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Torah Sparks

Parashat Noah (Shabbat Rosh Hodesh)
October 5, 2013 – 1 Heshvan 5774

Annual (Genesis 6:9-11:32): Etz Hayim p. 41; Hertz p. 26
Triennial (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, 23): Etz Hayim p. 1220; Hertz p. 944

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

Noah, God’s last hope for humanity is commanded to build an ark in which to carry his family and two of every animal on earth. Forty days of rain ensue, with Noah and crew safely on board. Noah later sends a raven and then a dove to find signs of the reappearance of land. Once they are back on the earth, God displays a rainbow as a sign of the covenant, promising that the world will not be destroyed by flooding again. God then reveals several basic rules for all of humanity to follow.

In later years, Noah plants a vineyard; one day he becomes intoxicated and strips out of his clothing. His son Ham discovers this and tells his brothers Shem and Yafet; the latter two cover up their father. When Noah awakens and finds out what happened, he curses Ham and his descendants and blesses his other sons and their families.

As the parasha ends, a group of people attempt to build a tower to reach the sky, in an effort to stay together. God foils this attempt by giving each person a different language to speak, thus confounding the project. Ten more generations come and go, culminating in our introduction to Abram.

Theme #1: Righteous Compared To Whom?

This is the line of Noah.—Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God. These are the generations of Noah; Noah was a just man and perfect in his generation, and Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)

Noah is described by that Torah as “blameless in his age.” The question of what this says about him, whether he was good compared to the evil people around him or good according to any standard, is endlessly debatable, given the above phrase and the mixed evidence found in the rest of the portion.

The original decree of annihilation included Noah as well; however, he found hen [sweetness] in God’s eyes, for we may read [Genesis 6:7, 8] as, “God said, I will obliterate mankind … I am sorry I ever made them and Noah -- [but he nonetheless] found favor in the eyes of God.” (BT Sanhedrin 108a)

“Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). Rabbi Yehudah said: The phrasing may be understood from the parable of a king who had two sons, one grown up and the other a child. To the child he said, “Walk with me;” but to the adult, “Walk before me.” Likewise to Abraham, whose [spiritual] strength was great, he said, “Because you are wholehearted, walk before me” (Genesis 17:1). But to Noah, whose [spiritual] strength was feeble, Scripture says, “Noah walked with God.” (Genesis Rabbah 30:10)

Noah was surrounded by the wicked people of the generation of the flood. Nevertheless, he conducted himself in the service of God in the way of “For my sake was the world created,” as our text reads, “a righteous one, blameless in his age.” That is to say that he considered himself blameless and righteous. This behavior was necessary for him in a generation of such wickedness so that he would not succumb to their ways. But if he were to live in Abraham’s generation, among great righteous ones, Noah, certainly would consider himself “dust and ashes,” seeing himself in his own eyes as if he were nothing at all. (Yechiel of Alexander)

Questions for Discussion:

The Talmud reinterprets the verse in which God expresses regret for creating humanity, and indicates that God saves Noah only reluctantly. Why did the rabbis give Noah such a backhanded compliment? Does the fact that God makes a covenant with Noah after the conclusion of the flood signal God’s reluctance, or acceptance that Noah, while flawed, is good enough? If God truly regrets making every person, Noah included, what motivates God to continue the experiment of humanity at all?

Noah is compared unfavorably to Abraham, with whom God makes a covenant far wider in scope. Genesis Rabbah claims that the image of Noah walking with God indicates someone who would not have thought to follow God if left to his own devices. Are the rabbis denigrating the importance of blind loyalty? Or are they emphasizing the greatness of Abraham, who is independent enough to follow God while walking on his own? When considering loyalty from other people, which is preferable: someone who is stays hand-in-hand, or someone who provides support both near and far? Is this an important distinction?

Yechiel of Alexander claims that Noah’s self-image is determined greatly by those around him. To what extent do we do the same? To what extent is this advisable?

Theme #2: What Have They Done To Deserve This?

The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness.When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth. (Genesis 6:11-13)

The text doesn’t give us many examples illustrating the evils of humanity leading up to the flood. We are left to suspect the meaning of the word “hamas”, of which the world is filled.

Hamas is a technical legal term which should not be automatically reproduced as violence … the same force is reflected in the Akkadian verb habalum, “to deprive someone of his legal rights.” (E.A. Speiser, Anchor Bible Genesis)

Hamas refers to robbery and fraud. [God] gave Noah the reason as injustice, and did not mention the “corrupting of ways,” because injustice is a known and public sin. [Sanhedrin 108a, however], said that it was over [injustice] that their decree was sealed. The reason is because it is a law that is intuitively understood, and [the people] had no need for a prophet to warn about it. Furthermore, [injustice] is an evil toward God and toward men. Thus, [God] informed Noah of the sin for which “the end had come, the dawn of destruction had arrived.” (Nahmanides on Genesis 6:13)

Rashi notes that [the] sin [of the generation of the flood] consisted of indecency and immorality. Why, then, does he state that their death was decreed only on account of the robbery of which they were guilty? To indicate that if they would have possessed wealth acquired by legitimate means, God might have taken their wealth rather than their lives to punish them for their immorality. … Had the generation of the flood been guilty only of indecency and immorality, God would not have destroyed them immediately but would first have punished them by stripping them of their possessions. But since they had gained all their wealth through robbery, it was not their own and could not be accepted as atonement. Therefore the Lord decreed the death penalty for them immediately, declaring that God would blot out all men from the face of the earth. (Melo HaOmer)

Questions for Discussion:

Speiser dismisses the idea that hamas is a reference to violence in the text. Describe the state of the world right before the flood: what is there? If hamas is indeed not a word describing violence, does this indicate that the evils in Noah’s time are subtle? Many modern works of art (i.e., Dostoyevky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”) portray evil as something deceptively common; is that what Noah’s generation looked like? Is subtle evil more dangerous than blatant evil?

Nahmanides’ contention stated the injustice of the generation of the flood is so self-evident that the people do not merit the warnings of a prophet to change their ways. Is that a reasonable explanation? Does this explanation put a different spin on the idea that Noah is “blameless in his age”? (Perhaps Noah himself is blameless of sin, but he does not attempt to be a prophet to try and stop his neighbors’ ways, thus making him less of a person than, say, Abraham.) Is injustice is “a known and public sin”? To what extent are today’s injustices known or unknown?

To Rashi, the ultimate reason for destroying the world was widespread robbery. How is robbery a metaphor for many kinds of wrongdoing? How is it possible to steal something other than physical possessions? What is the worst thing for someone to steal? Was Rashi’s assessment that robbery is a drastic enough sin to warrant widespread punishment correct?

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