This week we read the second portion in the book of Beresheet, the second portion in the Torah. We are also celebrating the New Moon of Markheshvan, -- the new month, which is the second month of the Jewish year. Behind us is a month chuck full of holidays, of religious intensity, of spiritual agitation, of personal involvement in God and the community. Behind us are the two days of Rosh Hashanah, with the moving melodies of the "thirteen attributes," repeated three times before the taking out of the Torah; the night of reckoning, the time of the hauntingly familiar "kol nidrey" chant; the repeated and repeating, jarring and pulsating sounds of the shofar, alarming and announcing a time of reckoning and judgement. Behind us is the day of fast, the time when we go out of our very nature, leaving our physicality behind as we attempt not only to communicate and commune with God, but actually to join Him and be one with Him, to share His burden and assume a partnership in the management of creation. Behind us is the frenzy of construction, began immediately after the last blast of the shofar -- the construction of our temporary shelter, our Sukkah. Forsaken are the etrog and lulav -- symbols of our frail and temporary body, the dwelling place of our eternal soul, the image of God in which we have all been created. Gone is the memory of ancient glory and long past martyrdom commemorated in the celebration of Shmini Atzeret and the Yizkor service; and even the joy of our heritage, Simkhat Torah, when we abandon ourselves to pure thanksgiving to God Almighty for giving us the privilege to learn His teachings and walk in His path in the yearly cycle of reading the Torah -- even that is now past, the scrolls are rolled back, the first portion has been duly read, creation has occurred, God has made man in His own image, and before us is the month of Markheshvan, which will be followed by Kislev -- a veritable desert, devoid of holidays until we reach Khanukkah. It is in this context that we look at the portion of the Torah which we read this week, the portion of Noakh.
Ah, I can hear a sigh of relief coming from the congregation. A smile comes to our face as we contemplate the namesake of this portion. We may not all remember chapter and verse on this subject, but we know our hero Noakh. "These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence." [Gen. 7:9-11] For years I read these verses, and I studied the meaning of each sentence. Why does the text say, "Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation?" Does this mean that in another generation he would NOT have been "righteous," or does it mean that in another, less violent generation, he would have been an even greater "tzadik?"
Well, this past week, and in the last month, during our celebrations and consecrations, I discerned a new lesson, one that comes from the very name of our hero. You see, Noakh is a name that comes from the root "nakh" in the Hebrew -- and that root word means 'rest.' The extra vowel changes the meaning from 'rest' to 'comfy' or 'at ease.' I came to realize, as I was studying and contemplating this portion in the Torah, that this man's name is at one and the same time a description of his character -- and an indictment against him. The text of the Torah says, "Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence." Is this a time to be "noakh," which is to say comfy or at ease? I ask you! Does our hero deserve accolades?
I am reminded of a story about the captain of the Titanic, who noticed, in the midst of the frenzy of passengers trying to escape his sinking ship, a man who was seating calmly on a deck chair smoking his evening pipe. He walked over to the man and said, "excuse me, sir -- it looks like this ship is sinking. Don't you think you ought to do something about it?" The man, a great British pragmatist, looked at the captain in surprise and replied, "why should I? I own no stock in your steamship company!"
Thus it is with Noakh. Not only does he sit on that deck chair -- he goes ahead and builds his own lifeboat! The parable fits the occasion hand in glove! Here we have the situation -- the very earth is burning beneath his feet -- and he is an innocent righteous man! Did you ask yourself, how can anybody remain calm and innocent when the whole earth is being corrupted? But not Noakh! He rests easy... He owns no stock in 'S.S. Our World!'
And if this is true of Noakh, how about the rest of us? We are, you know, his descendants. We are his seed, and his character is part of our heritage -- I believe a part we need to overcome, to live down. Noakh would have fit in fine in our congregation, in our town, in our epoch. He would have come to services late and left early; he would have avoided any inconvenience caused by conflicts between the Jewish and secular calendars; he would have stayed away on second day of yom tov, and he would have shunned the crowds on Simkhat Torah... In his ease, in his comfort, he would have accepted his children's excuses, and forgiven them for not attending religious school, for missing required participation in services, for avoiding homework and serious consideration for the learning that the school is trying to pass on to the next generation. And when he would have discovered that of his three kids one became wicked, and another was empty of content and nothing more than a pleasure seeking, skin deep social butterfly -- he would have bragged about the third, exclaiming, "one out of three ain't too bad, now isn't it?" Only late at night, when he would have been alone and with his conscience not sufficiently anesthetized by the alcohol in his new wine, would he have bared his soul before God, to show how much of a failure he really knew himself to be, how little ease he really felt!
The great discovery I made this year is that Noakh is actually responsible for the flood! Because he was Noakh, easy, because he did not shout out to decry the violence, to protest the iniquity, to turn around the wrongdoers and protect the victims -- he brought about the flood! No wonder he turned to drink!
And we, his progeny -- we must not forget, and we must not allow ourselves the sin of taking it easy. It was not meant to be an easy life. God did not put us on this earth to pursue happiness -- He wished for us to toil in His garden, to be guardians and care-givers to His creatures. He wished for us to dedicate ourselves to His service -- and in this kind of a life find pleasure, find happiness. The easy times are transient and fleeting, as anyone will tell you. Each moment of bliss is paid for with a river of tears -- but the pleasure of God's service, alone, is a constant joy. The sons of Noakh, all of us, need to learn this. We need to etch upon our memory that "grandpa" was a good man, in his generation -- but that we must fashion ourselves into something much, much better, much loftier and much more creative and productive -- lest we find that we, too, become the generation of the flood. Amen
This week we read the second portion in the book of Beresheet, the second portion in the Torah. Last week we read the story of creation, and the portion ended with the following, "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord repented that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the birds of the air; for I repent that I have made them. And Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord." [Gen. 6:5-8] God was sorry that he had made man, even that he had made the earth. He was thinking of ready to destroy man and all creation. Yet he did not! Does the text tell us why he did not? No, it does not -- unless you take the last words in the above quote as His reason, "And Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord."
This week we begin our Torah reading with the words, "These are the generations of Noah; Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God. And Noah fathered three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, The end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth." [Gen. 6:9-13] God then proceeds to tell Noah to build an ark with which he will be able to preserve a sample of all life.
I want to explore with you for a moment the question of God's destruction of the earth and of the saving of Noakh. First, let us ask the question, why did God not destroy the earth when he first realized that "the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually?" I believe that the text tells us why: "And Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord." It was the very existence of Noakh that was such a comfort for God that he did not feel any immediate need to destroy the earth. However, something was added to the "wickedness of man was great in the earth," that made it unbearable for God -- and what was it? Again, the text tells us, quite clearly, in God's statement to Noakh, "The end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them."
What has changed from the first notice God makes of wickedness is that it is now joined with violence. God cannot abide this violence, and He makes up his mind to destroy the earth. The Mishnah, in Pirkey Avot, says, "Hillel used to say: Be thou of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, [be thou] one who loveth [ones fellow.] Creatures and bringeth them nigh to the Torah." [Avot 1:14]
Last year I studied the portion and concluded that Noakh was actually responsible for the flood! Because he was Noakh, which means easygoing, because he did not shout out to decry the violence, to protest the iniquity, to turn around the wrongdoers and protect the victims -- he brought about the flood! And I found comfort in thinking, "No wonder he turned to drink!" This year I am much more mellow, and I see Noakh in a whole different light. I see him as a prototype of Aaron, the priest, who loved peace and pursued it. I see him as the only thing that stood between God's total annihilation of all existence -- and our continued survival. I still don't think of him as a great hero -- but, "Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations."
And we, his progeny -- we must not forget who he was and how much more he could have been had he tried even a little bit, to bring humanity back to God's favor. God put us on this earth to pursue peace, to toil in His garden, to be guardians and care-givers to all His creatures, great and small. He wished for us to dedicate ourselves to His service -- and in this kind of a life find pleasure, find happiness. Aaron loved peace and pursued it -- but he knew right from wrong, and would not have allowed his enemies to get the better of him. Among the holy, be holy; among the faithful, be faithful. In the company of the wicked -- be careful! We need to etch upon our memory one more time that "grandpa" was a good man, in his generation, and knew how to stay out of trouble -- but that we must fashion ourselves into something much, much better, much loftier and much more creative and productive -- lest we find that we have learned nothing from Noakh and can therefore only repeat his mistakes. Amen
The reading in the Torah this week is the second portion in the book of Beresheet, the first of the Five Books of the Torah. Last week we read the story (or should I say stories) of creation, and the portion ended with the following words, "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord repented that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the birds of the air; for I repent that I have made them. And Noakh found grace in the eyes of the Lord." [Gen. 6:5-8] God was "sorry" that he had made man, even that he had created the earth. He was thinking that He is ready to destroy mankind and all creation. Yet he did not! Does the text tell us why he did not? Well, it does not -- unless you take the last words in the above quote as His reason, "And Noakh found grace in the eyes of the Lord."
This week our reading in the Torah begins with these words, "These are the generations of Noakh; Noakh was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God. And Noah fathered three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, The end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth." [Gen. 6:9-13]
God then proceeds to contact Noah and command him to build an ark with which he will be able to preserve a sample of all life: "So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out." [Gen. 6:14] Let us take a moment to explore and consider the question of God's plan to destroy the earth and save Noakh. It was the very existence of Noakh, as mentioned before, that was such a comfort for God that he did not feel any immediate need to destroy the earth. However, with time something changed, the "wickedness of man" became unbearable for God, as the text tells us, quite clearly, in God's statement to Noakh, "The end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them."
So the sages say that it was violence that turned the heart of God from the measure of pity and mercy to the measure of justice and law. "He that kills must in turn be killed..." But they ask, "was not Cain a killer? Was his transgression any less punishable with severity by a God of Justice?" And immediately they answer and say, "There is a great difference! Cain had no knowledge of death or of the consequence of his rage. The people of Noakh's generation knew."
There is a midrash that says that Noakh's neighbors said, "if we see him getting into his ark, we shall kill him and destroy his ark..." One is tempted to ask, why didn't they react violently against Noakh while he was building the ark? They must have seen him at his work. They must have asked him what he was building and why. It stands to reason that he would have told them what God told him, maybe he even attempted to franchise the blueprints of the ark... But there were no buyers. Why? Because the people of his generation lived for the moment. "Things are good now, and we need not concern ourselves with what will happen in some far off future."
Does that sound crazy? Does it sound as an implausible pattern of behavior for homo sapien? Think again... Think, not of Noakh and his generation but of our own generation. Think of the senseless violence that is so terribly common these days. Drive-by shootings in big cities like New York, Philadelphia and Chicago; road rage in California and Virginia; school mass murders in Colorado and Ohio -- not to mention wars in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands. "The land is filled with violence." Why? Because people don't care. Because they have lost the image of God in which they were created. That image of God is an aspect of immortality and eternity, right here on earth, which teaches us to care for His creation. When we care, He cares, too. When it matters to us, it matters to Him, and he does not wish to see it all end.
Why did Noakh find favor in the eyes of God? The sages say that it was because he believed in God's eternity. He lived in an age of violence and corruption and he envisioned a world of cleanliness and purity. When God came to him and offered him a way out of the world of the present, he grabbed the chance. Not once did he look back, not ever did he doubt God or question His words. He planned for the future by building his ark that God had commanded him to build, even though it made him the "joke of the neighborhood." He knew that the wicked generation would not allow him to survive -- that when the waters began to rise they would come after him and destroy him and his feeble attempt at survival -- yet his character did not allow him to quit!
The Torah text tells us that when the time came, what happened was, "Be'etzem hayom hazeh --On that very day Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, together with his wife and the wives of his three sons, entered the ark." [Gen. 7:13] The Hebrew word 'be'etzem' which is translated 'very' in "that very day" is not a 'simple' word that seems a little redundant, "that very day" instead of 'that day.' No, it is not a literary tool -- it is a significant message, telling us that they entered the ark in spite of the plan of that generation to do them harm. It tells us that there was principle and deliberation in their departure from the world around them, the violence of that generation -- to 'cross over' a turbulent ocean of death and destruction and arrive in the future. When one cares for the future, violence is no longer part of one's choices.
May the end of conflict, the termination of violence and the establishment of a time of peace based on the Love of God which is reciprocated by the love of mankind soon be established. Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya'ase shalom aleynu ve'al kol bri'ato -- May He who makes peace in His domain make peace for us and for all His creation.
Who is suffering from the unrest in the Middle East? The entire world, to be sure. Especially in this age of the global village, though it was not much different, only much slower to recognize, in earlier ages. What happens in any spot on earth has ramification for everyone on earth. A nuclear accident outside of Kiev in the Ukraine will cause radiation sickness in Melbourne, Australia; Riots in Johannesburg, South Africa, will make the price of a diamond engagement ring too high for a man in Oslo, Norway, preventing him from proposing marriage to a young woman he met in Brazil; and a man walking to synagogue in Chicago was hit with a stone by a young hood form the Sudan who heard a hate filled sermon on the internet from a mosque in Egypt. The Torah explains it by saying, And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. [Gen. 6:5]
This week we read in the Torah the portion of Noakh, which I am sure you all know and recognize at once: Noakh = ark = flood. Right away we ask ourselves, how could the Torah teach us the flood story? The story is not original with the Jewish Scriptures. Every ancient civilization has a flood story. Further, scientists tell us that there is not enough water on the earth to cover the whole face of the earth with sufficient liquid to submerge and asphyxiate all air breathing animals in existence. The Torah does not tell us about God teaching mankind mitzvot - a guideline for living - in the time before the flood, which leads ethical moralists to ask, how could God judge the earth and decree extinction when the accused was not given fair warning, when there was no law in the land?
Judaism does not ask this question, maybe because we start all our inquiry into Torah teaching with the given that God is just and good and loving. However, for those who would ask the above question we have a very straightforward answer. Man was equipped from creation with an innate knowledge of a natural law, which is the Law of God, and which was his birthright in the definition of mans creation: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; [Gen 1:26] What is this image and likeness if not the quality of awareness of creation and the obligation to act for its good, its best interest?
The flood, a common human experience, is an allegorical encounter between man and nature, to be sure. One must be aware of the impossibility of collecting all the species, breeds and varieties of living things that Noakh was commanded to bring into the Ark - and putting them all in one closed and contained area would have required divine protection of the kind that mankind has yet to see. Perhaps it is a precursor of Messianic times, when the lion and the lamb shall dwell in peace together. So survival, extinction, and the end of strife all merge and meld together in this parable or legend of dissolution, recreation, and final grace and salvation.
But I began with a current-event topic. The Middle East strife of the last month. You know the history of the conflict: No matter what the historical revisionists say, the facts are known and unchangeable. In 1867, as part of a world tour, the great American author, Mark Twain, visited the Holy Land, and wrote about it in his book, Innocent Abroad:
"...There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extend, not for 30 miles in either direction. There are two or three small clusters of Bedouin tents, but not a single permanent habitation. One may ride 10 miles, hereabouts, and not see 10 human beings. To this region one of the prophecies is applied: I will bring land into desolation; and your enemies which dwell therein shall be astonished at it... No man can stand here by deserted Ain Mallahah and say that the prophecy has not been fulfilled!
"Gray lizards, those heirs of ruin, of sepulchers and desolation, glided in and out among the rocks or still and sunned themselves. Where prosperity has reigned and fallen; where glory has flamed and gone out; where gladness was and sorrow is; where the pomp of life has been, and silence and death brood in its high places, there this reptile makes his home, and mocks at human vanity..." When my grandfather first came to the land in 1881, there were no villages between the port of Jaffa and the hill top city of David, Jerusalem - which was a back-waters little town of 25,000 more than half of whom were Jews. The entire Promised Land was part of a province of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which was called Southern Syria.
The Jewish people felt a draw to this land. As the Declaration of Independence of Israel states, The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.
After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.
I believe that it was Azam Pasha, an Arab statesman speaking for the Arab League, who responded to the United Nations General Assembly vote to create a Jewish state with the words, (I paraphrase from memory) Any attempt to carry out this resolution will result in a blood bath that will make the Mongol invasion of Europe seem like a walk in the park. The Arab nations unleashed a flood of hatred and violence that threatened to inundate the Jewish land. Did God bring about this flood? Do the Arabs have a right to complain if their flood ended up inundating them and causing them death and destruction? Who is suffering from the unrest in the Middle East? Close to 200 died in the last month and a half. Does the fact that most of the dead are Arabs matter? In the death of even one Israeli not enough to cry out to God for the injustice of it all? And does the brigand have a right to complain if his sharp sword cuts both ways? He who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword. Poetic truth, but no consolation to the victims!
The two worst calamities in Jewish experience, in retrospect, might be thought to be the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome, and the Holocaust. We know fully well that the first was caused by Sinat Khinam, baseless hatred - Jews hating Jews and treating them with enmity and violence. The second was caused by blindness and miscalculation. To be sure, the evil protagonist was Nazism; however, the Jews who did not grab the chance to establish their independent nation at the time of nation-making after the great war must share the blame. The holocaust could have been averted, or its magnitude diminished had there been a response to the call to come to Zion and reclaim it - a call issued long before Hitler cast his evil shadow over the lands of Jewish dispersion. God established the earth and set its laws of nature and of man. The sun must rise and the sun must set; the tide comes in and rolls out; the snow falls and covers the hills, and in spring the snow melts and the rivers overflow. Floods are natures way of cleaning house.
Man was given a spark of the divine, to understand right from wrong and choose life. He who tempts nature gets swept by the flood. So it has been since the beginning - so it shall continue to be. Golda Meir said in one of the last interviews she gave (and again I paraphrase from memory), the thing I cannot forgive the Arabs is not that they tried to kill us, but that they forced us to teach our children how to kill them in self defense... Let us never forget where the cycle of violence originated, lest we pervert our own image, which is the image of God. Force is not evil, when it is used in self defense. We must always seek peace and pursue it with all our might. We must also recognize that those who use terror and violence to achieve their goals are rain-makers who bring on the flood. Let the sun shine with Gods light of love and justice and kindness, and let us all see the day of rejoice over the rainbow of diversity and pluralism envisioned and created by God Almighty Himself. Then shall the flood be over for good. Then shall Gods rainbow announce mans safety in the sanctuary of Gods world.
reading in the Torah is the second portion in the book of B'resheet, the first
of the Five Books of the Torah. Last week we read about the creation of the
world, of green grass and growing things in field and forest. We read about
the beginning of life - the smallest of creeping things and the great sea monsters,
the beasts of the field and that last item in creation, mankind. The portion
ended with the following words, "And God saw that the wickedness of man
was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart
was only evil continually. And the Lord repented that he had made man on the
earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the Lord said, I will destroy man
whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the
creeping thing, and the birds of the air; for I repent that I have made them.
And No'akh found grace in the eyes of the Lord." [Gen. 6:5-8]
This last verse led God to resolve to erase' his mistake - drown the world clean of all living things. However, at the critical moment before the end He spied No'akh - "And No'akh found grace in the eyes of the Lord." [Gen. 6:8] God resolves to give the animal kingdom another chance. We know the rest of the story - the ark, the flood, the raven and the dove, the blessing of No'akh and his sons, and the new proliferation of life in the land. The text tells us, "And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech." [Gen. 11:1] Does this mean that all people spoke the same tongue? Maybe so - but actually much more likely it tells us that they were of the same mind, working for the same purpose.
At this point in time something happened - some people determined that they can be better than some other people. "And they said, Come, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach to heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." [Gen 11:4] They thought that they could make themselves as powerful as the power of heaven and earth, as powerful as God Almighty. The text tells us that what happened next is that God resolved to "confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." - and in this way stop them from their attempt to impose themselves upon their less fortunate and advanced brothers. The name of that place was "Bavel" - or Babylonia.
This story seems a little confused and disjointed until you open the morning paper. Read the news of the day, and you will see how confused our language is. For example: since September 11 we are at war. War is a clash of arms between nations. Can you name the nation we are at war with? No, it is not Afghanistan. We are at war with "world terrorism" and the nations that support it and give in a safe haven. For years our nation has been publishing a list of nations that support and sponsor terrorism. Here is a partial list: Syria, Lybia, Iraq, Iran, North Korea. We have also identified terrorist organizations and called them by name: Red Brigade, Bader Meinhof, Black September, Sa'ika, P.L.O., P.F.L.P., Hamas, Hisbulah.
So, here's the quiz again: which nation is our enemy? None of the above. Which organization is on the cross hairs of our guns? None of the above. Our nation's complete military effort is to bring down a terrorist named Bin Laden - and his motley crew. Yet, a couple of days ago, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker stated categorically: "We oppose a policy of targeted killings...." Was he speaking against the stated purpose of the President of the United States? Well, not really. He was talking about Israel and its fight against Palestinian terror, which has been raging for a year in its present incarnation. When asked, "Can you expand on your opposition to the policy -- to the Israeli policy of targeted killings vis-a-vis U.S. policy to target Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar?" Mr. Reeker replied: "I can't really draw a parallel between the two. Our position on the Israeli policy of targeted killings is well known, it has not changed." Is this double Talk? Is this Babylonia? Or take the following quote from the news, "The problem of terrorism is not limited to Afghanistan. The United States and India are united against terrorism, and that includes the
terrorism that has been directed against India as well." The speaker was Secretary of State Colin Powell, and the "sponsor" of the terrorism against India is non other than Pakistan. How can the U.S. "anger" it's partner to the fighting in Afghanistan this way? Maybe because it is well known that Pakistan is, in fact, engaged in aiding terrorists in Kashmir, and Pakistan knows that it needs U.S. support for its goals and aims at home and abroad.
Will the United States stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel in its fight against state sponsored terrorism in Jerusalem and the rest of the sovereign territory of the Jewish state? I refer you to the words of Mr. Reeker above, "We oppose a policy of targeted killings...."
Does anybody have a spare umbrella?
This Shabbat is the second Shabbat that we celebrate without benefit of a holiday - the feel and scent of "Yamim Tovim" are receding from our short term memory. This is also the first Shabbat of the second month of the Hebrew calendar - the month of Kheshvan and we read the second portion in the book of Beresheet, the second portion in the whole Torah. Last week we read the story of creation and the first ten generations of mankind that inhabited this Godly creation. The portion ended with the following, "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord repented that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the birds of the air; for I repent that I have made them. And Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord." [Gen. 6:5-8] God was sorry that he had made man, even that he had made the earth. He was thinking that He is ready to destroy man and all creation. Yet he did not! Does the text tell us why he did not? No, it does not -- unless you take the last words in the above quote as His reason, "And Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord."
This week, the "week of seconds" (as it were), we begin our Torah reading with the words, "These are the generations of Noah; Noah "ish tzadik tamim ha'ya bdorotav" was a perfectly just man in his generations, and Noah walked with God. And Noah fathered three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, The end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth." [Gen. 6:9-13] God then proceeds to tell Noah to build an ark with which he will be able to preserve a sample of all life.
I want to point out to you how difficult it is to learn a text written in one language - in another tongue. The best example is given to us right here in our text. We read in the Hebrew "ish tzadik tamim ha'ya bdorotav" and we may be satisfied with the translation, "was a perfectly just man in his generations." However, this is not the only possible translation. The King James version gives us "Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations." The New American Standard version reads, "Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time." You see, the question is, do we connect the "tzadik" with the "tamim?" We know that a Tzadik is a righteout man. "Tamim" comes from "tam" which means complete, simple, or perfect. The Passover Hagaddah speaks of four sons - a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son, and "one who knows not how to ask." The third son is called "Tam"in Hebrew. When describing the sons of Yitzkhak, the text informs us that "Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field; and Ya'akov was ish tam yoshev ohalim a quiet man, living in tents." [Gen 25:27] So, is Noah a "righteous man, blameless? " or is he "a just man and perfect?" or maybe he is "a perfectly just man ?" And lastly, could he be a "simple man" and therefore innocent and righteous?
Another question we have to ask is, "why do we have the last word "bdorotav?" in the text. Are we saying that in his time he was righteous but at another time he would have been considered evil? Or are we saying that being a righteous man in the time of great wickedness shows such clear superior character that at any other time he would have been an even greater tzadik?
Some of the sages said that he was not a worthy tzadik. Why? Because he did not try to save the world. When God told Abraham that he was about to destroy Sodom and Amorah Abraham tried to save the city by arguing with God (see Genesis 18:23-33). When God speaks to Noakh and says, "The end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them" [ibid 6:13] Noah does not lift a finger, and neither does he raise his voice to protest the destruction of the whole world.
In the past, a number of years ago, when I studied the portion, I concluded that Noakh was actually responsible for the flood! Because he did not shout out to his neighbors to decry the violence, to protest the iniquity, to turn around the wrongdoers and protect the victims -- he brought about the flood! And I thought, couln't he at least have argued with God for the sake of creation. It's not just mankind! It's the elephants and the ants, the lizards and the lions, and the young children who were not yet initiated into wickedness. So I found comfort in thinking, "No wonder he turned to drink!"
Another year, I was much more mellow, and I saw Noakh in a whole different light. I came to see him as a prototype of Moshe's brother, Aaron, the high priest. Aaron, who was a good speaker - but short on understanding God. Aaron who stood with Moshe and dared the wrath of Pharaoh - and who could not resist Israel when Moshe was speaking to God on Sinai and made the golden calf to keep the peace. The Oral teaching, the Mishna, recommends to its readers to be like Aharon, "who loved peace and pursued peace, loved people and brought them close to Torah." [Avot 1:12] So I saw Noakh as the only thing that stood between God's total annihilation of all existence and our continued survival. I still didn't think of him as a great hero -- but, "Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations."
Another year, another experience, and another thought. This is 5763, the year after September 11! Now I see Noakh as a contemporary of the thousands upon thousands who fight the battle for the survival of goodness and decency in a world gone mad. I see him called to action, to "build the ark of survival" and answering the call, against all odd, against the ridicule of his neighbors and friends. I see Noakh as an innocent, good man, "ish tzadik tamim," who wanted nothing more than to be "Noakh,"which means comfortable. It was not to be, though for (the text tells us) "and Noah walked with God." and so he could not go with the flow, he was unable to turn a deaf ear, he dared not pretend not to hear the cry of the downtrodden. He heard the Master's voice, and he knew that he, a simple, easy going man, a man of his generation, had to rise above his age, above his nature, to become the hope of all the future generations.
And we, too, his decedents for we are all the sons and daughters of Noakh, his progeny, even as we are the children of Adam we must not forget the example that he set for us. We must labor without fail, doing our best, holding back nothing, to bring humanity and all of God's creation back from the edge of extinction into God's favor. We live in a world where extremes celebrate we see the fanatics taking up arms and doing violence in the name of their false gods and distorted religions. They preach that death liberates, and practice "liberating" as many victims as they can drag into death with themselves. God promised Noakh that He shall not bring another flood to this earth but who will protect us from the misguided fools and knaves who deluge the world in spilled blood?
I would like to suggest to you that it will be we, the Noakhs of our generation, part naive innocent, unsophisticated and unworldly part tzadikim, placing ourselves in harm's way, stepping to the plate, ready to do battle against the raging waters of hatred, dogmatic intolerance and bigotry, to survive the flood of evil, and to begin to populate the world anew with a fresh and pristine civilization that will know God and walk in His path, that will please Him like Noakh and earn praise as Aharon did lauding us as those who loved peace and pursued peace, and were willing to risk all they had, their homes and families and even their lives to establish peace and serenity, safety and security for all times upon this earth that God had created in His great goodness. Amen
Do you remember Barbara Streisand’s song, “second
hand Rose?” Well, this Shabbat is a “Seconds Shabbat” –
as we read the second portion in the book of Beresheet, the second portion in
the Torah. We are also celebrating the New Moon of Markheshvan – the new
month, which is the second month of the Jewish year. Behind us is the first,
the primary month of our calendar, chuck-full of feast days, a single fast day,
and tons of religious intensity and agitation. It was a month of self-search
and seeking to communicate and commune with God both alone and in the midst
of our synagogue family. Our short term memories are full of "thirteen
attributes;" the chanting of the hauntingly familiar "kol nidrey ;"
the jarring and alarming, repeated and repeating, pulsating sounds of the shofar;
shaking the etrog and lulav in the sanctuary to beg God to “Hosha-na,”
save us; kiddush in the Sukkah – and dancing in the pews with Torah scrolls
in our arms on Simkhat Torah night.
Now, this Shabbat of Seconds, we go from the sublime to... the ridiculous? No, not quite. Yet many would say that we are coming close, very close. We open the Torah and look at the portion we read this week, a portion of Noakh.
Ah, yes! We all know our hero Noakh. I can hear giggles and a sigh of relief coming from the congregation. The “flood” is one of the most “difficult” stories to accept in our day-and-age as an actual historical account. Next to the story of the “six days of creation,” the flood story brings a torrent of doubt castigation upon believers. The world is divided into those who believe in science and those who believe is “creation-science.” Let us reconsider.
The flood story is part of the lore of no less than two hundred and ten societies and cultures throughout the world. The earliest predate the Hebrew scriptures and were recorded on stone, clay tablets and papyrus. Interestingly enough, many of the stories also tell of the dove as the one that was sent out to spy if the waters have receded, and they also have her coming back with an olive branch, thus making the olive-branch carrying dove a recognizable symbol of peace and God’s grace.
For about a hundred years now, the flood has been the subject of serious research by many universities and institutes of scientific investigation the world over. These investigations have been in the fields of chronology, oceanography, biologyl, zoology, archeology, philosophy and theology. Interestingly, the “science” begins in the Torah, where the ark is built according to God’s master plan: “And this is the fashion by which you shall make it; The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.” [Genesis 6:15] Our great interpreter, Rashi, calculated from these dimensions, plus another verse, “And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat.” [Ibid. 8:4] and stated that “from this we learn that the ark was eleven cubits deep in the water.” There is a scientific mathematical formula for this calculation - but I will not get into it here. Let us consider some other interesting issues:
Many of the researchers ask, “where did all the water come from?” Some stipulated that the verse, “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.” [Ibid. 7:11] tells us that there was a great volcanic activity worldwide, and there where fissures that opened in the crust of the earth. Steam, as well as lava shot up, a great fog created 100% humidity and rain came down as the steam cooled in the upper levels of the atmosphere. Still, scientists who do not believe and wish to discredit the Torah account claim that there is just not enough water to flood the entire planet to the tops of the highest mountains, as the Torah claims.
It is interesting to note that our sages, in the Mishnah and the Talmud, already suggested that the Flood may not have been a world-wide event. Rabbi Yokhanan states that “In the Land of Israel there was no flood.” [Mishnah Zvakhim 113:72] Elsewhere it is suggested by the sages that the Babylonians thought they were the whole world – and thus, their flood destroyed the “whole world.” Doctors William Ryan and Walter Pittman, of Columbia University – a most respected institute of learning, published a book in 1999, whose title was: Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event that Changed History (Simon & Schuster), in which they postulated the theory that melting icebergs at the end of the last ice age caused great floods particularly in northern Europe, swelling rivers and flooding plains, and eventually turned a sweet-water great lake in eastern Europe into the Black Sea, flooding land areas at the southern tip in the area that became the Bosporus straits. The Mediterranean sea also flooded – probably by rising waters from melting ice at the poles, and the swelling of the Mediterranean created water pressure in the north east corner, pushing in a northerly direction, and connecting through the Dardanelles to the same old sweet water lake that now became fixed as the Black sea. Underwater research has verified that there is, in fact, an underwater “breakline” or ledge at the south end of the Black Sea.
In 2000, a mission called “Black Horizon,” led by Dr. Robert Ballard, the man who discovered the Titanic, set out to prove (or disprove) William Ryan, PhD and Walter Pittman, PhD’s theory by diving in the Black Sea. Some fifteen miles off the coast of Turkey the mission discovered a preserved structure thousands of years old. This discovery adds much information about the life of ancient civilizations in this area that is often called “the cradle of civilization.” An article in National Geographic Magazine told of the undersea robotic vessel that made the discovery, and with the use of a camera discovered a rectangular area about twelve by forty-five feet with a collapted structure of wood and mud. Well preserved carved wood columns and stone tools are evidence of a flourishing society that was wiped out by flooding.
Well, what is it, then? Truth or fiction? Does it really
matter? The Torah is not a book of science, and we Jews don’t really feel
that we need to spend too much time arguing, researching or even worrying about
that. The important issue, to us, is the moral lesson that we learn from the
story of the flood. The same story, in other societies, did not bring about
any conclusion for that society. Many of the tales are folklore of ancient societies,
in which “gods” behaved like super-humans, with caprice, malice
and even boredom motivating their actions. Only in Judaism is the flood caused
by the perversion of the earth, by the wickedness of mankind. Also, only our
Torah teaches that in consequence of the inundation of all life, God resolved
never again to bring a flood upon His creation. Hence the covenant of the rainbow:
“And I will establish my covenant with you; nor shall all flesh be cut
off any more by the waters of a flood; nor shall there any more be a flood to
destroy the earth.” [Ibid. 9:11] God resolved that He will demand every
living being to account for its behavior – but the world shall be safe
from His ever again bringing about total destruction.
We must keep in mind that God did not put us on this earth to “pursue happiness” – He wished for us to “toil in His garden,” to be stewards, guardians and care-givers to His creatures. He wished for us to dedicate ourselves to His service – and in this kind of a life find pleasure, find happiness. He never promised us easy times and constant pleasure. Each moment of bliss is paid for with a river of tears – and the pleasure of God's service, alone, is a constant joy. The sons of Noakh, which, of course, means all of us, need to keep that in mind.
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