Archive for Noach

Noach: Travel From the East

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

And it came to pass, as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. (Bereshit/ Genesis 11:2)

Good morning!

Our Torah portion this week contains two famous stories: the flood and the Tower, each in its own way a story of human nature and our capacity for self-deception and its inevitable consequences. The generation that built the Tower toward heaven was entirely the descendants of Noach and his family, so it’s not surprising that they spoke one language and had some sense of power in their commonality. The building of the Tower is perhaps best understood as an attempt to supplant or become like God; thus the Divine decree of different languages, which means having to learn to communicate with each other, is a humbling reminder of our imperfect knowledge and abilities.

The verse above sets the stage for the rest of the story by putting this mass of people in one place, Shinar, which Rashi thinks is merely a plain big enough to hold everybody. On the other hand, another early midrash notices that in the previous chapter, some number of the descendants of Noach were already living at or by the “mountains of the east,” (cf. 10:30). This midrash asks: how could they travel from the east to go to the east? That doesn’t make sense! Rather, according to this text, they didn’t travel “from the East”, m’kedem, but away from God, who is called kadmon, or Ancient/ First One.

With this Hebrew pun, the rabbis remind us that the story of the Tower isn’t really about the Tower as an object, per se, but about the worldview of the people who built it. The tragedy of the Tower isn’t that people used their ingenuity to build something amazing, it’s that they thought that the only way to get a “name” for themselves was through the world of making, doing and owning, rather than through the virtues of caring, loving and justice. Among other things, faith means knowing our compassion and mercy are of infinite value even if they don’t make us immediately famous!

It seems that the generation of the Tower squandered their unity on a false premise; had they not “moved away from God,” as it were, they might have used that unity for a spiritual, humane purpose, and thus gotten themselves an even greater “name” than that of builders with brick and stone. We move “away from God” when we act out of our baser values, out of fear, insecurity or greed, and use our lives to build things which gratify the ego but don’t nourish the soul. Yet this cautionary tale ends on a hopeful note, the birth of Avram, who will symbolically journey back from east to west, from m’kedem back to Kadmon, the most Ancient Source of life itself.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Noach: A World Before Us

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

“And on the seventh day the waters of the Flood came upon the earth.. . . “  (Bereshit/ Genesis 7:10)

Well, it’s late on Friday afternoon and it seems that the waters of the flood are being unleashed on Poughkeepsie today, but hopefully things will clear up within a shorter time than 40 days.

Most readers will know the basic outline of the Flood story: Noach is picked to build a vessel in which to preserve the biodiversity of the earth when humankind is punished for its corruption. Now, there are all kinds of logical and theological problems with the narrative, so it’s perhaps helpful to understand this as a psychological parable, posing a pressing question: when will humankind take seriously the consequences of its choices, and who will speak up in a world gone mad?

The ancient rabbis portray the generation of the Flood as corrupt and violent, seeking to cheat each other out of even trivial amounts, each person wanting only more for themselves and incapable of putting the common good over personal gain. On the other hand, they also see the building of the Ark as a public service announcement, a warning to that wicked generation that disaster awaits without a collective moral renewal. Along those lines, there’s a subtle midrash, found in the Talmud but quoted in the Torah Temimah, that calls attention to the unexplained seven-day period between Noach entering the Ark and the beginning of the Flood. (See verse above.)

The ancient rabbis offered several explanations for that week-long waiting period, but one that caught my eye imagines that the Holy One offered the inhabitants of the world a taste of the World to Come, so they’d know what they were missing. (Presumably, the wicked generation of the Flood lost their share in the World to Come in their stubborn refusal to repent or take heed of the warning Noach was acting out in building the Ark.) To me, this midrash captures the timeless tragedy of the story: even experiencing something close to paradise, we are often unable to truly appreciate or preserve what makes a decent life possible. We think the good times will go on forever, not realizing that our own actions, as individuals and collectively, undermine our goals and dreams.

Thinking globally, we might note that the planetary upheaval of the Flood is hardly the realm of myth in an age of climate change and environmental crisis. We live the good life, almost the paradise of heaven, but there may soon come a reckoning, and we can’t say we weren’t warned. On a smaller scale, we note that communities, companies, organizations, families and individuals typically resist changes until it’s too late. It might be the state of our relationships, finances, health or spirit, but the principle is the same: it’s all too human to put off till tomorrow the change that needs to happen today.

Yet the story of Noach, while a warning, is ultimately hopeful. The story ends with renewal and the powerful image of all humankind being descended not from the corrupt generation but the righteous exception. We don’t have to fall into the trap of self-deception like Noach’s peers; we have instead the story to guide us, to awaken us, to prick our bubbles and pull us towards the gift of introspection and the possibility of growing and learning. The Flood story asks the question: who shall speak up in a world gone mad? and provides its own answer: each one of us can be the saving force of our times.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Noach: History and Imperfection

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

“And Noach began, a man of the earth, and he planted a vineyard. . . . ” (Bereshit/ Genesis 9:20)

Good afternoon!

We’re reading the Torah portion Noach this week. The basic outline of the story is well known: Noach was chosen to built the ark, to save his family and the animal kingdom, when a great flood came upon the earth to wipe out humankind’s wickedness. After the floodwaters recede, God makes a covenant with Noach and the entire earth;  never again will there be such a catastrophe. Noach leaves the Ark and plants a vineyard- only to immediately get himself in trouble in a drunken episode which splits apart his children and family. (Cf. chapter 9.)

The ancient rabbis pick up on the phrase “a man of the earth”- ish ha’adamah – and relate it back to the first human family; they make the connection between Adam in the Garden of Eden and Noach being a man of the adamah, or earth. However, this is rebuke, not a compliment: they imagine that hint of Adam in adamah as God’s way of telling Noach: didn’t you learn from the first human what trouble a vineyard can be? (E.g., in this telling, the fruit in the Garden was grapes of the vine, but the point is about wine, not grapes.)

Certainly the plain meaning of this midrash is a warning against the poor judgement of drunkenness, which is an ever-present danger in human affairs from the very start. Fair enough, but remember that Noach is the second Adam, as it were; in the mythic telling, all humankind descends from Noach and his sons, making him the symbolic father of humanity as was the first Adam in the Garden.

Seen this way, Noach’s inability to learn from the mistakes of his predecessor is a sign that the rabbis believe this is a chronic imperfection of humankind: we are loath to learn from others, from history, from the disciplines of philosophy and ethics. It’s just too easy to go with what seems right at the moment. Being human is a serious business, requiring thought and reflection, but that’s our challenge, not our destiny.

One must note, however, that despite their impulsiveness, both Adam and Noach were worthy of Divine covenant. We, too, who are understood to be their children, are imperfect, but nevertheless beloved; we will make mistakes, as they did, but are given the opportunity to be builders of the world and partners with its Creator.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Noach: Small Things

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach / Rosh Chodesh

“God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth . . . ‘ ”
(Bereshit / Genesis 6:13)

Greetings on this glorious morning!

Well, as we see from the verse above, it may be a glorious morning in the Hudson Valley but at the time of Noach, things weren’t so great. The “lawlessness” [chamas] in the verse above (and verse 11) is understood by the ancient rabbis to indicate a special fondness for robbery among the people of Noach’s generation.

Now, let’s leave aside the ethical problems with collective punishment- to say nothing of the theological difficulty in this story- and let’s just take it at face value for a moment that the generation of the flood was indeed so evil, so selfish and so committed to stealing and preying on each other that the only way to start over was to wipe the slate clean, as it were. Again, let’s bracket for today the harshness of the decree and just focus on the dramatic scene: a whole society utterly corrupted, with no respect for rights, property, dignity or safety.

You”d probably imagine that everybody in Noach’s time was Bonnie and Clyde, stealing brazenly, but the rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud told a startling midrash:

“What did they steal? If someone walked out carrying a basket of beans, they would steal an amount worthy less than a penny so they would not be guilty in court.” (Adapted from the Torah Temimah)

This is interesting- the robbery and stealing wasn’t, in this telling, like Bonnie and Clyde- guns (well, bows) blazing and bold heists- but was more like petty shoplifting on the order of noshing out of the bulk bins. This image hardly suggests a world filled with corruption, deserving of an unmerciful fate. . . . does it?

Perhaps the ancient rabbis of the land of Israel (where the Jerusalem Talmud was compiled) were suggesting that nonchalant cynicism is just as destructive to society as overt lawlessness. Countless small acts of self-centered disregard for others will also bring collapse on a community, just as surely as the more dramatic kinds of crime. Now, to be sure, most people reading this don’t make it habit to steal beans out of each other’s baskets- but perhaps the midrash is suggesting that we should pay better attention to the small ways we can respect each other, better to create a warmer, more generous and compassionate community as a whole.

To put it another way, I remember a sign up in the Essex County Correctional Facility, where I used to visit as a volunteer chaplain: it said something like “character is what you do when nobody is looking.” In terms of our midrash on Noach, I might rephrase that as: “society is sustained from small things- and we are all potential builders.”

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Noach: The Rainbow Sign

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

This week’s Torah study is in honor of my father, z’l, whose yahrzeit
was this week; he constantly appreciated the beauty, diversity and
complexity of nature.

Dear Friends:

This week, we read the Torah portion Noach, with its story of the
flood, the ark, the animals who came on by twosies-twosies, etc. (I
think y’all know that part.)

Less well known is what happens after the flood, when God promises
never again to bring such destruction on the earth, and says that the
rainbow will be the sign of a covenant with “all flesh” (not just
humans):

“I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the
covenant between Me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the
earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant
between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that
the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. ”
(Bereshit/ Genesis 9:13-15)

It makes sense that the rainbow would be a seen as a sign of God’s
covenant with all creation, because without such an assurance, one
could imagine some anxiety on the part of our earliest Biblical
ancestors every time it rained- “uh oh, is this Noach all over again?”
In fact, to this day, Judaism teaches that we should make a blessing
upon seeing rainbows:

“Blessed are You, Holy One our God, Sovereign of the Universe,
who remembers the Covenant, is trustworthy in sacred covenant, and
fulfills the Divine word.”

That is, every time we see a rainbow, we’re supposed to remember that
God is not going to bring another flood, but instead desires that all
Creation flourish and live.

Now- let’s be clear- your humble Torah commentator knows that rainbows
are caused by a refraction of the sunlight and are a natural
phenomenon not necessarily reflective (or refractive, as the case may
be) of a specific act of Divine intent. Yet having brachot- blessings-
over natural phenomena doesn’t mean we have to reject the laws of
nature; on the contrary, Judaism sees natural phenomena as
opportunities for wonder and gratitude. Heschel coined the phrase
“radical amazement” to describe that sense of overwhelming wonder at
the beauty and blessing of existence – thus, a rainbow can not only be
understood as the refraction of sunlight, but also experienced as the
bursting through to our consciousness of the extraordinary gift of
life and Being itself.

The Noah story is only incidentally about a big boat full of animals;
more importantly, it’s about recognizing that the world we live in is
not a scary place bound to be destroyed by a vengeful God, but is
rather full of blessing and grace- if we choose to see it, and if (big
if) we act accordingly. Seeing the rainbow reminds us that God has
(and will not) not brought the flood- but are we ourselves seeing the
fragile grace of creation and working to protect it?

God remembers the covenant with “all flesh,” but do we? The rainbow
sign turns out be a question mark.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Noach: Exile and Hope

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

This week’s Torah portion is Noach: the flood, the animals, the Ark.  The story is well known, but the moral of the story is less well known. After the Flood, God promises to Noach and his family that
never again will such a thing happen- the Flood was a one-time event,
and going forward, with the world re-created from Noach’s lineage,
humankind does not have to fear total Divine retribution. (Cf.
Bereshit/Genesis 9.)

On a smaller scale, however, the Bible does seem to endorse a theology
of Divine action on the national or communal level (sub-planetary, as
it were.) Thus, this week’s haftarah (Isaiah 54-55) compares Israel’s
exile to the “waters of Noach;” that is, Israel’s exile is a
punishment for the people but only a temporary one, and just as there
won’t be another Flood, there won’t be another episode of Divine
retribution after the people are redeemed from exile. (Cf. Isaiah 54:9)

Besides the “waters of Noach,” other metaphors for exile and
redemption are:

1) Zion as a “barren one” who will bear children and enlarge her
dwelling (54:1-3)

2) Zion as a widow or estranged wife to be espoused by God (54:5-8)

3) A storm-tossed ship which will be as steady as a rebuilt city
(54:11-12)

4) One who is hungry or thirsty who will be satisfied greatly (55:1-2)

What all these metaphors have in common is the theme of a temporary
disruption or problem which can and will be fixed and healed. While
many contemporary readers will question a simple conception of exile
as Divine action in history (after all, that gets the dispossessers
off the hook in terms of moral responsibility), one can also read the
metaphors. . . well, metaphorically.

That is, we can remember that exile and redemption are not only
historical narratives but also symbolic of the necessary struggles
over a long lifetime of spiritual journey. There are times when we are
estranged, alienated- from others, from ourselves, from our Divine
Source- but like a storm, this too may pass. There are times when we
may feel barren, hungry, cut off- but faith means believing that these
states need not be permanent, nor does internal state depend on
external circumstance.

The waters of Noach were terrible, but they were temporary; the
promise that they will not occur again means that we can’t blame God
for destruction that humans have chosen. The haftarah reminds us that
hope is a fundamental religious orientation: hope for healing, for
fixing, for reconciliation. This is what faith means: not dependence
on miracles but seeing past despair. Out of such hope great things
happen!

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Noach: The Right Questions At the Right Time

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

The Torah
portion Noach, as the name [Noach=Noah] indicates, begins with the
choosing of Noach, then continues with God’s instructions to build the
Ark, the flood, and the eventual renewal of humankind. Yet an ancient
question concerning this story points out that God didn’t need to send
a flood to wipe out those doing evil, nor did God need Noach to build
an Ark in order to save him and his family. So why did God tell Noach
to build the Ark?

Rashi, quoting an earlier text, tells us that the building of the Ark
was meant as a public warning to those engaged in violence and
wrongdoing- perhaps they would see Noach engaged in this huge project,
make some inquiries, find out that disaster is on its way, and repent
of their misdeeds, which would presumably avert the flood. (Cf. Rashi
on Bereshit/Genesis 6:14.) This midrash [homiletic interpretation]
changes the tone of the story from one in which an angry God desires
to punish wrongdoers to a story of a patient God desiring that
humankind change from within.

The idea that we are given the capacity for reflection, and the
responsibility to use it, is a fundamental concept in Judaism,
reflected in the positive mitzvah [that is, a commandment to take a
specific action] of confession and “returning,” or t’shuvah. This
mitzvah is based on Bamidbar/Numbers 5:6-7, which says that a person
who wrongs another must confess and take reparative actions. The
Chafetz Chaim* lists confession and t’shuvah as mitzvah #33 on his
list of positive mitzvot, saying that the essence of this commandment
is remorse in the heart and resolve to act differently in the future.
Most commentators also include verbal admission of doing something
wrong, apology, and making amends, when possible, in the practical
application of t’shuvah.

In other words- in Judaism, reflection on one’s deeds and awareness of
their consequences isn’t just a good idea, it’s the law! The mitzvah
of t’shuvah- “returning”- presupposes that nobody is perfect, but
everybody has the capacity for good. We are called to do t’shuvah all
year round, not just before Yom Kippur, because we are all created in
the image of God- the mitzvah teaches us about our potential to lead
lives reflecting the ideals of compassion, justice and truth which are
the core orientations of religious striving.

In summary: if Judaism didn’t believe that every person can grow in
awareness, sensitivity, responsibility and compassion, we wouldn’t
have a mitzvah to reflect on our actions, apologize when necessary,
and think hard about the ways we’d like to be in the future. It
shouldn’t take somebody building an Ark in his backyard to get us to
ask a few basic questions- but in our day, the questions are for each
person to ask him or herself. But as in ancient times, the answers can
return us to becoming our truest selves.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

* R. Israel Meir HaKohen Kagan, d.1933- this year we will frequently
refer to his short book listing the mitzvot operative in the Diaspora.

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