Noach: Righteous Choices

October 1, 2013 at 11:32 am | Posted in Noach | 2 Comments
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This is the story of Noah: Noah was a man of tzaddik; he was blameless in his generations; Noah walked with God. (Genesis/Bereishit 6:9)

tzaddik = right conduct, lawfulness, innocence; a righteous person.

In the Talmud, a man is called a tzaddik if he devotes his life to Torah study and prayer. For the Chassidim in Eastern Europe, a tzaddik was a holy man so esteemed by God that he could work miracles. Some commentary reads these meanings of the word tzaddik back into Noah’s story, but since the Torah never shows Noah studying, praying, or acting like a holy miracle-worker, I think Noah is merely innocent and lawful, avoiding chamas (violence) even though everyone around him is doing it.

At the end of last week’s Torah portion, God regrets creating humankind, because of the abundant badness of the human on earth, that the shape of every idea of his heart was only bad all the time. (Genesis 6:5) (See my post last week, Bereishit: Inner Voices.)

Since Noah is the best human being available, God speaks to him at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Noach (Noah” or “resting”).

And God said to Noah: The end of all flesh is coming before me, because violence has filled the earth on account of them, and here I am, their destroyer of the earth. Make for yourself a tevah of gofer wood. (Genesis 6:13-14)

tevah = floating vessel, “ark”. (A different word from aron = chest, “ark”, where Moses stores the tablets of the Torah.)

gofer = ? (This is the only occurrence of the word in the whole Hebrew bible, and its meaning is unknown.)

God gives Noah detailed instructions on how to build the tevah, explains that It will address the problem of human violence by wiping away everything ion earth (except the tevah) with a vast flood, and tells Noah to collect what will go inside the tevah: a pair of every kind of animal; Noah and his wife, sons, and daughters-in-law; and food for everybody.

And Noah did so; everything that God commanded him, thus he did. Then God said to Noah: Enter, you and all your household, into the tevah, because in you I have seen tzaddik before Me in this generation. (Genesis 6:22-7:1)

It sounds as if God approves of Noah’s passive obedience. Yet commentators through the ages have wondered why Noah does not try to talk God out of the Flood, the way Abraham tries to talk God out of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah by saying perhaps there are some innocent people among the wicked.

Most of the commentary I have read falls into two camps. One camp considers Noah either a failed prophet (because he did not warn anyone to repent) or a failed tzaddik in the Chassidic sense (because he did not ask God to decree a different fate for the world). The other camp argues that God must have asked Noah to prophesy in an unrecorded conversation, and Noah must have done his best, while building the tevah, to warn people about the flood and urge them to repent before it was too late.

But the commentary that alarms me the most comes from the 19th-century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch wrote that performing God’s will is what matters; acting on the basis of your own judgment is of secondary and uncertain importance. So although Noah could have done other things, he was correct in doing exactly what God commanded, and no more.

I would say that if God only wants humans to do as they are told, God had no reason to plant the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden in the first place. Yet God not only places the Tree, but points it out to Adam by warning him not to eat from it. Then when Adam obediently avoids it, God creates Eve and the talking snake, so the humans finally eat. The taste of knowledge of good and bad gives humans have the ability to form opinions, and choose between them. Though we usually act out of habit and instinct, we have the ability to make new and creative choices.

Some rabbis have argued that the most desirable outcome is when a human deliberately chooses to do exactly what God wants. But sometimes there is a difference in the Torah between what God says and what God wants. On several occasions God “tests” (nasah) people to see what they will choose to do. For example, God tests Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering—but when Abraham binds his son on an altar and raises his knife, God intervenes to save Isaac’s life. It was only a test, and in a real test you do not tell the subject everything you want.

So when God tells Noah to build and supply the tevah before the flood wipes out the earth, is that really all God wants Noah to do? Or is God testing him, to see whether Noah will warn people to repent, or even propose a different solution to God?

Suppose Hirsch is right, and God only wants us to choose to follow explicit directions. That not only makes the relationship between humans and God uninteresting, it also leaves us stranded when we have to make independent decisions that are not explicitly covered by the 613 rules in the Torah. The tradition of Jewish oral law tries to fill the gap, but it still cannot cover everything. Human beings often find themselves in situations where they need to figure out the best course of action for themselves.

Thank God!  I believe we humans shine when we discover, or invent, good ideas that nobody considered before. Choosing to follow God’s orders is a virtue of sorts. But we are blessed with the ability to rise above Noah’s level of virtue, and improve the world in ways the Torah never envisioned. Depending on how you define “God”, this might be what God really wants.

In my own lifetime, I have seen great progress in granting status, rights, and respect to people in groups that were subjugated for millennia, including women, people outside the traditional heterosexual model, and outsiders from different ethnic groups and countries. We still have farther to go, and some parts of the world lag far behind, but we have created a good path. The Torah merely assumes these groups will always be inferior, and offers a few paltry laws to protect the members of some groups within their inferior status. Thanks to our God-given abilities, humans are now working on a better vision.

The Torah also promotes war, while alluding to a distant future when war will disappear because everyone will worship the same god. But we can do better than that, thanks to our taste for knowing good from bad, our ability to transcend our habits and instincts and make choices, our creative minds, and our power to rise above ourselves to speak as prophets or tzaddikim. Someday humans may achieve an era of peace better than the one imagined in the Bible!

May it be God’s will … but most of all, may it become our will.

Noach: Spoiled

October 17, 2012 at 11:32 am | Posted in Noach | 2 Comments

Noah’s ark is a favorite theme for children’s illustrators. Who can resist the animals climbing into, or out of, the ark in pairs? But the larger story is unnerving for adults: God decides to wipe out all life on earth because humans have “spoiled” it, and the most righteous man around makes no protest. His name, and the name of this week’s Torah portion, is Noach in Hebrew.

God saw the land and hey! it had been spoiled, because all flesh had spoiled its way upon the land. And God said to Noah: The end of all flesh is coming before Me, because the land is filled with violence on account of them, so hey! –I am spoiling them along with the land. Make for yourself an ark … (Genesis/Bereishit 6:12-6:14)

shicheit = spoiled, ruined, corrupted

This sounds like a small child wailing, “They spoiled my toys!  Now everything is ruined! I’m going to kill them all, and wipe out the whole world! But me and my friends, we’ll build a boat and escape …”

Is God actually being childish in this passage? Is the Flood an overreaction? Or is humanity in this story irredeemable? And is there any reason for wiping out all the other living things on the land?

One clue about the people of Noah’s generation is that the Torah calls them neither “humanity” (adam) nor “men” (anashim), but “all flesh” (kol basar). In my blog post last year, “Bereishit & Noach: All Flesh”, I suggested that the relationship between flesh and spirit in those early humans is spoiled; people’s spirits are unable to master their physical cravings. In the previous Torah portion, God creates the human out of two materials: dirt and the divine breath. Body and soul. Flesh and spirit. By Noah’s time, according to traditional commentary, the desires of human “flesh” have taken over. People think only of gratifying their physical appetites, and the desires of their spirits disappear.

According to some commentary, the people of Noah’s generation avoid having children, so they can devote more time to their own animal pleasures. Modern commentator Avivah Gottleib Zornberg argues that the real problem is the narcissism of these pleasure-seekers. If someone has no curiosity, no interest in other people, then love and kindness are impossible. I would add that if you do not care about other people, then you will speak and act with violence (chamas) whenever you feel like it (and believe you can get away with it).

According to the Torah, before the Flood all humans are wallowing in selfish sensuality, their souls beyond recovery, except for Noah (and possibly the other seven people God allowed on the ark: Noah’s wife, sons, and daughters-in-law). Noah is not a paragon; the Torah portion opens with this description:

These are the histories of Noah: Noah was a righteous man–he was unblemished in his generations–Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)

In other words, compared to everyone else at the time, Noah is good. Presumably he retains the proper balance between his spirit and flesh, paying enough attention to his divine side to “walk with God”. But he never questions God’s plan to wipe out all life on earth. He is deficient in compassion, yet there is hope for him or his descendants.

So God decides not to give up on the human experiment altogether, but instead to destroy the failures, and start over again with Noah and his family. Then why does God choose to flood the earth, and wipe out millions of land animals and birds along with the irredeemable humans?

Traditional commentary claims that God made all the other animals, and everything else on earth, only for the sake of the human. Non-human life on earth has no value in itself. When humans use other living things for corrupt purposes, they have to be destroyed, too.

To me, this opinion demonstrates a lack of interest in, or curiosity about, the rest of the world. When a  commentator views other animals as merely tools for humans to use in carrying out God’s laws, he is committing the same error as the antediluvian man who views other animals as merely tools to use in the pursuit of selfish pleasure.

This is the kind of selfish attitude that leads people today to “spoil” nature: to pollute the air and water, to cut down forests, to disregard extinctions of species, and to do nothing about global climate change. They focus only on their own immediate desires, and take no interest in the earth and its life.

Clearly, human beings are still spoiled, and still spoiling the earth. In the Torah, after the Flood is over and Noah makes an animal sacrifice, God says to God’s heart:

Never again will I draw back to curse the earth (adamah) for the sake of the human (adam), because the shapings of the human heart are evil from its adolescence; and never again will I strike down every living being, as I have done. (Genesis 8:21)

God reseeds the earth with human beings who are still mixtures of dirt and divine breath, body and soul. God continues to grant humans free will, and accepts that sometimes adolescents and adults, people who are old enough to know better, will nevertheless choose evil. God’s experiment with humanity continues.

Today, we do not need an anthropomorphic God to create a flood. We humans have the ability to strike down every living being, all on our own. We are the ones melting the glaciers and ice caps, threatening to flood the earth. I just hope we have not completely spoiled it.

Bereishit & Noach: All Flesh

October 27, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Noach | Leave a comment

Light and dark, good and bad, heaven and earth, spirit and matter—the narratives as well as the religious laws in the Torah often speak in terms of contrasts.  In this universe of contrasting pairs, humans are a unique combination of the heavenly and the earthly.  This concept of humankind begins in the second chapter of Genesis:

And God formed the adam out of dirt from the adamah, and blew into its nostrils the soul of life, and the adam became a living being.  (Genesis/Bereishit 2:7)

adam = human, humankind

adamah = ground, soil

Humans are a combination of dirt and God’s breath—a vivid way of saying we are a combination of body and soul (in the English idiom), or basar (flesh) and ruach (spirit) in the biblical Hebrew idiom.

basar = flesh; muscle; all the soft tissue of a human or other animal, the part that can decay, be eaten, or be burned up; all mortal creatures

ruach = wind; spirit; temperament; divine movement or impulse

The word ruach appears right at the beginning of the Torah, at the beginning of the first creation story:

…and darkness was over the face of the deep, and the ruach of God was hovering over the face of the waters.  (Genesis/Bereishit 1:2)

The word basar (flesh) first appears when God divides the primordial human into two sides, and refashions them into two independent creatures:

Then God cast the human into a supernal sleep, and took one of its side, and closed the basar.  And God built the side that It took from the human into a woman, and It brought her to the human.  And the human said:  This time, it is bone from my bone, and basar from my basar; this one will be called woman, because this one was taken from man. (Genesis/Bereishit 2:21-23)

Eleven generations and about a thousand years later, God observes that the human combination of flesh and spirit has led to a lot of bad thoughts and actions.

And God saw that the badness of the human on the earth was great, and all the tendencies of its inner considerings were only bad, every day.  (Genesis 6:5)

How were they so bad?  The next Torah portion, Noach (a resting place, serenity; as a proper name, “Noah”) gives us only a hint.

God looked at the earth, and hey! it had become spoiled, because all basar had spoiled its ways upon the earth.  So God said to Noah:  “An end of all basar is coming, because they have filled the earth with outrage; so here I am, about to spoil the earth.”  (Genesis 6:12-6:13)

shicheit = spoil, corrupt, damage, ruin, bring down

When God warns Noah about the flood, God predicts the end of  “all flesh”.  But when God proceeds to flood the earth, the Torah describes the end of the ruach  of humans and the other land animals.

Everything that had the soul of the ruach of life from God’s nostrils, out of all that was on dry land, died.  …and God wiped them away from the earth, and kept safe only Noah and those with him in the ark.  (Genesis 7:22-23)

Apparently the “badness”, or evil, does not lie exclusively in either the flesh (“dirt” or inanimate matter that God brought to life) or the spirit (ruach, wind, God’s own movement within our inner selves).  The badness may be in a spoiled relationship between flesh and spirit.

Medieval Jewish commentators said the problem was sexual immorality (one of their favorite topics).  The 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained that a righteous person refrains from sexual immorality by subordinating the physical, sensual drives of the flesh to the divine will of God’s spirit.  If, on the other hand, the spirit is subordinate to the flesh, then a person’s thoughts and actions will tend toward immorality, and be “spoiled”.

Jews have little or no monastic tradition, and even medieval rabbis carefully distinguished between morally desirable sex and immoral sex.  Today some of us might draw the line in a different place, but we still draw a line, and expect a decent human being to have enough self-control to refrain from immoral sexual acts.

And sex is not the only area in life where humans experience a conflict between the flesh and the spirit.  For example, sometimes we crave food or drugs that we know will have bad results for ourselves and other humans who depend upon us; if our flesh is not subordinate to our spirit, we act on our cravings.  Sometimes we have trouble giving up a material comfort our “flesh” is attached to, for the sake of a higher good.

It’s easy to condemn other people for not trying hard enough, when their spirit loses the struggle with an undesirable desire of the flesh.  But when I look deeper, I see people who find dieting manageable condemning those who try to diet without success; people who already have sexual self-control condemning those who succumb to temptation; people who can afford to buy hybrid electric cars condemning those who drive old gas-guzzlers.

In the Torah, God condemns and wipes out the whole human race except for Noah and his immediate family, and throws in millions of animals for good measure.  After the flood subsides, Noah sacrifices the excess animals that God included in the ark at the last minute, in Chapter 7.  By building an altar and completely burning up their flesh, Noah demonstrates that he values God more than animals, spirit more than flesh.

And God smelled the soothing fragrance, and God said to Its heart:  I will not again denigrate the ground (adamah) on account of the human (adam), for the tendencies of the inner human are bad from its youth; so I will not again strike down everything that lives, as I have done.  (Genesis, 8:21)

So God decides to continue the experiment, continue with these strange combinations of physical flesh and divine spirit that we call adam, humankind.  God pulls back from condemnation because of the mere scent of a better relationship between flesh and spirit.

If God can do it in the Torah, maybe we can do it here on earth.  We humans all have bad tendencies, because we are all hybrid creatures of flesh and spirit.  My most troublesome bad tendency may be different from yours.  But I pray that I will notice what is good in you, and in myself ; that I will refrain from the impulse to condemn; and that I will become a humane human.

Noach: Babble and Meaning

April 12, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Posted in Noach | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on October 5, 2010.)

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 is  serious enough for God to investigate and correct 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 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?  I welcome your comments.

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