RABBI WAGENSBERG ON PARSHAS NOACH
3 Cheshvan, 5782; October 2, 2021
Towards the end of Parshas Noach, we are told about a story concerning Haran who died in a fiery furnace (11:28). The pasuk (ibid) says that Haran died in the lifetime of his father Terach. Rashi quotes a Midrash (Bereishis Rabba, Parshas Noach, 38:13, Rebbi Chiya bar brei d’Rav Ada d’Yafo) who adds that Haran died because of his father Terach. This came about in the following way.
Terach complained to Nimrod, the king, that his son Avraham had cut down all of his (Terach’s) idols. Nimrod had Avraham thrown into a fiery furnace. Haran was watching all of this and said to himself, “If Avraham wins, I am with him (Avraham), but if Nimrod wins, I am with him (Nimrod).”
Before we continue this story, let us talk a little bit about Haran’s biographical sketch. Haran was the father of Sarah (Parshas Noach, 11:29). Haran’s father was Terach (Parshas Noach, 11:26), just like Avraham’s father was Terach. However, Avraham and Haran had different mothers. Meaning, Terach was married to two women. From one wife Avraham was born, and from the other wife Haran was born. This made Avraham and Haran half-brothers.
Since Avraham and Haran did not share the same mother, it was acceptable for Avraham to marry Sarah, his half niece. This is because we have a concept in Judaism which dictates that “grandchildren are like children” (Meseches Yevamos, chap. 6, “Haba Al Yevimto”, pg. 62b).
Based on this concept, Sarah was not just Terach’s biological granddaughter, but rather Sarah was considered to be like Terach’s own daughter. It follows that Avraham did not just marry his half niece, but it was as if Avraham married his half-sister. Although Noachides are not allowed to marry their sisters, nevertheless, they are allowed to marry their half-sisters as long as they do not share the same mother (see Rashi, Parshas Vayeira, 20:12).
Additionally, from the order of names in the verse, it seems that Avraham was the oldest brother, Haran was the youngest brother, and Nachor was the middle brother (Parshas Noach, 11:26).
After exploring Haran’s biographical sketch, let us return to the story. When Avraham came out of Nimrod’s furnace unscathed, Nimrod’s men asked Haran on whose side he was. Haran responded that he was on Avraham’s side. As a result, they picked Haran up and threw him into the fire and he burned to death.
This is why the name of that place was called “Ur Casdim” (Parshas Noach, 11:28). It is because of the story that happened there with the great fire or light. The word “Ur” is closely related to the word “Ohr” which means light.
The Shvilei Pinchas points out that Haran’s Mesirus Nefesh (self-sacrifice) was not complete because he actually considered joining forces with Nimrod, had Avraham died. Therefore, Haran’s thoughts left much to be desired.
Yet, in action, Haran did die Al Kiddush Hashem (in sanctification of Hashem). When Nimrod’s men asked Haran on whose side he was, Haran knew that if he answered that he was on Avraham’s side, they would throw him into the fiery furnace. Therefore, the act of Mesirus Nefesh cannot be taken away from him.
As such, he should be rewarded for his good deed because of what Rebbi Chiya bar Aba said in the name of Rebbi Yochanan in Meseches Baba Kamma (chap. 4, “Shor Shenagach Dalet v’Hey”, pg. 38b) that Hashem does not withhold reward from any creature.
Therefore, we must ask, “When did Hashem repay Haran for his act of Mesirus Nefesh?”
The Rama M’Pano (Rabbi Menachem Azaria of Fano Italy, 1548-1620; citing his Rebbi, Rabbi Yisrael Saruk, in the name of the Arizal) answers this question in his Sefer Gilgulei Neshamos (chap. 45). He says that after Haran died, he was brought back into this world again as Yehoshua Kohen Gadol. Let us explore who this Yehoshua Kohen Gadol was.
Yehoshua Kohen Gadol’s father was Yehotzadak (Chaggai, 1:1). Yehoshua Kohen Gadol lived during the time of the first Beis Hamikdash. We know this from the following story in Meseches Sanhedrin (chap. 11, “Cheilek”, pg. 93a) which is based on a few verses in Sefer Yirmiya (29:21-23).
During the time of Nevuchadnetzar, King of Bavel, there were two Jews whose names were Achav and Tzidkiyahu. Achav and Tzidkiyahu were false prophets. Even Nevuchadnetzar was suspicious of them and wanted to test them to see if they were as righteous as they claimed to be.
The way Nevuchadnetzar would test people’s righteousness was by having them thrown into a fiery furnace. If they would die, he (Nevuchadnetzar) knew that they were not righteous. If a miracle would occur for them and they would survive, he knew that they were righteous.
This was how Nevuchadnetzar tested the righteousness of Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria, who were righteous Jews. After being thrown into the fiery furnace, Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria emerged alive. As such, Nevuchadnetzar concluded that they were righteous.
Now Nevuchadnetzar wanted to put Achav and Tzidkiyahu to the same test. Achav and Tzidkiyahu protested that this was not a fair test because Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria were three people. They argued that maybe when there are at least three righteous people do they have enough merits to be saved from a fiery furnace. Since Achav and Tzidkiyahu were just two people, perhaps they did not have enough merits to be saved from a fiery furnace.
Nevuchadnetzar said, “Fine, you may choose one other person to be thrown into the fiery furnace together with you.” They chose Yehoshua Kohen Gadol because they knew that he was a righteous person. They thought that his merit alone would save all three of them.
Nevuchadnetzar threw all three of them into the fiery furnace. Achav and Tzidkiyahu died, but Yehoshua Kohen Gadol survived. It was only Yehoshua Kohen Gadol’s garments that got singed because his children had married gentile women and he did not admonish them for it (Sanhedrin, ibid, Rav Papa).
Based on this story, we will have greater clarity into some verses in Zecharia. Zecharia the prophet said, “Then, He showed me Yehoshua Kohen Gadol standing before the angel of Hashem, and the Satan was standing on his right to accuse him” (Zecharia, 3:1).
Rashi (ibid) explains that the Satan wanted to prosecute against Yehoshua Kohen Gadol because his children married non-Jewish women, as it is recorded in the Book of Ezra (10:18). Therefore, the Satan claimed that Hashem should not rescue Yehoshua Kohen Gadol from Nevuchadnetzar’s fiery furnace, because he did not deserve to be saved.
Zecharia goes on to say, “Hashem said to the Satan, ‘May Hashem denounce you O’ Satan, may Hashem Who chooses Yerushalayim denounce you, indeed this man [Yehoshua Kohen Gadol] is like a fire-band saved from a fire” (Zecharia, 3:2). Meaning, he does deserve to be saved.
Now we can get back to the Rama m’Pano because he says that the reason why Hashem saved Yehoshua Kohen Gadol from Nevuchadnetzar’s fiery furnace is because Yehoshua Kohen Gadol was already burned alive in Nimrod’s fiery furnace when he [Yehoshua Kohen Gadol] was Haran in his previous lifetime.
This is where Hashem paid back Haran for his Mesirus Nefesh. It was when Haran came back down as Yehoshua Kohen Gadol and Hashem rescued him from Nevuchadnetzar’s fiey furnace.
The Shvilei Pinchas adds that this could be the deeper meaning behind Hashem’s words to the Satan which were, “Behold, this man [Yehoshua Kohen Gadol] is like a fire-band saved from a fire (Zecharia, 3:2).” Hashem meant to say that Yehoshua Kohen Gadol does deserve to be rescued from Nevuchadnetzar’s fire because he was already burned in Nimrod’s fire when he was Haran, and Yehoshua Kohen Gadol is all that is left from the previous burning.
By the way, it would be a good idea to point out that both Nimrod and Nevuchadnetzar were kings of Bavel (Parshas Noach, 10:10). According to this it turns out that not only were both Haran and Yehoshua Kohen Gadol thrown into a fiery furnace by a king, but they were both thrown into the fire by the king of Bavel at that time.
The Shvilei Pinchas points out that both Haran and Yehoshua Kohen Gadol had an advantage and a disadvantage with respect to the mitzva of dying Al Kiddush Hashem.
Haran’s disadvantage was that his thoughts were corrupt. First of all, Haran entertained the possibility of joining forces with the dark side of Nimrod had Avraham perished in the fire. This means that Haran was ready to abandon Hashem and live life as an idolater.
Second, when Avraham emerged alive from the fire, Haran thought that the same miracle that happened for Avraham would also happen to him because Avraham already broke the ice and paved the way. Therefore, Haran’s willingness to be thrown into the fire was not taking such a great risk because he actually thought that he was going to be saved anyway.
However, Haran’s advantage was that, at the end of the day, Haran died Al Kiddush Hashem. That act was something that cannot be taken away from him.
However, Yehoshua Kohen Gadol’s advantage was that his thoughts were completely dedicated to Hashem. He would never entertain that thought of joining forces with the dark side of Nevuchadnetzar and live life as an idolater.
Yet, Yehoshua Kohen Gadol’s disadvantage was that he was missing the act of dying Al Kiddush Hashem because, at the end of the day, he did not die because Hashem had saved him.
We are going to see that when one person does a good deed (action) but is lacking in thought, and another person has good intentions but is lacking the action, Hashem joins this person’s deed with the other person’s thoughts so that a complete and total mitzva emerges.
This idea can be found in the Meseches Chulin (chap. 1, “Hakolk Shochtin”, pg. 7b) where Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair said to Rebbi Yehuda Hanasi that he does not want to receive any benefit from other people because, “The Jewish people are holy. There are some Jews who want to give, but they do not have the means to give. I certainly do not want to take from them because they do not have what to give. There are other Jews who have the means to give, but they do not want to give. I do not want to take from them either because they do not really want to share with others what they have.”
Tosafos (ibid, divrei hamaschil “V’Yeish”) asks why Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair called all Jews holy. We could understand why the Jew who does not have but wants to give is considered holy, but why should the Jew who has but does not want to give be called holy?
The Tosafists answer this question by saying that even the Jew who has but does not want to give is called holy because, at the end of the day, he gives anyway because he is embarrassed not to give. People know that he is well to do, and if he does not give, people will think that he is a miser. So, in order to save his reputation, he gives. Since in the end he does give, he is also called holy.
The Rebbe Reb Zusha of Anipoly (Ukraine, 1718-1800) elaborates on this Tosafos in the following way. In Pirkei Avos (4:11), Rebbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov teaches that when a person does a mitzvah, he creates an angel. Reb Zusha says that not only do people have a body and a soul, but angels also have a “body” (outer layer) and a “soul” (inner core).
Reb Zusha says that when a person does a ma’aseh mitzvah (a mitzvah act), he creates the body of the angel, and when a person concentrates on the mitzvah with his mind and invests thoughts (kavanos) into the mitzvah, it creates the soul of the angel.
Therefore, when a person has money to give tzedakah, but he does not want to give charity, but he gives anyway because he is embarrassed not to give, such a person’s good intentions are lacking, but he has a good action. This person’s action creates the body of an angel.
A different person truly wants to give charity but he does not have the means to do so. That person’s good thoughts created the soul of the angel. So, what does Hashem do out of His abundant compassion? He joins this person’s action to the other person’s thoughts, and as a result, a whole angel is created, complete with body and soul.
Reb Zusha’a brother, the Rebbe Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717-1787, Poland), in his Noam Elimelech (Parshas Metzora) adds that this is the meaning of the Gemara in Kiddushin (chap. 1, “Ha-isha Niknis”, pg. 40a) which says that if a person had a thought to do a mitzvah, but circumstances which were out of his control prevented him from performing that mitzvah, Hashem is “metzarfa” (joins it) as an action.
The simplistic understanding of this passage is that Hashem still credits such a person with having done the mitzvah. But, if that were the case, the Gemara could have just said, “Machshava K’ma’aseh” (a thought is considered an action). Why did the Gemara have to say, “Machshava Mitzarfa L’ma’aseh” (a thought is joined to the action)?
Reb Elimelech explains that the word “Mitzarfa” comes to teach us that if you have a person who had a good thought to do a mitzvah, but he was withheld from doing that mitzvah due to circumstances beyond his control, then Hashem goes on the look-out for another person who did perform that very mitzvah, however, he may have done that mitzvah half-heartedly.
Hashem joins the action of the fellow who did not have good intentions to the thoughts of the fellow who did have good intentions, and thereby creates a complete and total mitzvah. This is why the Gemara used the word “Mitzarfa.” It is to teach us that Hashem connects the action of one Jew with the thoughts of another Jew to create and complete mitzvah.
The Noam Elimelech adds that this could be the deeper understanding of the Gemara in Pesachim (chap. 4, “Makom Shenahagu”, pg. 50b) which quotes Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav who says that a person should always engage in Torah study and mitzvah performance even though it is done Lo Lishma (not for the sake of Heaven; i.e., for ulterior motives), because from the Lo Lishma, Bo (will come) Lishma (for the sake of Heaven; altruistically).
The simplistic understanding of this Gemara is to keep on doing mitzvos even if they are done for ulterior motives, such as honor, money, or shidduch, because eventually, one will come to do those mitzvos altruistically, just because God said that we should do them.
However, a deeper read into this Gemara tells us that we should not say to ourselves, “What’s the point in doing such and such a mitzvah if I’m doing it for ulterior motives? That’s being selfish. Why should I do such a selfish mitzvah if it is not sincere?” We should not say such a thing because there is value to a mitzvah action, even though it may be filled with unhealthy motives. The benefit of the action is that Hashem takes that action and attaches it to the holy thoughts of a Tzaddik who was prevented from doing that very mitzvah. Then, we are credited in helping a Tzaddik perform a mitzvah in totality.
This explains why the Gemara used the words, “Lo Lishma will come to Lishma.” The words, “Will come” teach us that Hashem will bring (Bo; Yavi) the Lo Lishma action to a Tzaddik and combine it with the Tzaddik’s good intentions.
Not only will Hashem bring the Lo Lishma action of a regular person and join it with the Lishma thoughts of a Tzaddik, but Hashem will bring a Lo Lishma action we may have done in a previous gilgul and join it with our good intentions that we have today. Just as Hashem joined Haran’s good action with Yehoshua Kohen Gadol’s good intentions, He will do the same for us.
Additionally, Hashem will take a Lo Lishma action that we do today, and join it together with a good intention we may have in an upcoming gilgul. In this way, we will eventually benefit from the totality of the mitzvah.
At this point, we are going to add that not only did Haran become Yehoshua Kohen Gadol, but when Yehoshua Kohen Gadol eventually died, he came back down to this world again as somebody else. We will see who this mystery person is from the following Gemara.
In Meseches Berachos (chap. 4, “Tefillas Hashachar”, pgs. 27b-28a) it tells us about a story when Rabban Gamliel was the Nasi (spiritual leader of the Jewish people). Rabban Gamliel had gotten into a serious argument with Rebbi Yehoshua (who was Rebbi Yehoshua ben Chananya). Rabban Gamliel had humiliated Rebbi Yehoshua publicly. Afterwards, Rabban Gamliel went to Rebbi Yehoshua’s home to ask for forgiveness.
When Rabban Gamliel entered into Rebbi Yehoshua’s home, he (Rabban Gamliel) saw that the walls of the house were blackened. Rabban Gamliel said to Rebbi Yehoshua, “From the blackened walls of your home I can tell that you must be a person who makes charcoals, or you must be a blacksmith.” (See Rashi ibid).
In his Sefer Gilgulei Neshamos (chap. 61), the Rama m’Pano adds that not only were Rebbi Yehoshua’s walls blackened, but so was his face. After all, blacksmiths and charcoal makers often get black soot on their faces.
However, Kabbalistically speaking, Rebbi Yehoshua’s black face was meant to show us that Rebbi Yehoshua was a gilgul of Yehoshua Kohen Gadol. Since Yehoshua Kohen Gadol was thrown into Nevuchadnetzar’s fiery furnace, although he came out of there alive, his cloths were singed, and his face was blackened.
Hashem orchestrated that Rebbi Yehoshua should enter into the occupation of being a blacksmith or charcoal dealer so that his face would become blackened because Rebbi Yehoshua’s blackened face would point to the fact that he was a reincarnation of Yehoshua Kohen Gadol.
This chiddush will help us understand the meaning of a passage found in Avos d’Rebbi Nasan (chap. 14, Mishna 3) which says, “Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had five students, and he called each one of them by different nicknames. The nickname that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai gave to Rebbi Yehoshua was, “A three-ply cord is not easily severed” (Koheles, 4:12).
The commentaries grapple about how to explain Rebbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s words. What does this verse from Koheles have to do with Rebbi Yehoshua? The Shvilei Pinchas suggests that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had tapped into something very deep concerning the soul of Rebbi Yehoshua. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai realized that his disciple Rebbi Yehoshua was a gilgul from Yehoshua Kohen Gadol, and that Yehoshua Kohen Gadol was a gilgul from Haran.
Therefore, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai applied this verse in Koheles about a “Three-ply cord” to Rebbi Yehoshua because it indicated that Rebbi Yehoshua had been born three times.
When he was Haran, he did a great deed. When he was Yehoshua Kohen Gadol, he had great thoughts. However, when he became Rebbi Yahoshua, he had both, good deeds and good thoughts. Where do we find that Rebbi Yehoshua had both good deeds and good thoughts? This will become evident from the rest of the story found in Meseches Berachos (pgs. 27b-28a).
After Rabban Gamliel publicly humiliated Rebbi Yehoshua, the other Sages decided to remove Rabban Gamliel from his position of leadership. Instead, they appointed Rebbi Elazar ben Azaria as the new Nasi.
Now, during the reign of Rabban Gamliel, not everybody was allowed to enter into the Beis Midrash to learn Torah. Only those who were “Tocho K’baro” were let in. Tocho K’baro means that the person’s inside (Tocho) had to match his outside (Baro).
In other words, if a person was completely committed to Hashem on the inside, he would have to dress religiously on the outside. He was not allowed to dress casually so as to give the impression that he was not so special, because Emes (truth) demands transparency.
Alternatively, if a person was not so committed to Hashem on the inside, he was not allowed to dress religiously on the outside. Rabban Gamliel did not tolerate phonies. As a result of this policy, only a small amount of people were permitted to enter the Beis Midrash to study Torah. Most people failed the Tocho K’baro test.
However, on the day that Rebbi Elazar ben Azaria was appointed to be the new spiritual leader, he abolished the law of Tocho K’baro. He removed the barricades from the doors of the Beis Midrash and everybody was allowed to come and learn Torah. On that day, there were four-hundred benches added to the Beis Midrash, and others say it was seven-hundred benches.
Although it was Rebbi Elazar ben Azaria who abolished the policy of Tocho K’baro, nevertheless, it was all because of Rebbi Yehoshua. It was Rebbi Yoshua’s humiliation which triggered all of those events to occur. Therefore, one could argue that it was because of Rebbi Yehoshua that all of these students, who were not Tocho K’baro people, entered into the Beis Midrash to learn Torah.
It turns out that some of those students were more of the Tocho type. This means that they were more into their inner thoughts. Other students, however, were more of the Baro type. This means that they were more into their outer actions. Yet, Hashem took the outer Baro actions and joined them together with the inner Tocho thoughts, and as a result, the complete totality of Torah and mitzvos were performed.
This is what it meant when we said above that Rebbi Yehoshua had both good deeds and good thoughts. Since all of this joining of Tocho to Baro transpired because of Rebbi Yehoshua, he was credited as having accomplished this union between actions and thoughts.
Perhaps we could add another advantage that Rebbi Yehoshu had over Yehoshua Kohen Gadol. Yehoshua Kohen Gadol’s children had married gentile women. Yet, because of Rebbi Yehoshua, more students were able to learn and practice Judaism. Since students are like children, Rebbi Yehoshua had many “children” who became even more committed to Hashem through Torah and Mitzvos. This served as a tikkun for the children of Yehoshua Kohen Gadol who had abandoned Hashem and His Torah.
One practical take-away lesson which emerges from this teaching is that although we may not always do mitzvos for the right reasons, we should just do them anyway. We must remind ourselves to just do the best that we can right now, because any little step in the right direction does not get wasted. Rather, Hashem collects our ma’aseh mitzvos and attaches them to the holy thoughts of great Tzaddikim.
Imagine that! Our ma’aseh mitzvos help facilitate some huge Tzaddik who has the greatest kavanos, but who is prevented from doing this very mitzvah that we are doing right now. Because of us, he gets credited with the mitzvah act. And we get credited with assisting a tzaddik.
Besides, our mitzvos today may very well be joined with our thoughts that we had in a previous life or in a future life. The point is, nothing gets wasted, because everything we do is important.
So, as we pass through the fiery challenges of Olam Hazeh, may we all be blessed with the frame of mind to do just the best that we can, because the chances are that we’ve been here before, and any effort in the right direction will be joined with our previous efforts, which will shape us into complete and holy angels of God, who will be deserving to witness the return of Hashem to the city of Yerushalayim, where we will rejoice together with all of our children.