Archive for Noach

Noach: Come Out, and See

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

Shalom friends! This week’s Torah learning is dedicated to the memory
of my father, Robert Loevinger, whose first yahrzeit was yesterday. In
his own quiet way, he showed us with his life what it meant to “come
out” into the world as an engaged and globally aware citizen.

With that. . . . Parshat Noach. Many of you will recall the basic
outlines of the story of “Noah’s Ark:” the violence that filled the
land, the building of the Ark, the gathering of the animals, the
Flood, the dove bringing an olive branch. Some of us first learned
this story as a children’s song, but it’s not only a children’s story-
it’s also a profound meditation on the moral responsibility of good
people in bad times. Noach, the “righteous man” in his generation, is
told by God to build the boat and take the animals on board, yet those
readers who wonder why ostensibly righteous Noach didn’t protest to
God on behalf of doomed humanity are asking a venerable question.

Some of the ancient rabbis tried to soften the narrative somewhat by
interpreting the story as primarily about God’s patient forgiveness,
rather than God’s angry justice: this reading is supported by the
building of the Ark itself, which is seen as a warning to the violent
men around Noach that they do have an opportunity to change their ways
if they wish to avert the Divine decree. Reading closely, we notice
what seems to be a slight reticence on Noach’s part both to enter the
Ark and to eventually leave it. In both cases, the text tells us that
Noach didn’t act until God told him to:

“Then the Lord said to Noah, ‘Go into the ark, with all your
household, for you alone have I found righteous before Me in this
generation.’ ” (Bereshit/Genesis 7:1)

“God spoke to Noah, saying, ‘Come out of the ark, together with your
wife, your sons, and your sons’ wives ‘ ” (Bereshit/ Genesis 8:15-16)

One interpretation* suggests that Noach did, in fact, feel reluctant
to leave his neighbors behind and take refuge in the Ark, hoping till
the very last moment that the people around him would repent and be
saved, and would thus not enter the Ark until explicitly commanded. If
we posit that Noach was concerned about his fellow citizens, and
wished for their survival, this reading makes sense, and explains why
God had to say “Go into the Ark,” when otherwise we’d assume that one
doesn’t need to be told to seek safety.

So why, then did God have to tell Noach to leave the Ark? Would we not
assume that after being cramped up for 40 days, he’s be delighted to
see dry land? Again, if we go with our assumption that Noach was
concerned about the welfare of humankind- who are now all destroyed-
one can only imagine the pain of confronting the reality of such
destruction. It’s one thing to seek safety in a storm, it’s another
thing to go out and see what the storm has wrought; a morally
sensitive, compassionate person often finds it difficult to look
directly at scenes of pain, loss, and horror.

So God says: “Come out of the Ark”- that is, if you are charged with
rebuilding the world, you cannot avoid seeing what has happened to
beast and human alike. Noach probably preferred the safety of the Ark
to the full knowledge of the effects of the Flood- a human heart can
only absorb so much, and no more. Yet the story could not end with the
appearance of dry land, but only with Noach and his family (and all
the animals) walking upon it and rebuilding- that’s the real point,
that out of tremendous evil, even one person can rebuild the world in
closer conformity to God’s vision of justice and peace.

God’s call to Noach, to “come out of the Ark,” thus becomes one of
those moments in the Torah which is not a one-time event, but a
paradigm for living a fully human life. It’s always tempting to stay
in the Ark- that is, to stay in our comfort zones, avoiding the
spiritual task of rebuilding that which is lost and broken by choosing
not to see disturbing or painful realities. Whether it’s the poor of
Poughkeepsie, the bereaved of Boston, the refugees of Darfur, the
hungry halfway across the world, God says to each of us: “come out of
the Ark, the world needs you, you have planting and building and
healing to do, and if you don’t do it- who will?”

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

* This week’s Torah study was inspired by a comment I read in “Talelei
Oros: The Parashah Anthology,” compiled by R. Yissachar Dov Rubin.

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Noah: Integrity in Diversity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noah

“They, and every beast after its kind, and every domestic animal after its
kind, and every
creeping thing that creeps on the earth after its kind, and every fowl after its
kind, every
bird of every wing. And they came to Noah to the ark, two by two of all flesh
in which
there is the spirit of life. . . ”
(Bereshit/ Genesis 7:14-15)

The image from those verses is probably familiar to almost any American who has
ever
heard even a few Bible stories in their childhood: Noah took in every species of
animal that
walked upon the earth, so there could be a new beginning after humankind had
corrupted
God’s plan for a harmonious Creation. The story of Noah is rich with theological
questions
about justice, mercy, fairness and responsibility, but it’s also very much a
story about
God’s relationship with the entirety of Creation, not only its human
inhabitants.

Taking the Biblical story in its own terms, one might reasonably ask why God
commanded
Noah to bring the entire spectrum of animal life- what we today call
biodiversity- into the
Ark, when surely other means would have brought about the Divine purpose of
starting
human society over from scratch. A child would probably ask: well, couldn’t God
have
chosen to have the animals eat all the bad people, or cause a plague, something
like that?
Isn’t that easier than a flood and starting the whole Creation project over with
the
survivors?

To me, a central moral teaching of the Noah story lies in the image of humans
humbling
themselves in relation to other living beings: after a period of human arrogance
and
selfishness, the surviving people had to learn to serve and preserve the wider
world of
Creation in order for humanity to be renewed. Perhaps the reason Noah had to
build an
Ark was to teach him and his family (and, by extension, all of us who are in
mythic terms
his descendants) the value of every single species which constitutes the beauty
and
integrity of an awe-inspiring biosphere. Creation could not be renewed without
its
diversity, and humankind cannot exist apart from our larger ecological context.

More and more, people of faith (from many religions) are turning to stories like
Noah’s Ark
for inspiration as they seek to infuse religious traditions with an ethic of
ecological
awareness- and, conversely, many environmentalists are seeking a spiritual
language of
care for Creation in their work of advocating for sustainable and wise policies.
The Noah
Alliance is an interfaith coalition dedicated to the proposition that care for
Creation is a
central religious concern, and a core imperative is therefore to preserve the
richness and
diversity of our shared world. The Noah Alliance is currently working on
strengthening the
Endangered Species Act, and I encourage you to visit their web site and see for
yourself
how traditional teachings can inform very contemporary concerns.

At the end of the Noah story, God makes a promise never again to bring ruin upon
the
earth and <all> its inhabitants; the rest is up to us.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

For more information about the Noah Alliance, see their web site:

http://www.noahalliance.org/index.htm

For a statement on biodiversity signed by Jewish scientists and prominent
rabbis, see here:

http://www.noahalliance.org/resources/jewish.htm

For many more resources connecting Judaism to biodiversity, see the web site for
the
Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (upon whose Board I serve):

http://www.coejl.org/learn/biodiversity.php

And, of course, for the complete text of the parsha and further commentary:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

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Noach 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Noah (Gen. 6:9-11:32)

OVERVIEW

Creation is not off to such a good start: the earth is filled with violence and corruption, and so God decides to flood the earth and start over, choosing Noach to build an Ark to save himself and his family and at least one pair of every kind of animal. After the flood, God establishes the Rainbow covenant with every living creature. Humans decide to challenge God by building the Tower of Babel, so they become dispersed. The genealogy at the end introduces us to the major figures of the next section.

IN FOCUS

“And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between Me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set My rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” (Genesis 9:12-16)

PSHAT

After the earth is purged of its violence, and the floodwaters have receded, God makes a new covenant with Noach, his family, and all the creatures of the earth, promising them that they will never again suffer God’s anger in such a manner. It introduces the idea of the interrelationship between humans and the Earth into the Biblical framework, while also demonstrating God’s attributes of patience and sustenance.

DRASH

To the ancient world, a rainbow could only be a symbol from God. To contemporary North Americans, it is another kind of symbol, a symbol of political coalitions and social activism. When the Rev. Jesse Jackson wanted to build a broad, inclusive social movement, he called it the Rainbow Coalition. Gay and lesbian activists use the rainbow for similar reasons, as a symbol demonstrating their commitment to include all kinds of people in an accepting society.

At least one Torah commentator understood the rainbow covenant from Genesis in the same vein:

    “I have set My rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. . . ” How does the rainbow symbolize peace, unity and the sustenance of the world? Just a rainbow is made of different colors and shades, which are joined into a unified wholeness, so too [must be] the differences between people, societies, groups or nations. Life is based on understanding and measured tolerance, upon harmony and peace- these are the basis for the continued existence of the world, “a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.” (Z. Hillel, quoted in Itturei Torah)

In this time of change and uncertainty, when violence rages in the Middle East and in parts of Africa; when both Canadian and American citizens are preparing to elect national leaders; when ethnic tensions are rising in Europe and Asia; and when religious difference threaten the peace of nations across the world, the promise of the rainbow covenant becomes more poignant than ever. Just as humans brought about disaster with their violence and conflict before the Flood, so to we can bring about disaster now, with a destruction of our own making. God may have put the rainbow in the clouds, but it’s up to us to unify the colors and stripes here on earth. This covenant has been our challenge since ancient days, to make peace on earth as the peace of the heavens.

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Noach 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW
Creation is not off to such a good start: the earth is filled with violence and corruption, and so God decides to flood the earth and start over, choosing Noach to build an Ark to save himself and his family and at least one pair of every kind of animal. After the flook, God establishes the Rainbow covenant with every living creature. Humans decide to challenge God by building the Tower of Babel, so they become dispersed, and the portion ends by introducing us to Avram and Sarai, who will later on become Abraham and Sarah, the First Family of the Jewish nation.

IN FOCUS
“And Noach went forth, and his sons, and his wife, and his son’s wives with him.”
(Genesis 8:18)

PSHAT

After the flood, God makes the waters recede; once Noach determines that there is dry land, God gives him permission to leave the Ark with his family, and let all the animals go, so that the earth could be repopulated and the Creation process could begin again with a new covenant and a new set of “parents” for humankind.

DRASH
The contemporary Torah commentator and Reform rabbi Kerry Olitsky, in his book Renewed Each Day: Daily Twelve Step Recovery Meditations Based on the Bible, connects this verse with a famous explanation of the Adam and Chava (Eve) story. According to a midrash, God decided to create the world with just one man and just one woman so that everybody would know that they have a common ancestor, and nobody would feel superior to another. So R. Olitsky interprets the Noach story as the Torah’s way of emphasizing this point- we’re all related, we all can trace our ancestry not only to Adam and Chava, but also to Noach and his (unfortunately unnamed) wife, who were “righteous in their generation.” Thus, if the Torah really wants us to understand that we’re all connected to each other in the most basic way, through common ancestry, perhaps it’s challenging us to treat each other like the brothers and sisters we are.

The problem, of course, is that the brothers and the sisters of the Bible don’t always treat each other so well- the language of “siblinghood” is nice, but families can be cruel and jealous, as the Genesis stories of Yitzkak and Yishmael, of Yaakov and Esav, and Yosef and his brothers will all amply demonstrate in the weeks to come. In fact, I once heard another contemporary Torah scholar, Rabbi Arthur Green, say that the basic question of the entire book of Genesis is: “how can I live with my brother?”

So how DO we live in peace and harmony with the other people- our brothers and sisters, to use the Torah’s imagery- with whom we share our communities, our countries, our planet? Returning to Rabbi Olitzky’s interpretation, our capacity for loving and moral behavior is made stronger by remembering that we are not only all children of Adam and Chava but also of Noach. What’s the difference? Perhaps the difference is that Adam and Chava lived in a less complicated world than Noach did- they had violence in their family, for sure, but they didn’t have to face the pressure of resisting a whole society and its unGodly values. Noach did- he and his family weren’t perfect, but in a society filled with violence, greed, theft, corruption, materialism, and so on, he resisted and “walked with God”. (cf. Gen 6:9-13) That’s who we’re descended from- somebody who saw a better way than others did, who lived his values and faith, who rose above a society didn’t treat people as if they were not only related, but created in the Image of God.

Seen this way, the traditional Hebrew phrase “bnei Noach,” which literally means “children of Noach” but has the idiomatic meaning of [non-Jewish] “human being,” becomes a title of great dignity and hope. We are the children of great men and women, who are capable of more than we think, and who can live with our brothers and sisters in peace and love if only we will remember where we came from, and where we want to go.

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