Noach: The Flood and the Holocaust

October 30, 2019 at 8:57 am | Posted in Noach | 1 Comment

Since we toured Terezin three weeks ago, I have been haunted by the idea of genocide.  How could Hitler and his government decide that a whole “race” of people, including even the children, was irredeemable and should be exterminated like vermin?

I can understand wanting a particular individual to die.  Twice in my own life I hated a person who seemed fixated on doing things that ruined my life or the life of someone I loved, and I could not think of any way to escape.  I wished that individual were dead.  I could not feel empathy.  At least I was lucky enough to have the moral sense and common sense not to act out of my fear and hatred.

But I cannot imagine what it would be like to hate a whole category of people, millions of strangers I had never even met, human beings with virtues and failings and desires and moments of kindness and insight.  What would it be like to hate them all, to believe they do not deserve respect, and to cooperate in a program to persecute and murder them?

What would it be like to feel the blanket fear and hatred that many Christians felt for Jews from the Middle Ages through the 19th century?  That Nazis and their supporters felt for Jews during the 1930’s and 1940’s?  That some Americans and Europeans feel for immigrants today?

Then I came to this week’s Torah portion, Noach.  How could the God-character in this mythic story decide that only Noah and his immediate family were worth saving, while the rest of the human species was irredeemable and should be exterminated?

So I wrote a new post this week, about final solutions and how they failed.

The Flood: Not a Final Solution

And God saw how the wickedness of humankind on the earth was abundant, and how all the forms of [human] designs were only wicked all the time.  And God regretted that [God] had made humankind on the earth, and [God’s] heart became saddened.”  (Genesis 6:5)

This expression of regret at the end of the first Torah portion, Bereishit, launches the story of Noah and the ark in the next portion, Noach.  The God-character notices that although Noah is good enough, humans in general have become violent and destructive.

And God saw the earth, and hey!  Nishchatah, because all flesh hishchit on the earth.  And God said to Noah: “The end of all flesh is coming before me, because the earth is filled with violence on account of them, so hey!  Here I am, mashchitam along with the earth.  Make for yourself an ark …  (Genesis/Bereishit 6:12-14)

nishchatah (נִשְׁחָתָה) it had been ruined, destroyed.  (A form of the verb shachat, שָׁחַת = lay waste, ruin, inflict calamity and death.)

The Deluge, by Francis Danby, 1840

hischit (הִשִׁית) = has inflicted ruin.  (Another form of the verb shachat.)

mashchitam (מַשְׁחִיתָם) = destroying them.  (Another form of the verb shachat.)

The divine answer to the violent destruction perpetrated by the human species is to drown the perpetrators—and all the other land animals—and start again.  After the flood is over, Noah sacrifices the extra animals that God told him to bring on board.  The God-character smells the smoke of the offering and has a second change of heart.

And God smelled the soothing odor, and God thought: “Never again will I curse the land because of humankind, since the forms of its mind are wicked from its youth.  And never again will I strike down all life, as I have done.”  (Genesis 8:21)

Then God makes a covenant with Noah and his descendants, promising never to flood the whole world again.  Next the God-character blesses Noah and his sons, confirms that they will rule over all other animals, and changes the rules about killing.  In the Garden of Eden, God declared that all creatures that move on the land or fly in the sky, including humans, could eat only seed-bearing plants and trees (Genesis 1:29-30, 2:16).  Now God permits the consumption of meat.

Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat, like green vegetation; I have given you everything.  However, flesh with the living soul in it, its blood, you must not eat.  (Genesis 9:3-4)

This new rule indicates that part of the destruction and violence that prompted the flood consisted of carnivorous behavior, by humans and by other animals.  God decides to compromise and let humans kill and eat animals, as long as they respect the animals’ souls by not eating their blood.1

Cain and Abel, school of Rembrandt

The other reason for the flood appears to be that humans were killing other humans.  God warned Cain to resist this impulse in vain.  (Genesis 4:6-12)  After the flood God puts the warning a different way.

Whoever sheds human blood, by a human shall his blood be shed; because [God] made humankind in the image of God.  (Genesis  9:6)

Perhaps the God-character hopes that humans would improve if they were allowed a limited measure of violence concerning other animals, and allowed to execute anyone convicted of murder.  God also reminds Noah and his family that murder is prohibited because humankind was made in the image of God.

With the right guidance, the God-character now believes, humans can learn to avoid the worst behavior.  Although humans have evil impulses, they are not all bad.  Since God gives humankind another chance, God probably sees that good impulses are also part of human nature.

It is a start.  As the book of Genesis continues, God gives humans more rules to follow, and notices more humans who are virtuous.

Unfortunately, when people in power “play God” they often act more like the God-character who drowns the world than the God-character who tries to help humans improve.

The Holocaust: An Attempt at a Final Solution

Pinkas Synagogue, Prague (photo by Melissa Carpenter)

In Prague, nobody forgets what happened 60 years ago.  In the train station I saw a memorial to Jewish parents forced to leave their children and board trains for concentration camps when Germany occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939.  On the way to Wenceslaus Square my husband and I passed a former Jewish bank that the gestapo used to interrogate and torture Czech Jews from 1939 to 1945.

One of the six synagogues in the old Jewish quarter of the city, the Pinkas Synagogue, is now a Holocaust memorial, its walls covered with the names of about 78,000 Czech Jews who perished.

Chess set seized by SS (photo by M. C.)

At the Museum of Decorative Arts we saw personal treasures, from paintings to teacups, that Jews had packed in their suitcases when the Nazis forced them to abandon their homes.  When the Jews arrived at Terezin or another holding camp, the gestapo went through their suitcases and confiscated everything of value.  The Nazis kept records, so the exhibit identified the original owners of the items.

On a clear day in October we toured Terezin (renamed Theresienstadt by the Nazis), about 60 km (37 miles) from Prague.  On the way the bus passed potato, cabbage, and mustard fields.  The mustard was blooming yellow.

The bus drove through an entrance gap in the outer walls: a brick berm covered with grass, a narrow moat, and a second brick and grass berm.  The Hapsburg emperor Joseph II built these fortifications in 1784 to turn a country village into a military base.  Inside the outer walls he added barracks and stables for a cavalry unit.  The Hapsburgs also built a prison next door, encircled by a similar fortification.  When Germany captured Czechoslovakia in 1939, the new rulers continued to use the large fort as an army base and confine political prisoners in the small fort.  Then Adolph Eichmann, who was in charge of the logistics for mass deportations of Jews to concentration and extermination camps, picked Terezin for another purpose.

The “Final Solution” that the top Nazi administrators agreed on in January of 1942 was genocide: extinction of the entire “race” of Jews.  There were so many Jews, in all the territory Germany had conquered, that Eichmann had to do it in stages.  The first stage was to remove Jews from their homes and transport them to collection centers like Terezin.

At Terezin, Jews had enough uncertainty about their future to put up with SS orders and restrictions, hoping that the Allies would soon win the war, hoping that when groups of residents were loaded on trains bound for Auschwitz and other camps their lives would be bearable.  They did not know their families and friends were going to extermination camps.

Terezin crematory (photo by M.C.)

On our tour of Terezin, we saw the former barracks where old Jews were assigned to unheated stables and attics, so that they would die quickly by freezing in the winter or by heat stroke in the summer.  We saw drawings by Jewish children and drawings by Jewish professional artists, including depictions of gaunt residents waiting in line for thin soup ladled out from a barrel.  We saw the cemetery, where every morning hearses brought bodies to be dissected, cremated, and buried.  We saw the railroad tracks where newcomers arrived at Terezin and where Terezin residents were herded into cattle cars bound for extermination camps.

Hitler’s government had two cold-blooded reasons to persecute Jews.  One was to confiscate Jewish wealth (everything from money and property to the gold fillings in their teeth) in order to fund the German war of conquest.  The other was to feed the myth of Aryan superiority and inspire enough hatred so the German population would be willing to go to war, put up with wartime deprivations, and keep the Fuhrer in power.  Escalating the hatred meant escalating the persecution, and eventually murder, of the people chosen as scapegoats.

Hitler revived hatred of Jews in the first place not just by reviling them, but by blaming them for unemployment, poverty, and crime.  Today some of the political parties in the United States and Europe blame immigrants for unemployment, poverty, and crime.

The God-character in the Torah portion Noach is right about humankind: the forms of its mind are wicked from its youth.  (Genesis 8:21)  And the most wicked designs come not from the scapegoats, but from the oppressors.

May all humans realize that there is never a “final solution”, that mass murder only increases the evil in the world.  And may we all accept that human nature is a mixture of good and bad, so the best course of action is to encourage good deeds, by education and by example.  Then we will become the image of God after the Flood, the wiser, more mature God-character with a better understanding of human nature.

  1. For more on the prohibition against eating blood, see my post Re-eih & Acharei Mot: The Soul in the Blood.

 

Eikev, Va-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?

August 1, 2018 at 10:02 pm | Posted in Eikev, Noach, Va-etchannan | 2 Comments

Five Kings of Midian Slain by Israel, 1728

The Israelites are camped on the east bank of the Jordan River, ready and willing to cross over and do to the native populations of Canaan what they have already done to the Amorites and Midianites east of the Jordan: burn all their towns, kill all their men, and take over all their land—with God’s explicit approval and assistance.1

I will explore the evolution of and biblical justifications for this ethnic cleansing in next week’s post, Re-eih: Ownership.  This week, let’s look at how Moses says the Israelites should act after their conquest.

In last week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan, Moses warns the Israelites not to feel entitled after they have taken everything the Canaanites own.

And it will happen when God, your God, brings you into the land that was sworn to your forefathers … cities great and good that lo vanita, and houses filled with everything good that you did not fill, stone-hewn cisterns that you did not hew out of stone, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.  And you will eat and you will be satisfied.  Guard yourself, lest you forget God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:10-12)

lo vanita you did not build.  lo (לֺא) = not + banita (בָּנִיתָ) = you built.  (A form of the verb banah, בָּנָה = built, constructed, fortified, rebuilt; built up a family.)

Once the Israelites own everything the previous inhabitants built and planted, they will have an easy head start in their new life.  But Moses does not tell the Israelites to be grateful for the labor of generations of Canaanites.  He only warns them not to forget that everything they own is a gift from God.

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, takes the idea of God’s gift farther.

Guard yourself lest you forget God, your God, and fail to guard [God’s] commandments and laws and decrees, which I, myself, am commanding you this day—lest you eat and you are satisfied, and tivneh good houses, and you dwell in them; and your herds and flocks increase, and silver and gold increases for you, and everything that is yours increases; and then your heart is arrogant and you forget God, your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.  (Deuteronomy 8:11-14)

tivneh (תִּבְנֶה) = you build, fortify, build up.   (Another form of the verb banah.)

Here Moses points out that even if the Israelites do build their own houses and bring in their own livestock, wealth in the land they have conquered is not guaranteed.  What you build yourself, as well as what you take from someone else, is a gift from God.

In general, the Hebrew Bible uses the verb “create” (bara, בָּרָא) for what God does, and “build” (banah, בָּנָה) for what humans do, using materials God created.2  People in the bible build many things just to improve their lives, including houses, towns, walls, and livestock pens.  But sometimes humans build for the sake of their own self-importance, and sometimes they build to honor God.

 

Building a name

After the story of Noah and the flood, the humans on earth figure out how to make bricks and mortar them with bitumen.

Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1563

And they said: “Come, nivneh for ourselves a city and a tower [with] its head in the heavens, and we will make for ourselves a name, lest we scatter over the face of all the earth.”  And God went down to look at the city and the tower than the descendants of the human banu.  (Genesis 11:4-5)

nivneh (נִבִנֶה) = let us build.

banu (בָּנוּ) = they built.

Noah’s descendants start to build a single city for the whole human population, with a tower that intrudes on God’s realm, the heavens.  They want to make a “name” or reputation for themselves.  (Since there are no other humans, perhaps that want a reputation among creatures in the heavens.)  God takes them seriously, believing that humankind is indeed capable of doing too much.  So God decides to scatter them—just what the city-builders fear most—so that they will develop different languages and become mutually incomprehensible.

And [God] scattered them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off libanot the city.  Therefore it was called by the name Bavel, because there God confused the lips of the whole earth … (Genesis 11:8)

libanot (לִבְנֺת) = building.

Bavel (בָּבֶל) = Babylon.3

City gate at Megiddo

Building a city can be problematic in the Torah.  The building of the city and tower of Bavel is portrayed as an exercise in arrogance.  In Egypt, the Israelites are forced to build two brick storage-cities for Pharaoh, Pitom and Rameses.4  Later, King Solomon embarks on building projects in the cities of Jerusalem, Megiddo, Chatzor, and Gazer, all using the forced labor of the remaining natives of Canaan.5  Building a city, palace, or fortress means that the some human beings are likely to lord it over others.

In the Torah portion Va-etchannan, Moses warns the Israelites not to feel self-important when they are living in cities and towns that the natives had already built.  After all, they could not kill or drive away those natives without God’s help.

In the Torah portion Eikev, Moses reminds the Israelites not to let their prosperity in their “promised land” make them arrogant, and not to forget that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt.

 

Building for God

Living in cities built by other people leads to egotism.  But other kinds of building are for the sake of God.

First Temple reconstruction in Bible Museum, Amsterdam

Noah builds the ark at God’s command, but after the flood has receded he builds an altar for animal sacrifices to God on his own initiative. 6  It is the first of many altars men build to worship God.  In the book of Exodus, all the Israelites, men and women, cooperate to build the portable tent-sanctuary for God.  In the first book of Kings, King Solomon enslaves native Canaanites to build his own palace and several fortresses, but he uses the same forced labor to build the first temple for God in Jerusalem.

The bible praises those who build altars and sanctuaries for God, just as it criticizes those who forget their debt to God when they build or take over cities.  But what about the overlords’ dependence on people they defeated and enslaved?  The bible considers only the Israelite point of view.  No gratitude for the labor of non-Israelites is required.

I pray that all of us today may recognize that nobody becomes wealthy without help.  Nobody builds something without the raw materials this world provides, and nobody builds something without the present or past work of other human beings.

As Moses reminds us, may we be grateful to what is not human (whether we call it God or nature) for everything we have, even the air we breathe.  And as Moses fails to remind us, may we also be grateful for the labor of other human beings—even if we consider them Canaanites.

  1. Numbers 21:21-25, 21:33-35, and 31:1-12.
  2. One exception is when God uses the side of the human protype, adam, to “build” a female counterpart (Genesis 2:22), although in Genesis 1:27 and 5:2 God “creates” female and male humans.  Psalms 69, 78, and 102 refer poetically to God as the builder of Tzion or the cities of Judah.  Another exception is when Joshua tells the Josephites to “create” farmland for themselves by clear-cutting forests in the hill-country (Joshua 17:15-18), although they will only be using materials God created, i.e. trees, fire, and dirt.
  3. The name Bavel comes from the Babylonian god Beil, but the Torah might also be alluding to the sound of foreign languages the Israelites encountered during their enforced exile in Babylonia in the 6th century BCE.
  4. Exodus 1:11.
  5. 1 Kings 9:15-20.
  6. Although both Cain and Abel make offerings to God, the first altar mentioned in the Torah is built by Noah after the flood (Genesis 8:20).

Pinchas: Aromatherapy

July 4, 2018 at 5:37 pm | Posted in Korach, Noach, Pinchas | 5 Comments

The God-character in the Torah often lashes out in fits of rage.  Sometimes this anthropomorphic “God” kills offensive individuals, and sometimes “He” wipes out hundreds or thousands of people, the innocent with the guilty.

from Treasures of the Bible, Northrop, 1894

Moses succeeds in talking God down into relative calmness after the Israelites worship the golden calf in the book of Exodus/Shemot,1 and twice more in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.2  But the smell of aromatic smoke is an even more effective way to soothe the God-character.

This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, ends with a schedule of offerings to be burned on the altar.  God begins the list by telling Moses:

“Command the Israelites, and you shall say to them: You must pay attention to my offerings, my food—to my fire-offering of my reyach nichoach—to offer [it] to me at its appointed time.”  (Numbers 28:1-2)

reyach (רֵיחַ) = scent, odor, fragrance, aroma.  (From the same root as ruach,  רוּחַ= wind, spirit, mood.)

nichoach (נִחֺחַ) = soothing, calming.  (From the root verb nuach, נוּחַ = rest, settle down in peace and quiet.)

reyach nichoach (רֵיחַ נִחֺחַ) = soothing scent.

The phrase reyach nichoach appears ten more times in the schedule of animal and grain offerings that follows.3  Although the God-character no doubt appreciates the sacrifice of potential human food and the pouring of libations, the scent of the smoke is a key element.

The First Soothing Smoke

The smoke from burned offerings first reaches God as a reyach nichoach in Genesis/Bereishit, after the God-character has become so upset by the violence and corruption of humans (and perhaps other carnivores) that He decides to destroy all life on earth.4  God makes an exception only for the obedient Noah and the other occupants of his ark.

After the flood recedes, God tells Noah to empty out the ark.  Then Noah finally does something on his own initiative, building an altar and burning up some extra animals he brought along as an offering to God—perhaps in imitation of Abel, whose animal offering God turned toward.5  (See my post Noach: The Soother.)

And God smelled the reyach nichoach, and God said in His heart:  I will never again draw back to doom the earth on account of the human, for the impulse of the human heart is bad in its youth … (Genesis/Bereishit, 8:21)

The clouds of smoke probably remind God of Abel’s grateful sacrifice of sheep, before humankind turned bad.  Reassured, God concludes that at least some adults want to serve Him.

The phrase reyach nichoach appears again three times in the book of Exodus,6 seventeen times in Leviticus, and eighteen times in Numbers, always in descriptions of animal and grain offerings to God.

Korach

The God-character’s temper flares again in the next Torah portion, Korach, which begins with two simultaneous coups against Moses and Aaron.  God deals with the Reuvenite leaders by making the earth swallow them and their families, and with Korach’s 250 Levites by burning them up in a conflagration.  The next day the remaining Israelites complain about all the deaths, and God tells Moses:

“Take yourselves out from the midst of this community, and I will consume them in an instant!”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 17:10)

Once again, God wants to annihilate the entire Israelite people—and presumably start over again with only Moses and Aaron and their families.  This time Moses tells Aaron to stop the plague by taking his incense pan out into the community.

Aaron took it, as Moses had spoken, and he ran into the middle of the congregation, and hey!—the pestilence had already started among the people!  He put on the incense and he made atonement over the people.  And he stood between the dead and the living, and the pestilence was stopped.  (Numbers 17:12-13)

The God-character has already killed 14,700 people when Aaron’s incense checks His rage.

At the end of the portion Korach, God instructs the Israelites to offer the firstborn of every cow, ewe, and nanny goat at the altar, “… and you shall burn-into-smoke their fat as a fire-offering for reyach nichoach for God.”  (Numbers 18:17)

Pinchas

At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Balak, the Israelites join the local Moabite Midianites in worshiping their god Baal-Peor.  When a Reuvenite man brings a Midianite princess (possibly a priestess of Baal-Peor) right into God’s tent-sanctuary to copulate, the God-character’s fury boils over.  Aaron’s grandson Pinchas dashes into the tent chamber and stabs a spear through the copulating couple.7

And the pestilence was stopped from over the Israelites.  And the deaths in the pestilence were 24,000.  (Numbers 25:8-9)

The God-character rewards Pinchas, but remains angry in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas. God orders Moses to attack and kill all the Midianites who worship Baal-Peor—an order carried out in next week’s portion, Mattot.8  After addressing several other matters, God remembers the soothing scent of smoke in Numbers 28:1-2 (above).

Maybe the God-character finally realizes He has a quick temper and an anger management problem.  If the Israelites soothed Him with a reyach nichoach at regular intervals, He might stay calmer.

God requests two daily offerings, plus additional offerings every seventh day (Shabbat), every new moon, and on six special occasions during the year (now called PesachShavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret).  The daily offerings and the additional offerings on the new moon, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Shemini Atzeret are all labeled as either “a reyach nichoach, a fire-offering for God” or “a fire-offering of reyach nichoach for God”.

Smoke and the gods

Why does the God-character in the Torah calm down when He smells the smoke of an animal, grain, or incense offering?

The book of Ezekiel provides a clue.  Three times in Ezekiel, God complains that Israelites at home and in exile are flocking to foreign altars and giving mere idols a reyach nichoach.9

Moabite altars in “Bilam” by James Tissot

Burning animals at altars for local gods was standard religious practice in ancient Canaan and Mesopotamia.  The epic of Gilgamesh includes a story in which Utnapishtim, the Mesopotamian equivalent of Noah, emerges from his boat after the flood and offers a sacrifice to the gods.  When he lights a fire of myrtle, cane, and cedar wood, the odor reaches the nostrils of the gods and gives them pleasure.10

Since many humans enjoy aromatic smoke from incense or from a barbecue, it is natural to assume an anthropomorphic god enjoys it, too.  Just as an angry king about to punish someone might be appeased by a delightful gift, an angry anthropomorphic god might be appeased by a gift of fragrant smoke.  Since the God of Israel and the gods of Canaanites and Mesopotamians were envisioned as living in the sky, smoke was one of the few gifts that would be sure to reach them.

*

Have we discarded the idea of an anthropomorphic god today?  Not entirely.  Both atheists and theists often think of God as a super-human being living in a “heaven” coexistent with our world.  Atheists prove that this super-being cannot exist, while most religious people explain that an anthropomorphic god is either one manifestation of the real God, or a helpful image in our own minds, not to be confused with the real God.

There are still some fundamentalists who believe in the angry, punishing God portrayed so often in the Hebrew Bible and inherited by Christianity and Islam.  The rest of us tend to view God as either loving (a helpful anthropomorphic image), or without emotion (because God is not really a super-human).

Yet we sometimes find ourselves disturbed by our own irrational anger, and the impulsive actions we commit as a result.  We do not want to be made in the image of the angry, temperamental God-character.  What can we do to become calmer human beings?

Smoking is not the best answer.  But making regular offerings to God could be.  Jews no longer burn animals on an altar to soothe God’s temper, thank God!  But we are asked to pray at the appointed times listed in Pinchas: daily, weekly, monthly, and on annual holy days.  I have found that when I pray thoughtfully, searching out inner meanings of some words and adding my own heartfelt longings, my prayer soothes my own spirit and lifts my soul closer to God.

May everyone who needs the blessing of calmness find a good way to receive it.

  1. Moses talks God out of annihilating the Israelites and starting over again with only Moses’ descendants in Exodus 32:9-14 and 32:25-35. See my post Ki Tissa: Fighting or Singing?  God may be testing Moses to see whether he will argue for the Israelites; but on the other hand, God does kill an untold number of them with a plague, even after the Levites have slain 3,000 guilty people.
  2. In Numbers 14:11-35 (Shelach-Lekha) God threatens to wipe out all the Israelites because they do not trust God to help them conquer Canaan and refuse to cross the border. Moses talks God down, and God makes them wait 40 years instead.  God’s next threat to annihilate all the Israelites is in Korach, reviewed above.
  3. Numbers 28:2, 6, 8, 13, 24, 27 and 29:2, 6, 8, 13, 36.
  4. Genesis 6:11-13, 6:17.
  5. Genesis 4:3-5.
  6. Exodus 29:18, 29:25, and 29:41.
  7. See my posts Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1 and Balak: Carnal Appetites.
  8. See my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.
  9. Ezekiel 6:13, 16:19, 20:28. In Ezekiel 20:41, God says that when all Israelites restrict themselves to serving their own God on the holy mountain of Israel, then God will accept the people themselves as a reyach nichoach.
  10. Gilgamesh tablet 11, part 4.

Noach: Noah’s Wife

October 19, 2017 at 10:36 am | Posted in Noach | 3 Comments

a Torah monologue by Maggidah Melissa Carpenter

It all started with sheep.  When I was a girl, people kept sheep to shear for wool and to milk for making cheese.  My mother used to say, “On the sixth day, God gave the humans and animals plants for food.  Nothing but plants!”1

I used to argue, “Then why did God make mothers that give milk?”  And I ate cheese on my lentils.  I still do.

Lamech and His Two Wives
by William Blake, 1795

Those were the good days.  Then some man named Lemech went crazy, and there was a fight, and two men died.  Lemech was the second murderer in the world.  He boasted about what he’d done, so I could understand why God didn’t give him a mark of protection, like Cain.  What I could not understand was why God didn’t speak.

After that fight, it seemed like young men had shorter tempers and bigger appetites.  One year they came back from the sheep-shearing missing two sheep.  There was blood on the fleeces.  Blood in their beards.  Soon they were bringing back whole sheepskins, and legs to cook.  The first time I saw a man bite into a roasted leg, I had nightmares for a week.

Nobody stopped them.  My mother tried, but she was a small woman, and they knocked her down.  After that she walked with a limp.  My father kept going out with the other shepherds.  And when they brought back lambs, some of the women ate the tender meat.  In a few years almost everybody was eating lamb.  Even the lions.

The young men came home sometimes with cuts and gouges from the shearing knives.  They were fighting.

Chamas,2” my mother whispered.  Violence.  Cruelty.

*

            Lots of men came after me once my figure filled out.  I carried my own knife to keep them away, since we had no laws.

Some years later I made friends with Lemech’s youngest son, Noach.  His mother had died by then, and his father had gone for good.  Noach traded barley and grapes in the marketplace, along with the little wooden boxes he made.  He stayed away from the other end of the market.  Said he didn’t like the taste of meat, and sheep gave him a rash.

One day he invited me up the hill to see the house he’d built.  It was a big empty wooden house with four bedrooms.  Noach said we could put a bed in the room I liked best.

“What about the other rooms?”

He looked down.  “Maybe we’ll have children.”

“Yes,” I said.

*

            We had three sons, and I raised them to be vegetarians.  Once Cham, our youngest, came home with a nasty knife wound, but at least none of my sons ever brought home meat.  All three married good women.  Our house was full.

One day when Noach came home from the fields he was shivering.  He said: “God spoke to me.”

“What!”

“I was just hoeing, out in the field, and God spoke to me. Inside my body.”

“Are you sure it was God?”

“Yes.  God said I have to build a box.  A giant box.  Waterproof.  Divided up into compartments.  And then I have to collect animals.  Two of every kind of animal in the world. And put them in the box.  And four pairs of humans: you and me, and our sons and their wives.”

“Why?”

“Because God is disappointed in the human race.  Because of all our violence, our chamas.  God wants to start all over again.  So he’s going to send a flood that will wipe out the whole earth.  Except for the survivors in the floating box.  The ark.”

“But Noach, what about children?  And the more peaceful animals?  Isn’t God more—selective?”

“I guess not.  And I can’t argue with God.  I’ve got to start building a box.”

He did.  It dwarfed our house.  Sometimes folks wandered by and jeered at him, but my husband only told them one thing, over and over again.  “God said to build an ark, because the earth is filled with chamas, so he’s going to send a flood to wipe out all flesh.  That’s what God said.”3

Nobody listened to Noach.

He finished the ark, and packed several compartments with seeds and farming tools, and grain to feed everybody.  Even the lions.  He sent off our sons and their wives to collect pairs of animals from around the world.  Then he asked me to get the sheep.  He told me that now God wanted seven rams and seven ewes, so he could make slaughter-sacrifices for God after the flood.4

“What?  I thought God didn’t like chamas!  Why would God want us to save animals only to kill them?”

“I dunno.  I can’t argue with God.”

“Then go get the sheep yourself, Noach.”

“I can’t.  Sheep give me a rash.”

“I thought—I thought that was just an excuse.  I thought you were a good man, different from all the others.”

Noach looked miserable.  He backed up and stood in the shadow of the ark.  “God wants seven cattle, too, and seven goats, and some extra birds.  I’ll take care of those.”

And I knew I had to get the sheep.  My only other choice was to drown.

God gave us seven days to load all the animals.  When the rain started our son Cham balked and argued, but in the end he followed his wife inside the ark, and we sealed the door.  I remember when the ark shifted and began to float.  We all cheered.  Then we heard people hammering on the outside of the door, and I felt bad.

We spent all our waking time feeding the animals.  The rain stopped after 40 days, but the flood went on for months.  Then the ark grated against something.  We climbed the ladder and peered out the window in the roof.  The sky was blue.  So was the water, rippling in the wind.  Tiny islands of bare rock stuck out of the water.  I realized they were mountaintops.

by Gustave Dore, 1866

When the water finally dried up, we saw lots of mud where we could plant seeds.  We wait for Noach to lead us out of the ark, but he just kept shoveling grain into the animals’ stalls.  Until one morning he finally called us together and said:  “God said to go out, and let out the animals, to be fruitful and multiply.”

We started to cheer, but Noach looked so glum that the cheer failed.  I wondered if my husband had delayed leaving the ark because he was not looking forward to the animal sacrifice.

Noach held back the sheep and cattle and goats and birds that he said God wanted sacrificed.  I stood with my hands on my hips and watched him build a platform out of stones.  I think it was an altar, though I’d never seen one before.

He got our sons to hold the animals while he slit their throats.  Then he burned them.  A new, clean world, and my husband goes and sends up a column of greasy black smoke.  Behind it a rainbow appeared.  Noach’s face and hands broke out in a rash.

We ploughed a big field of mud farther down the mountain, and we discovered that some debris from the flood had settled into the mud.  Pottery, blankets, dead animals.  Human bodies.  When I ploughed up a dead child, I lay down on the dirt and cried the rest of the day.

I don’t get it.  If all our chamas made God regret creating the world, why did God do so much chamas to destroy it?

I liked God’s first creation better.

  1. And God said: “Hey, I give to you all seed-bearing green plants that are on the face of all the earth, and all the trees that have seed-bearing fruit; they shall be food for you. And to all animals of the land and to all birds of the heavens and to all crawlers on the earth that have the soul of life:  all greens, green plants, for food.”  And it was so.  And God saw all that “he” had made, and hey!  Very good.  And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day.  (Genesis 1:29-31)
  2. chamas (חָמָס) = violence, lawlessness, cruelty. The first occurrence of this word is in the Torah portion Noach: The earth was corrupt in front of the Elohim, and it was chamas. (Genesis 6:11)
  3. Genesis 6:13, 6:17.
  4. Genesis 7:2.

                                                                                                                               

Haftarat Noach—Isaiah: From Raging Flood to Free Drinks

November 3, 2016 at 10:14 am | Posted in Isaiah 2, Noach | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). However, this week the haftarah is almost a duplicate.  This week’s Torah portion is Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32), and the haftarah is Isaiah 54:1-55:5—which includes all of haftarah for the Torah portion Re’eih, eight weeks ago.

After the flood subsides in this week’s Torah portion, God swears:

Never again to curse the earth on account of the human, since the yeitzer of the heart of the human is bad from its youth; and never again to destroy all life, as I have done.  (Genesis/Bereishit 8:21)

from a landscape by Peter Paul Rubens, ~1630

from a landscape by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1630

yeitzer (יֵצֶר) = what is shaped or formed; by extension, an impulse or a tendency. (From the root yatzar, יָצַר = shaped, formed.)

Perhaps God senses that It overreacted, wiping out not just the entire human race, but all land-based animals (except for those on Noah’s ark). God might have tried to educate humankind, or at least to issue a detailed warning and then exercise selective punishment against chronic transgressors. God warns Noah about the flood 100 years ahead of time, so God might even have given Noah instructions for acting as a teacher and prophet. But in the Torah, God only instructs Noah about how to build and fill the ark, and then releases the flood. The divine rage at human evil is unabated. (See my post: Noach: Spoiled.)

The first chapter of this week’s haftarah compares God’s covenant with the Israelites to a marriage, and God, the husband, says:

           In a flood of rage I hid My face a while from you

           But with unending loyal kindness I had compassion on you,

           —said  your redeemer, God.

           Like the days of Noah this is to me:

           As I swore that the waters of Noah would not pass over the earth again,

           So I swear against becoming angry at you and against rebuking you! (Isaiah 54:8-9)

Many a battered wife has heard a promise like that, as I pointed out when I discussed this haftarah eight weeks ago. (See my post Haftarah for Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser.)

But after God has finished promising that “he” will never, ever throw the Israelites out of the house again, or bring over foreign bullies to attack them, the haftarah abruptly takes a different turn.

Water Carrier, by Francisco Goya ~1810

Water Carrier, by
Francisco Goya ca. 1810

           Hoy! Everyone who is tzamei! Come for water!

            And if you have no silver, come, buy and eat!

            And come, with no silver and with nothing to barter, buy wine and milk! (Isaiah 55:1)

Hoy! (הוֹי) = Oy! My goodness! Alas! Oh! Oh, no! Oh, dear!

tzamei (צָמֵא) = thirsty.

Instead of a raging flood, God offers drinking water. Then God promises food, wine, and milk, all free of charge. What is this poetic largesse?

Second Isaiah is addressing the exiled Israelite families that were deported to Babylon in 597-586 B.C.E. when King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah and Jerusalem. Apparently these exiles were familiar with a passage from the book of Amos (circa 760 B.C.E.):

Hey!  Days are coming—declares God—when I will send a famine into the land: not a famine for bread nor a tzama for water, but for hearing the words of God.  And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east they shall roam, seeking the word of God, but they shall not find it. (Amos 8:11-12)

tzama (צָמָא) = thirst.  (From the same root as tzamei.)

Amos prophesied the end of the northern Israelite kingdom of Samaria (which fell to the Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E.), and promised a distant future when God would reinstate the Israelites in their own lands.  Until then, he warned, people who were hungry and thirsty for the word of God would be unable to find it.

The “word of God” means either directives from God—the rules of the religion—or teaching (in Hebrew, torah, תּוֹרָה) by and about God. When the Babylonian Talmud was assembled around 500 C.E., there was already a tradition comparing torah with water. Ta’anit 7a and Bava Kama 82a in the Talmud even cite Isaiah 55:1 as proof that “water” means torah.

Second Isaiah declares that Amos’s distant future has arrived. After all, when King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.E., the Israelites became free to return to their old homelands and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Now people who were hungry and thirsty for the word of God can find it.

The haftarah picks up where Amos left off and gives further information about the word of God: it is free, and it will sustain the soul. Just as water is essential for the human body to live, the word of God is essential for the human soul to live.

by Mary Cassat, 1908

by Mary Cassat, 1908

Furthermore, according to second Isaiah, one can even get milk and wine for free.

Milk appears in the Bible as the nourishment humans receive without hard labor. Mothers nurse their infants, and the land that God promises to give the Israelites is repeatedly described as a “land flowing with milk and honey”. The luxury of milk is given out of parental love: a mother’s tenderness or God’s compassion.

            Wine makes the heart glad. (Psalm 104:15)

Although the Bible denounces excessive drinking, it calls for wine in sacraments as a sign of joy. Wine first appears in the Torah when Abraham returns victorious from a regional battle. Malki-tzedek (“King of Righteousness”) of Jerusalem brings him bread and wine and blesses him in the name of God. Later the Torah requires that people bring libation offerings of wine to the altar along with their offerings of animals and grain.

Since the word of God is compared to water, milk, and wine, Joanne Yocheved Heligman wrote in The Women’s Haftarah Commentary, focusing on “spiritual goals” will nurture us with a balance of physical sustenance (water), love (milk), and spiritual joy (wine).

I would add that spiritual work is sustaining, like water, when it involves reading, studying, and interpreting words. It is nurturing, like milk, when it involves praying and behaving ethically toward other people. And it brings joy, like wine, when we have emotional and mystical experiences—although we must avoid becoming drunk on religious experiences and spending too much time away from the practical world.

When we feel empty and long for something we might call God, are we longing for water, milk, or wine?  The Psalms identify the longing for God’s presence with thirst for water.

           Like a deer who longs for streams of water,

                 So my soul longs for You, God;

           My soul is  tzamei  for God, for the god of life.

                 When can I come in? (Psalm 42:2)

May we all discover where to find free water, and all the other nourishment we long for.

Noach: Winds of Change

October 13, 2015 at 12:50 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Noach | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Wind changes the weather.  A persistent mood or spirit changes your behavior, driving you like the wind in a new direction.

Bibilical Hebrew has one word for both wind and spirit: ruach.

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; spirit, mood, emotional energy.

The Torah uses this word to describe both the creation of the world in the first Torah portion of Genesis/Bereishit, and its re-creation after the flood in this week’s Torah portion, Noach.

In a beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was a vacancy and a void and a darkness over the face of the deep, and the ruach of God was merachefet over the face of the waters. And God said: Light, be!  And light was. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1-2)

eagle+nestmerachefet (מְרַחֶפֶת) = fluttering, hovering tremulously. (The only other place the Bible uses the verb rachaf in this form is in Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:11, where God is compared to an eagle fluttering over its young.)

Translators disagree over whether the word ruach at the beginning of the Bible should be translated as “wind” or “spirit”.  I think the ruach of God, fluttering over the blank darkness and deep waters, is like the tender, hesitant spirit of someone about to become a parent.

The word ruach shows up again when Adam and Eve hear God’s voice in the garden “in the ruach of the day” (Genesis 3:8)   I agree with modern scholars that this means the windy time of day, which tended to be late afternoon in Israel.

The next time the Torah uses the word ruach is when God is musing about the dual nature of human beings.  God made the first human, in Genesis 2:7, out of both dirt and God’s own breath.  In other words, humans are partly animals with physical desires, and partly mental beings with spiritual desires.

And God said: My ruach will not always be judge in the human; he is also flesh…  (Genesis 6:3)

Here, ruach seems to mean God’s spirit, which shapes a human being’s character and prevailing mood.  Sometimes a person’s character controls the appetites of the flesh, but not always.

God lets these double-sided humans make their own choices for 1,556 years in the Torah, from the time God returns Adam and Eve to the world until the time when their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson Noah is 500 years old.

Then God saw that the badness of the human on earth was abundant—that the shape of every idea of his heart was only bad, all the time. And God had a change of heart about making the human on the earth, and he grieved in his heart. (Genesis 6:5-6)

God tells Noah to make an ark, because in another hundred years God is going to destroy the earth.

And hey, I Myself am bringing the deluge of water over the land to wipe out from under the heavens all flesh in which is the ruach of life.  Everything that is on the land will expire.  (Genesis 6:17)

The Torah repeats the phrase “the ruach of life” twice more in the story of Noah’s ark.  In the third occurrence it becomes clear that ruach in this phrase means moving air, a small-scale wind:

All that had the breath of the ruach of life in its nostrils, from all that were on dry land, they died.  (Genesis 7:22)

Noah Leaving the Ark, by Sisto Badalocchio

Noah Leaving the Ark, by Sisto Badalocchio

The flood wipes out all land animals, including humans, except those aboard Noah’s ark.  But God is not really starting over.  The animals and humans who emerge from the ark are the descendants of the ones God created in the beginning; they are built according to the same designs.  Human beings have the same dual nature.

Nevertheless, when God restores the earth to working order, the language in the Torah recalls the language of the original creation.

And God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark, and God made a ruach pass over the earth, and the waters abated.  The springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens were stopped up…(Genesis 8:1-2)

Once again God begins with a ruach.  But while the first ruach flutters like the tender spirit of a mother bird, this ruach sweeps across the flooded world like an eagle soaring—or a wind that brings a change of weather.

In the first creation story, God acts by speaking things into being.  In the re-creation story, God merely changes the weather, and the earth gradually dries out over the course of a year.  When God speaks, it is only to tell Noah to come out of the ark with his menagerie.

After the story of Noah, the word ruach continues to mean “wind” when the Bible talks about God. When it talks about humans, the word ruach means “spirit” or prevailing mood.

A third phenomenon is the ruach Elohim, a “spirit of God” that takes over or rests inside humans.  The ruach Elohim is a sublime wisdom in Joseph the dream-interpreter and Betzaleil the master artist, and a supernatural strength in Samson.  It is an infectious battle drive in war leaders, and a divine compulsion in mad King Saul as well as the many prophets God uses as mouthpieces.

Thus even the ruach Elohim is manifested only in human beings.

In the beginning of the Torah, God creates everything.  After the flood, the world and its humans continue on their own, and God intervenes only by blowing winds, by making plagues and occasional miracles, and by changing the spirits of a few select humans.

Today, I encounter two types of “spiritual” people.  One type often sees omens and miracles, attributing every coincidence to the hand of God rather than to the laws of probability or nature.  For this type, if a wind knocks down a tree that just misses them, God is literally in the wind and moves the tree.

The other type perceives God only through changes in their own spirits.  For this type (my type), if a wind knocks down a tree that just misses me, God is in the shaken liberation of joy after the flash of fear.  The divine is in me and moves my spirit.

Yet the Bible shows God changing the spirits of only the few.  And I know I am no prophet or war leader or master artist.

The world has always been full of silent people who are moved by a divine spirit, but never do anything famous enough to be written down in a book. After all, according to the Torah we are all made partly of God’s breath, God’s wind, God’s ruach.

 

Lekh-lekha: Cutting a Covenant

October 29, 2014 at 9:36 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Noach | 3 Comments
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The first three covenants God makes with human beings in the Torah are unconditional; God promises to do something regardless of what the other party does. First God says to Noah:

Everything on earth will perish, but I will raise up my berit with you, and you shall come into the ark… (Genesis/Bereishit 6:18)

berit (בְּרִית) = covenant, pact, treaty of alliance. (This is the source of the Yiddish word bris = covenant of circumcision.)

After the flood, God tells Noah and his descendants not to eat the blood in animal meat, and not to shed the blood of humans.  Then God declares a covenant with all future humans and animals on earth—without making it contingent on humans following the rules about blood.

And I, here I am, raising up my berit with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you—with birds, with beasts, and with everything living on the earth with you …I raise up my berit with you, and I will not cut off all flesh again by the waters of the flood, and never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth. (Genesis 9:9-11)

God makes a third, and last, unconditional covenant in this week’s Torah portion, Lekh-lekha (“Get yourself going!”).

Abraham hears God’s call at age 75, leaves his home in Aram, and travels to Canaan, where he is landless and childless (though he has a wife, a nephew, and a large number of men working for him). God promises Abraham three times that he will have a whole nation of descendants, from his own loins, and they will possess the land of Canaan.

Abraham-looks-at-starsThe third time, Abraham points out that he is still childless. God shows him the stars, and says his descendants will be just as numerous. The sight of the stars moves Abraham, and he trusts God on this. Then God repeats that Abraham will possess the land of Canaan, and Abraham questions God again:

God, my master, how will I know that I will take possession of it? (Genesis 15:8)

God responds by changing the promise into a covenant. And since words alone do not seem to be enough for Abraham any more, God does not just “raise up” or establish a covenant through words, but “cuts” a covenant in a ritual used for centuries among ancient people in the Middle East, including Akkadians, Amorites, Hittites, Assyrians, and Arameans as well as Israelites.

In this ritual, two parties ratified a pact or treaty by slaughtering one or more animals and cutting each one in half. Surviving written documents include threats that if one of the parties does not uphold the agreement, he will be cut in half like the animal.

At some point, Israelites added a step to the ritual: after an animal was cut in two, someone walked between the pieces.

…the berit that they cut before Me: the calf that they cut in two and they passed between its pieces: the officers of Judah, and the officers of Jerusalem, the court officials, and the priests, and all the people of the land, the ones who passed between the pieces of the calf …(Jeremiah 34:18-19)

In this week’s Torah portion, God requests five animals, from the five species that are used later in the Torah for burnt offerings.

Take for me a three-year-old heifer and a three-year-old she-goat and a three-year-old ram and a turtledove and a young pigeon. And he took for [God] all these, and he cut them through the middle, and set each part opposite its fellow. But the birds he did not cut. (Genesis 9-10)

The 20th-century Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz claimed that Abraham placed the two uncut birds opposite one another, completing the path between the pieces. And God grants him a vision.

And the sun had set, and darkness happened, and hey!—a smoking tanur and a torch of fire, which passed between these cut pieces. On that day, God cut with Abraham a berit, saying: To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt up to the great river, the river Euphrates. (Genesis 15:17-18)

tanur (תַנּוּר) = fire-pot, brazier, oven, furnace.

In the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, God’s presence is often described in terms of smoke and fire. But imagine a disembodied smudge-pot and a torch passing between the pieces!

When God and Abraham cut a covenant, it is God who walks between the pieces.

This is God’s last unilateral covenant in the Hebrew Bible. The next covenant between God and Abraham, at the end of this week’s Torah portion, is conditional; God will multiply Abraham’s descendants if and only if every male in Abraham’s household is circumcised.

After that, covenants between God and humans are like Biblical covenants between two humans: the party with more power promises to protect the party with less power, on the condition that the weaker party remains loyal to his superior and follows the stipulated rules. In God’s case, people must obey various laws, observe holy days, and/or refrain from worshiping other gods as a condition for God’s favor and protection.

Why does God switch to conditional covenants? I think God is frustrated by what happens right after God cuts a covenant with Abraham.  His post-menopausal wife, Sarah, gives him her slave Hagar to produce a son for him; and instead of continuing to wait for a miraculous birth, Abraham cooperates. But God seems disappointed, and makes a new covenant with Abraham. Besides requiring circumcision as a condition, God specifies that Sarah must be the mother of the son who inherits the covenant, and says: I will bless her, and also give you a son from her. (Genesis 17:16)

From then on, God apparently does not trust humans to make their own arrangements without at least a few divine rules to guide them.

Today people make many conditional contracts with each other: for rent, for employment, for services. Some people also try to bargain with God, promising to do something they think God wants in exchange for a divine favor—as if God could be bribed.

There is also a widespread unconditional covenant between human beings today:  marriage. Our wedding rituals can be elaborate (though they do not feature cutting up animals and walking between the pieces). But at the heart of the ceremony, each person promises to be with and support the other (like God promising to favor and protect someone), regardless of what happens.

Today, Jewish circumcision is more like an unconditional covenant with God.  Infant boys are dedicated to the God of Israel through circumcision with no expectation that God will grant them fertility or any special favors in return.

But can you imagine God initiating a covenant with a human being today?  Can you imagine God raising up or cutting a covenant with you?

What would it be like?  Has it already happened, in some subtle way?

 

Noach: The Soother

October 21, 2014 at 2:26 pm | Posted in Noach | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

By the end of the first Torah portion in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, God regrets creating human beings, and decides to wipe them out. I offered theories about why God thought the human race was spoiled in two of my earlier blog posts: Noach: Spoiled, and  Bereishit: Inner Voices. This year, when I reread the Torah portion named after Noah—Noach in Hebrew—I wondered why such a discouraged God made one exception, and saved Noach and his immediate family from the flood.

Last week’s Torah portion ends: But Noach found favor in the eyes of God. (Genesis/Bereishit 6:8)

This week’s Torah portion, named after Noach, begins: These are the histories of Noach. Noach was a righteous man; in his generations, Noach walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)

Noach (נֹחַ) = Noah; an alternate spelling of noach נוֹחַ)), a form of the verb nuch (נוּח) = come down to rest, settle down.

The first appearance of the verb nuch in the Torah is when Noach’s ark comes to rest on Mount Ararat at the end of the flood in Genesis 8:4. This is also Noach’s turning point, when he finally begins (at the age of 600) to take some initiative: sending out the birds to test the water level, making an animal offering to God, and planting a vineyard.

Noah Leaving the Ark, by Sisto Badalocchio

Noah Leaving the Ark, by Sisto Badalocchio

Before the flood, God tells His favorite person, Noach, that people are evil and the whole world has been spoiled.  He gives Noach instructions for making a wooden ark, and says He will flood the earth and destroy all flesh—except for the few humans and animals on the ark.

(I used the pronoun “He” in case because the God character the Torah presents here is quite anthropomorphic, making sweeping generalizations and acting emotionally.)

Later in the Torah, when God tell His favorite person of the era that He is about to commit genocide, that person talks God out of it.  Abraham persuades God to refrain from burning up Sodom if there are even ten innocent people in the city. Moses persuades God to give the Israelites a second chance after they worship the Golden Calf.

But Noach is silent. After God has spoken to him, all the Torah says is: And Noach did everything that God commanded him; thus he did. (Genesis 6:22)

God tells Noach to load seven pairs of each of the ritually-pure animals on board, as well as one pair of each of the impure animals. Then He rephrases His plan, saying that He is going make a flood and wipe out everything standing on the face of the earth (Genesis 7:4).

Again, Noach is silent. The Torah repeats: And Noach did everything that God commanded him.

Both times, Noach makes no protest, but only does what God commands. So God floods the earth.

After the flood is over and Noach empties the ark, his first order of business is acting on the hint implied in God’s order to carry seven times as many of the animals that are ritually pure (according to the rules for purity laid out later, in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra).

Then Noach built an altar for God, and he took from all of the ritually-pure animals and from all of the ritually-pure birds; and rising-offerings went up [in smoke] on the altar. And God smelled the nichoach aroma, and God said to His heart:  I will not again draw back to curse the earth on account of the human, for the impulse of the human heart is bad in its youth … (Genesis/Bereishit, 8:20-21)

nichoach (נִיחֹחַ) = soothing or pleasing to a god. (The use of this word may be a play on Noach’s name, and may also imply that the god in question will be inclined to come down and rest its presence over the sacrifice.)

Noach’s action puts God in a better mood. God has another change of heart, and views the human condition more optimistically and rationally. According to classic commentary, God decides that it is only natural for children to act on their bad impulses, but adults can learn to control these impulses and be good. So God tells Himself not to overreact to human misdeeds again.

Why does the aroma of Noach’s offering soothe God?

Maybe the God character in the Torah, like other Canaanite gods, loves the smell of burning animals. This would explain why God favored Abel’s animal offering and rejected Cain’s plant offering. It would also explain why slaughtering and burning livestock was the primary method of worshiping God from the time of Genesis down to the fall of the second temple 70 BCE. God really liked that barbecue smell, so that’s what the Israelites gave Him.

On the other hand, maybe God provided Noach with excess ritually-pure animals because He remembered Cain and Abel’s spontaneous offerings, and wanted to make sure Noach had something to offer if he happened to feel spontaneous gratitude for being saved from the flood. The thick clouds of smoke from the combustion of more than 33 kinds of birds and beasts reassures God that Noach does, indeed, feel grateful. So God concludes that adults, at least, can feel and act on good impulses.

So have many commentators, from Philo of Alexandria in the first century C.E. to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in the 19th century. But I think both those commentators and the God character in the Torah still had more to learn about human psychology.

Why Noach Burned the Animals

I can imagine Noach acting purely out of fear of this God of wholesale destruction, who cares nothing about innocent children or animals. Noach might well be moved to burn as many animals as possible in the hope of forestalling the Destroyer’s next whimsy.

Another possibility is that Noach acts out of despair. When the flood begins, he had to hustle his own family and the animals he has collected into the ark, then keep everyone else out of it.  God closes the door into the ark, but perhaps Noach could still hear the cries of his own neighbors and the sobbing of frightened children.

When the flood waters sink, Noach would see not only mud and broken trees, but floating corpses. He goes ahead and sacrifices the excess ritually-pure animals because he has figured out God wants him to. There is no point in disobeying God now. He wishes he had spoken up earlier, before the earth was destroyed.  Did God leave another hint that he missed? Could he have done anything to save more people? Now it is too late, and Noach has to live with himself.

He listens to God’s speech giving instructions for living in the new world, and promising that a flood will never destroy the earth again. But I think Noach is too depressed to care.  As soon as God is done talking, Noach plants a vineyard. In the next sentence, he gets drunk.

Some commentators criticize Noach for his silent obedience. But when I reflect on my own life, I know that the number of times I spoke up in favor of justice or mercy were few in comparison with all the times I felt powerless and kept my mouth shut. When the person in authority has absolute power and does not show compassion, it is hard to risk a loss of acceptance, loss of a job, or even loss of one’s life. I can only feel sorry for Noach.

The most frightening thing about the Torah portion Noach is that the person in authority is a god, a god who gets carried away by egotistical emotions and has only a primitive sense of justice. Even today, natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions can be taken as evidence of a morally deficient god.

That’s why, when I write about these parts of the Torah, I often refer to “the God character”. The anthropomorphic character that the Torah stories refer to by various names of God is simply not the same as the creator of the universe; or the theologians’ omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being; or the essence and totality of existence; or even the mysterious unknown we sometimes sense with our non-rational minds.

Yet we can still learn from Torah stories in which the God character not only creates and tests and destroys human beings, but also learns from them. There is a God character inside each of our psyches, as well as a Noach, and an Abraham, and maybe even a Moses.

Vayeira & Noach: Drunk and Disorderly

October 16, 2013 at 8:08 pm | Posted in Noach, Vayeira | Leave a comment
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As I read the book of Genesis/Bereishit again this year, I feel sorry for the characters who try to rise to the challenge of walking with God, but are just too limited to keep up. Two of those who fall by the wayside are Noah and Lot, who both attempt to do the right thing, then collapse into drink and incest after they see their worlds destroyed.

Noah begins by following all of God’s directions; he sees God destroy all life on land with the over-the-mountaintop flood. Abraham’s nephew Lot begins by offering hospitality to strangers in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And he saw”). He sees the strangers, who are actually messengers from God, destroy the city of Sodom and the land around it.

After their respective catastrophes are over, and it is time to build a new life, both men think only about getting drunk.

And Noah began to be the man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. And he drank some of the wine, and he became drunk, and vayitgal in the middle of his tent. And Cham, the father of Canaan, saw the erat aviv and he told his two brothers outside. (Genesis/Bereishit 9:20-22)

vayitgal = he uncovered himself, exposed himself

erat aviv = nakedness of his father

Noah plans his drunkenness with the foresight of an alcoholic who hides stashes of liquor in strategic places. He has to wait a long time, through planting and harvesting and fermentation, before he gets his first drink after the flood. Although the Torah does not report Noah’s feelings, I imagine he is haunted by the deaths of everyone he knew outside his own immediate family of eight. Perhaps he dreams of children drowning. Perhaps he wishes he had said something to change God’s mind, or found some way to rescue more people.

I suspect that Noah cannot find a way to live with this knowledge and move forward. So he opts to escape into an altered state of consciousness, or unconsciousness.

After becoming drunk, Noah uncovers his nakedness in the middle of his tent. A modern reader might wonder what is so bad about lying down naked in the privacy of your tent—even if one of your sons barges in and accidentally sees you.

But in the Torah, to “uncover the nakedness” of someone is a euphemism for a sexual act. The book of Leviticus/Vayikra devotes thirteen verses to listing close relatives whose nakedness you must not uncover, using the same words for “uncovering” and “nakedness” as the passage above.

The implication is that Noah and his son Cham (whose name means “heat”) are guilty of some illicit sexual act. Furthermore, Noah begins it, by “uncovering himself”. Yet Noah shifts all the blame to his son.

And Noah woke up from his wine, and he knew what his youngest son had done to him. (Genesis 9:24)

Noah expresses his anger at Cham by cursing Cham’s son Canaan. Alas, it is a common human reaction to reject your own guilt by lashing out at someone else.

In this week’s Torah portion, Lot and his daughters act out a different version of the drunken incest theme.

Lot, like Noah, means well. His story begins with a good deed; when two messengers from God, disguised as ordinary men, come to the city of Sodom, Lot goes out of his way to give them hospitality and treat them with respect and kindness—just as his uncle Abraham did in the previous scene in this week’s Torah portion. After Lot has brought the strangers home and fed them, the men of Sodom converge on Lot’s house and demand that he bring out his guests, so that they can “know” them.

Just as it never occurs to Noah to question God’s plan to wipe out the earth, it never occurs to Lot that there might be an alternative to sacrificing two people to the mob. Since his two guests are out of the question, Lot steps outside and offers the would-be rapists his two virgin daughters instead.

Maybe Lot is so terrified of his neighbors that he cannot think straight. But we can still question his impulse to sacrifice his daughters—and perhaps after the crisis is over, Lot is tormented by remembering his own behavior.

The mob outside ignores Lot’s proposed substitution of rape objects, and crowd forward to break down the door. The messengers from God save the day (or night) by pulling Lot inside and blinding the men outside. Then they tell Lot that God has sent them to destroy the whole city, and they order Lot to flee with his family.

Lot panics, and at dawn he is still dithering in his house. The messengers grab him, his wife, and their two daughters by the hand and lead them outside the city. They tell Lot to save himself by escaping to the mountain, without stopping or looking back.

When God rains sulfur and fire down from the heavens, Lot’s wife looks back and turns into a pillar of salt, but Lot hurries on. He settles into a cave on the mountain with his two daughters.

And the elder said to the younger: Our father is old, and there is no man on the earth to marry us as the way of all the earth. Come, we will give our father a drink of wine, and we will lie down with him, and we will keep alive seed from our father. So they gave their father wine to drink that night, and the elder came, and she lay down with her father, and he did not know when she was lying down or when she was getting up. (Genesis 19:31-33)

They repeat the procedure the next night, with the younger daughter as the seed collector. And once again the Torah claims Lot did not know when she was lying down or when she was getting up. Both women become pregnant, as they planned.

Many commentators have pointed out that preserving a man’s lineage is a high value in the Torah, and concluded that Lot’s daughters were doing the right thing. But if incest were truly the right behavior in their situation, they would simply ask their father to cooperate, without resorting to wine. Lot may not have read the Torah’s prohibition against “uncovering the nakedness of your father”, but he obviously knows that incest, like mistreating a stranger, is wrong.

The Torah appears to view Lot as innocent of incest by reason of unconsciousness. Yet it is Lot’s decision to keep drinking the wine until he passes out; even two strong young women could not force it down his throat.

And where did the wine come from? The Midrash Rabbah, a collection of commentary from Talmudic times, speculates that either the Sodomites stored wine in distant mountain caves, or the wine appeared miraculously. However, I agree with modern commentator Jonathan Kirsch that Lot probably grabs some wine when they pass through the village of Zoar on the way to the mountain. Like Noah, Lot would anticipate a need for escape from sanity after the catastrophe. And as in Noah’s story, the Torah blames Lot’s subsequent sexual misdeed on his children.

It is easy for me to judge both Noah and Lot harshly. But if God gave me orders, would I have the imagination or the courage to talk back? If I were faced with a mob of evil men, would I have the imagination or the courage to divert them safely? I have lots of imagination—except when it comes to my own problems. I’m learning courage, but I still prefer avoidance.

If all my friends, most of my family, and every familiar thing in my life were suddenly wiped out, would I have the imagination and courage to build a new life from nothing? I think I would, but how do I know?

When life becomes unbearable, do I stick with reality and avoid any drugs of escape? Cookies don’t count, do they?

When something bad happens between two people, do I duck responsibility by blaming it on the other guy? Never—except for when I am fixated on escaping the situation.

As I read the book of Genesis/Bereishit again this year, I feel sorry for the characters who try to rise to the challenge of walking with God, but are just too limited to keep up. I might be one of them.

Lekh-Lekha (and Bereishit): Giving Directions

October 9, 2013 at 11:02 am | Posted in Bereishit, Lekh Lekha, Noach | 2 Comments
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For me, every story in the book of Genesis/Bereishit is another fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And the God who speaks to individual people, from Adam to Jacob, is like a human teacher trying to prod people into making conscious choices and moral judgments.

Like other animals, we humans make most of our decisions automatically, out of instinct and habit. Sometimes we stop to solve a practical problem or an intellectual puzzle. But only rarely do we stop to solve a moral problem. When we do become aware of a moral issue, and of our ability to choose between good and evil actions, I think we are tasting another fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

The anthropomorphic God in Genesis often talks to Himself, debating what to do next. He also talks to human characters, asking them questions, telling them His plans, blessing and cursing them, making covenants with them, and giving them directions.

“God” tries out several methods for giving directions. In the second creation story, “God” makes a single human out of dirt and breathes life into it. After placing the human (ha-adam) in the garden of Eden, the God character gives it an instruction.

figGod tzivah the human, saying: From every tree of the garden, certainly tokheil. But from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, not tokhal; for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die. (Genesis 2:16-17)

tzivah = commanded, ordered, directed.

tokheil, tokhal = you will eat, you shall eat, you should eat, you could eat, you may eat, you can eat, you are going to eat, you must eat.

It is impossible to translate this passage literally, because biblical Hebrew has only one verb form for action that has not yet happened. Is “God” telling the human “you must not eat” from the tree of knowledge, and if you do, you will be punished with death? Or is “God” saying “you could not eat” from it without becoming mortal?  Either translation is correct.

The God character’s motivation in giving this order is also open to interpretation. Classical commentary assumes “God” wants the human to stay in the garden, in a state of moral ignorance, and therefore after the female and male humans eat the fruit, they are punished for disobeying orders. I think “God” points out the Tree of Knowledge in order to show the adam, the solo and sexless human, that it can act of its own free will, and gain knowledge. But the adam passively follows orders, and nothing changes. I can imagine the God character wondering what it will take to get the humans to make a choice and acquire a sense of good and evil, so He can remove them from Eden and place them in the real world! “God” solves the problem by splitting the human it into male and female persons, and inventing the snake to make the female human think.

The next person in the Torah to get moral training is Cain, who gets upset when God shows a preference for Abel’s offering over his. Perhaps because reverse psychology did not work well with Adam, “God” avoids anything that sounds like an order when He first addresses Cain.

Cain, by Henri Vidal, detail

Cain, by Henri Vidal, detail

 

And God said to Cain: Why are you making yourself angry, and why has your face fallen? Is it not so: if you do good, [there is] uplifting; but if you do not do good, wrongdoing waits at the door, and its desire is for you. Yet you can rule over it. (Genesis 4:6-7)

Cain does not get the hint, and in a fit of rage kills his brother Abel.

In the story of Noah, the God character tries a different approach.

God said to Noah: The end of all flesh is coming before Me, because the earth is filled with violence on account of them, and here I am, the one Who destroys the earth.  Make for yourself a floating-container of gofer wood; you shall make the floating-container compartmented, and you shall cover it inside and outside with caulking. (Genesis 6:13-14)

If what “God” wants is for Noah to obey orders, His new style works. Noah simply follows orders, and makes no independent decisions until after the flood. But commentators have wondered for millennia whether Noah’s mechanical obedience is actually what “God” wants. (See my post last week, Noach: Righteous Choices.) What if “God” is hoping that Noah will propose an alternative, the way Abraham does later when “God” announces He will destroy Sodom and Gommorah?

abraham-looks-at-starsThis week’s Torah portion, Lekh-lekha, begins with the God character’s first direction to Abraham.

God said to Abraham: Lekh-lekha, away from your land, and away from your home, and away from the house of your father, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great people, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so it will become a blessing. (Genesis 12:1-2)

Lekh = Go!

-lekha = yourself, for yourself, to yourself.

Here the God character’s order specifies what Abraham should leave behind, but gives no details about the future he is walking into. What “God” does communicate is that this move is important for Abraham, not just for God. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) interpreted Lekh-lekha as “Go for yourself”, i.e. for your own sake. The Zohar (a 13th-century kabbalistic text) interpreted it as “Go to yourself”, i.e. recreate yourself as a new individual, separate from your past.

All the promises of blessing, while non-specific, also serve to let Abraham know that going to the new land will be for his own benefit. This is the first time in the Torah that “God” promises a reward for obeying His directions.

Abraham responds to the divine direction by leaving home for good, as instructed. But he takes some initiative and prepares for his own future by bringing along his wife, nephew, servants, and livestock.

Since the voice of God does not even tell him which way to head when he leaves his father’s house in Charan, Abraham chooses to travel west into Canaan. Only after he has reached Shechem, well inside Canaan, does “God” appear to him and say: To your offspring I will give this land. (Genesis 12:7)

The God character’s method of giving partial directions, promising an eventual reward, and leaving the rest up to the human being seems to be the most successful approach so far. Abraham responds by leaving his old familiar habits behind, and making new choices.

Today, few people hear God giving them direct instructions in Biblical Hebrew. But I can imagine the God character in these stories as an inner voice from the human subconscious, struggling to be heard properly.

There are many ways for a human being to get stuck and wait passively for change, instead of looking for a good action and bravely doing it. At times in my life I have been like the adam, obeying orders without raising questions, avoiding any potential conflict. I had to reach a certain level of misery before an inner voice from God’s snake reminded me that it would not kill me to pick the fruit and liberate myself, to choose my own course and act.

At times in my life I have been like Cain, feeling as though I am at the mercy of a bad desire. Yet eventually I hear the divine hint that I can master the desire, and choose to do good.

Other times, I feel overwhelmed, drowned, by the demands of other people and by the way the world works. I want to make my own little floating container and hide in it. But my conscience nags at me, reminding me that I cannot hide in an ark without bringing my family and hordes of hungry animals with me. God wants engagement with the world.

And yes, periodically I have heard an inner call to leave my familiar but not-so-good life, and set out for an unknown destination and destiny, like Abraham. So far, responding to that voice has led to blessings.

May we all be blessed to listen to our inner “God” voice, and never lose the taste of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

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