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Torah Sparks

November 1, 2008 – 3 Heshvan 5769

Annual: Genesis 6:9-11:32 (Etz Hayim, p. 41; Hertz p. 26)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 8:15 -- 10:32 (Etz Hayim, p. 48; Hertz p. 31)
Haftarah: Isaiah: 54:1 – 55:5 (Etz Hayim, p. 65; Hertz p. 41)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Pervasive human wickedness causes God to despair of His creation and to decide to destroy humanity. But first, God tells Noah to build an ark in which he and his family and the animals and birds will survive the flood. Forty days of rain and a flood lasting for a year wipe out all life on earth, save only those in the ark, who leave the ark to begin again. Noah’s first act upon leaving the ark is to offer sacrifices of gratitude to God. God blesses Noah and his family and places the rainbow in the sky as a sign of the covenant between God and man that God will not again bring a flood to destroy all living creatures. Noah then plants a vineyard, makes wine, and becomes drunk, leading to the cursing of Noah’s grandson Canaan. The descendents of Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham, and Yaphet are listed. The portion concludes with the story of the Tower of Babel and the dispersion of humanity and the 10 generations from Noah to Abraham.

1. The Rainbow Sign

I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. (Bereishit 9:13)

  1. The symbolism of this token, it has been said, lies in this. The bow does not reside with its base above appearing as if it were being aimed downward at the earth, sending His arrows and scattering them on earth. It is shaped the opposite way, to show that it is not aiming anything from heaven at mankind. Similarly, it is the practice of combatants to turn their bow the other way to show that they are offering peace to their adversary. Further, the bow has no string by which to shoot the arrows. Ramban [Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spain])
  2. How does the rainbow symbolize peace, unity, and the continued existence of the world? It is because the rainbow is composed of a number of colors, shades, and hues, and all of these unite into a single whole. The same is true with the differences between people, groups, and nations. A life based on mutual understanding and tolerance, on harmony and peace is the basis for the existence of the world, a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. (Z. Hillel, cited in Itturei Torah, Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg)
  3. It is by no means necessary to assume that hitherto there had been no rainbow and to place it in connection with the atmospheric changes that occurred after the flood. Just as God showed Abraham the starry heavens and said, “So shall your offspring be,” as He showed Moses and Aaron the new moon and, with the words “This month shall mark for you,” consecrated this monthly phenomenon – which, of course, had been in existence since the beginning of the world – to be a sign of physical and moral rejuvenation for Israel; as existing seasons and dates became memorials for historical and instructive remembrance for Israel, so the rainbow can also have been a well-known phenomenon in the sky and now became designated by God to be a sign of His covenant with man and the world. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)

Sparks for Discussion

Ramban and Z. Hillel offer two explanations for the rainbow as a symbol of God’s covenant with the world after the flood. Can you think of others?

Rabbi Hirsch points out that the rainbow was not created to be a sign; rather, something that already existed in nature was given an additional meaning. Following this logic, anything can be seen as a sign or symbol. Do you have personal signs that remind you of people or events in your life?

The Torah provides many visible/tangible signs other than the ones mentioned here. Tzitzit, the mezuzah, even Shabbat are called signs. Why do we need them? How do they help us shape our lives? What does having a sign for something add to how we remember or recall it?

2. Noah's Lost Weekend

Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. (Bereisheit 9:20-21)

  1. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: What is the proof that [the Levites’] song of praise [to God] is sung only over wine? From the verse “But the vine replied, ‘Have I stopped yielding my new wine, which gladdens God and man?’” (Shoftim 9:13) We understand how wine gladdens men, but how does it gladden God? We must therefore conclude that the words “gladdens God” refer to the song of praise, which is to be sung only over wine. (Talmud Berakhot 35a)
  2. “Noah, the tiller of the soil, became profane” (reading vayahel, was the first, as coming from the same root as hullin, profane). He profaned himself and became profane. How did he bring this about? Scripture says, “plant[ed] a vineyard.” Should he not have planted something of use, say a young fig shoot or an olive shoot? But no – he “plant[ed] a vineyard.” But where did he get the grapevines? Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: He had taken some vine tendrils into the ark with him, as well as fig saplings and olive saplings.

    As he set about to plant the vineyard, the demon Shamdon met him and suggested: Take me into partnership. But beware, do not trespass into my part. If you do, I will hurt you. (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 36:3)
  3. When Noah began planting, Satan came, stationed himself before him, and asked, “What are you planting?” Noah: “A vineyard.” Satan: “What is its nature?” Noah: “Its fruit, whether fresh or dried, is sweet, and from it one makes wine, which gladdens a man’s heart.” Satan: “Will you agree to let both of us plant it together?” Noah: “Very well.”

    What did Satan do? He brought a ewe lamb and slaughtered it over a vine. After that, he brought a lion, which he likewise slaughtered. Then a monkey, which he also slaughtered over it. Finally, a pig, which he again slaughtered over that vine. And with the blood that dripped from them, he watered the vineyard.

    The charade was Satan’s way of saying that when a man drinks one cup of wine, he acts like a ewe lamb, humble and meek. When he drinks two, he immediately believes himself to be as strong as a lion and proceeds to brag mightily, saying, “Who is like me?” When he drinks three or four cups, he immediately becomes like a monkey, hopping about giggling and uttering obscenities in public, without realizing what he is doing. Finally, when he becomes blind drunk, he is like a pig, wallowing in mire and coming to rest among refuse.

    All the above befell Noah. (Midrash Tanhuma, Noah 13)
  4. When one of the opponents of the chasidim asked Rabbi Naftali of Rotshitz what the basis for elevating drinking to such a degree of importance was, he answered: “We base ourselves on Noah, the first righteous man in the Torah, and he knew the secret of wine.” On this, Rabbi Yaakov of Sadigora said: “The drinking of wine is sometimes a commandment, but every commandment has a built-in prohibition against exceeding the requirements of that commandment. (Y. Yefet, cited in Itturei Torah, Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg)

Sparks for Discussion

Why did Noah choose not only to plant a vineyard and to make wine, but to drink himself into a stupor? Was he trying to celebrate his survival or to blot out the images of destruction? Was he plagued by guilt or was he seeking relief from physical and emotional exhaustion?

What are the different commentators trying to teach us about wine and other intoxicants? Does your shul provide grape juice and other nonalcoholic beverages at kiddush, Pesach seders and social events? Are there safeguards in place to keep alcohol away from teens and younger children? How would you respond to a proposal to ban alcohol at all shul functions?

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