In memory of our beloved grandmother, Dora Levine דבורה בת יעקב ע"ה, whose Yartzheit we commemorate this week.
The Torah in Parashat Bereishit (5:24) briefly introduces us to the mysterious figure of Chanokh, Noach’s great-grandfather, describing him as a pious man who was taken by God at a relatively young age. Rashi, citing the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 25:1), explains that although Chanokh was a righteous man, he could have easily been influenced to sin, and so God took his life before his time, to ensure he would die in a state of piety.
The Rebbe of Kotzk (cited in Ohel Torah), in a fascinating passage, insists that this cannot possibly be the Midrash’s intent. It is inconceivable, the Rebbe claims, that Chanokh was so spiritually fragile that God had to take his life to protect him. The Kotzker Rebbe therefore suggests a different, startling reading of Rashi’s comment. He explains this comment to mean that Chanokh would have too easily inspired the wicked to repent. It is not that Chanokh would have been too easily influenced by his generation’s sinners, but rather that his generation’s sinners would have too easily been influenced by him. His powerful influence, the Rebbe asserted, would have eliminated people’s free will, and so the Almighty felt compelled, as it were, to take Chanokh from the world.
We might suggest that the Rebbe offered this reading to convey the message that there cannot ever be any “guarantees” with regard to religious commitment. God created the world in such a way that there is never any force strong enough to make religious devotion automatic or natural. He does not allow in our world any “Chanokh” – a person or some other factor that can inspire us to the point where we no longer need to struggle to do the right thing. The doctrine of bechira chofshit (free will) requires that we must always make a conscious decision to act properly or improperly, and no person or set of circumstances will ever exert a strong enough influence upon us to make this decision automatic. Never do we reach the point where we are naturally drawn to act properly without any challenges or obstacles to overcome.
The Kotzker Rebbe’s remark also serves as a reminder to parents and educators about their limited influence upon their charges. Never is one able to exert complete control over a child or student. Ultimately, the decision of how to act is made by the child. While we must make our best effort to exert a positive influence upon those entrusted in our hands, we must also realize that our efforts are never guaranteed to succeed. The image of Chanokh, and his fate, as depicted by the Rebbe of Kotzk, teaches us that even the most influential leaders are limited in their capabilities, as God creates people in such a way that they, and only they, bear ultimate responsibility for their decisions, and nobody and nothing can ever compel them to make the right or wrong decision.