You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Noach.
From the Academy for Jewish Religion
After the Flood: Renewing Our Faith in Nature, Humankind, and the Devine
by Dr. Yakir Englander
It was morning in the Mount Scopus neighborhood of Jerusalem, near the Hebrew University campus. Up early, I was preparing to make my first presentation as a university student participating in a course on Carl Jung. I was analyzing a Talmud passage in which Rabbi Yohanan is arguing with his disciple, Resh Lakish, about whether knives and swords are considered ritually unclean. I was struggling to comprehend how a simple discussion among scholars, undertaken ostensibly “for the sake of heaven,” could eventually lead – by the end of the chapter – to a rabbi murdering his disciple, then dying violently himself.
Suddenly, my little room was shaken by the roar of an exploding bomb. Moments later, I was racing toward the main road, where I found the charred remains of a municipal bus, with dead bodies and wounded living inside and strewn on the roadway. Memories of those first minutes, before the arrival of the ambulance, are etched like fiery brands in both my body and my soul. I ran from one victim to the next, trying to do something. Mostly, all I could do was encourage, repeating over and over, that just one more moment, just one more breath, and aid would arrive. I remember vividly going back to the dorm from that battleground, my clothes covered in blood and tiny fragments of charred flesh. I gazed at the glorious newly-risen sun, saw Nature in all her beauty, and felt betrayed. To this day I recall the gaping chasm I felt, between the horror of what I had just gone through, and the natural sublimity all around me.
A terrible thunderstorm, perhaps, or a devastating blizzard, or a tornado. Or, a concentration camp, a death squad, or a bloody battle – and then, silence. And Nature is there, powerful, perfect. The stark gap between the din and the terror of violence – whether of the elements or of humanity – crashing down all around us, and the absolute stillness that follows, seems unbearable.
The Ukrainian-Israeli poet, Leah Goldberg, touches on this chasm, in her poem, Denial:
Five minutes of flood, and then,
The innocent sky denies everything;
And green, fragrant earth…
And of the flood –
Not a single witness.
I return to these moments after the Flood, to the end of the forty days and nights the Ark was borne upon the waves, while volleys of fire and water fell from the heavens.
So [G-d] wiped out every creature living on the earth, from human beings and animals to creeping things and birds of the air – all were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah, and his companions in the Ark, remained alive. (Genesis 7:23)
Commenting on this verse, Nahmanides (Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, 1194—1270) traces the repetition of the Hebrew root y.m.h. (“wipe out, blot out”), writing:
“Vayimah: Even the corpses were erased, consumed by the water, and not even a bird’s egg survived, on a tree branch or under the soil: everything was blotted out.”
And then – total silence, like after an artillery barrage.
The raven is sent out first, like a scout sent from the trenches to assess the disaster’s scope. Not even daring to look, the raven flies aimlessly “to and fro” over the water (Genesis 8:7). The dove, however, does gaze upon the divine/natural devastation, but at first cannot find a single foothold anywhere in unfaithful Nature. Only on its second flight, the dove brings back “a freshly plucked olive leaf” (8:11). Divine and natural forces have forsaken us, but something at least remains, even if – as Nahmanides remarks at this verse – it is as insignificant as a leaf. Even then, like the occupants of concentration camps just liberated by Allied forces, the companions in the Ark don’t dare to set foot outside. They know too well, that once beyond the gates of the camp, or the door of the Ark, their broken-hearted search for their lost loved ones will begin. As, too, will begin their awful realization of the catastrophe’s scope, the depth of their betrayal by their furious deity with his storm-troopers – the destructive forces of Nature.
“Then G-d said to Noah: ‘Go forth from the Ark…’” (Genesis 8:15-16). In his commentary, the Holy Alshikh (Rabbi Moshe Alshikh, 1508—1593) stresses that the verb “Go forth!” in the divine command is singular (tzei), not plural (tzu). Only Noah alone, at first, can bear the burden of the new reality; afterwards, bit by bit, his family will venture out, and the animals who are with them.
Noah now reaches a profound understanding concerning the divine choice to use the most basic of natural forces – fire and water – to destroy humans, animals and plants. Human consciousness can grasp the idea that these forces are tools in the hand of a vengeful deity; however, the animal kingdom will experience, from this day onward, the recurring trauma of uncertainty every time the sky clouds over and heavy rain pelts the earth – “Is this rain a blessing, or is it a new Deluge?” Noah’s first act, then, upon exiting the Ark, is to take some of the ritually pure animals, and sacrifice them. This he does as an offering to the divine, by means of the natural element of fire. Thus, Noah forges a sort of “covenant of murderers” between human and divine. The act of sacrifice represents the knowledge, that fire and water can become tools, first in divine hands, now in human. Danger to the natural world is not found in the forces of fire and water themselves, but rather in their manipulation, as they become tools of a divine or human will. It is the human and the divine only who are bonded in this will-full “murderers’ covenant”; plants and animals, for their part, dwell in unconscious freedom, innocent of will and united with the forces of Nature.
In the biblical account, the rainbow is established in the heavens to warn humans of the divine fury. It was only after I had “gone out with a question” from the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, that I learned that all over the world, people who witness a rainbow are filled with awe at the beauty of Nature. For my part, I had always felt and continued to feel a pang of fear at the sight of a rainbow. It bears witness, that a moment of divine judgement has come, and the world stands condemned once again to total destruction because of our sins. The role of the rainbow is to remind the divine of the covenant established in Genesis, and of the promise, that in spite of our, and my, hurtful behavior, G-d will not destroy us, but will have compassion. It took a full two decades of living, until I reached that moment when, standing beside my wife and gazing up at a rainbow emerging after a rainstorm, I experienced pure and natural beauty, and nothing more.
The painful journey that includes our betrayal by divine destruction, our suffering at the hands of human cruelty, and our ongoing trauma while grappling with Jewish and Israeli identities in our world – are all summed up beautifully in a song by Yarden Bar-Kokhba, called “Days of Stillness.” These words sum up also the themes and insights that can come to us, perhaps, only after the Flood:
They’re coming now, the days of stillness.
We’ll go to the window to see
If the waters have gone,
And if, perhaps, there’s land out there,
On our horizon.
Two by two,
We’ll come out two by two;
Gazing up at the sky,
Together, waiting for the dove.
They’re coming now, the days of stillness.
After we’ve lost everything, you and I,
Come sit with me here on the balcony,
Cry with me here for yesterday.
They’re coming now, the days of stillness.
We’re together, you and I, on this mountaintop;
The water is quiet now;
The rainbow’s here as well.
We can stand again now,
For the end of the world has passed.
[TRANSLATED FROM THE HEBREW BY HENRY R. CARSE] _______________
By Rabbi Min Kantrowitz
The story of Noah is one of the most well known in Genesis/Breishit. Even those with little or no knowledge of Torah can retell the essence of the story: the Flood, the Ark, and the pairs of each kind of animal. But the text does not tell the tale exactly that way. What does it actually say? And why?
The descriptions in Breishit 6 and Breishit 7 do not match. In both places, God is heartsick, sad and grieving the results of creation; humans are behaving badly. The idea that the One Source suffers from human emotions of regret, anger and desire for retribution is often glossed over in some contemporary concepts of God as the ultimate Source of compassion. But, in both texts, the angry and disappointed Divine decides to destroy the final (and, arguably, the most advanced) category of Creation: the human, due to humanity’s propensity for violence. All other creatures that breathe are to be destroyed, too, despite their not being responsible for humanity’s wickedness and evil.
The first version, in Breishit 6:17-20, states, “ I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive.”
The version in Breishit 7:1-3 differs; “The Eternal then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth.”
We are left with a question: how many of what kind of animal was Noah told to bring into the Ark: one pair of each kind of animal (Breishit 6) or seven pairs of one category of animal, and one pair from each example of the other category (Breishit 7)? This uneven distribution of pardon sets up the demographic expectation that ‘clean animals’ will outnumber ‘unclean’ ones over time.
In Jewish tradition, seven is the number that signifies completion. For example: there are seven days in a complete week, a highlight of a Jewish wedding is the seven circlings enacted during the ceremony, the ties on tachrichim (traditional shrouds/funeral garments) are twisted seven times before tying. Requiring seven pairs of ‘clean’ animals is a blueprint for a future complete world.
But why include the ‘unclean’ animals? Judaism is not a religion about perfection, but about continual reflection and improvement. Each High Holiday season provides multiple structured opportunities for us to examine our thoughts, intentions and behaviors in order to improve. The inclusion of unclean animals may be a reminder that there will always be errors as well as opportunities to rectify them…but the disproportionate number of ‘clean’ animals assures that good will eventually triumph over evil.
Perhaps more important in thinking about this floating zoo is the necessity of diversity—of plants, animals and varieties of humans. The Ark did not contain only ‘beautiful’ humans (despite the fact that Breishit 6:2 states that “the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful”), but at least a pair of every kind of living, breathing animal was on board, regardless of their moral character or physical characteristics. Diversity of plants, animals and humans is a necessary and delightful aspect of life on earth. When species become extinct or when marginalized groups are excluded, the richness of Creation suffers.
Today we live in an uncertain world: civic structures are unstable, Earth’s climate is changing in erratic and unpredictable ways and sociopolitical trends are segmenting humanity into opposing and mutually incompatible forces. There are earthquakes, droughts, destructive fires…and floods. Climate change and habitat loss are decimating the animal world. For example, the Javan rhino population has shrunk to between 46 to 66 individuals. NBC news reports that more than 2,000 species of amphibians are now threatened by extinction. Species of monkeys, tigers and even spiders are in danger of disappearing. We need to pay attention. After the death of the last dodo bird people didn’t believe that God would take away a creature’s existence after having gone through the trouble of creating them, so no one was truly alarmed at their disappearance. But we are alarmed now…and we should be. Floods remind us that the Earth herself needs rest and renewal. The Flood in the time of Noah wiped out much, but what remained was the possibility of repair and rejuvenation. The Flood as a powerful reminder that our world is precious and we need to care for her and for all life that is supported on this planet.
The name ‘Noah’ comes from the Hebrew “Noach” which means ‘rest’ or ‘repose”, the necessary step for refueling ourselves. We remember this every week as Shabbat reminds us that renewal requires rest. On Shabbat, when everything returns to its source, we rest, so we can start over again, refreshed and renewed, remembering that diversity is a necessary component of creation and committing ourselves to protecting all the variety of life clinging to this very precious planet.
Rabbi David Kasher
From My Jewish Learning
Parashat Noach: How Societies Collapse
The story of the flood is an object lesson in the kinds of crimes that pose existential social threats.
BY RABBI RACHEL ISAACS
Parashat Noach, filled with pairs of animals marching to an ark, a peace-seeking dove, and a righteous family on an epic journey to rebuild the world, is often thought of as the perfect Torah portion to teach to small children. However, there are many more adult elements of this portion that deal not only with the Noah’s (relative) goodness, but also with the nature of evil that filled the earth before the flood.
At the beginning of the portion, we learn:
וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס׃
The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness. Genesis 6:11
In these early days of humanity, what exactly constitutes corruption and lawlessness?
The Hebrew term, chamas, is often used to describe a particularly base form of hatred and depravity. The 11th-century Egyptian commentator Ibn Ezra says that this word describes two crimes in particular: theft and the exploitation and rape of women.
The 13th-century French commentator known as the Chizkuni offers additional insights into the behaviors that took hold among humanity before the flood. Focusing on the term lifnei Elokim (“before God”), he claims that this term harkens back to Genesis 6:2, which refers to bnei Elokim (“the children of God”), divine beings with special proximity to God. According to Chizkuni, this phrasing teaches that the moral rot in Noah’s time began at the top of society and quickly trickled down to society at large. Building on Ibn Ezra’s commentary, Chizkuni claims that sexual assault was pervasive among social leaders and quickly spread from there, causing God to be particularly disgusted.
Chizkuni goes on to detail the type of theft that pervaded the earth before the flood. It wasn’t merely theft in general, but a specific type of theft that undermined faith in the legal system. According to Chizkuni, stealing more than one small unit of currency known as a p’rutah was understood to be a simple and straightforward form of theft, known in Hebrew as gezel. But chamas describes a more nefarious and strategic form of theft in which people would steal slightly less than a p’rutah to escape punishment. He explains this kind of behavior through a specific example:
When someone brought a basket full of fruit to market offering to sell it, he would be mobbed by people, each of whom helped himself to less than the value of that coin. By using this subterfuge, the party helping himself to fruit without paying for it escaped being cited before a judge, who did not entertain claims below that amount.
According to Chizkuni then, the types of cries that are so horrendous they would cause God to wipe out all of humanity are those that undermine basic human dignity and the legitimacy of the legal system. Rape is a crime that not only inflicts physical harm, but exacts profound and lasting spiritual harm to the victim and those who care about them. The type of clever scheming described above harms not only specific merchants, but the legal system at large, causing the greater society to lose faith in its ability to keep human greed in check and allow markets to function normally.
Human societies, filled with imperfect people, will always include individuals who do wrong. But the kinds of sins that lead to existential threats are those that undermine basic human dignity and public confidence in the proper functioning of the law. Parashat Noach should give us pause when we are inclined to game the system for ephemeral personal gain or attack the dignity of others for temporary personal pleasure. A world worthy of an eternal covenant with God is one led by leaders who model the best of who we can be, and composed of societies that are steadfast in safeguarding the dignity of its members and the moral claims of its legal system.
When we lost our way in the days before the flood, we were lucky that Noah was good enough to rebuild a destroyed world. As inheritors of God’s promise never to destroy the world again by flood, we can only look to ourselves to deconstruct corrupted systems and rebuild a world worthy of divine blessing.
From Rabbi Yael Levy
A Way In: Rising Again
The earth was filled with violence and contempt.
The corruption was destroying all. (Genesis 6:11-12)
The air is thick with water.
Grey clouds hold the sky.
All along the Florida coast
Winds lash the land.
It is true,
We can see it.
Creation has gone awry.
We can point fingers of blame
We can say, no, not because of me.
So much is being destroyed.
Land, homes, families,
Fairness, justice, the possibilities of healing and peace.
The very fabric of our nation, of the world
Being torn apart.
Storms are raging.
And, there is also an orange butterfly
Flying through the rain
Feasting on purple flowers.
There are dolphins swimming in ocean waves,
White egrets in long blades of grass,
A school of flying fish.
And there is someone laughing,
Someone holding a friend who cries,
There are children playing,
And sounds of music in the rain drenched air.
None of this feels like enough
To turn the tides
Of arrogance, greed and corruption,
But perhaps we can take refuge for even a moment,
In the goodness.
Perhaps beauty can
Soothe our spirits.
Perhaps moments of joy
Can help us regain our strength.
Perhaps the awareness of connection,
The sensations of relationship
Can give us the courage
And the willingness
To step back into the storm
And rise again and again.
From Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Dovetailing With Raven
A Teaching from Gershon…
Listen. This is important.
Let me tell you the difference between Dove and Raven.
Raven is about setting out on an endeavor with a determination to complete it that borders on obsession. In other words, Raven says: “I am not moving on with my life until I’ve achieved what needs to be done.”
When our ancestor Noah sent Raven out of the ark to find out whether the flood had subsided , Raven “flew to and fro, to and fro, until the waters dried-up” (Genesis 8:7). In other words, Raven had no intention of returning to the ark until the flood had completely dried-up; he could not move on with his life until the task he took on had been completed, which was to return with news that the flood was over. At least that is how Raven chose to interpret his quest, that you gotta go and go and go until there’s nowhere left to go – before resuming your own life and moving on. We see this again later when Raven feeds the prophet Eliyahu, continuously bringing him food “until the river dried-up” (First Kings 17:4-7).
So, that’s Raven.
Dove, on the other hand, takes its task no less seriously than does Raven, but, unlike Raven, she does not become obsessive about it. She leaves the ark with the same quest in mind, but after a good try and realizing it was taking up too much of her personal life, she returns to the ark and moves on with her life. When she returns, Noah reaches out to receive her (Genesis 8:9), which does not happen in the Raven account because Raven, again, wasn’t coming back – at least not until the earth had completely dried-up.
Again, Dove has no qualms about returning empty-handed with nothing to report and goes on with her life until a week or so later when she is asked to try again (Genesis 8:10). So, Dove is about trying really hard, making all the necessary efforts to get done what needs to get done on behalf of the world, but not at the expense of your personal life. It matters too. She does what she can, and knows when to suspend the task and move on, which in turn re-energizes her for her next go at it.
Sure enough, on her second attempt, inspired by having moved on with her personal life, she returns with good news. There is dry land other than the peaks of Ararat, and the earth is healing. And in her beak, a freshly-plucked leaf from an olive tree. Why an olive leaf? Why not a leaf from a mulberry tree or a fig tree? Explain the ancients: “Dove prayed, and said ‘Master of the Universe — Far better that I be dependent upon you and what you choose to feed me, even if it be bitter like olives, than be dependent upon humans and what they choose to feed me even if it be sweet as honey” (Talmud Bav’li, Eruvin 18b).
Thus, Dove is symbolic of hope in the restoration of that which has crumbled, and trust in the unfolding of the Infinite-All rather than in the promises of the finite some. And it is this faith which enables it to take time out from saving the world to nourish its own, and conversely to trust in the process rather than presume to control it.
Both Raven and Dove are essential teachers. The wisdom of each is crucial, especially during these times. It would behoove us to let the inspiration of both rub off on us – of Raven, to empower us with tenacious determination, and of Dove, to remind us to take our foot off the pedal now and then and coast; not to forget to return to the ark now and then, and move on with our lives.
Like the badly-maligned Pharisees taught us: “The Sabbath was given into your hands, and you were not given into the hands of the Sabbath” (Talmud Bav’li, Yoma 85b). Likewise with your noble endeavors. While the fixing of the world belongs to you, you do not belong to it. Or, to quote the second-century Rabbi Tar’fon: “The day is short, the task is huge, and the workers are idle, and the reward is great, and the Master of the Realm is urging. And yet, the task is not laid upon you with the intent or expectation that it is within your capability or responsibility to complete it; and neither are you free of the innate passion to do so, that you can in any way disengage yourself from it” (Mishnah, Avot 2:15-16).
We’ve got a lot to deal with today; much to be concerned about; a slew of issues to remedy. But while we are engaged in our quest, we must not forget to move on. Your story is no less precious than the one within which your story is unfolding.
From Reform Judaism.org
The Window of Noah’s Ark
Noach, Genesis 6:9−11:32
D’VAR TORAH BY: RABBI KARYN D. KEDAR
And it came to pass, for the sins of the people, a great flood covered the earth. And God warned Noah, for Noah was the righteous of his generation. And God told him how to build an ark, cubit by cubit.
We will never know the historicity of this great flood. Other cultures write of devasting floods, most notably the Babylonian narrative of the Epic of Gilgamesh. But it is clear that the author of the biblical narrative is not interested in giving us an historical account. The author is probing our relationship with God, and God with us, and is in search of a reason for natural phenomenon which causes great disaster.
The author concludes that there is a cause and effect when we sin. God exacts punishment, usually harsh punishment. For the wickedness of the people, the earth would be destroyed. Indeed, this theology of reward and punishment is pervasive in our Torah. I do not believe in a connect-the-dots-deity. I believe that whenever we claim to know cause and effect, we do so with arrogance and hubris.
Years ago, I had a dream. It was more like a night vision. I imagined a tailor in the forest working long into the night by the light of a single candle with only a simple needle and thread. And I thought, if only I could learn to sew, I could mend my life. When I woke, the vision wouldn’t leave me. I searched for its meaning.
And then I found the metaphor. Our lives are like a tapestry. There is a vague picture, and with needle and thread we fill in the colors one stitch at a time. When life is tough, we only see the reverse side of the tapestry, knots and threads that don’t seem to connect. When we feel strong, we see on the front side the picture of who we are, and the trajectory of our life materializes. Either way, it is ours to create, to see, and to decipher.
Then there is another cloth: deep, exquisite black velvet. Beautiful, shimmering with life but opaque. That is God, or rather the mystery. It represents what I can never know, never understand, never see clearly. It belongs to the mystery. And here is the revelation. I do what I can, what is in my control to do, and then release the rest. The tapestry is mine to create. The velvet is mine to behold. I do what I can, what is in my control to do, and then release the rest. I am meant to sew the two pieces of cloth together, the tapestry and the velvet. Faith is living on the seam between what I can know and what I will never know.
So how do we find meaning in this great and curious Noah narrative, even as some of us, me included, reject the theology of reward and punishment. If we do not read this narrative as history, and do not read it as theology, perhaps we can find the meaning within literary conventions. There is meaning in the parable.
Every detail of the ark that Noah is instructed to build is described, including the window: make an opening (tzhar) for light in the ark (6:16). Bartenura, a 16th -century commentator on Rashi, writes that the word for window, tzhar, shares the root for the word tzhariyim, meaning noon. He along with other commentators say that Noah was commanded to build an opening that would let the noon light shine within the ark. This was a window of hope waiting for the new day to dawn; a window to the world, to the heavens, to an external source of help; an opening so that Noah could send forth a messenger, a dove who could search the landscape and let him know that it is safe to emerge.
And indeed, the birds circle the world for dry land. After a while, towards the evening, as the sun begins to set, behold, the dove returns, carrying an olive leaf in its beak, proof that we can begin again. And here Torah offers us a great spiritual metaphor. It is story of the window in the ark, which teaches us the abiding lesson of resilience, for sometimes life imposes upon us great distress. And when it does, Torah teaches through metaphor and allegory: We should be a vessel of safety to weather the storm. And when we do, we shall not forget to build a window, an opening to the world, a way out of our despair, for the ark is not meant to harbor us forever.
The rabbis offer a second explanation for the meaning of window, tzhar. Malbim, a 19-century Hebrew grammarian and Torah scholar, suggests that Noah didn’t build a window but rather the word tzhar refers to a precious stone called zhorit. This stone, he says, is iridescent by its very nature, illuminating from within and, generating its own light. He then uses his metaphoric interpretation to offer a different reading of the prefix “l” in the verse, from place an opening (tzhar) for light to shine into the ark to make an opening for light inside the ark. ;
This stone that generates its own light is a beautiful metaphor for resilience. Meaning is not found within the adversity and tragedy; meaning is found within the inner resources of our being. We regain our balance through the courage it takes to live with mystery and ambiguity. We live in a vast sea of unknowable, confusing, and ambiguous living. There is so much we simply do not know and will never understand. Faith is not blind. Faith is not a simplistic connecting of the dots. Faith takes root within the constant struggle to know the limits of our humanity, living on the seam of what we can know and what is simply unknowable.
So when we find ourselves overwhelmed by trouble and pain, we can build ourselves an ark, a safe haven, with a tzhar, a source of light and resilience.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Righteousness is not Leadership
The praise accorded to Noah is unparalleled in Tanach. He was, says the Torah, “a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God.” No such praise is given to Abraham or Moses or any of the Prophets. The only person in the Bible who comes close is Job, described as “blameless and upright (tam ve-yashar); he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). Noah is in fact the only individual that the Tanach describes as righteous (tzaddik).
Yet the Noah we see at the end of his life is not the person we saw at the beginning. After the Flood:
Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked. (Gen. 9:20-23)
The man of God has become a man of the soil. The upright man has become a drunkard. The man clothed in virtue now lies naked. The man who saved his family from the Flood is now so undignified that two of his sons are ashamed to look at him. This is a tale of decline. Why?
Noah is the classic case of someone who is righteous, but who is not a leader. In a disastrous age, when all has been corrupted, when the world is filled with violence, when even God Himself – in the most poignant line in the whole Torah – “regretted that He had made man on earth, and was pained to His very core,” Noah alone justifies God’s faith in humanity, the faith that led Him to create humankind in the first place. That is an immense achievement, and nothing should detract from it. Noah is, after all, the man through whom God makes a covenant with all humanity. Noah is to humanity what Abraham is to the Jewish people.
Noah was a good man in a bad age. But his influence on the life of his contemporaries was, apparently, non-existent. That is implicit in God’s statement, “You alone have I found righteous in this whole generation” (Gen. 7:1). It is implicit also in the fact that only Noah and his family, together with the animals, were saved. It is reasonable to assume that these two facts – Noah’s righteousness and his lack of influence on his contemporaries – are intimately related. Noah preserved his virtue by separating himself from his environment. That is how, in a world gone mad, he stayed sane.
The famous debate among the Sages as to whether the phrase “perfect in his generations” (Gen. 6:9) is praise or criticism may well be related to this. Some said that “perfect in his generations” means that he was perfect only relative to the low standard then prevailing. Had he lived in the generation of Abraham, they said, he would have been insignificant. Others said the opposite: if in a wicked generation Noah was righteous, how much greater he would have been in a generation with role models like Abraham.
The argument, it seems to me, turns on whether Noah’s isolation was part of his character, or whether it was merely the necessary tactic in that time and place. If he were naturally a loner, he would not have gained by the presence of heroes like Abraham. He would have been impervious to influence, whether for good or bad. If he was not a loner by nature but merely by circumstance, then in another age he would have sought out kindred spirits and become greater still.
Yet what exactly was Noah supposed to do? How could he have been an influence for good in a society bent on evil? Was he really meant to speak in an age when no one would listen? Sometimes people do not listen even to the voice of God Himself. We had an example of this just two chapters earlier, when God warned Cain of the danger of his violent feelings toward Abel – “’Why are you so furious? Why are you depressed?… sin is crouching at the door. It lusts after you, but you can dominate it” (Gen. 4:6-7). Yet Cain did not listen, and instead went on to murder his brother. If God speaks and people do not listen, how can we criticise Noah for not speaking when all the evidence suggests that they would not have listened to him anyway?
The Talmud raises this very question in a different context, in another lawless age: the years leading to the Babylonian conquest and the destruction of the First Temple, another lawless age:
Aha b. R. Hanina said: Never did a favourable word go forth from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, of which He retracted for evil, except the following, where it is written, “And the Lord said unto him: Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and cry for all the abominations that are being done in the midst thereof” (Ezek. 9:4).
The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Gabriel, “Go and set a mark of ink on the foreheads of the righteous, that the destroying angels may have no power over them; and a mark of blood upon the foreheads of the wicked, that the destroying angels may have power over them.” Said the Attribute of Justice before the Holy One, blessed be He, “Sovereign of the Universe! How are these different from those?”
“Those are completely righteous men, while these are completely wicked,” He replied. “Sovereign of the Universe!” said Justice, “They had the power to protest but did not.”
Said God, “Had they protested, they would not have heeded them.”
“Sovereign of the Universe!” said Justice, “This was revealed to You, but was it revealed to them?” (Shabbat 55a)
According to this passage, even the righteous in Jerusalem were punished at the time of the destruction of the Temple because they did not protest the actions of their contemporaries. God objects to the claim of Justice: Why punish them for their failure to protest when it was clear that had they done so, no one would have listened? Justice replies: This may be clear to you or to the angels – meaning, this may be clear in hindsight – but at the time, no human could have been sure that their words would have no impact. Justice asks: How can you be sure you will fail if you never try?
The Talmud notes that God reluctantly agreed with Justice. Hence the strong principle: when bad things are happening in society, when corruption, violence and injustice prevail, it is our duty to register a protest, even if it seems likely that it will have no effect. Why? Because that is what moral integrity demands. Silence may be taken as acceptance. And besides, we can never be sure that no one will listen. Morality demands that we ignore probability and focus on possibility. Perhaps someone will take notice and change their ways – and that “perhaps” is enough.
This idea did not suddenly appear for the first time in the Talmud. It is stated explicitly in the book of Ezekiel. This is what God says to the Prophet:
“Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against Me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against Me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious people—they will know that a Prophet has been among them.” (Ezek. 2:3-5)
God is telling the Prophet to speak, regardless of whether people will listen.
So, one way of reading the story of Noah is as an example of lack of leadership. Noah was righteous but not a leader. He was a good man who had no influence on his environment. There are, to be sure, other ways of reading the story, but this seems to me the most straightforward. If so, then Noah is the third case in a series of failures of responsibility. As we saw last week, Adam and Eve failed to take personal responsibility for their actions (“It wasn’t me”). Cain refused to take moral responsibility (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”). Noah failed the test of collective responsibility.
This way of interpreting the story, if correct, entails a strong conclusion. We know that Judaism involves collective responsibility, for it teaches Kol Yisrael arevim ze bazeh (“All Israel are responsible for one another” Shavuot 39a). But it may be that simply being human also involves collective responsibility. Not only are Jews responsible for one another. So are we all, regardless of our faith or religious affiliations. So, at any rate, Maimonides argued, though Nahmanides disagreed.
The Hassidim had a simple way of making this point. They called Noah a tzaddik im peltz, “a righteous man in a fur coat.” There are essentially two ways of keeping warm on a cold night. You can wear a thick coat, or you can light a fire. Wear a coat and you warm only yourself. Light a fire and you can warm others too. We are supposed to light a fire.
Noah was a good man who was not a leader. Was he, after the Flood, haunted by guilt? Did he think of the lives he might have saved if only he had spoken out, whether to his contemporaries or to God? We cannot be sure. The text is suggestive but not conclusive.
It seems, though, that the Torah sets a high standard for the moral life. It is not enough to be righteous if that means turning our backs on a society that is guilty of wrongdoing. We must take a stand. We must protest. We must register dissent even if the probability of changing minds is small. That is because the moral life is a life we share with others. We are, in some sense, responsible for the society of which we are a part. It is not enough to be good. We must encourage others to be good. There are times when each of us must lead.
 See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 9:14. Also see Ramban, Commentary to Bereishit 34:13, s.v. Ve-rabbim.
The Light in the Ark
Amid all the drama of the impending Flood and the destruction of almost all of creation, we focus on Noah building the ark, and hear one detailed instruction:
Make a tzohar for the ark and terminate it within a cubit of the top. (Gen. 6:16)
There is a difficulty understanding what “tzohar” means, since the word does not appear anywhere else in Tanach. Everyone agrees that it is referring to a source of illumination. It will give light within the ark itself. But what exactly is it? Rashi quotes a Midrash in which two Rabbis disagree as to its meaning:
Some say this was a window; others say that it was a precious stone that gave light to them.
The precious stone had the miraculous quality of being able to generate light within the darkness.
Bartenura suggests that what is at stake between the two interpretations is the etymology of the word tzohar itself. One relates it to the word tzahorayim, meaning “midday.” In that case, the brightness was to come from the sun, the sky, the outside. Therefore tzohar means “a window, a skylight.” The other view is that tzohar is related to zohar, “radiance,” which suggests something that radiates its own light, hence the idea of a miraculous precious stone.
Chizkuni and others suggest Noah had both: a window (from which he later released the raven, Gen. 8:6) and some form of artificial lighting for the prolonged period of the Flood itself when the sun was completely overcast by cloud and the world was shrouded in darkness.
It remains fascinating to ask why the Rabbis of the Midrash, and Rashi himself, would spend time on a question that has no practical relevance. There will be – God promised this in this week’s parsha – no further flood. There will be no new Noah. In any future threat to the existence of the planet, an ark floating on the water will not be sufficient to save humankind. So why should it matter what source of illumination Noah had in the ark during those tempestuous days? What is the lesson for the generations?
I would like to offer a midrashic speculation. The answer, I suggest, lies in the history of the Hebrew language. Throughout the biblical era, the word tevah meant an ark – large in the case of Noah and the Flood, small in the case of the papyrus basket coated with tar in which Yocheved placed the baby Moses, setting him afloat on the Nile (Ex. 2:3). More generally, it means “box.” However, by the time of the Midrash, tevah had come also to mean “word.”
It seems to me that the Rabbis of the Midrash were not so much commenting on Noah and the ark as they were reflecting on a fundamental question of Torah. Where and what is the tzohar, the brightness, the source of illumination, for the tevah, the Word? Does it come solely from within, or also from without? Does the Torah come with a window or a precious stone?
There were certainly those who believed that Torah was self-sufficient. If something is difficult in Torah it is because the words of Torah are sparse in one place but rich in another. In other words, the answer to any question in Torah can be found elsewhere in Torah. Turn it over and turn it over for everything is within it. This is probably the majority view, considered historically. There is nothing to be learned outside. The Torah is illuminated by a precious stone that generates its own light. This is even hinted at in the title of the greatest work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar (see Bartenura above).
There were, however, other views. Most famously, Maimonides believed that a knowledge of science and philosophy – a window to the outside world – was essential to understanding God’s word. He made the radical suggestion, in the Mishnah Torah (Hilchot Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:2), that it was precisely these forms of study that were the way to the love and fear of God. Through science – the knowledge of “He who spoke and called the universe into existence” – we gain a sense of the majesty and beauty, the almost infinite scope and intricate detail of creation and thus of the Creator. That is the source of love. Then, realising how small we are and how brief our lives in the total scheme of things: that is the source of fear.
The case Maimonides made in the 12th century, long before the rise of science, has been compounded a thousand times with our accelerated knowledge of the nature of the universe. Every new discovery of the vastness of the cosmos and the wonders of the micro-cosmos, fills the mind with awe. “Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?” (Is. 40:26).
Maimonides did not think that science and philosophy were secular disciplines. He believed that they were ancient forms of Jewish wisdom, that the Greeks had acquired from the Jews and sustained at a time when the Jewish people, through exile and dispersion, had forgotten them. So they were not foreign borrowings. Maimonides was re-claiming a tradition that had been born in Israel itself. Nor were they source of independent illumination. They were simply a window through which the light of God’s created universe could help us decode the Torah itself. Understanding God’s world helps us understand God’s word.
This made a significant difference to the way Maimonides was able to convey the truth of Torah. So for example, his knowledge of ancient religious practices – albeit based on sources that were not always reliable – afforded him the deep insight (in The Guide for the Perplexed) that many of the Chukim, the statutes, the laws that seem to have no reason, were in fact directed against specific idolatrous practices.
His knowledge of Aristotelian philosophy enabled him to formulate an idea that exists throughout both Tanach and the rabbinic literature, but that had not been articulated so clearly before, namely that Judaism has a virtue ethic. It is interested not just in what we do but in what we are, in the kind of people we become. That is the basis of his pathbreaking Hilchot De’ot, “Laws of ethical character.”
The more we understand the way the world is, the more we understand why the Torah is as it is. It is our roadmap through reality. It is as if secular and scientific knowledge were the map, and Torah the route.
This view, articulated by Maimonides, was developed in the modern age in a variety of forms. Devotees of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch called it Torah im derech eretz, “Torah with general culture.” In Yeshiva University it came to be known as Torah u-Madda, “Torah and science.” Together with the late Rav Aaron Lichtenstein zt”l, I prefer the phrase Torah ve-Chochmah, “Torah and wisdom,” because wisdom is a biblical category.
Recently, the science writer David Epstein published a fascinating book called Range, subtitled, How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World. He makes the point that over-concentration on a single specialised topic is good for efficiency but bad for creativity. The real creatives, (people like the Nobel prize winners), are often those who had outside interests, who knew other disciplines, or had passions and hobbies outside their subject. Even in a field like sport, for every Tiger Woods, who had a feel for golf even before he could speak, there is a Roger Federer, who exercised his skills in many sports before, quite late in youth, choosing to focus on tennis.
Lehavdil, it was precisely Maimonides’ breadth of knowledge of science, medicine, psychology, astronomy, philosophy, logic, and many other fields that allowed him to be so creative in everything he wrote, from his letters, to his Commentary to the Mishnah, to the Mishnah Torah itself, structured differently from any other code of Jewish law, all the way to The Guide for the Perplexed. Maimonides said things that many may have sensed before, but no one had expressed so cogently and powerfully. He showed that it is possible to be utterly devoted to Jewish faith and law and yet be creative, showing people spiritual and intellectual depths they had not seen before. That was his way making a tzohar, a window for the tevah, the Divine word.
On the other hand, the Zohar conceives of Torah as a precious stone that gives light of itself and needs none from the outside. Its world is a closed system, a very deep, passionate, moving, sustained search for intimacy with the Divine that dwells within the universe and within the human soul.
So we are not forced to choose either the one or the other. Recall that Chizkuni said that Noah had a precious stone for the dark days and a window for when the sun shone again. Something like that happened when it came to Torah also. During the dark days of persecution, Jewish mysticism flourished, and Torah was illuminated from within. During the benign days when the world was more open to Jews, they had a window to the outside, and so emerged figures like Maimonides in the Middle Ages, and Samson Raphael Hirsch in the 19th century.
I believe that the challenge for our time is to open a series of windows so that the world can illuminate our understanding of Torah, and so that the Torah may guide us as we seek to make our way through the world.
 Genesis Rabbah 31:11.
 Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah 3:5.
 Mishnah Avot 5:22.
 David Epstein, Range, Macmillan, 2019.
The Jewish Rainbow Connection
What’s the meaning behind the sign in the sky that God gives Noah?
BY RABBI NOAH ARNOW
One afternoon, a few years ago, I looked out my office window and saw a rainbow. I told our synagogue’s education director, and at her wise suggestion we gathered the Hebrew school kids to see and recite the blessing over it. (Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who remembers the covenant, and is faithful to God’s covenant, and keeps God’s promise.) It was one of those perfect spontaneous educational moments that I’ll always remember.
And remembering is really what a rainbow is about, at least for God. After the flood, God establishes a covenant with Noah and sets the rainbow as a sign of this covenant “between Me and the earth” (Gen. 9:13), says God:
When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. (Gen. 9:14-15)
The rainbow, it seems, is a way for God to remember about the covenant not to destroy the earth. God, we suspect, will get angry at us humans, every so often, and perhaps desire to destroy the world again, but the rainbow is a reminder of God’s promise not to.
But why is a rainbow the symbol of this covenant? And what should it mean to us?
A rainbow is not just a rainbow, according to Rabbi Joseph Bechor Shor (12th-century France). Rather, it’s God showing God’s self. This is based on a verse from Ezekiel comparing God’s presence to a rainbow:
Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain… was the appearance of the semblance of the Presence of the Lord. (Ezekiel 1:28)
We can assume God wouldn’t show God’s self if God intended to destroy the world, so us seeing a rainbow—the presence of God—is indeed a good sign!
Actually, some say the rainbow itself isn’t the symbol, but rather, it’s the fact that the rainbow is seen in the clouds. Originally, suggests Rabbi Isaac Caro (a 15th-16th-century Sephardic scholar and uncle of Shulchan Aruch author Joseph Caro), rainbows couldn’t be seen from earth because they were obscured by thick clouds —and it was these heavy, thick clouds that produced the flood rains. But after the flood, Caro posits, God thinned out the clouds, rendering them incapable of producing floods of this magnitude, and allowing rainbows to be seen. So, the symbol is not only the rainbow and our ability to see it, but the clouds too.
In another interpretation of the rainbow’s significance, Nahmanides (13th-century Spain) suggests it is a bow (as in a bow and arrow) that is no longer aimed at the earth. The flood was God taking aim at the earth, but the bow is now pointing away from earth, and it no longer has a string or arrows. Displaying this disabled weapon, is sort of like a ceasefire — holding your weapon pointing towards yourself, away from your initial target. In this sense, a rainbow is about God setting aside God’s anger and making peace with us.
Other Jewish scholars have seen the rainbow as a different kind of peace symbol. One medieval commentator saw a rainbow as a combination of fire and water, coexisting in perfect peace in the natural world.
A more modern approach from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th-century Germany) suggests that each of the different colors of the rainbow represents a different kind of person. In this reading, red, the outermost ring of the rainbow, is closest to the heavens and related to Adam — the person who was created most directly and immediately in God’s image. (Adam and the Hebrew word for “red” [adom] share the same root: the letters aleph, daled and mem.) The other colors represent people and other life forms that are further and further from God’s image, but the entire spectrum together is pure white light, representing God’s purity. Thus, the rainbow becomes a symbol of unity for all life.
Noticing that the rainbow is half of a circle, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (a prominent American-born Orthodox rabbi in Israel) writes:
The rainbow is a half-picture, lacking a second half to complete the circle of wholeness. God can pledge not to destroy humanity, but since God created humanity with freedom of choice, God cannot guarantee that humanity will not destroy itself.
This is to say that God will take care of God’s part of the rainbow, but we have to do our part, to be God’s partners in caring for the world. I love this interpretation, because it gives us an important job, and computes with my own sense of reality, of us having freedom of choice with which God will not interfere.
For me though, the rainbow is about seeing. As Kermit the Frog sang in The Muppet Movie, “Rainbows are visions, but also illusions. And rainbows have nothing to hide.”
A rainbow is the refraction of light through water drops, breaking up the white light so that we can see the various colors in its visible spectrum. A rainbow allows us to see something that we cannot usually see. And we see a rainbow at the liminal moment when the rain has ended but the air is still damp with moisture, when we can sense both the rain and the sun, both danger and opportunity.
We’ve all had moments in our lives when suddenly we see more clearly—when the clouds in front of our eyes are lifted, and we can see not just black and white, but many shades of color, of nuance. Maybe moral vision in the world was in black and white—good and evil, life or death, right or wrong, early in Genesis, throughout the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and his generation. Suddenly though, after the flood, the clouds lift and both God and people can see colors they had never before seen. Suddenly, they can see nuance, and people are no longer all good or all bad.
Maybe this is why there are so many songs about rainbows!
From The Hebrew College
Rabbi Arthur Green
Noah: Words above the Waters
The story of Noah’s flood remains one of the best-known and most powerful tales of our biblical heritage. Even in our secular age, there is hardly a child who has not heard the story told, seen it recreated in animation, or played with toys based on the animals in Noah’s ark. What is it about this story that seems to have such great enduring power? Is it just that it fits so well with children’s seemingly natural desire to care for animals? Or are there deeper truths that we sense are present within it, perhaps made more palatable to us because they appear in the guise of this childlike and dreamy narrative?
The largest and most challenging frame into which the tale forces us is the ultimate question of whether we, or our human society, deserve to exist. God is here our voice of self-judgment, thunderously asking, in the language of Gen. 6:13, “Are we too so filled with ḥamas – violence or malice – that we ought to be destroyed?” Would a Creator God, looking down upon our world, also conclude that “the inclination of the human heart is just evil, from their youth (8:21),” and that we are therefore irredeemable?
There is much in the headlines these days to support such a terrible read. We shudder to think that we might be judged by the leaders we choose. Our treatment of the vulnerable – women, minorities, immigrants – and our refusal to hear their voices – could go a long way toward condemning us. Our society’s willful disregard for the survival of the created world itself, requiring purity of air, water, and other basic resources of life, puts us on the course toward a naturalistic interpretation of the Noah story, one in which our actions bring us into a future where survival is possible only for a chosen few, the subject of endless dystopian films and computer games that themselves seem to pollute the cultural air we are forced to breathe.
Whence the redemption that has to accompany the Noah story, if it is to be deemed fit to be told to younger audiences, and thus passed down through the generations? How do we get beyond its utter gloom? The Hasidic authors, deeply seated in the tradition of Midrash, do it by a close reading of the story’s language. The term for “ark” used in the biblical tale is teyvah. The exact same term, in later Hebrew, has the meaning of “word.” It is the word, spoken with integrity, that saves us, sailing above the waters of destruction. Language, in the rabbinic imagination, is that which makes us human, distinguishing us from the animal kingdom. It is proper use of that great divine gift that renders meaning to our lives, offering us the possibility of transcendence, of reaching toward the sublime. In the very verbal cultural tradition of Judaism, it is the word, truly spoken (in contrast to the Hindu’s mantra or the Buddhist’s silence), that leads us on that path.
The Ba‘al Shem Tov, the first Hasidic master, began with a quip. God said to Noah: “You, enter the ark with your entire household (7:1).” When you speak, he admonished, bring your whole self into the word. Do not leave part of yourself outside it, questioning, doubting. You will never attain wholeness if you do. Others added: “Make a window for the ark (6:17)” – Let light shine in to your word. “Let there be lower, second, and third levels (ibid.)” – Discover ever higher levels of meaning within the word you speak, which has the potential to be the word of God.
A later master, the rabbi of Radomsk, added “The ark rested in the seventh month (8:4).” The seventh month, in the biblical calendar, is Tishrey, the month of the Days of Awe, which we have just concluded. It is there, in that time when integrity is most demanded, that the word finds rest. Ḥat’anu, “we have sinned,” is a word that is spoken with the whole self. So too is salaḥti, “I have forgiven.”
Integrity of language is terribly under threat in the world in which we live. False testimony seems to be taken for granted, even from those who seek to represent highest justice. “Facts” seem to disappear all too readily, whether due to the “spin” of politicians or the labyrinthine interpretations of post-modern historians and critics. Faith in the possibility of repairing our world might just have to begin with a renewed faith in our own ability to speak the truth.
OPEN THE FLOODGATES
by Rabbi David Kasher
You’ll never guess my favorite line in the Torah.
It’s not one of the all-time classics, like “The Lord is One,” or “Love thy neighbor.” It doesn’t involve a character I particularly love, nor a law I think is especially wise.
In fact, it begins with a rather prosaic detail: the date.
My favorite line appears in this week’s parsha, which tells the famous story of Noah’s Ark. You probably know the basic plotline: The earth has become corrupt. God is angry, regrets having ever made human beings, and has decided to drown them all in a flood. But God spares Noah and his family, and instructs him to build an ark – even giving precise measurements for its construction. And then God tells Noah to take in at least two of every animal, in order to save all the species of life on earth.
So Noah does all this dutifully, and he and the animals go into the ark. Then the flood begins. And the line that announces it – that is my favorite line in the Torah:
In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month – on that day – all the fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the heavens broke open. (Gen. 7:11)
בִּשְׁנַת שֵׁשׁ-מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה, לְחַיֵּי-נֹחַ, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי, בְּשִׁבְעָה-עָשָׂר יוֹם לַחֹדֶשׁ–בַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה, נִבְקְעוּ כָּל-מַעְיְנֹת תְּהוֹם רַבָּה, וַאֲרֻבֹּת הַשָּׁמַיִם, נִפְתָּחוּ.
It just gets me every time.
I don’t know exactly what it is I love about this verse. On its face, it’s just telling us that the rain is starting. But something about its rhythm and imagery suggest that this is not going to be just any storm. Great forces are being loosed upon the world. They will come from up above, and from deep, down below.
The word for “deep” here – tahom (תהום) – is one we saw last week, in the second line of the Bible:
And the earth was chaos and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep… (Gen. 1:2)
וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם…
It is from this dark, primordial deep, that the fountains erupt. So one cannot help but wonder if something more than just water is pouring forth.
The Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism, describes this moment as a kind of cosmic unleashing of great spiritual powers. But in the course of this description, the Zohar also includes a startling prediction about when such a moment might once again occur:
In the 600th year of the 6th millennium the upper gates of wisdom will be opened and also the wellsprings of wisdom below. This will prepare the world for the 7th millennium. The is like a person who prepares himself on the sixth day, as the sun sets, for Shabbat. So shall it be here. The sign for this is the verse: “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life …all the fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.” (Parshat Vayeira, 1:116b)
וּבְשִׁית מְאָה שְׁנִין לִשְׁתִיתָאָה יִתְפַּתְּחוּן תַּרְעֵי דְחָכְמְתָא לְעֵילָא וּמַבּוּעֵי דְחָכְמְתָא לְתַתָּא, וְיִתְתַּקַּן עַלְמָא לְאָעֳלָא בִּשְׁבִיעָאָה. כְּבַר נָשׁ דְּמִתְתַּקַּן בְּיוֹמָא שְׁתִיתָאָה מֵכִי עָרַב שִׁמְשָׁא לְאֲעָלָא בְּשַׁבַּתָּא. אוּף הָכִי נָמֵי. וְסִימָנִיךְ (בראשית ז) בִּשְׁנַת שֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה לְחַיֵּי נֹחַ וְגו’ נִבְקְעוּ כָּל מַעְיְינוֹת תְּהוֹם רַבָּה.
Now, I’m no mystic, but if you do the math here, the result is rather startling. Because the 600th year of the 6th millennium comes to 5600 in the Jewish calendar. But the Jewish calendar is roughly 3760 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar we use. Which puts this great moment of overflowing wisdom at the year 1840.
And remarkably, 1840 was a moment in history when new forms of understanding actually were erupting all over the world. This was an epoch in the throes of the industrial revolution, the beginning of a new technological age that is still going strong. It was a time when political revolutions were sweeping across the globe. In America, Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and – perhaps most prominently – in France, major revolutions were radically changing the political consciousness of the modern world.
In the Jewish world as well, things were changing in unprecedented ways, prompted in part by political emancipation in Europe. The Hassidic movement was in full force. Zionism was just coming into recognizable existence. Reform Judaism was changing the Jewish religious landscape.
In the midst of all this upheaval, in large part because of this passage in the Zohar, messianic fervor was at a fever pitch in many communities.
But the messiah never showed. 1840 came and went. And the world moved on. Some would claim that the Zohar’s prediction was nevertheless an accurate accounting of all the “wisdom” that broke out into the world in 1840. One way or another, it seemed that the gates of heaven had closed once again.
Or had they?
After the 40 days and 40 nights of the flood, we read that “God remembered Noah and all the animals,” sent a wind across the earth, and the waters subsided. And then, there is a line that echoes the one we started with:
The fountains of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens were closed, and the rain from the heavens was held back. (Gen 8:2)
וַיִּסָּכְרוּ מַעְיְנֹת תְּהוֹם, וַאֲרֻבֹּת הַשָּׁמָיִם; וַיִּכָּלֵא הַגֶּשֶׁם, מִן-הַשָּׁמָיִם.
This, of course, is the exact inverse of my favorite line above, the closing of the doors that were opened. Except for one difference, which Rashi points out:
‘The fountains were closed…’ When they were opened, it is written, “all the fountains,” but here, “all” is not written. Because some remained open, those for which the world still has a need…
ויסכרו מעינות: כשנפתחו כתיב (ז יא) כל מעינות, וכאן אין כתיב כל, לפי שנשתיירו מהם אותן שיש בהם צורך לעולם…
All the power is not gone from the world. There are wellsprings of wisdom that continue to trickle. We are not flooded by them, but nor will we die of thirst.
Now I don’t know what to make of mystical predictions that point to signs and call out dates. Certainly there are moments in history when the dams seem to burst open, and new knowledge comes rushing out into the world in a torrent.
But I do like to believe that in any given moment in time, even in periods of spiritual and intellectual drought, we will always manage find the wisdom we need.
I hope so, anyway. Because the earth is once again in crisis. The water levels are rising. Yet there seems to be no sign from God, no clear set of instructions on how to survive.
If we want to save life on earth this time, we may have to figure out how to build an ark by ourselves.
The Trace of God (Noach 5778)
The story of the first eight chapters of Bereishit is tragic but simple: creation, followed by de-creation, followed by re-creation. God creates order. Humans then destroy that order, to the point where “the world was filled with violence,” and “all flesh had corrupted its way on earth.” God brings a flood that wipes away all life, until – with the exception of Noach, his family and other animals – the earth has returned to the state it was in at the beginning of Torah, when “the earth was waste and void, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
Vowing never again to destroy all life – though not guaranteeing that humanity might not do so of its own accord – God begins again, this time with Noach in place of Adam, father of a new start to the human story. Genesis 9 is therefore parallel to Genesis 1. But there are two significant differences.
In both there is a keyword, repeated seven times, but it is a different word. In Genesis 1 the word is tov, “good.” In Genesis 9, the word is brit, “covenant.” That is the first difference.
The second is that they both state that God made the human person in His image, but they do so in markedly different ways. In Genesis 1 we read:
And God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of heaven, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every moving thing that moves upon the earth.
So God created man in His image,
In the image of God He created him,
Male and female He created them. (Gen. 1:26-27)
And this is how it is stated in Genesis 9:
Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed;
for in the image of God, He made man. (Gen. 9:6)
The difference here is fundamental. Genesis 1 tells me that I am in the image of God. Genesis 9 tells me that the other person is in the image of God. Genesis 1 speaks about the dominance of Homo sapiens over the rest of creation. Genesis 9 speaks about the sanctity of life and the prohibition of murder. The first chapter tells us about the potential power of human beings, while the ninth chapter tells us about the moral limits of that power. We may not use it to deprive another person of life.
This also explains why the keyword, repeated seven times, changes from “good” to “covenant.” When we call something good, we are speaking about how it is in itself. But when we speak of covenant, we are talking about relationships. A covenant is a moral bond between persons.
What differentiates the world after the Flood from the world before is that the terms of the human condition have changed. God no longer expects people to be good because it is in their nature to be so. To the contrary, God now knows that “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Gen. 8: 21) – and this despite the fact that we were created in God’s image.
The difference is that there is only one God. If there were only one human being, he or she might live at peace with the world. But we know that this could not be the case because “It is not good for man to be alone.” We are social animals. And when one human being thinks he or she has godlike powers vis-à-vis another human being, the result is violence. Therefore, thinking yourself godlike, if you are human, all-too-human, is very dangerous indeed.
That is why, with one simple move, God transformed the terms of the equation. After the Flood, He taught Noach and through him all humanity, that we should think, not of ourselves but of the human other as in the image of God. That is the only way to save ourselves from violence and self-destruction.
This really is a life-changing idea. It means that the greatest religious challenge is: Can I see God’s image in one who is not in my image – whose colour, class, culture or creed is different from mine?
People fear people not like them. That has been a source of violence for as long as there has been human life on earth. The stranger, the foreigner, the outsider, is almost always seen as a threat. But what if the opposite is the case? What if the people not like us enlarge rather than endanger our world?
There is a strange blessing we say after eating or drinking something over which we make the blessing shehakol. It goes: borei nefashot rabbot vechesronam. God “creates many souls and their deficiencies.” Understood literally, it is almost incomprehensible. Why should we praise God who creates deficiencies?
One beautiful answer is that if we had no deficiencies, then lacking nothing, we would never need anyone else. We would be solitary rather than social. The fact that we are all different, and all have deficiencies, means that we need one another. What you lack, I may have, and what I lack, you may have. It is by coming together that we can each give the other something he or she lacks. It is our deficiencies and differences that brings us together in mutual gain, in a win-win scenario. It is our diversity that makes us social animals.
This is the insight expressed in the famous rabbinic statement: “When a human being makes many coins in the same mint, they all come out the same. God makes us all in the same mint, the same image, His image, and we all come out different.” This is the basis of what I call – it was the title of one of my books – the dignity of difference.
This is a life-changing idea. Next time we meet someone radically unlike us, we should try seeing difference not as a threat but as an enlarging, possibility-creating gift. After the Flood, and to avoid a world “filled with violence” that led to the Flood in the first place, God asks us to see His image in one who is not in my image. Adam knew that he was in the image of God. Noach and his descendants are commanded to remember that the other person is in the image of God.
The great religious challenge is: Can I see a trace of God in the face of a stranger?
 I thank Mr Joshua Rowe of Manchester from whom I first heard this lovely idea.
 This is what led thinkers like Montesquieu in the eighteenth century to conceptualise trade as an alternative to war. When two different tribes meet, they can either trade or fight. If they fight, one at least will lose and the other, too, will suffer losses. If they trade, both will gain. This is one of the most important contributions of the market economy to peace, tolerance and the ability to see difference as a blessing, not a curse. See Albert O. Hirschman, The passions and the interests : political arguments for capitalism before its triumph, Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2013.
 Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5.
From Rabbi David Kasher
ParshaNut Weekly Post: Parshat Noach
A WAR ON GOD
Nine lines long.
The whole Tower of Babel story is just nine lines long. This famous legend, which has captured the world’s imagination, and inspired everything from Renaissance paintings to Hollywood films, is deftly contained in nine quick verses. It is a classic example of the remarkable efficiency of Biblical storytelling, which again and again manages to deliver, in just a few words, tales that have endured throughout the centuries.
But for all its renown, this is a rather strange tale. After the great flood, the descendants of Noah gather together to build a tower “with its head in the sky.” God seems to be disturbed by this plan so He “confounds their speech” – which has generally been understood to mean that he made them all speak different languages, so that would be too confusing to work together. And then He scatters them all over the earth.
What is this story doing here, tucked in between Noah’s Ark, which is the main subject of this week’s parsha, and our introduction to Abraham in next week’s parsha? Many have suggested that this is what’s called an ‘etiology’ – that is, a retrospective attempt to explain a basic human phenomenon – in this case, the diversity of languages and cultures. How did this all come about? Tower of Babel.
That may be one of the functions of the story, but that doesn’t explain what role it plays in the narrative of the Torah. Why do we have to read this now? And it also doesn’t explain what these people were doing in the first place. Why are they building a tower to the sky, in this time long before corporate offices in city skyscrapers?
The Torah itself gives an answer:
“Come,” they said, “let us build a city, and a tower with its head in the sky, to make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered all over the earth.” (Gen. 11:4)
To make a name for ourselves. Maybe this was about glory – the human desire for achievement and the prestige it brings. In which case, this is a moral tale: when humanity becomes obsessed with self-promotion as an end in itself, they will eventually be humbled by forces larger than they can imagine.
But the verse also says, “Lest we be scattered all over the earth.” That sounds less about pride, and more about fear. They wanted to stick together, to make sure that they would not lose one another. Maybe the tower was meant to act as a kind of locating point, visible to all, to help people gather together around one central city. That’s essentially what the great modern commentator, the Netziv, suggests, and he says this plan to centralize was:
Against the will of God, who said [back in the Garden of Eden] to “spread out over the earth and populate it,” which means to migrate throughout the length and width of the globe, and to settle it…
So why would they want to huddle together instead? Remember that this was just after the great flood, the destruction of almost all of humanity. On some level they must simply have been terrified that disaster could strike again at any time – and who would want to be isolated when that happened?
And speaking of the flood, the most obvious reason for a tall tower might just be that it was a good way to get above water level, should God ever decide to flood the world again. This is what the ancient historian Josephus says, that people at the time were generally:
…greatly afraid of the lower grounds on account of the flood, and so were very loath to come down from the higher places… (Antiquities 1:4:1)
In other words, they were shell-shocked, traumatized, and living in constant anxiety, waiting for the next “big one.” Frankly, given what the world had just gone through, that mindstate makes a lot of sense. I’d have wanted a tower to run into myself.
But Rashi, the standard go-to commentator, takes up none of these explanations. Instead, he suggests a very different attitude prevailed among the people as they built the tower:
They said, “[God] cannot take the whole upper realm for Himself. We will go up to the sky and wage war with Him.”
A war against God! How bold! Here the tower wasn’t a panicked attempt to plan for disaster, but an aggressive move to storm the heavens and dethrone God Almighty.
The Midrash that Rashi borrowed from adds another detail. In this fuller account, they said:
Let us make ourselves a tower, and we shall place an idol at the top of it, and we shall put a sword in its hand, such that it will appear to be waging war against Him. (Bereshit Rabbah 38:7)
The tower is literally piercing the heavens with idolatry, as a direct, violent challenge to God’s authority as the only deity. We will send another god, they said, to kill God. Or, as yet another Midrash has it, they were willing to do the job themselves:
Let us ascend to the sky, and we will strike Him with hatchets. (Tanchuma Noach 18)
Imagine, a pack of of wild, desert warriors, clambering up the tower, axes in hand, ready to literally murder God. The image is somehow both ludicrous and terrifying, all at once.
So who were these people? What kind of person was willing to do hand-to-hand combat with the Creator of Heaven and Earth? What kind of fury could motivate a war on God?
We’ve already seen suggestions that perhaps they were an arrogant lot, consumed with their own fame and glory. So maybe this was just a kind of megalomania, but taken to a divine scale.
And then there are plenty of midrashim that ascribe all kinds of other terrible crimes to the Babel generation, disturbing traits that might account for their savagery. The most well-known of these is the following depressing description of the building process itself:
If a person fell and died, they wouldn’t pay any attention to him, but if a brick fell, they would sit down and cry and say, “How will another take its place?!” (Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 24)
The building had become an obsession. It was all that mattered. They had lost any sense of ethical concern or basic human compassion. They just had to keep going, higher and higher. They wanted to reach the heavens, to achieve greatness, and to conquer.
These are the sorts interpretations we would expect to see from the commentators. The builders of the tower were terrible people. The worst kind of people. Barbarians, maniacs, idolaters, murderers. These are the kinds of people who go to war with God.
But the Ibn Ezra identifies some other folks in the crowd of builders who we might be surprised to see. “Do not be astounded,” he says, “that Noah and Shem were there.” Noah, that most righteous man on earth, the one person saved from the flood – along with his most righteous son – are now part of this rebellion. The man who built the ark is helping to build the tower. The family who devotedly followed God’s command is now openly defying God.
In a way, though, that makes sense. Noah had more reason to be traumatized than anyone, more reason to be angry with God. He was the one who had personally witnessed the destruction of humankind. He was the one who had lost everyone he knew, and had to start to build society again, all alone. Maybe Noah had become bitter at the God who had put him through all this. Maybe Noah was ready for revenge.
But the Ibn Ezra calls out another familiar figure there in Babel, and this one comes as a real shock:
Abraham was one of the builders of the tower.
Abraham?! The founder of our faith? The one who walked before God? Next week we will begin the story of this man, who would become known as the model of perfect faith, the father of nations of believers. Could it be that just a few years earlier, he was part of the greatest revolt against God in human history?
At the least, that would mean that Abraham was one of the fearful, worried that God could destroy the earth again at any moment. Or maybe he was one of the opportunists, looking to make a name for himself, to receive glory for his stunning achievements. Neither of these descriptions seem to fit a paragon of faith.
But more difficult would be to imagine Abraham as one of those who wanted to go to war against God. Did Abraham approve of the idol with the sword in its hand? Did Abraham pick up a hatchet, ready to swing it at God? Is it really possible to suggest such a thing?
One of the great questions in Torah commentary is, “Where did Abraham come from?” Why did God choose him? What was his origin story? And there are tons of great answers. The most famous midrash of all tells us that even as a boy, he was destroying idols and preaching the faith. Maimonides describes Abraham on an intellectual quest, like a little scientist, intent on understanding the movement of the planets and the origin of the universe. And there are wilder stories – one says that he was buried underground for thirteen years, and then suddenly emerged, speaking Hebrew and praising the Lord.
But what if Abraham’s origin story was not one of faith, but of doubt. What if Abraham came to be this great servant of God only after years of rejecting God, mocking God, fighting God. What if Abraham was, like everyone around him, once a heretic.
If that were so, it would make some sense of the placement of the Tower of Babel story here, lodged in between the story of the flood and our introduction to Abraham. This was a period of transition. It was a time when people were either scared of God, or oblivious to God, or even angry with God. And Abraham was no exception. He lived through this phase of human development, and even participated in it, but eventually grew out of it and led humanity towards a new kind of faith – a wiser, more mature faith.
This reading would also offer a whole new understanding of Abraham’s personal journey. He was not the golden child, born enlightened, who always intuited the truth, even as everyone around him spouted nonsense. He was not the earnest philosopher, probing the cosmos, desperate for answers. He never smashed his father’s idols.
He worshipped them, like everyone else. He went out into the world to seek fame and fortune, like everyone else. And perhaps even, like so many others, he went through a period of doubting God, or believing in God, but hating Him. Perhaps Abraham, too, went to war with God.
Would that make Abraham a lesser hero? Would it tarnish his reputation as the founder of western religion? I don’t think so. In some ways, I think it would make him even greater. Because it would mean that he knew what it was like to rage against God, to curse God, to question God’s existence or God’s righteousness. He felt that kind of doubt that so many of us feel at some point in our lives, and yet – he struggled with it, he worked through it, and he came out on the other side with faith – a faith made stronger by the long and difficult journey.
Sometimes it is only by going to war that one can find peace.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Come Into The Word
Come on back in Noah. You had such a good start, a guy with promise. The way the Book refers to you, ish tzaddik (Gen.6:9), such a lofty description. A righteous man. Maybe that’s what held you back, too much opportunity. Maybe you had too much and you know how that happens, you felt entitled. Everyone telling you you’re an ish tzaddik, a righteous person, maybe as you grew you didn’t develop and came to expect what you had not earned. Hey, who’s the righteous person in the room?
That may be part of the problem for you: the room. The Book reads a righteous person then a couple of qualifiers: just right for your generation (6:9). Uh oh. What if your generation was not so elevated, what if you were born into a generation that was not so lofty? To be an ish tzaddik in that generation might not be such great shakes.
Grandfather of blessed memory used to refer to you as a tzaddik in peltz. What kind of tzaddik might you be? He would ask. A tzaddik in a fur coat, and then he would laugh that laugh that was heard from one end of the room to the other, the kind of laughter that suggested we’re all a little ruined here. When you’re cold, you can light a fire at the hearth and everyone warms up. Or you can put on your fur coat. That’s the Noah kind of tzaddik, he would say, a righteous person in a fur coat.
That’s a hard problem Noah and we all have some sympathy for you. Later in life, if you had learned to read better, you might have seen the signs in the Book. The clue to your redemption is there too. Come into the teivah, Noah, the book reads (7:1). That could have been your salvation. Come into the Ark, teivah, same word used for our beloved teacher Moses (Ex.2:3,5) who came out of the teivah in the bulrushes. You might have entered the wrong kind of teivah, Noah. In that ark you saved yourself, your kids, the wives, and two of every kind of those sweet Dr. Dolittle animals.
Then there’s the terrible acting out of your decline. You turned to the sauce (Gen.9:21). It’s no excuse to say you humiliated yourself the way you did (with your children present yet) because you were spiced up, as Grandfather used to say. You got attached to substances. When you get attached that way Noah anything can happen and often does. You begin to violate all the codes of behavior you thought you would never violate. The first step Noah: take responsibility. It was not the drink acting, it was Noah drunk.
Here is the secret sense of that problem: the emptiness within. That sense of entitlement Noah you began with, if you don’t work it you could be lost that way your entire life. And you will leave behind a legacy of mess. Your children — they will inherit a legacy of mess (9:25).
There is no filling a hunger that isn’t physical; that emptiness within Noah, we know that’s the root problem. You can’t drink enough you can’t drug enough you can’t eat enough you can’t spend enough you can’t fill enough a hunger that isn’t physical. The only antidote is spiritual, the perennial remedy, the real deal, a spiritual remedy.
The clues are all in the Book, Noah. Come into the teivah, the Book invited you. It means Word in addition to Ark. And if you didn’t know that or if you forgot, someone should have reminded you. Come into the Word.
Noah, you could have walked into the Word, become a tzaddik in language, talked through all your complicated stuff because that is the enduring remedy. Talk it work it get honest about it confront it ultimately eclipse it. Grow beyond your limitations. Talk with your healers, let them mix medicines when you need that kind of help and deal with it. Enter the Word. That’s the healing power, the power in language.
You could have become a tzaddik in loshen, Noah, a righteous person in language, and saved everyone.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Did Noah Speak Crow?
I’m an experienced hiker, but sometimes I do stupid things. A few years ago, I made three mistakes at once. In a single day, I traveled from sea level to 12,000 feet above it, taking no time to acclimate to 37% drop in oxygen intake. There I went hiking on the tundra — alone and off-trail.
At one point, I took off my pack, sat down on a cliff overlooking a gorgeous green valley, and enjoyed my altered consciousness. I took my notebook out of my pack and tried to write. But I couldn’t form a coherent deep thought. So, I put the notebook away and took out my lunch. But I couldn’t unwrap my sandwich – my swollen fingers would not obey my mind. I was getting woozy from altitude sickness and oxygen deprivation.
Suddenly I heard a raven’s deep trill overhead and I snapped awake. Above me, three ravens were circling and calling. I zipped my pack, stood up, and stumbled forwards. The circle of ravens moved a bit north. They called again. I followed them. They moved, I followed, they moved, I followed, and somehow I was back on the trail. When I reached the trail, the ravens broke their formation, and flew off in a line. Using all my concentration, I put one foot in front of the other, until I reached the road.
Ravens had escorted me to safety.
You know the passage in the biblical Book of Kings where the ravens feed the prophet Elijah (I Kings 17:2-6)? It’s entirely plausible.
Biblical writers know their animals well. They respect each animal, its unique form of life, its interests, and its way of thinking.
Picture Noah, caretaker of a huge ecosystem in quarters the size of BC Ferries’ boat “Spirit of British Columbia.” Finally, the torrential rains have stopped. It’s safe to fly, but it may not be safe to walk. So Noah sends some of his flying friends to scout for dry land.
First he sends the orev – a Hebrew word that means “corvid.” You can picture a raven, a crow, or even a magpie. The orev flies to and fro, to and fro, until the waters dry up. What a clown! Flying in zigzags and then giving up just when it’s possible to collect information! So some readers have said.
But we in British Columbia know that there is nothing erratic about a crow flying back and forth. It’s simply what crows do every day. At dawn, they fly out from the communal roost to work and play in their family territories. At dusk, they fly home, to socialize with friends and relatives, share news of the day, and sleep.
If you visit a communal roost at dusk, you’ll hear lots of yelling. But if you’re lucky, you’ll hear some actual conversations in Crow. You’ll hear a series of words that sound like clacks and buzzes, arranged in sentences with a consistent syntax. Research biologists have recorded the language and are trying to decipher it. No doubt some people alive today can understand it.
No doubt Noah does too. As the orev flies to and fro, returning each evening to the floating communal roost, Noah listens to the report. And when the time is right, Noah sends yonah —Hebrew for Jonah, and for dove. Doves forage on the ground for fallen leaves and sprigs. So, if yonah brings back a branch, Noah knows yonah has found dry land.
The Biblical text says: “Noah was a righteous man in his generation” (Gen. 6:9). Why add “in his generation”? To teach that Noah is sort of righteous, at least, relative to the people in his depraved generation? Or that Noah is exceptionally righteous, able to walk a good path without role models or peers? Or, maybe, that Noah is the kind of righteous his generation needs! An ecologist, respecting each animal species, its unique form of life, its interests, its language, and its way of thinking.
Our generation needs more Noah consciousness. Noah’s story calls all of us to develop it and promote it. Us? Really? Even students and faculty at the Vancouver School of Theology? Most of us are not scientists, city planners or engineers. We are just spiritual leaders and teachers. All we do is shape the way people think, give direction to their existential journey, offer a language for exploring reality. What can we do?
We can stop teaching that we humans are at the top of the food chain — and teach that we are part of a cycle. Tiny powerful microorganisms feed on us every day. Viruses and bacteria make each of us ill at some point. Some of us even lose our lives in order that other creatures may live. We may not choose to support planetary life in this way, but is part of our biological mission.
We can stop talking about how we humans have “mastered” the earth – even when we mean to criticize exploitive practice. And teach instead that we are deeply dependent on senior team members. By all accounts, insects preceded us on this planet, and may not need us at all. But without insects simply living their lives, foraging and farming, we would have no food.
We can stop teaching that we are a superior species, endowed with a special divine soul and intelligence. And teach instead that every creature has a special intelligence. Creatures with different bodies have different biological needs, different organs of perception, and different kinds of awareness guiding their lives. If we wish to know the will of our creator, to touch God’s expansive consciousness, we need to learn about its many forms.
To be, like Noah, righteous in our generation.
From The Maqam Project
From Rabbi David Seidenberg
Out of the ark and into the garden: Shabbat Noach in the Shmita year
There are three places in the Torah which talk about human beings and the animals – including wild animals – sharing one food supply. In Eden, in the ark during the flood, and in the Sabbatical year or Shmita. There’s a lot more to these stories, but you don’t really need to know much more to understand the basic message of the Torah.
We lived with the wild animals once, rather than carving out separate spaces for us and our domesticated fellow travelers. According to the Torah, that is the real truth, and all the owning and property and buying and selling is an illusion. We can return to that truth during Shmita, when we get to root ourselves in a real way in the land – not by owning it by being with it. Not by fencing it but by taking down fences. Not by hoarding but by sharing everything, with all the creatures.
Here are the relevant verses about eating:
In the garden of Eden, “Elohim said: Here, I have given to you all every plant seeding seed which is on the face of all the land and every tree which has in it tree-fruit seeding seed, for you all it will be for eating, and for every wild animal of the land and for every bird of the skies and for every crawler on the land in which there is a living soul nefesh chayah, every green plant for eating. And it was so.” (Genesis 1:29–30)
In the story of the flood, “Elohim said to Noach: …from all life from all flesh, two from all you will bring unto the ark to keep them alive with you, male and female they will be. From the bird by their species and from the animal by her species from every land crawler by their species, two from all you will bring unto you to make them live. And you, take for you from all the food which is eaten, and gather unto you, and it will be for you and for them for eating.” (Genesis 6:19–21)
And in the laws of the Shmita or Sabbatical year, it says, “YHVH spoke unto Moshe in Mt. Sinai, saying: You all will come into the land which I am giving to you, and the land will rest, a Shabbat for YHVH…And the shabbat-growth of the land will be for you all for eating: for you and for your male servant and for your female servant and for your hired worker and for your settler living-as-a-stranger with you; and for your animal and for the wild animal which is in your land, all of her produce will be to eat.” (Leviticus 25:6–7)
There is a debate among the rishonim, the earlier rabbis, about whether the tree fruit in Eden was just for the human beings and the grass for the animals, or whether it was all for all of them. Ramban says that humans dined separately, but Rashi says that it truly was one family sharing one food supply. As for the ark, according to the midrash Noach had to create one great store of every kind of food, because each animal needed its own sustenance, and Noach and his family had to spend every hour of the day feeding the animals, since some ate at dawn and some during the day, some at dusk and some at night.
After the flood, in between the ark and Shmita, comes the tragedy of human history. The wars and usurpations, enslavements and empires, the amassing of gold and land by some and the impoverishment of others. And in between the two are also the tragedies of our relationship to the wild animals: not just using but abusing, extinguishing whole species, and losing touch with our own wild selves.
That’s reflected in the flood story: when Noach and family emerge from
the ark, they are told that “a terror of you and a dread of you will be over every wild animal of the land and every bird of the skies, everything which crawls the ground and all the fish of the sea, into your hands they are given. All that crawls which lives, for you it will be for eating – like green plants I have given all to you all. Just don’t eat flesh with its soul, its blood.” (Genesis 9:2–3)
This is no blessing but a curse. And it is no dominion: according to one interpretation, the meaning of dominion in Eden was that when Adam would call to the animals, they would come to him. Now it would be the opposite – they will run away in terror. (“Rashi” on B’reishit Rabbah 34:12)
One question for us today, in this year of Shmita, is: how can we get
ourselves back to the garden? Back before our fellowship with the animals was lost? That can’t mean turn the hands of the clock back on history. Shmita answers a slightly different question: how do we get back to the garden as grownups, after having eaten from the tree of knowing good and evil? It’s not about feigned or renewed innocence, but rather about knowing our power to destroy, and not exercising that power. It’s about finding fellowship with the land and the other animals. And above all, it is about finding rest – rest from ourselves, and rest with each other, with all the other ones that inhabit the land.
A midrash says that during the twelve months in the ark, Noach “did not taste the taste of sleep, not in the day and not in the night, for he was busy feeding the souls that were with him.” (Tanchuma Kadum Noach 2) Another midrash, says that when God was setting up the world, the earth heard God say, “It’s not good, the human being alone” and she realized this meant that human beings would begin to reproduce. Then the earth “trembled and quaked”, saying, “I do not have in me the strength to feed the flocks of humanity.” God promised the earth to feed humanity at night with sleep, and so share the burden with her. (Pirkei d’Rabi Eliezer ch. 12)
In our society, where almost everyone is racing to keep their jobs or
make money or outcompete, we don’t really let ourselves sleep. As a society we never rest. We don’t get enough of this divine food. And it’s not because like Noach we are feeding all the creatures. But here’s what this midrash teaches us: a humanity that never rests is a humanity cut off from the unconscious, cut off from its divine sustenance, and it is a humanity that will destroy the earth.
It is time for us to rest, and to dream, as a whole society: Shmita.
It says in Proverbs 11:30, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and one who acquires souls is wise.” These souls are the animals, the midrash teaches, and it was because Noach was capable of caring for them that he was worthy of being saved from the flood. (B’reishit Rabbah 30:6) Are we worthy?
It also says in Proverbs 12:10, “A righteous person knows the soul of his animal.” It is time to practice this righteousness. Not just with the other animals, but also with ourselves. How will we know the soul of this animal within us? How will we make peace within, with each other, and with the land? How will we dream our animal dreams again? That is the door Shmita opens for us. That is the ark Shmita builds for us. And I believe that is how we get back to the tree of life in the garden.
This is the time to study Noah, when the waters are rising.
“Aseh l’cha tevah,” God said. Make yourself an ark.
On the front end of dawn, there are no distinctions between water and land and sky.
Only mist and darkness.
Distinctions emerge later, riding on a flood of sunlight.
Distinctions and information require choices.
The sea is calm this morning. The waves are gentle.
The data are in, said our local county supervisor this week.
The sea is rising. Erosion is threatening the coast.
We need to act to preserve our community.
If I listen hard,
I can hear echoes of other voices in communities around the planet,
saying the same thing.
“Make yourself a tevah,” God said. An ark.
Translate “tevah” as “word,” said our teacher the Holy Baal Shem Tov.
Build yourself an ark of prayer and knowledge and kindness and faith —
and the floods in your own day will not overwhelm you.
You will live to witness the fulfillment of God’s covenant:
the world will not be destroyed again.
It will not.
Hold on to this faith, even when all you can see is mist and darkness.
But build yourself a tevah.
Now it’s our turn.
We need a tevah big enough to include every person and all life.
We can only build it together.
We need action infused with love.
The lesson of Noah: get ready.
Emerging from mist and darkness: the rainbow.
Essay & photos by Aryae Coopersmith
Torah Reading for Week of September 29-October 5, 2013
“Silence and Grace”
By Dr. Tamar Frankiel, AJRCA President
Noach has the peculiar honor, among the early biblical heroes, of being almost completely silent throughout his narrative. When G-d commands him to build the ark, he complies perfectly, in silence. There is no recorded interchange between him and his neighbors; indeed, as the Sages comment with some disapproval, he does not try to persuade his fellows to repent. In the many months of being shut up in the ark, we hear no conversation among the family. The Midrash tells us he spent all his time feeding and caring for the animals. Even when he emerges, there is no verbal exclamation of joy or thanksgiving, only an altar and a sacrifice.
This is hardly what we would expect. We are told first that Noach is a righteous man – apparently the righteous man of his generation – who found grace in G-d’s eyes. Indeed, his name, spelled nun-chet, is a palindrome of the word for grace, chen, spelled chet-nun. He embodies grace and attracts it. His father Lamech chose that name because he expected, with the birth of this child, relief from constant toil: “This one will comfort us from our work and the pain (itzavon) of our hands, from the land cursed by the Lord” (Gen 5.9).
Perhaps Noach’s silence, his complete withdrawal into the tasks assigned him, is the only response a truly righteous person could make to the extraordinary judgment of G-d that had come upon the earth. Perhaps we cannot quite imagine what the world was like when it had descended completely into corruption. Since the days when Adam and Chava hid from G-d, and Cain murdered his brother then complained about his punishment, G-d had been ignored. Human culture had developed with arts, music, and urbanization, while morality plunged and a gang culture of robbery, rape and violence became the norm, to the point that “all flesh had corrupted their ‘way on earth.’”
G-d’s assessment of man is emphatic: “Every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil, all the time.” The revulsion G-d felt is equally clear: He regretted making man, and “it pained (vayitatzev) Him at His heart.” (Gen 6:5-6) The root of the word is the same as Lamech’s for the pain of agricultural labor. Neither man nor G-d is happy, but for very different reasons. Man seeks physical relief as though it were his due; G-d turns away in deep anguish.
So the flood came. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch translates the word for the flood, mabul, as the Unsoulment: the vital force was drained from the world as the torrents poured down and the oceans filled.
Emerging from the ark, Noach offers a sacrifice: and suddenly, G-d changes again. “Never again!” He proclaims twice. Never again will G-d destroy the earth, even though the inclination of man’s heart is still evil. What in Noach’s action brought about such a dramatic change?
There are still no words. The horror is unspeakable. But the olah sacrifice alludes to the possibility of ascent. This is the type of sacrifice made for one’s unintentional sins. The Midrash interprets this as Noach’s personal sacrifice in case he had wayward thoughts during his days in the ark. But I would suggest that here, he is acting as a priest on behalf of all those who died. Still in awed, perhaps tormented silence, he offers a movement of teshuva, repentance. Indirectly, Noach’s act suggests that all the previous generations’ sins were in some sense unintentional. They had gone too far, even infecting the animal world; their reality could not be redeemed. But now, Noach testified, there was an inner change.
G-d responds inwardly as well, speaking again to Himself, reflecting that the human heart has been evil “from its youth” – that is, because of its youth. The human being had mastered technique and craft, but perhaps had not yet been given enough time, as a species, to master his “inclination,” that far-reaching, all-imagining desire.
Noach’s sacrifice brought a “sweet fragrance” to G-d, not the external smell, but the inner sense that the world could smell sweet again. A new potential was emerging.
And, as it turned out, Noach fulfilled his father’s prophecy, as G-d declares: “I will not curse the ground any longer for man’s sake; neither will I again smite every living thing as I have done.” The external world would be completely different as well, with possibility for beauty and richness evolving over millennia to come. .
Noach’s grace – the tempered silence, the humble work – resulted in the expression of a subtle but so very important turn in consciousness. Teshuvah was born, and from that, we could hope for goodness
Reb Miles Krassen
Shimshai & Assi Rose
Words as Skylights (2012/5773)
Tzohar ta’aseh la-teivah – Make a skylight for the ark – Bereisheet/Genesis 6:16.
The Ba’al Shem Tov points out that the word teivah means not just “ark” but also “word.” Taking this phrase out of context, he reads it as a teaching about prayer. As you pray from the Siddur, he teaches, make sure each word has a skylight. Allow each word to open you up towards the heavens.
We can use words of the Siddur as skylights in many ways.
We can choose to pray slowly enough to savour the meanings of words, accepting them as an invitation to reflect on our theology.
We can set the words to music, and allow the music revealed by each word to lift us out of everyday consciousness.
We can remember the teaching that God created the world through speech. As we speak the Siddur’s poetry, we can wonder at the cosmic power of breath used to create meaning.
We can connect the building of the ark at the beginning of the parsha with the building of Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel, later in the parsha. The tower’s builders try to create a unified structure that can lead them step by step to heaven. But suddenly, they discover that they do not all use words in the same way. And the unified structure fails to bring them to heaven.
Words of Torah naturally have skylights. Each word is open to multiple interpretations, and each word can bring us to multiple illuminations. These words cannot be used to build a single, unified path to spiritual awareness. Rather, as life raises existential questions, these words allow paths to open up beneath our feet again and again.
Allow yourself to name one of this week’s pressing questions, and let the words you choose be a skylight for you. May blessings illuminate your Shabbat.
From Rav Kook
Noah: The Rainbow in the Clouds
After the Flood, God informed Noah:
“I will make My covenant with you, and all flesh will never again be cut off by the waters of a flood.”
“This is the sign of the covenant that I am placing between Me, you, and every living creature that is with you, for all generations: I have set My rainbow in the clouds… The rainbow will be in the clouds, and I will see it to recall the eternal covenant.” (Gen. 9:11-16)
In what way does the rainbow symbolize God’s covenant, never again to destroy the world by a flood? Why does the Torah emphasize that this rainbow is ‘in the clouds’? And most importantly, what is the significance of this Divine promise never again to flood the world? Does this imply that the Flood was unjust? Or did God change His expectations for the world?
The rainbow is not just a natural phenomenon caused by the refraction of light. The ‘rainbow in the clouds’ represents a paradigm shift in humanity’s spiritual development.
Before the devastation of the Flood, the world was different than the world we know; it was younger and more vibrant. Its physical aspects were much stronger, and people lived longer lives. Just as the body was more robust, the intellect was also very powerful. People were expected to utilize their intellectual powers as a guide for living in a sensible, moral fashion. The truth alone should have been a sufficient guide for a strong-willed individual. Ideally, awareness of God’s presence should be enough to enlighten and direct one’s actions. This was the potential of the pristine world of the Garden of Eden.
Rampant violence and immorality in Noah’s generation, however, demonstrated that humanity fell abysmally short of its moral and spiritual potential. After the Flood, God fundamentally changed the nature of ethical guidance for the human soul. The sign that God showed Noah, the ‘rainbow in the clouds,’ is a metaphor for this change.
Greater Moral Guidance
The rainbow represents divine enlightenment, a refraction of God’s light, as it penetrates into our physical world. Why does the Torah emphasize that the rainbow is ‘in the clouds’? Clouds represent our emotional and physical aspects, just as clouds are heavy and dark (the Hebrew word geshem means both ‘rain’ and ‘physical matter’). The covenant of the ‘rainbow in the clouds’ indicates that the Divine enlightenment (the rainbow) now extended from the realm of the intellect, where it existed before the Flood, to the emotional and physical spheres (the clouds). God’s rainbow of light now also penetrated the thick clouds of the material world.
How was this accomplished? The Divine light became ‘clothed’ in a more physical form – concrete mitzvot. God gave to Noah the first and most basic moral code: the seven laws of the Noahide code. These commandments served to bridge the divide between intellect and deed, between the metaphysical and the physical.
We can now understand God’s promise never again to flood the world. After the Flood, a total destruction of mankind became unnecessary, as the very nature of human ethical conduct was altered. Our inner spiritual life became more tightly connected to our external physical actions. As a result, the need for such a vast destruction of life, as occurred in the Flood, would not be repeated. Of course, individuals — and even nations — may still choose to sink to the level of savages and barbarians. But the degree of immorality will never again reach the scope of Noah’s generation, where only a single family deserved to be saved.
(Gold from the Land of Israel pp. 34-36. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, pp. 318-319)
NOAH’S ARK AND
THE ARK OF THE COVENANT
A Teaching from Gershon…
Tomorrow, Monday, November 14, corresponds to the 17th day of the Hebraic Moon of חשון Chesh’vahn, and marks the first rains that fell during the Great Flood of Noah’s time, some 4,500 years ago (Genesis 7:11; Midrash Tanchuma, No’ach, No. 11). The ancients called the month of Chesh’vahn the Moon of בול Bool — “ya’rey’ach bool” ירח בולand marked it as the month in which the Temple of Solomon was completed — (First Kings 6:38). בול Bool is also related to the word מבולMa’bool, the Torah’s reference to the Great Flood. But actually, the word בולbool itself translates as “decay” and “clumps”, as in the clumps of decaying vegetation. It is called the Moon of Decay for that reason, since it is by then well enough into the Fall Season that the fallen leaves have decayed into clusters of decomposing foliage (Talmud Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 6a).
For a month that has no official religious celebration or fast day, or any other notable commemoration on the Hebrew calendar, it is actually a very full month. On the one hand, it is the month in which the forty days and forty nights of the rains of the Great Flood began, and on the other hand it is the month in which the First Temple was completed! Is there perhaps a connection between these two events? Of course! You see, while God did promise Noah not to flood the world ever again, remnant rains of the Great Flood continued nonetheless annually. Every year since, it rained forty days and forty nights, only it didn’t flood. And it wasn’t until the First Temple was completed, on the 17th day of Chesh’vahn, that these remnant rains of the Great Flood finally ceased (Midrash Tanchuma, No’ach, No. 11).
What was it in the completion of the First Temple that caused the Great Flood remnant rains to cease?
It is important to understand that what we call “First Temple” was intended to be the only Temple ever — not the first of future ones — and was therefore also the only Temple which housed the Holy Ark of the Covenant and the mysterious Oracle of the High Priest. After the First Temple fell, all these sacred implements were gone, vanished, poof! No one knows for sure where any of it went. As such, the completion of First Temple represented not only its own finale but also the finale of Genesis, the climax of the intended unfolding of Creation. In the Torah’s account of Creation, God is said to have completed “all that God had made, to do…” (Genesis 2:3) – meaning, God had made everything in such a way that Creation would continue on its own in ongoing phases of progression, or evolution. And the crescendo of that evolution occurred at the completion of First Temple, as is written: “And all of the work was completed (First Kings 7:51) – “‘all of the work’, implying the work of the Six Days of Creation as well” (Midrash Pesik’ta Rabbati 6:5).
What has all this to do with the Great Flood? Everything. Because the Great Flood was a reversal of Creation, an un-doing of all that God had made (Genesis 7:23). Not only was the progression of Creation interrupted, it was completely reversed and undone! This is why Noah and his family and the creations he gathered had to shut themselves up within a divinely-blue-printed Ark, a supernatural container so out -of-this-worldly that God Itself had to shut the door, had to seal it personally in order to protect it from what was about to occur (Genesis 7:16). After all, could God not have made some miracle that would enable them to remain untouched by the Great Flood? Just like how the Hebrews were untouched by the Ten Plagues, for example, that were happening all around them. And in the story of Gideon we see how God caused his entire field to be covered with dew except for a small strip of fleece, left untouched by the moisture (Judges 6:40). Or, the story of Lo’t, Abraham’s nephew, how the entire region around him was destroyed by spirit storms while he and his family were left untouched as they made their way out of town (Genesis 19:29)…
So, why did God not do the same with Noah, his family, and their Creation samples? Why the need to construct a special boat with very specific dimensions and layouts that would take years to build? The fact that God had to personally shut them up inside a specially constructed protective shield rather than individually isolate them from the destruction around them demonstrates that the Great Flood, or the ma’bool, was not your standard heavenly miracle; it was the actual un-threading of Creation, the reversal of Genesis by Nemesis, the return of everything back into the primordial cauldron of chaos, emptiness, darkness and nil. And to be excluded from that kind of erasure required a specially constructed bubble of protection that would be exempt from the turnaround of Existence to Non-Existence, of יש yesh (something) to איןayeen (nothing).
The nature of the ma’bool as an event of reversal is also plainly stated in the Torah. Creation unfolded after the primordial waters receded to enable earth to emerge. And now, in the course of the ma’bool, all of the waters that had receded at the beginning of Creation were now unleashed and allowed to return to their dominion as before, overriding everything (Genesis 7:11). Thus, a total reversal.
Finally, the month of Chesh’vahn is also the same month in which the earth emerged again from the waters, as in the Creation Story (Genesis 1:9). And on the 27th day of Cheshvahn is when Noah and his clan, and all of the creatures they had taken into the Ark, finally left the Ark (Genesis 8:14).
Now, what has all this to do with this month also being the month in which Solomon’s Temple — the Shrine of the Ark of the Covenant — was completed? Was there some kind of connection between the two structures that we’ve been missing?
Yes. There was. And is. And always will be.
Sit down for this.
The hollowed space inside of the Ark of the Covenant was remnant of the hollowed space that had been Creation reverting itself back to its primeval state of No-Thing during the ma’bool. In other words, the Ark we built in the desert was a miniature container of non-existence, of pre-Genesis Void, which is why anyone who approached it without proper ritual preparation and vestments got zapped! – they became non-extant. So, Noah’s Ark kept the forces of post-Genesis beingness inside and kept the forces of the pre-Genesis non-beingness outside, while Moses’ Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, kept the forces of pre-Genesis non-void inside and the forces of post-Genesis beingness outside. And therefore, the only implements that could be stored in the Ark of the Covenant were those items whose very nature was pre-Genesis, above and beyond the Laws of Nature and Physics. And that explains on a deeper more universal level why Moses’ Ark was called the Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 10:8; Joshua 3:3; and 33 other times).Which covenant? The covenant God made with all of Creation in Noah’s time following the Great Flood (Genesis 9:11-15). Granted that is seems more obvious throughout the Hebrew Scriptures that the Ark of the Covenant represented the Covenant between God and Israel. But remember also that this same tradition associated both covenants with one another. In other words, a major part of our covenant with God involved our role as Keepers of the Great Flood Covenant on behalf of the world, as is clearly borne out elsewhere in those very same Scriptures (Isaiah 54:9). The Ark of the Covenant, then, was far more than a Jewish oracle of highly-potent magic. It held within it something terrible and cosmic: a micro version of the pre-Genesis Void, remnant of the force of the ma’bool that in Noah’s time reversed Creation. And therefore it continually rained the rains of the Great Flood annually – albeit without flooding – remnant rains of the Great Flood which did not cease until Solomon built a special shrine for the Ark of the Covenant, that is: of the covenant God made with all of Creation in Noah’s time.
And so, when Solomon’s Temple fell centuries later, because we had messed with our micro-Covenant, the Ark of the Covenant vanished, and we were left with no remnant, neither of the Covenant of God and Israel nor of the pre-Genesis Void of the Great Flood, and resultingly, prophecy eventually left us as our vision began to blur, and we lost something more precious than we could possibly fathom. And things changed radically from then on, both for us as a people, and for the world-at-large. Future attempts at replicating our Holy Temple, failed abysmally. It would never be the same without that mini-Ark. We were left with nothing to hang on to. No remnant of that important covenant between Creator and Creation…
Oh. Wait. There did remain one remnant of that primal Covenant. The Rainbow (Genesis 9:13). That is all that is left. So honor it. For, as the Zohar teaches us: “The Rainbow, She is the She’chee’nah [the Feminine Face of the Divine]” (Zohar, Vol. 2, folio 66b), which in turn is Elo’heem (Zohar, Vol. 1, folio 61a), the very attribute of the unknowable, un-nameable Mystery that called all of creation into existence. Lacking symbol and remnant, we are left with direct revelation when we see a rainbow, to remind us that this direct connection is always there, always available, always accessible. And so God turned what seemed like a major historical cosmic tragedy into a graduation ceremony, moving us cold-turkey from remnant and symbol to the Real Thing. This is the most important lesson in Judaism. We are a people of sacred symbols and imagery, but take it all away, and we’re still here and intact. Take away our Ark, take away our Temple, take away our Land, take away our rituals… we remain.
Now you know why, in spite of the fullness of what the Moon of Chesh’vahn commemorates, we have absolutely no ritual or symbolic celebration whatsoever of any of it.
“But for a small moment did I push you away, and with great compassion shall I gather you back. In a rush of anger I hid my face from you for just a moment, and with eternal lovingkindness shall I have compassion upon you, says God your Redeemer. For the Waters of Noah is all this to Me; that which I swore to Noah, not to cause the Waters of Noah to pass over the land ever again. Likewise have I also sworn never to be furious with you and not to chastise you. For ultimately the mountains shall shudder and the hills dissipate, but my love for you will never be shaken loose. And my Covenant of My Peace will never fail, says your God, whose compassion embraces you” (Isaiah 54:7-10).
October 24, 2011
Into the Ark
I am saved by the word ark basket
But I would not be so
Come into the word
How large enough the ark
God loves me squeezed
God loves all the partial
God wanted me
So I was invited within
Make a window
I was told
Come into the word
From Melissa Carpenter
Noach: Babble and Meaning
And all the earth was of one language and one set of words … And they said: Come let us build a city for ourselves, and a tower with its head in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered all over the face of the earth. And God went down to see the city and the tower …
And God said: Hey! One people and one language for all, and this is what they begin to do? … Come let Us go down there and scramble their language, so that they will not understand each other’s language. Then God scattered them from there over the surface of all the earth, and they stopped building the city. Therefore He called its name Babel, because there God scrambled the language of all the earth, and from there God scattered them over all the surface of the earth. (Genesis/Deuteronomy 11:1-9)
Babel = Babylon, from the Sumerian Babilim, “Gate of the God” (both city and region)
balal = scramble, confuse; thoroughly mix oil into grain for a meal offering
Obviously the people of Babel are doing something wrong—something that isn’t horrible enough for God to destroy them with a flood, but serious enough so God investigates and corrects their mistake.
What is their mistake? Three theories are: that they don’t follow God’s order to scatter; that they enforce conformity and suppress individuality; and that they try for permanence in a world God created for change.
1) They refuse to scatter.
After the Flood, God tells Noah’s descendants to be fruitful and multiply and fill the land. But the traumatized people are afraid of being scattered. There is comfort in numbers—and in being able to see that nobody is engaged the kind of outrageous sins that led to the Flood. I can imagine the anthropomorphic God in this story heaving a celestial sigh, wondering what it will take for humans to get with the program. Then God scrambles their minds so they have different languages and different sets of words—i.e., different concepts. This time, when God scatters the humans, they have so much trouble communicating that they stay scattered.
2) They suppress the individual.
The people of Babel speak only in the plural, and appear to be in perfect agreement. No individuals are named in the story. Whether this counts as cooperation, or conformity, it’s not what God has in mind. Sforno (Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, 16th century) wrote that if everyone held the same beliefs, including the same beliefs about God, then no one would seek the true God. Only when people find out about religious differences do they develop a desire for deeper understanding. Martin Buber (1878-1965) wrote that only a person with a well-developed sense of self is even able to connect with God.
In the allegory of Babel, when God scatters the people and gives them different languages and concepts and cultures, individuality and variety return to humankind. Then we are again able to learn and change.
3) They crave permanence.
Permanence is a continuing issue in Genesis/Bereishit. Although subsequent chapters focus on the desire for a sense of permanence through one’s descendants, the book has already addressed the issue of death. The result of eating from the Tree of Knowledge in Eden is personal mortality; God removes Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden and places them in our own world, where they will eventually die. Noah and his family witness the death of their entire world, and must start all over again when the Flood waters recede.
What is the meaning of life when, sooner or later, you will die? One possible response to this question is to create something that will outlast you, that will be a monument down through the ages. This is difficult to do alone. So the people act collectively to make a name for themselves, by building a city and a tower so high that its head is in the heavens. (In this part of the Torah, the heavens are eternal, while the earth is always changing.)
Of course their plan fails. God, or the nature of the universe God created, will not let anything on earth endure forever.
The answer is to give up on permanence, and find a different meaning of life.
Each human must find his or her own individual meaning. But the book of Genesis/Bereishit offers some suggestions. We can “walk with God”, which I interpret as behaving morally for its own sake. We can raise and teach children. We can love another person, as Isaac loves Rebecca and Jacob loves Rachel. We can wrestle with ourselves and develop our own hidden potential, like Jacob wrestling and finding new courage at the ford of Yabbok.
What other ways can we find meaning in a life without permanence?
From American Jewish World Service
Following the tragic and near-utter destruction of humankind during the deluge, Noach, the patriarch of the lone family to survive the flood, offers a sacrifice to God. The Torah records that God finds the smell of the sacrifice pleasing, but follows with a perplexing line: “God smelled the pleasing aroma, and God said in His heart: ‘I will not continue to curse the earth because of man, since the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again smite every living being, as I have done.’”1 Why would God respond to Noach’s sacrifice by stating that man’s heart is evil? Wouldn’t this statement about the innate nature of humankind have been more appropriate as a response to the corruption that precipitated the flood?
To better understand God’s reaction to the sacrifice, we need to explore Noach’s prior behavior. When God first tells Noach to build the ark, the design instructions include the command, “You shall make a window (tzohar) for the ark.”2 The existence of the tzohar begs Noach to bear witness to the suffering taking place outside of the ark. But Noach doesn’t seem to hear this message. Instead of being aware of the events unfolding outside of the ark, he goes out of his way to remain oblivious. We read that as the storm settles, “Noach removed the covering of the ark;”3 however, at no point was Noach instructed to place a cover over the ark. It seems that rather than stare the suffering of others in the face, Noach hides from it and uses the ark as a cocoon to shelter himself from the horrors being suffered by the rest of humanity.
Noach’s act of closing himself off from the world is understandable. After the waters have subsided, Noach is so afraid of seeing the devastation that lies beyond the threshold of his wooden bubble that he needs to be commanded by God to leave the ark.4 Perhaps from the small view he sees when uncovering the ark, Noach is traumatized into paralysis, physically unable to leave his protected world and encounter the destruction outside. Having anticipated this anguish, Noach may have felt the need to remain isolated during the flood, and thus covered the tzohar in order to have the strength to carry out his God-given mission of securing the continued existence of life on earth.
But such action is only a compromise; ideally Noach would have let the tzohar remain uncovered and witnessed the true extent of the suffering. Had he done so, he likely would have been so devastated by what he saw that bringing a sacrifice in gratitude for his own salvation would have seemed inappropriate. Indeed, God’s statement to Noach upon receiving the sacrifice indicates that Noach has distanced himself too greatly from the rest of humanity. How, in the face of so much death and destruction, God implies, do you, Noach, have the gall to bring a sacrifice? The moment of global mourning, Gods seems to be saying, should trump a personal religious expression of thanksgiving.
In our everyday lives, what Noach-like compromises do we make? In what ways do we walk around in our own personal arks choosing to protect the emotional and material well-being of ourselves and our families at the expense of engaging with the suffering and needs of others? What efforts can we make to ensure that nurturing our own spirituality doesn’t overshadow our obligation to be aware of the dire need in the world—the dark reality that 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day5 and that 925 million people are undernourished?6 Living in a globalized world where technology affords us the ability to see the real-time distress of so many around us, have we internalized God’s message of the tzohar and used these tools to pay attention to the plight of those facing challenges around the globe? When, like Noach, we worry that we will be traumatized by trying to address the suffering of others and therefore seek to fortify ourselves for the work ahead of us, do we go too far and retreat too deeply into the mode of self-care, or are we able to strike the proper balance?
We learn from Noach that we are challenged by God to expect to be traumatized in our efforts to heal the world. Truly paying attention to suffering is risky. It may sap our emotional energy, require us to make radical lifestyle changes, and even raise deeply troubling theological questions about justice. It is therefore normal to wish to shelter ourselves from time to time so as not to be overwhelmed; but God is constantly calling, “Leave the Ark!”7
1 Genesis 8:20–21.
2 Genesis 6:16.
3 Genesis 8:13.
4 Genesis 8:16.
5 U.N. Millennium Development Goals Poverty Factsheet, http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/MDG_FS_1_EN.pdf
6 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimate, http://www.fao.org/hunger/en/
7 Genesis 8:16.
Torah Reading for Week of October 18-24, 2009
Academy For Jewish Religion/CA
“From Generation to Generation”
by Tamar Frankiel, PhD
Dean of Academic Affairs
The early chapters of Genesis show G-d interacting with the “families of the earth,” both in the sense of family lines, like that of Noach, his wife and sons, and in the larger sense of the human social groups. The stories are snapshots of the collective history of humanity, an album of family pages. The Sages speak of “the generation of the flood” and the “generation of the dispersion” (i.e., the Tower of Babel). Modern Americans do this as well; we know of the “Pepsi generation,” “the Me Generation,” and “Gen X.” As Jews, the phrase dor l’dor, “generation to generation,” reminds us of our collective contribution to the future.
Today we don’t think about this very much. Personal concerns dominate our lives: making a living, dealing with our own emotional struggles, raising our children. How can we raise our consciousness about our generations?
Parshat Noach gives us a hint. Noach was “in his generations righteous and wholehearted,” the Torah tells us; “Noach walked with G-d” (Gen 6:9). Indeed his father, Lamech, believed he was the one destined to bring “comfort” after generations of struggle and toil under the curse put on Adam (5:29); his name means “rest.” Noach warned his contemporaries of the troubles to come, then spent 120 years building the ark, giving the generation time to repent.
Generational consciousness requires us to adjust to a slower speed. For 120 years, Noach was building that ark and hoping the others would repent. We, on the other hand, are a fast-food, sound-bite, now-or-never society. We need to develop patience. You may be able to get an upgrade to speed up your computer, but you can’t speed up the growth of a child or the evolution of a community.
We need historical consciousness. We often ignore that the troubles of our decade were actually generated many years – perhaps 120 years? – earlier. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, writing of how the Holocaust could happen, wrote that its roots were not in 1939 or 1933, but generations before, when the word of G-d had been drowned or distorted. Those concerned about human-generated global warming trace its causes to the industrial revolution of the mid-19th century. (This Shabbat, by the way, has been declared Global Climate Healing Shabbat by the Jewish Council on Public Affairs.) We must think long-term, whether we look back or look forward.
Looking forward especially should give us pause. Are our actions and thoughts now seeding events that will come to fruition in 2029? Of course they are. What to do about it? With computer modeling, we are now better able to project quantifiable data like population growth and fossil fuel reserves. But what about the more subtle characteristics that define a “generation”? They may be less visible, but they are the tectonic plates of society that can shift in a positive or negative direction.
We have to ask, are we carefully nurturing positive moral and spiritual developments with the same attention that our scientists give to genetic modification and disease control? Are we honoring and learning from those who “walk with G-d,” who cultivate their own spirits and who are not afraid to speak out on our generations worst ills?
The apocalyptic destruction of this parsha, coming a month after Rosh Hashana, is a wake-up call. Let’s take time this week to discuss what the real “sins of the generation” are, and how we can uproot them. The next 120 years are given to us to correct the collective mistakes of the last 120 years.
From Rabbi Miles Krassen
Noach First Become a Tzaddik
The Midrash tells us that before launching this world, the Yotzer Bereishit (Former of Beginnings) emanated many other worlds and each was found wanting. Even when this world arose in the Divine Mind, there was still some uncertainty concerning whether to create it with the attribute of Judgment or Compassion. If we look deeply into the implications of these midrashim and shift from the language of ancient myth into our own paradigm, we can recognize how deeply the Sages intuited the evolving nature of the G-ding project and the precariousness and imperfection of any emanated world.
The acute challenge which the G-ding Power must face is that in its inherent greatness, Be-ing would not be enhanced by manifesting an already perfected world. Rather, It constantly aspires to manifest a world that is perfectible. Such a world has the capacity to bring about its own destruction, as well as its own salvation, because contraction and darkness are essential elements in any evolving world.
Generally, through the agency of the G-ding Power, evolution gradually occurs. But once Adam, the earth- being with the capacity to be conscious of its source, appears on the scene, the prognosis for the world becomes especially problematic.
As we read, at the end of parashat Bereishit: Be-ing manifested a Comforter because the earth-being that had evolved up to this point had become such a pain, that Be-ing considered wiping the entire world out of existence because of the earth-being. (Genesis 6:6-7).
The Torah speaks of a time when it seems that every creature in the world is not acting properly. From the G-ding Power’s perspective, Creation was ruined, because every creature was malfunctioning. (Genesis 6:12). The Slonimer Rebbe teaches that this threat to all life should not be viewed as a punishment for creatures that have no real choice. It is human folly, greed and weakness that have the capacity to affect the entire world so negatively. The effects of this “contamination” can be so widespread that at some point, tikkun (fixing the world), may no longer even be possible. (See Netivot Shalom, Noach).
When we read in our Rebbes’ teachings that the world was created for the sake of the tzaddik, it is so easy to think that this is just a quaint, sweet way of thinking or, worse, some form of self-aggrandizing propaganda by spiritual teachers seeking power. But in our time, when the consequences of unenlightened human behavior are so apparent and ominous, it is necessary to consider how the Torah’s teaching concerning Noach, the first Tzaddik, may be vital for our survival. If a sufficient number of us do not quickly evolve to the level of at least “tzaddikim-in-training,” what will induce and enable the G-ding Power to maintain our present world?
The Torah, foreseeing our predicament gives us hope: Be-ing recognized Noach as a channel for the flow of Divine Grace. (Genesis 6:8).
These are the effects of Noach; Noach, a person who became a tzaddik… in his times… (Genesis 6:9). Rashi cautions that because the Torah refers to Noach as a tzaddik… in his times, we might think that Noach’s achievement was only relative. But, precisely because Noach succeeded in becoming a Tzaddik in such unfavorable circumstances, he deserves our great admiration. Noach is an example to be followed, especially in times when there seems to be no hope.
Rebbe Aharon of Zhitomer, a close disciple of the Berditchever, explains why the Torah’s wording makes it possible to view Noach’s righteousness with both praise and contempt. (See Toledot Aharon, parashat Noach). Why does the Torah repeat Noach; Noach…? (Genesis 6:9). Because the Torah was calling attention to the tzaddik Noach’s two ways of viewing himself. On the one hand, he was aware that in a time of such rampant arrogance and destruction, he was unique. At the same time, he also knew that the level of spiritual elevation he had achieved under these difficult circumstances was only modest, compared to what he might have achieved in a more highly evolved age.
Noach represents the lone tzaddik, visible only to the Divine Eyes. Thus he is the archetype of the hidden tzaddikim. Thirty-six are the offshoots of Noach… (Genesis 6:9), because Noach is the source of the tradition of thirty-six righteous individuals who in their times, are unswerving in their devotion to the G-ding Power, (Genesis 6:9).
If Noach is the archetype of the tzaddik, what is his secret? Hints are already present in the last verse of the previous parashah. NoaCH found CHeN with the Eyes of Be-ing. (Genesis 6:8). The letters of Noach’s name and the letters of chen (Divine Grace) are the same. The only difference is that the order is reversed and the initial “supplicating” Nun at the beginning of the name, Noach becomes the long, vertically extended final Nun which is the last letter of chen.
What can we learn from this? The name “Noach” means “easy” or “comfortable.” The archetype of the tzaddik is called “Noach” because he or she is so close to Be-ing that a state of ease and comfort is maintained, even under the most challenging conditions. The “supplicating” initial Nun, indicates that Noach was bowing before the Divine Presence. This enabled him to achieve a higher consciousness. As the letters of his name suggest, he was constantly reducing his egocentric tendencies and connecting to Chokhmah (Divine Wisdom), as indicated by the letter Chet that follows the initial Nun.
When a tzaddik, like Noach, is connected to the Higher Consciousness of Chokhmah, perception is elevated beyond the way things look within the various dimensions of manifestation. This level of consciousness is called seeing with the Eyes of Be-ing (Genesis 6:8).
When this way of seeing is mastered, there are profound consequences. Noach found chen… (Genesis 6:8). The reversed letters of chen teach us that when the tzaddik’s consciousness is stabilized in Chokhmah, the surrendered state (Noach), is transformed into an active state in which the tzaddik is able to draw down Divine Grace (represented by the long, vertically extended Nun in chen). (See Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, Liqqutey MoHaRan, part 1, torah 1).
Some have thought it relevant to criticize Noach for not praying for his generation. But this criticism misses the point of what we need to learn from Noach. Noach discovered what was charming from the perspective of Be-ing. (Genesis 6:8). A tzaddik’s wholehearted righteousness makes a person so beautiful that Be-ing may be enticed to maintain the world’s existence, as long as enough tzaddikim like Noach are in it.
Noach’s charm derived from the fact that through his constant surrender to Hokhmah (Divine Wisdom), he was able to master three essential stages of spiritual development. The tzaddik’s state produces three essential contemplative qualities: the sense of awe and surrender, passionate devotion, and the capacity to manifest spiritual beauty. (Genesis 6:10). When these three qualities (Malkhut, Chesed, and Tif’eret) are integrated, the tzaddik can see the world the way it appears in the deep gaze of the Eyes of Be-ing.
From this perspective, the tzaddik knows what the Divine requires. The gematria (numerical value) of the name Noach is 58. This is the same gematria as the Hebrew root Alef Zayin Nun. This root forms the word ‘izzun (balance). The tzaddik balances the three essential spiritual qualities, so that he/she is always Noach (at ease), regardless of conditions in the world. The same root forms the word ‘ozen (ear). Because of the tzaddik’s balanced state, Noach recognizes what is about to occur and is receptive to the Divine Command. The G-ding Power told Noach I am now contemplating the end of all creatures that are filling my world with violence; My intention is to slaughter them along with the entire world. (Genesis 6:13).
As the Slonimer Rebbe teaches, sometimes it may already be too late for rebuking and criticizing others to be effective. When the polarizing energies of hate, fear, violence, and arrogance contaminate the entire world, the only remedy left may be the way of the tzaddik.
Make yourself into a spiritual vessel of refuge…make it impervious to negative influences coming from outside yourself and also from your own inner weaknesses. (Genesis 6:14).
Make sure your vessel of refuge has a window to receive light from the Higher Divine Mother Binah. Make an opening by its side (Genesis 6:16) so that you are open to receive all who are capable of joining you and also have a way to release whatever needs to be eliminated.
Make it big enough to integrate your entire body, heart and, mind. (Genesis 6:16).
Then, whenever I AM manifests a maelstrom of destructive energies that threaten to overwhelm all that lives, (Genesis 6:17) I AM will maintain a conscious connection with you, so that you and all that are dear to you can be safe in the vessel of refuge. (Genesis 6:18).
May we all be Noach in the most challenging times.
May we maintain balance through appropriate praise and self-criticism.
May our spiritual beauty Be-ing into maintaining our world.
May we transform ourselves into vessels of refuge
That can weather any storm.
Rabbi Moshe Aharon Ladizhyner
Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys
Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
The world is destroyed by a great flood. Noah builds an ark and is saved along with his family and a sampling of each species. He is given the rainbow as a sign of covenant. His descendents try to reach heaven by building the tower of Babel. The tower is destroyed and the people are dispersed.
OUR CONSCIOUSNESS HOLDS IN IT A MEMORY of utter catastrophe, of the death and rebirth of this planet. The story of the Flood represents this awareness which awakens us to the preciousness of Life. And the story ends with a great blessing, a great promise.
It is upon this blessing that our spiritual life rests. God touches our memory of devastation and says, “This will never happen again.” She makes a covenant with all of life and places a rainbow in the sky as a sign of that covenant. “I will look upon the rainbow and remember.”1 The blessing of the rainbow is the remembrance, the assurance, that we are ultimately safe. This deep unquestioned sense of security and trust in the essential goodness and rightness of Reality becomes the foundation for the process of awakening. This sense is so basic that changing circumstances and events cannot disrupt it. A. H. Almaas calls this quality, “Basic Trust.” Its presence allows you to relax and JUST BE with whatever is.
BASIC TRUST GIVES US THE CAPACITY TO SURRENDER, to let go of doubt and step into the unknown. As limiting ego-structures dissolve and we open to an expanded perspective, it can feel as though everything we know is falling apart. The rainbow reminds us that whatever happens, we are safe. Even when terrible things happen, when the outer structures are destroyed and we are seemingly paralyzed by fear, the rainbow appears and reminds us of a deeper safety. YES, EVEN DEATH IS SAFE! And that sense of safety becomes the springboard for our next step. This innate and implicit trust ultimately manifests as a willingness to take that necessary leap into the unknown. And so Basic Trust manifests in the courage to be with what is, and then instead of being a reactive victim of circumstance, you learn to live your life from a deep wisdom, from a wide perspective.
THE PORTION OF NOAH BLESSES US WITH YET ANOTHER RAINBOW: the story of the tower of Babel. The tower of our arrogant singular purpose topples and we are given the rainbow of diversity in its place. As we seek to touch the Unity (prompted by a hunger for mastery or control), we are answered with multiplicity. We are sent on the rainbow journey to acknowledge every shade of experience, to recognize the whole spectrum of what it means to be human. We are blessed with complex beauty, confounding paradox, and the opportunity to know and enjoy all the separate colors that together form the magnificent white Light of the One.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
The Slonimer Rebbe describes the three levels of faith (emunah):
There are three rungs of Faith (emunah): Trusting Mind (emunat ha-mo’ach), Trusting Heart (emunat ha-lev), but there is a rung still higher, Trusting with your limbs/embodiment (emunat ha-evarim): where Faith (Emunah) penetrates every fibre of your being, where horror can’t seize you, for your whole body feels the protective divine presence.
Complete emunah occurs when it unfolds in all three dimensions. As King David said, ‘My heart and my flesh [my body] sing to the Living God.’2 Not just the heart, but also the flesh, our skin and our muscles, our bones and limbs also sing to the Living God, for Emunah suffuses our entire being.3
The spiritual challenge is to suffuse our entire being with a sense of ultimate safety, to integrate into our very bodies, the promise of the rainbow.
THIS SENSE OF SECURITY is our inheritance. And yet at some point we become disconnected from our Source and lose our Basic Trust. We feel betrayed and lose our footing. The spiritual challenge is to re-connect with the truth of our safety, no matter what happens, so that we can again feel “held” by the goodness of Life, the Ground of Being. Then we can rest in the Divine embrace. Almaas describes the challenge like this:
“It means experiencing the factors which brought about the profound disconnection from reality, and experiencing repeatedly the fundamental truth of non-separateness, to the point where the soul can again rest in the knowledge of that truth. Each new experience of essential truth deepens the soul’s contact with her own basic trust.”4
AS WE RECEIVE THE BLESSING OF THE RAINBOW, we are challenged to remember God’s promise and dedicate ourselves to living our lives in its light. Whatever blocks that light must be examined with compassion, and dissolved through dedicated practice.
When the tower of our singular will for power topples and we are left with the multiplicity of languages, systems, conflicting stories, and values, our path becomes confused and scattered.
Yet the spiritual challenge is clear. Diversity must not be ignored as we seek a vision of Unity. The shining vision of our Unity should not fade as we celebrate our differences. We must not betray the Many for the One, or the One for the Many.
1 Genesis 9:16
2 Psalms 84:3
3 Netivot Shalom, Parashat Beshalach, pp. 113-115; also, Mo’adim, seventh day of Passover, pp. 281-283. I learned this text with Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg and am indebted to his elucidations.
4 Facets of Unity, A. H. Almaas, Shambhala, 2000 p.2
For Guidelines for Practice please click link to website. http://www.rabbishefagold.com/noah/
From Rabbi Jill Hammer The Jewish Book of Days
Noah and The Phoenix
The phoenix, according to one Jewish legend, is the only creature that never dies. Every 1,000 years, it is reborn out of its own ashes. The phoenix represents life itself and the possibility of rebirth after destruction.
Of all the animals that come onto Noah’s ark, the phoenix is the only one that does not ask for food. It restrains its hunger so as not to trouble the exhausted Noah, who has been feeding every animal on the ark. Noah rewards the phoenix for its compassion by bestowing eternal life. The phoenix also learns through this gift; it realizes that its needs are important.
The phoenix teaches that we can attain renewal, as individuals and as a society, only through thoughtfulness and moderationn of our needs. However, being modest does not mean having no needs. We are always called to investigate the needs and feelings of those around us and to value our own needs, even when that reuires asking help from others. The phoenix, which is mortal and immortal at the same time, teaches us to be humble and to value ourselves.
Source cited: Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 108b
Reb Sholom Brodt
MAYIM RABIM LO LO YUCHLU LECHABOT ET HA’AHAVA, U’NEHAROT LO YISHTEFU’HA… MANY WATERS CANNOT EXTINGUISH THE LOVE AND RIVERS CANNOT WASH IT AWAY… “. (Song of Songs 8:7)
You will find in the writings of the Chassidic masters that MUCH attention is given to the story of the flood. In Torah Ohr (parshas Noach), the Alter Rebbe teaches (Mayim Rabim) that the “many waters’ refer to “tirdot haparnasa”- to our preoccupations, difficulties and worries in making a living – these are the ‘mayim rabim’- the many and mighty waters that cause us to neglect and sometimes forget the needs and desires of our ‘nefesh ha-Elokit- our divine souls.
Yet in Yehsayahu 54:9, the flood waters are referred to as “Mei Noach” – the waters of Noach- ” For this is as the Mei Noach” – the waters of Noach, to Me…” ‘Noach’ means tranquility and calmness, and so the Alter Rebbe seeks to explain: why would the flood waters be referred to as ‘waters of tranquility’?
We are taught that our souls come from a very high place. “The true source of our souls is in the Essence of Hashem, above and beyond all G-dly manifestations.” (The Unbreakable Soul p.30) Our souls descend to this world “for the sake of ascent.” There is something the soul can accomplish only by being here in this world of turbulent flood waters.
“In terms of divine service, the benefit garnered by the soul through its descent into this world and its submersion within the “many waters” of materiality is that it thereby gains the potential for tshuvah, return.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe in Mayim Rabim 5738 – The Unbreakable Soul p.28)
At its source, prior to its descent the neshamah is a ‘tzaddik’; here in this world it can be a ‘baal tshuvah’. The Rabbis teach that “In the place that baalei tshuvah stand, perfect tzadikkim do not stand.” (Berachot 34b) The Rebbe reads, “Perfect tzadikkim cannot stand there.”
Tshuvah means returning. The soul has to leave its heavenly abode to experience the intense desire to return to its root and its source, to Hashem. This experience of intense yearning to return is what the neshama could not experience when it was a complete tzaddik, before it descended into this world.
Our deepest soul desire is to return to Hashem, to cleave to and bond with Hashem. But in this world our souls are in captivity and exile. Instead of enjoying the glow of the holy Shechina, as it did before its descent, the soul now finds itself in a very dark and low world of concealment.
In this world, G-dliness is quite concealed, even from the soul. This is the world of the “turbulent waters”, the “flood waters”, the “many waters”; the world of “tirdot haparnasa” in which we are submerged. In this world we may also chas v’shalom transgress against Hashem Will.
At the low level of tshuvah we ‘regret’ our wrongdoings. At the high levels of tshuvah we sincerely yearn to return and bond with Hashem. But how does living in the ‘many and turbulent waters’ help us to achieve the ascent of the soul?
Is it really abundant materialism and wealth that is most important to me? Is it ‘my high experience’ of Hashem’ that I desire above all else? When we examine the true worth of those things that we usually pursue, we come to realize that they are not the ultimate. When one meditates deeply and sincerely on what it is that we truly desire, we will come to discover that more than anything else, we want to bond with Hashem. Each time we are caught in the swirls of the many waters and run after that which will not bring us closer to Hashem our desire to return intensifies and our understanding of what is the highest is refined.
As we intensify our yearning tshuvah we achieve ‘ascent of the soul’, and the “many waters” become “Mei Noach”- the waters of tranquility. Knowing that this soul ascent can be achieved from within, and only from within the turbulent flood waters, we attain serenity and joy. When we serve Hashem with joy, our service is complete. Without joy the union is not complete.
How do we survive in the many waters? The Torah teaches us “bo el hateiva’-“come into the ark.” The Ba’al ShemTov taught that the word teiva also means ‘word’ and thus the Torah is teaching us to enter into the words of our prayers. There, you will find tranquility and the many waters will not extinguish your love for Hashem. As King Solomon says in Shir HaShirim, “Mayim rabim lo yuchlu lechabot et ha’ahava- many waters will never be able to extinguish the love, and rivers cannot wash it away.” (Song of Songs 8:7) This refers to the love for Hashem that is embedded in every Jew. Neither mighty nations (Rashi) nor “tirdot haparnsa” can ever succeed in extinguishing our burning love for Hashem, that is embedded within the souls of Yisrael.
The Rainbow in Noah is included in a list of 10 miraculous objects that were created on the 6th day of creation just before the beginning of
Shabbat (BT Sotah 48b). Rabbi Elisa Koppel, in “The Women’s Haftarah Commentary – Haftarah Terumah” writes that the Midrash says that these mysterious items seem to be contrary to nature. Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis in Encyclopedia Mythica lists these ” 10 Miracles” according to Avot de Rabbi Natan. They are:
1. the mouth of the earth that swallowed Korah and his companions.
2. Miriam’s Well
3. The mouth on Balaam’s donkey
4. The Rainbow
6. The rod of Moses
7. The Shamir Worm
8. The supernal script on the first tablet of the Ten commandments
9. The divine pen for writing the script
10. The stone tablets able to withstand the script
From Perek Shirah
The Dove is saying, “Like a swift or crane, so do I chatter; I moan like a dove; my eyes fail with looking upward; O God, I am oppressed, be my security” (Isaiah 38:14).
The dove says before The Holy One, Blessed be He: “Master of the World! May my sustenance be as bitter as an olive in Your Hand, rather than it being sweet as honey through flesh and blood.” (Talmud, Eruvin 18b)
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