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Torah Sparks

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 “watershed”(!) 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: “Hero or Hermit”

“Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch.” (Genesis 6:14)

Derash: Study

  1. “Why 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: ‘Noach, what are you making?'” And he will say: ‘An ark, for the Holy One is bringing about a flood.' In response to this, they will listen and repent.” (Midrash Tanchuma)
  2. “‘Make yourself…' 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.” (Rabbi Moshe Alshich)
  3. “Ark: 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.” (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses)
  4. “The 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.” (Sefat Emet)
  5. “The 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.” (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)
  6. “If 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.” (Antoine de Saint Exupéry)

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 “walking with God”? 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 Exupéry's aphorism to the challenge of building Jewish communities and congregations? What parallel does Jewish spiritual life provide to “the endless immensity of the sea”?

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 “foolish mortals.” 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 “flood of grossness and materialism” 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: “Dead Poets Society”

“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in His image did God make man.” (Genesis 9:6)

Derash: Study

  1. “A 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)
  2. “The 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.” (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)
  3. “One who sheds human blood ‘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 ‘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.” (N. Ben Yosef)
  4. “With 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 humanity…), 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.” (Rabbi Yosef Edelstein)
  5. “Capital Punishment: a penalty regarding the justice and expediency of which many worthy persons - including all the assassins - entertain grave misgivings.” (Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary)

Questions for Discussion

Is it true that this verse - narrative poetry, not a legal text - “sanctions capital punishment”? Why is such subject matter introduced by the Torah in poetic language? Can “by man shall his blood be shed” be fairly understood as predictive (“What goes around…”) 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 personal views?

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 “to sacrifice another human being's life” - 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?

Halachah L'Maaseh

Although we can understand Genesis 9:6 as prescribing capital punishment, the sages strove to limit its application dramatically. According to Mishnah Sanhedrin: “A court that imposes the death penalty once in seven years is called a bloody court. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says, ‘Even once in seventy years.' Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba said: ‘Had we been members of the Sanhedrin, no one ever would have been put to death.'”

Historic Note

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 Columbus.


 
 
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