot when you go to the House of God” (Koheles, 4:17).

This means that when a person wants to go to the house of God to pray, he should check if there are any spiritual prosecuting attorneys who were created by his sins which would prevent his prayers from reaching their desired destination. This is because the airspace between Earth and heaven is not empty. Rather, it is filled with all sorts of angels. Some of them are good because they were created from our mitzvos, and some of them are bad because they were created from our aveiros (sins).

When a person prays, the good angels try to help his prayers reach the Throne of Glory, whereas the bad angels try to prevent his prayers from reaching that place.

This is why King David instituted the recitation of zemiros (songs). It is because zemiros have the power to cut through a spiritually polluted atmosphere. We can see this from the word zemiros which does not only mean songs. The word “zemiros” is related to the word “mizamer” which means “to prune”, as it says, “He will cut down the young branches ‘bamazmeiros’” (with pruning hooks; Yeshaya, 18:5).

The Shvilei Pinchas says that this explains what the wrestling match was between the ruach and the amud ha’ashan. The “ruach” refers to the “ruchos raos” (spirits of impurity) created by those bad angels. Those “ruchos raos” (evil spirits) want to prevent the ashan of the korbanos from reaching Hashem’s Kisei Hakavod (Throne of Glory). This is what it meant when we said that there was a spiritual wrestling match going on between the ruach and the amud ha’ashan.

Now we can understand why korbanos cause Hashem to send His light through those spiritual clouds of pollution. It is because the ashan (smoke) of the korbanos is ashan d’kedusha (holy smoke) and the holy smoke has the ability to pave a path through the polluted clouds of sin. Once the smoke of the offerings paves that path, our prayers and teshuva can also travel to the Kisei Hakavod through that path. Once a path has been cleared by the korbanos, God’s Divine light can travel to us through that same path.

This explains the Zohar mentioned above. When the ashan went straight up, it was a sign that the ruchos raos could not interfere. That meant that there was a clear path leading up to the Kesei Hakavod. That served as a sign that it was a favorable time for their prayers to be answered. However, if the amud ha’ashan would bend to any side, it was a sign that the ruchos raos were interfering with the amud ha’ashan’s ascent. That meant that there was no clear path leading to the Kisei Hakavod. That was a sign to the people that it was not a favorable time for their prayers to be answered.

Although we have been speaking about ashan d’kedusha (holy smoke) from the korbanos, there was also an ashan d’tuma (unholy smoke) from the forces of evil. This unholy smoke is hinted to in the pasuk which says that the Jews in the wilderness passed through places filled with snakes, fiery serpents, and scorpions. In Hebrew, these three dangerous creatures are called, “Nachash, Saraf, and Akrav,” whose acronym spells “Ashan” (ayin, shin, and nun; smoke).

This means that the holy smoke of the korbanos had the power to vanquish the unholy smoke of the evil forces. This is because the unholy smoke is comprised of three parts (nachash, saraf, and akrav), and the holy smoke of the korbanos is also comprised of three parts: Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov who are connected to the korbanos by having instituted the three tefillos which filled the gap in the absence of the three daily korbanos (Brachos, chap. 4, “Tefillas Hashachar”, pg. 26b; Rebbi Yosi b’Rebbi Chanina and Rebbi Yehoshua ben Levi).

The rainbow itself supports this idea that the korbanos have the power to pave a path through any polluted clouds of sin. This is because the Zohar (Parshas Pinchas, pg. 215a) says that there are three primary colors of the rainbow. They are: white, red, and green. This means that the other colors of the rainbow: orange, yellow, blue, indigo, and violet, are off-shoots of the three primary colors.

The three primary colors of the rainbow correspond to the three Patriarchs. White is connected to chesed which corresponds to Avraham Avinu, red is connected to din which corresponds to Yitzchak Avinu, and green is connected to tiferes which corresponds to Ya’akov Avinu.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that this explains the reason why Hashem brought the sign of the rainbow into the picture. It is because the three primary colors of the rainbow, which represent the three Avos, teaches us that, in the merits of the three Avos, a path will be paved through polluted clouds of sin which stem from the three forces of evil.

We know that Hashem accepts our offerings in the merit of the Avos (Rashi Parshas Naso, 7:21, citing Bamidbar Rabba, Parshas Naso, 14:5). Therefore, if the amud ha’ashan of the korbanos can pierce a hole through clouds of pollution, then the merits of the Avos can most certainly pave a path through those clouds.

This also teaches us that our prayers can break through the clouds of sin because it was the Avos who instituted the three daily prayers. Therefore, in the merit of the Patriarchs, our tefillos can break through to the Kisei Hakavod.

Additionally, we know that our prayers substitute the absence of the korbanos. Therefore, if the ashan of the korbanos can break through the clouds of sin, so can our prayers. After all, the korbanos had ashan (smoke), and our prayers have the hevel (breath) which emanates out of our mouths. If the sacrificial smoke could pave a path, then so can the breath of our prayers.

This is why prayer is compared to swords and bows (as in bows and arrows; Onkelos, Parshas Vayechi, 48:22). It is because our prayers have the power to cut through our enemies, physical and spiritual.

One practical take-away from this teaching would be to try and improve a little bit more on our prayers by realizing that our tefillos have incredible power, so much so that they can cut right through any spiritual pollution.

In order to drive this point home, perhaps we could recite one sentence from the Arizal’s preparatory prayer which he suggested should be said prior to davening. That sentence reads, “[Please Hashem], do not allow our sins to separate between us and You, and give us the strength through our prayers to cut down the klipos (dark and evil forces), and to purify the worlds, and elevate them [our prayers] from world to world.”

So, may we all be blessed with the strength to belt-out our zemiros and tefillos in just such a way that they become like swords and arrows which will cut through all of the spiritual pollution in the atmosphere – like the ashan of the korbanos did – paving a direct path straight to the Kisei Hakavod, and thus receive God’s Divine light which will surround us with protection, love, warmth, and sustenance, represented by the rainbow.