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Sensitivity to Another's Needs

Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32 )

by Rabbi Menachem Weiman

When the Torah says, "Noah was righteous in his generation," it's sort of a backhanded compliment. Yes, he was righteous, but only in comparison to the people of "his generation," people who were very bad. Noah rose above his surroundings and this is no easy task. But objectively speaking, he wasn't perfectly holy, just much better than the rest.

Another curious thing about the story of the Flood is the necessity for Noah to live on a boat and take care of tons of animals for all that time. If God had wanted, He could have obliterated the world in any manner, in a millisecond. Why does God torture Noah by forcing him to live this way, constantly caring for all these species with all their different and various needs for the entire year that Noah was on the Ark?

Perhaps there was something lacking in Noah's character that was being fixed by this situation.

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The verse in Psalms 145:16 says, "You (God) open Your hand, and satisfy the desire of every living thing." What is the metaphor of the "open hand"?

When the hand is closed, it appears as if all the fingers are the same size. When the hand is open, we see they are slightly different.

God notices the needs of each individual living thing. They are not bottles in a factory.

By forcing Noah to take care of all these animals, God was getting him to notice the needs of the individual. Each animal needs something different, requiring different types of food and at different times. Through the difficulty of the labor involved, Noah's character was molded into a sensitive caregiver.

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There are many commandments in the Torah, both dos and don'ts. Some are easy to relate to and some are more difficult. One in particular is very baffling - the command to be like the Almighty (see Deuteronomy 28:9). Who are we to imitate the Divine? Yet this is what He demands.

There are many ways to come close to the Infinite; in fact all the commandments do this to a greater or a lesser extent. Each and every mitzvah is a path or element of Godliness that we emulate by fulfilling the command. But what about this specific mitzvah to "be like God"?

One way is to focus on what the Psalmist accentuated. Just as God notices the needs of each individual being, so too we should try to develop this same sensitivity and desire to give.

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"A righteous person knows the personality of his animal." (Proverbs 12:10)

To be sensitive to another is not always easy, especially if we don't speak the same language. It takes extra intuition, and the ability to notice tiny details. It also takes the desire to want to know another's needs.

For those of us who are oblivious, Jewish law tells us to feed our animal before we feed ourselves. If we were sensitive, we'd do that naturally. Our animal is dependent on us, so we should take care of its needs before ours. That's common sense...

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Great sages from the Talmudic era (100 B.C.E. - 200 C.E.) like Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai were said to be able to understand the "chatter of date palms." This sensitivity might be thought of as a little far-fetched, unless you've seen the research of The Secret Life of Plants by Tompkins and Bird.

Numerous scientific experiments have detected a form of expression and emotions in plants. They "scream," even though we cannot hear it. But if you were truly in tune with the plant, you should be able to sense it.

I have a friend who has lots of plants, and each one has a name. She says the plants tell her things like "I want water" or "I need sun." Is my friend deluded, or does she have a highly developed sensitivity that allows her to "hear" their needs?

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The world of the spirit is very different from our physical world. We see definitions and division, and are comfortable with labels that separate us from others. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox. Black. White. Asian. American. French.

At the soul level, we are all one. There are no barriers.

When we develop a sensitivity to look past the superficial and at the deeper needs, we become more like the Infinite. We are able to see what the eye does not see. Practice this habit of trying to ascertain a deeper level of understanding with people, animals, or even plants. You will become adept at many areas of spiritual concern.

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Spiritual Exercise:

This week, pick one person and ask your intuition: What are one or two of this person's deeper needs? What is he seeking? What does he want out of life?

It will open up a beautiful window to the soul.

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