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Torah Sparks

October 16, 2004 - 1 Heshvan 5765

Annual: Genesis Genesis 6:9-11:32 (Etz Hayim, p. 41; Hertz p. 26)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 6:9 - 8:14 (Etz Hayim, p. 41; Hertz p. 26)
Maftir: Numbers 28:9 - 15 (Etz Hayim, p. 930; Hertz p. 695)
Haftarah: Isaiah: 66:1 - 24, 66:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 1219; Hertz p. 944)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Little Neck Jewish Center, Little Neck, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


Parshat Noach represents a "watershed"(!) moment in the history of humanity's moral evolution. Individual human beings and society as a whole are subject to moral standards which represent God's will and expectations for the world. Loyalty to these standards determines whom God will favor and what nations God will choose to carry out the divine plan.

Noah is a dramatic, founding example of this principle. Other ancient flood myths lack any similar moral framework. The destruction of humanity is a matter of capricious deities or a function of divine convenience. Surviving heroes are ascribed no particular merit. The Biblical text responded to the amoral world-view suggested by such legends.

In the Torah, human society has grown so corrupt that God decrees its utter destruction by means of a Flood. Noah (deemed remarkable for his moral stature) together with his wife, sons and daughters-in-law are to be saved. They board the Ark, which Noah has constructed at God's behest, together with representatives of the various animal species, to facilitate post-diluvian repopulation. Humanity and animal life are destroyed by the Flood. The rain stops and, in time, the waters subside. The Ark's passengers ultimately disembark. God imposes basic moral obligations on humanity, reflecting a revised divine estimation of human potential. Noah offers sacrifices to God, Who vows never again to unleash such a universal destructive force. The rainbow is the sign of God's Covenantal promise. Subsequently, Noah plants a vineyard, cultivates its produce, and becomes intoxicated. Noah curses his son Ham, but blesses Shem and Japeth, for their respective responses to his drunken and vulnerable state.

It should be noted that the Israelite Nation descends from Shem. That is, we are Shemites or, more familiarly, Semites. More specifically, we descend from Shem's great-grandson, Eber - perhaps the origin of the term Ivrit, Hebrew.

Theme #1: "Navigating an Immoral World"

"This is the line of Noah. Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God." (Genesis 6:9)

Derash: Study

  • "Rabbi Yochanan said: 'Noah was righteous only in his age, but in other ages he would not have been considered righteous.' But Resh Lakish said: 'He was righteous in his own age despite the prevalent evil. How much more so would he have been righteous in other ages." (Talmud, Sanhedrin 108A)
  • "Noah saw that the deeds of mankind were corrupt, so he hid himself in order not to be caught up in their ways, and he engaged in the service of God." (Zohar 1:58)
  • "The Bible leaves no doubt as to God's motivations. The choice of Noah is inspired solely by his righteousness; caprice or partiality play no role in the divine resolution". The story of the Flood, like that of Sodom and Gomorrah, presupposes the existence of a universal moral law governing the world for the infraction of which God, the Supreme Judge, brings men to account. It asserts "that man cannot undermine the moral basis of society without endangering the very existence of civilization." (Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis)
  • "Rabbinic tradition is conflicted over what to do with Noah. On the one hand, the biblical text describes him as a tzaddik, a righteous man who walked with God. On the other, how righteous could a man be who watched the destruction of an entire generation in silence? Hasidic tradition disdainfully calls Noah a tzaddik im pelz, a righteous man in a fur coat, who, instead of helping others build a fire to warm themselves, just pulls his own coat tighter around himself." (Lawrence Kushner, Five Cities of Refuge)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. The Torah - in both the narrator's voice and in an explicit statement by God (see Genesis 7:1) - describes Noah as righteous. Are we being just a bit too demanding by impugning Noah's character and qualifying his moral stature? Is the seeming human need to find fault with moral leaders itself a moral flaw?
  2. The saga of the Flood makes it clear that some moral principles are absolute, the contrary behavior of the overwhelming majority of society notwithstanding. What moral absolutes do we recognize? Which are increasingly under siege?
  3. To what extent is "walking with God" an indispensable ingredient of "righteousness" and "blamelessness?"
  4. Does the Zohar commend the very insularity which (at least according to Kushner)
  5. Hasidic tradition disdains in Noah. How do we strike a balance between personal spiritual development and social activism?

Theme #2: "The Tower Commission"

Toward the conclusion of Parshat Noach, the Biblical narrative shifts its focus from primordial human history to the emergence of various particular nations. This transition is punctuated by the incident of the Tower of Babel. Humanity, still "of one language," attempts to construct a capital city-state, so as to preclude their own dispersion. God judges this enterprise ill-advised, and contrary to the divine plan for humanity, dispersing humanity into national and linguistic groupings. A genealogical table effects the final transition from universal origins to the particularist history of the Israelite nation. With the death of Terach,Abram becomes the central actor of the Biblical text - like Noah, chosen to advance God's moral plan and historic vision for humanity. Abram, Sarai, and Lot leave Ur of the Chaldees for Haran.

The entire story of the Tower of Babel is told in nine short verses. It is important to note that the Tower does not reappear in Biblical narrative as a symbol or metaphor for human sinfulness, as Sodom and Gomorrah do frequently. Furthermore, despite the frustrated building plans, Babylonia (Babel) does in fact emerge as a major political entity in ancient history, with a dramatic impact on the development of the Jewish People.

"And they said: 'Come let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world." (Genesis 11:4)

Derash: Study

  • "It was the intention of that generation's leading members to declare Nimrod king over the entire human race. Further, they said: 'Let us make an idol and place it in the tower, so that the renown and stature of the city will spread to the entire human race, so that it will be believed to be the ultimate god by all humanity, and they will be drawn to it.'" (Sforno)
  • "The tower had seven flights of stairs from the east and seven from the west. The bricks were hauled up on one side and the workers would descend on the other side. If a man fell down and died, no one paid any attention to him. But if a single brick fell down, they would sit and weep and say: 'Woe is us! When will another brick be brought up to replace it?!'" (Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer)
  • "One who seeks to make a name for himself destroys his name." (Pirkei Avot 1:13)
  • "This desire to 'make a name' - to be a law unto themselves - aims at autonomy. What can be wrong with autonomy? Nothing except that it is illusory. Autonomy rests on the fiction of an independent will; it denies the mystery of the spirit it denies the power of something other and outside of the self. Autonomy is a conceit that buys us some measure of individuation but denies our messy interdependence, our ultimate subservience to an imagination beyond our control. The city and the tower point an iconic finger to the sky, mocking God." (Peter Pitzele, Our Fathers' Wells)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Based on the Biblical text alone, what precisely was the sin of those who built the Tower of Babel? What motivated God's dispersion of humanity, and confusion of human language?
  2. To what events in modern history might we compare Sforno's idea of a single, autocratic leader, with imperial designs on world-wide rule, and a policy of suppressing religious diversity and "the mystery of the spirit?" To what extent have such regimes shared the fate of Babel? Is the devaluation of individual human life an inescapable concomitant of such political systems, as suggested by Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer?
  3. How are personal ambition and the desire "to make a name" positive, even desirable human traits? Are these not basic and necessary elements of freedom?
  4. What are some limitations to Dr. Pitzele's critique of personal autonomy? How is Jewish life enhanced or impeded by a society that values autonomy?

Historical Note

Shabbat Parshat Noach 5765 falls on October 16, 2004. This is the birthday of David Ben-Gurion, Zionist leader and first Prime Minister of the State of Israel, born on October 16, 1886. Like Noah, Ben-Gurion anticipated a cataclysm. By urging Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel, Ben-Gurion was instrumental in building a safe haven which could sustain Jewish life, and thus preserve a threatened civilization. Like Noah, Ben-Gurion the farmer saw swamp land restored to productivity, as survivors of a world-wide disaster built new lives.

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