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.

 

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.

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.

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