From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Everybody makes jokes about Noah and his Ark. Bill Cosby has a whole routine on the subject, which I must confess is uncannily faithful to our commentaries’ understanding. Then there’s the one about Noah being the first stock-market manipulator in history—he floated a company while the whole world was in liquidation!
My saintly mentor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, saw Noah in a far more serious light. Noah was a survivor. Noah was saved from the deluge of destruction that engulfed his world, and his greatest contribution is that he set out to rebuild that world. We don’t read about him sitting down and crying or wringing his hands in despair, although I’m sure he had his moments.
The critical thing the Bible records is that after Noah emerged from his floating bunker, he began the task of rebuilding a shattered world from scratch. He got busy and picked up the pieces and, slowly but surely, society was regenerated.
Only one generation ago, a great flood swept over our world. The Nazi plan was for a Final Solution. Every Jew on earth was earmarked for destruction, and the Nazis were already planning their Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race. Not one Jew was meant to survive. So even those of us born after the war are also survivors. Even a Jewish child born this morning is a survivor—because according to Hitler’s plan, which, tragically, nearly succeeded, he or she was not meant to live. This means that each of us, like Noah, has a moral duty to rebuild the Jewish world.
When I was growing up in Brooklyn, I attended a small shul in Crown Heights where every other man at the morning minyan bore a holy number on his arm. They were concentration-camp inmates, and the Germans had tattooed those numbers onto their arms. Sadly, today, the ranks of those individuals have been greatly diminished. Every time one of them would roll up his shirtsleeve to put on tefillin, the number was revealed. It seemed to me as if to them it was nothing special. But to me they were heroes. Not only for surviving the hells of Auschwitz or Dachau but for keeping their faith intact, for still coming to shul, praying to G‑d, wearing His tefillin.
Today, as I am older and more sensitive to the feelings of fathers and children, of family and friends, those men have gone up much more in my estimation. They have become superheroes. After all they went through, to be able to live normal lives again, to marry or remarry, to bring children into this world, to carry on life, businesses, relationships—these are mind-boggling achievements. My own father [Rabbi Shimon Goldman] was not in the camps, but he is the only survivor of his entire family from Poland. Some years ago, he recorded his story, and it was later published in book form—From Shedlitz to Safety: A Young Jew’s Journey of Survival. We, his children, never knew half of what he went through. When I imagine him sitting as a teenage refugee in Shanghai, China, and discovering that his entire family had been wiped out and that he was left all alone in the world, I go numb. How did he continue? How did he stay sane? How did he keep his faith?
Thank G‑d he did and started a family all over again; otherwise, I wouldn’t be here to write these lines. My own father has become a superhero to me. Says the Rebbe, we all have that same responsibility—because we are all survivors. Who will bring Jewish children into the world if not you? Who will study Torah if not you? Who will keep Shabbos? Who will keep the Jewish school afloat? Who will rebuild the Jewish world, if not you and I and each and every one of us?
In the smaller country communities of South Africa, where I make my home, there are still small bands of dedicated Jews who come together in someone’s home to make a minyan, or who serve as an ad hoc chevra kadisha to bury the Jewish dead according to our tradition. These are not rabbis, chazzanim, or cheder teachers. They are ordinary people. In the big city they would probably not be anywhere that involved, but in their small town they know that if they don’t do it, nobody will.
We need that same conviction wherever we are. Thank G‑d for His mercies in that our world is, to a large degree, being rebuilt. Miraculously, the great centers of Jewish learning are flourishing today once more, but far too many of our brothers and sisters are still outside the circle. Every one of us needs to participate. We are all Noahs. Let us rebuild our world.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.