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Torah Sparks

October 28, 2006

Annual: Genesis 6:9-11:32 (Etz Hayim, p. 41; Hertz p. 26)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 11:1 – 11:32 (Etz Hayim, p. 58; Hertz p. 38)
Haftarah: Isaiah: 54:1 – 55:5 (Etz Hayim, p. 65; Hertz p. 41)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

At the conclusion of last week’s Torah portion, we learned that God was disappointed with the way our world was unfolding and so decided to make a fresh start. This week’s Torah portion opens with Noah being singled out to salvage a remnant of that world. In a story that is familiar to us all, God singles out Noah to build an ark that will save human beings – Noah’s family – and many species of animals from the impending flood. Noah follows this commandment faithfully.

As the floodwaters eventually recede, Noah sends forth first a raven and then a dove to ascertain whether the earth is again habitable. Eventually, God commands Noah and his family to exit the ark and to get on with their lives. In addition to being directed to be fruitful and to multiply, they are given some restrictions that define a framework for their lives. God offers a covenant to Noah in which He promises never again to destroy the entire world by flood. The rainbow becomes the sign of this covenant.

After the Torah compiles a genealogical summary, it relates the story of the tower of Babel, in which communications went seriously awry.

In the final verses of Parashat Noah, we are introduced to Abram (later Abraham), who followed Noah by 10 generations.

Issue #1: The Noahide Commandments

According to Jewish tradition, Noah and his descendants were given seven divine commandments as a framework for human society. These commandments are often referred to as the Sheva Mitzvot B’nei Noah, or the Noahide Laws, because all subsequent human life could trace its genealogy to Noah. (Noah and his anonymous wife, along with Noah’s three sons and their wives, were the only human beings reported to have survived the flood.) A concise summary of the seven Noahide Commandments follows. (How these specific commandments are derived from the text of the Torah is beyond the scope of this discussion.)

  1. Prohibition against worshipping false gods.
  2. Prohibition against blasphemy.
  3. Prohibition against murder.
  4. Prohibition against immoral sexual activity (incest, adultery, bestiality, etc.).
  5. Prohibition against stealing.
  6. Prohibition against eating flesh that was torn from the body of a live animal.
  7. The requirement to set up a system of courts, laws, and enforcement.

The Talmud understands these seven principles to be behavioral requirements for all human beings, not just for Jews.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is special about the Noahide laws that would cause them to be postulated as binding on all human society?
  2. As Jews, we are aware that there are many more commandments that we are expected to fulfill. (The number 613 leaps to mind.) Why do we need so many additional commandments? What do they add to the religious quality of our lives?

Issue #2: The Tower of Babel

In Chapter 11 we read the familiar story of the tower of Babel. On a surface level, this story belongs here mainly to resolve the problem created by the Torah telling us that all peoples have a common origin, although people around the world actually speak many different languages.

This story is told in a value-laden manner. Human beings sought to make their mark in a way that challenged divine supremacy over the world. The divine response was to mix up their communications in order to thwart their apparently unholy initiative, and to scatter humankind over the face of the earth. This era is referred to in rabbinic literature as dor hap'lagah, the generation of division.

Are we, in our generation, also at risk of a communication breakdown? We live in a society characterized by increasingly complex and specialized communication. Jargon gets in the way of understanding so frequently that a new word – technobabble – has surfaced, referring to phrases that are so specialized that they fail to communicate sensibly. How can we avoid, for our generation, the fate of dor hap'lagah?

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