The Perspective of ‘Hayah

Eileh toldos Noach Noach ish tzaddik tamim hayah b’dorosav (Bereishis 6:9)

Parashas Noach begins by relating that Noach was perfectly righteous in his generations. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 30:8) makes a fascinating observation, pointing out that Noach is one of five people who are described in Tanach using the verb “hayah — he was.” The Midrash explains that the common thread linking these five individuals is that each of them lived to see a new world.

Noach witnessed the destruction of the entire world through the flood, yet he and his family were spared in the ark and emerged to find a new world.

The second person about whom the Torah uses the word hayah was Yosef (Bereishis 37:2): “Yosef ben she’va esrei shanah hayah roeh es echav ba’tzon — Yosef was 17, and he was a shepherd with his brothers by the flock.” When Yosef’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, his entire world was shattered, until he emerged from jail to experience a new world when he was appointed ruler over the entire country.

Next, the Torah (Shemos 3:1) uses the word hayah to describe Moshe: “U’Moshe hayah roeh es tzon Yisro chosno — Moshe was shepherding the sheep of his father-in-law, Yisro.” Moshe was forced to leave his world behind when he had to flee for his life from Pharaoh, but ultimately, he witnessed the destruction of Pharaoh and their Egyptian oppressors, and he brought the people out to a new life of freedom.

Later in Tanach (Iyov 1:1), the word hayah is used in conjunction with Iyov: “Ish hayah b’eretz Utz Iyov she’mo — There was a man in the land of Utz whose name was Iyov.” Iyov’s entire world was taken away from him through the loss of his family and possessions, but he later saw a new world when Hashem returned to him even more than he had originally lost.

Finally, the Megillah (Esther 2:5) describes Mordechai using the word hayah: “Ish Yehudi hayah b’Shushan habirah — There was a Jewish man in Shushan the capital, and his name was Mordechai.” Mordechai lost his wife Esther when she was taken away to Achashverosh’s palace, his nation was threatened with extermination, and Haman planned to hang him, yet he merited seeing Haman hanged on the gallows that were intended for him, and he inherited Haman’s estate.

While interesting, the point made by the Midrash in grouping these five individuals who are all described using a common verb, and who all experienced complete turnarounds in their lives, is quite perplexing. What is the deeper common thread linking these five people, and what lesson is the Midrash trying to teach us?

Harav Yissocher Frand explains that, unfortunately, many people experience terrible tragedies in their lives. However, while some people become devastated by their suffering and are unable to move on and continue leading productive lives, others manage to persevere and focus on rebuilding what they lost, often creating even better lives than what they originally had. What is the key that enables a person to overcome his grief to rebuild his world, and not become paralyzed in a fixation on the past?

Rav Frand suggests that the Midrash is teaching us that the key to picking oneself up and moving on with life is the word hayah, which means “it was.” Although it is impossible to judge somebody who has experienced unspeakable tragedies, the key to moving beyond our sorrow and not allowing ourselves to be defined by our misfortunes is to view them as being in the past. Instead of wallowing in misery and being consumed by their pain, these five individuals were successful in rebuilding their lives and their worlds because of their attitudes of hayah — what happened is in the past.

For example, Noach had every reason to give up and abandon hope. Even though he and his family survived the flood, exiting the ark after the entire world was obliterated must have been even worse than surveying Hiroshima the day after it was bombed. Everything that Noach knew had been literally uprooted and destroyed. However, even though Noach had every justification to live out his remaining years in perpetual depression, he somehow managed to adopt the perspective of hayah and left the past in the past as he worked to go forward toward a brighter future, a valuable trait shared by Yosef, Moshe, Iyov and Mordechai.

As a contemporary application of this concept, Rav Frand notes that there were people who survived the Holocaust, only to discover that their families were decimated, their homes were confiscated and their hometowns were bereft of Jews. After losing everything they knew, many of them started over from scratch in Israel or the United States and rebuilt new families and new lives for themselves. Similarly, the leaders of the great yeshivos in Europe who survived the war found themselves with almost no students to teach. Rather than abandon hope, they threw themselves into the arduous task of rebuilding the Torah world, teaching students who were nowhere near the caliber of their murdered disciples. Nevertheless, they knew the secret of hayah, and they succeeded in leaving the heartbreaking past behind them. In so doing, they merited building and creating a new Torah world.

Q: What is the connection between Parashas Noach and Sefer Yonah?

A: In Parashas Noach, the Torah records (10:11) that Ashur built the city of Nineveh. Rashi explains that Ashur saw that his children were being negatively influenced by Nimrod and were joining his rebellion against Hashem, so he left Bavel and built the city of Nineveh. The Chizkuni quotes a Midrash which teaches that in the merit that Nineveh was built by the righteous Ashur in rejection of Nimrod’s evil plot, its inhabitants merited that Hashem sent them the prophet Yonah to encourage them to repent their sins so that they wouldn’t be destroyed.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email