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Torah Sparks

Parashat Noah
October 20, 2012 – 4 Heshvan 5773

Annual (Gen. 6:9-11:32): (Etz Hayim, p. 41; Hertz p. 26)
Triennial (Gen. 11:1-11:32): (Etz Hayim, p. 58; Hertz p. 38)
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-55:5 (Etz Hayim, p. 64 ; Hertz p. 41)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ

Parashat Noah represents a watershed(!) moment in 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.

In the Torah, human society has grown so corrupt that God decrees its utter destruction by means of a flood. Noah, considered remarkable for his moral stature, 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-disaster repopulation. Human and animal life are destroyed by the flood. The rain stops, the waters subside, and the ark's passengers disembark. God imposes basic moral obligations on humanity, reflecting a revised, more restrained divine estimation of human potential. Noah offers sacrifices to God, who, with the sign of the rainbow, vows never again to unleash such a universal destructive force. 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.

Toward the conclusion of Parashat Noah, 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 disperses humanity into national and linguistic groupings. A genealogical table effects the final transition from the universal to the history of the Israelite nation. With the death of Terach, Abram becomes the central actor of the Biblical text. Abram, Sarai, and Lot leave Ur of the Chaldees for Haran.

The story of the Tower of Babel is told in nine short verses. 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.

Theme #1: Ark Type

"But I will establish My Covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark, with your sons, your wife, and your sons' wives." (Genesis 6:18)

Study: Derash

"The Mishnah uses the word teivah (ark) to denote the Ark of the Torah. Accordingly, teivah implies the word of Torah and prayer, which can save us from drowning in the flood of grossness and materialism that has overrun the world." (Sefat Emet)

"This parashah is a reminder that while, as Jews, we have been given the gift of the Torah and the mitzvot as a particular guide to how to live a moral, ethical, spiritual and meaningful life, we do not take this for ourselves as the only path. The Torah and our tradition build in an understanding that all humanity is part of God's world and God's covenant. May we all recognize that our special covenant, as Jews descended from Abraham, was preceded by God's first fundamental covenant with Noah, thus remembering that all humanity has a special place in God's universe." (Rabbi David Lerner)

"Perhaps the ark can be seen as a metaphor for the lands of Exile where Jews have taken refuge. Once the stormy waters have receded and the road to home is open, do each of us really need a personal invitation from God to leave the 'galut'? Surely over 50 years of vibrant Jewish statehood, with over 5 million Jews and Jerusalem the capital, is sign enough that Jews are being called home. Indeed there seems to be a tone of impatience in God's curt call to Noah: 'Tzai min hateiva!' (Gen 8:16) as if to say 'For heaven's sake, what are you waiting for!!'" (Rabbi Shubert Spero)

"Education is our only political safety. Outside of this ark all is deluge." (Horace Mann)

"Such is the human race, that often it does seem a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat." (Mark Twain)

Questions for Discussion

Are Sefat Emet and Horace Mann saying essentially the same thing? How might these two statements be combined as a "mission statement" for Jewish education?

The covenant with Noah is the first asserted by the Torah. Does the use of the term brit in this context strengthen or dilute the Jewish claim as God's chosen, covenanted people? How should this scriptural principle impact our views and relationships with other faith traditions and communities?

Explore Rabbi Spero's metaphor. The beauty of the biblical account of the flood is its basis in God's moral calculus. If hospitable Diaspora countries are the ark, what is the State of Israel? What is the flood? What was its cause? What assurances do we have that no such deluge will recur?

Within what arks do we seek refuge from the destructive forces with which we are inundated? Immersion in Torah study? Secular education? Zionism? The welcome offered Jews in modern, free societies?

Theme #2: It's pleasant down that way, too

"Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there." (Genesis 11:31)

Study: Derash

'For the land of Canaan.' Which is prepared for the highest levels of perception. It is also the most desired land, as it says, 'a land that the Lord your God seeks out' (Deut. 11:12), and its air was not damaged by the rains of the flood, like the air of all other lands, as it says, 'It did not rain upon you on the day of fury' (Ezek. 22:24). And our Sages already said, 'The air of the Land of Israel makes one wise.'" (Talmud Baba Batra 158B). (Sforno)

"'They settled there.' So often in life, we set out with the best of intentions, only to give up half-way to our goal.'" (Chumash Etz Hayim, citing Arugat Ha-Bosem)

"Haran. An important city and center of moon worship, like Ur. The name means 'crossroads.'" (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses)

"It appeared that they would spend the rest of their lives in a small crossroad community named Haran. Many trade routes ran through Haran, all heading in different directions. But one of those roads was God's road. There are roads that can take you back where you came from, and roads that can lead you to where you've never been before, God likes crossroads, God likes to put people in the middle of a crossroad when it's time to change something, when it's time to do something new, when it's time to head off and participate in God's plan for this world. (Rev. Tom Hagood)

"You are now at a crossroads. This is your opportunity to make the most important decision you will ever make. Forget your past. Who are you now? Who have you decided you really are now? Don't think about who you have been. Who are you now? Who have you decided to become? Make this decision consciously. Make it carefully. Make it powerfully." (Anthony Robbins)

Questions for Discussion

God's command to Abraham to leave his ancestral home for the Promised Land has not yet been given (wait until the opening of next week's parashah!). What motivated three generations of Abraham's family to set out for Canaan? Why did they stop before getting there; why in a center of pagan worship?

How does Abraham and Sarah's detour to Haran‚ life's prototypical, eponymic crossroads ‚make the Jewish People's founders particularly apt spiritual role models? What critical crossroads have you confronted or are you currently facing? How are we to discern God's plan among all the potential paths and directions we might take?

How does the detour to Haran (and Abraham's later choices) reprise earlier elements of Parashat Noah? Does the proximity of the Flood narrative to Abraham's sojourn alter our reading of these two texts?

What, in a Jewish context, are the limits to Anthony Robbins' counsel to forget your past and powerfully to decide who have you decided to become?

Historic Note

Parashat Noah, read on October 20, 2012, describes the construction and the passengers (human and animal) of the maritime vessel which‚ at God's instruction‚ preserved life during the Great Flood. On October 20, 1817‚195 years ago‚ the first Mississippi River show boat departed Nashville on its maiden voyage. Like the biblical ark, show boats had no independent means of propulsion, but were pushed by tugboats. In 1816, Noah Ludlow presaged the era of the show boat by sailing with a small theatrical troupe down the Oho and Mississippi Rivers, offering shows at various ports. Ludlow's vessel was aptly named Noah's Ark.

Halachah L'Maaseh

One who sees a rainbow‚ even a partial rainbow‚ should recite a berachah: Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, zocher ha-berit, v-ne'eman b'berito, v'kayam be-ma'amaro‚ Praised are You, Lord our God, Master of time and space, Who remembers His covenant, is faithful to His covenant, and fulfills His word. See Talmud Berachot 59A, Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 229:1. Talmud Chagigah 16A counsels that one not stare at a rainbow for a protracted period probably based on the folk belief that the rainbow is an ominous sign that God's anger has been aroused, and that He is withholding punitive action only out of fealty to the biblical covenant with Noah. On this basis, the Mishnah Berurah rules that one should not draw the attention of others to the rainbow (229:1:1), so as not to be the bearer of unhappy tidings. Former Israeli Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, however, rules to the contrary. He urges one who sees a rainbow to call it to the attention of others (Yalkut Yosef 3, p. 626). By so doing, we give others the opportunity to perform a Mitzvah by reciting the blessing as well, he explains, to do teshuvah in response to the meteorological evidence of God's displeasure!

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