PARASHAT NOACH - ROSH HODESH HESHVAN
October 9, 2010 - 1 Heshvan 5771
Annual: 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)
Haftarah: Isaiah: 66:1 - 24, 66:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 1220; Hertz p. 944)
Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York
Torah Reading Summary
Parashat Noach represents a â€œwatershedâ€(!) moment in the history of humanity's moral
evolution. Individual human beings and society as a whole are subject to moral standards that
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.
Noach is a dramatic founding example of this principle. Other ancient flood myths lack any
similar moral framework. They depict the destruction of humanity as an impulse by 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. Noach, who was deemed remarkable for his moral stature, and his wife,
sons, and daughters-in-law, are to be saved. They board the ark, which Noach has constructed
at God's behest, together with representatives of the various animal species, to facilitate
postdiluvian repopulation. The rest of 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, more restrained divine
estimation of human potential. Noach 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, Noach plants a vineyard, cultivates its produce, and becomes
intoxicated. Noach curses his son Ham, but blesses his other sons, Shem and Japeth, for their
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: â€œHero or Hermitâ€
â€œMake yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover
it inside and out with pitch.â€ (Genesis 6:14)
- â€œWhy did the Holy One tell Noach to build an ark? So that people would see him
occupied with its construction and repent. He will busy himself with building the ark
and cutting lumber, and people will gather around and ask: â€˜Noach, what are you
making?'â€ And he will say: â€˜An ark, for the Holy One is bringing about a flood.' In
response to this, they will listen and repent.â€ (Midrash Tanchuma)
- â€œâ€˜Make yourselfâ€¦' Go your own way, as is your usual practice. For you did not
want to mix with the people of your generation and you did not reproach them. You
did not care to associate with them or to befriend them. So now, go, be in the ark
with the wild animals and beasts of the field.â€ (Rabbi Moshe Alshich)
- â€œArk: English as well as Hebrew etymology points to a box or chest, not strictly a
boat. God, not human engineering, is the source of survival in the story.â€ (Everett
Fox, The Five Books of Moses)
- â€œThe Mishnah uses the word tevah, ark,) to denote the Ark of the Covenant.
Accordingly, tevah (which also means word) implies the word of Torah and prayer
that can save man from drowning in the flood of grossness and materialism that has
overrun the world.â€ (Sefat Emet)
- â€œThe first boat we read of, floated on an ocean, that with Portuguese vengeance
had whelmed a whole world without leaving so much as a widow. That same ocean
rolls now; that same ocean destroyed the wrecked ships of last year. Yea, foolish
mortals, Noach's flood is not yet subsided; two-thirds of the fair world it yet covers.â€
(Herman Melville, Moby Dick)
- â€œIf you want to build a ship, don't gather people together to collect wood, and
don't assign them tasks and work. Rather, teach them to long for the endless
immensity of the sea.â€ (Antoine de Saint ExupÃ©ry)
Questions for Discussion
The reed basket in which the infant Moses floated in the Nile is also referred to as a
tevah. Fox's point about God's utter control of the vessel's fate and direction applies
to Moses as well. What else links the two biblical narratives of Moses' basket and
Noach's ark? How does each account shed light on the other?
Alshich decries Noach's willful separation from his fellow humans, and portrays the
ark's voyage as a type of divine punishment for Noach's self-isolation. How does
this reading affect our understanding of Noach as â€œwalking with Godâ€? Is Noach a
worthy moral and religious exemplar or is he not? Is it preferable to involve yourself
even in a profoundly flawed society, or is there virtue in distancing yourself entirely
from perceived corruption? With what societal problems should the Jewish
community actively engage, and which demand a measure of isolation?
How might we apply Antoine de Saint ExupÃ©ry's aphorism to the challenge of
building Jewish communities and congregations? What parallel does Jewish spiritual
life provide to â€œthe endless immensity of the seaâ€?
Noach is often criticized for not informing his contemporaries about the impending
cataclysm, or attempting to effect their moral rehabilitation. Herman Melville, by
contrast, appears to be offering an urgent warning to â€œfoolish mortals.â€ What moral
lessons are we to draw from his reference to Noach, and from his suggestion that
Noach's flood, as it were, is still in evidence today?
Sefat Emet describes a metaphorical â€œflood of grossness and materialismâ€ that can
be countered effectively by involvement in Jewish study and religious life. With
what specific human failings and social ills is Jewish tradition concerned? What
remedies does it prescribe?
Theme #2: â€œDead Poets Societyâ€
â€œWhoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in His image
did God make man.â€ (Genesis 9:6)
- â€œA poem that plays on the sounds of humankind (adam) and blood (dam): shofekh
dam ha-adam/ ba-adam damo yishafekh. (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses)
- â€œThe first half of this verse has a poetic ring. The initial three Hebrew words,
which describe the crime, are placed in exactly the reverse order to proclaim the
penalty - poetic justice! In this way, the chiastic literary form gives expression to the
underlying legal principle of talion, or measure for measure. Capital punishment is
here divinely sanctioned.â€ (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)
- â€œOne who sheds human blood â€˜ba-adam' - claiming that the killing is in the best
interests of humanity - attributing to his crime of murder lofty ideals, asserting that
he is not committing murder but, quite to the contrary, fighting for an exalted ideal
and the betterment of the world - his blood shall be shed. For â€˜in His image did God
make man' - in every human being there is a spark of the Divine, a spark of the
Higher Intelligence, and no one has a right to sacrifice another human being's life so
as to improve the world.â€ (N. Ben Yosef)
- â€œWith regard to Jewish jurisprudence, the capital punishment outlined by the
written and oral Torah, and as carried out by the greatest sages from among our
people (who were paragons of humility and humanityâ€¦), did not remotely resemble
the death penalty in modern America (or Texas). In theory, capital punishment is
kosher; it's morally right, in the Torah's eyes. But we have seen that there was great
concern - expressed both in the legislation of the Torah and in the sentiments of
some of our great sages - regarding its practical implementation. It was carried out
in ancient Israel, but only with great difficulty. Once in seven years; not 135 in five
and a half.â€ (Rabbi Yosef Edelstein)
- â€œCapital Punishment: a penalty regarding the justice and expediency of which
many worthy persons - including all the assassins - entertain grave misgivings.â€
(Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary)
Questions for Discussion
Is it true that this verse - narrative poetry, not a legal text - â€œsanctions capital
punishmentâ€? Why is such subject matter introduced by the Torah in poetic
language? Can â€œby man shall his blood be shedâ€ be fairly understood as predictive
(â€œWhat goes aroundâ€¦â€) rather than prescriptive?
The opposition of Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba to capital punishment is itself
criticized by the Mishnah as potentially leading to more murder, ostensibly by
removing the ultimate deterrent to that crime. Is that a reasonable objection to their
position? How might Tarfon and Akiba have reconciled their approach with the Torah's explicit prescription of the
death penalty for a plethora of crimes and offenses?
To what extent should the views of the Bible or rabbinic literature enter public
debate about criminal law and public policy in modern democracies? To what extent
should our sacred literature motivate individual Jewish citizens of such nations in formulating their
Is the timing of this divine injunction (if, indeed, it is to be construed as an
injunction, as an imperative) a bit odd? Why is divine abhorrence of homicide voiced
immediately upon disembarkation from the ark? Was there some immediate threat?
Does the timing add to the moral gravity of the message?
Are there, indeed, no circumstances whatsoever when it is proper â€œto sacrifice
another human being's lifeâ€ - as in war, self-defense, the defense of innocents,
selective distribution of limited medical resources, etc.? What about assigning
military personnel to predictably fatal missions?
Although we can understand Genesis 9:6 as prescribing capital punishment, the sages
strove to limit its application dramatically. According to Mishnah Sanhedrin: â€œA
court that imposes the death penalty once in seven years is called a bloody court.
Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says, â€˜Even once in seventy years.' Rabbi Tarfon and
Rabbi Akiba said: â€˜Had we been members of the Sanhedrin, no one ever would have
been put to death.'â€
Shabbat Parashat Noach 5771 - October 9, 2010 - is also officially observed as Leif
Erikson Day, honoring the seafaring Viking explorer who is believed to be the first
European to set foot in North America, 500 years before the arrival of Christopher