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Torah Sparks

October 29, 2011 – 1 Heshvan 5772

Annual: Genesis 6:9-11:32 (Etz Hayim p. 41; Hertz p. 26)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 8:15-10:32 (Etz Hayim p. 48; Hertz p. 31)
Maftir: Numbers 28:9-15 (Etz Hayim p. 930; Hertz p. 695)
Haftarah: Isaiah: 66:1-24 (Etz Hayim, p. 1220; Hertz p. 944)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser


Parashat Noah represents a watershed(!) moment in humanity’s moral evolution. Individual human beings and society as a whole are subject to moral standards that represent God’s will and expectations for the world. Loyalty to these standards determines whom God will favor and what nations God will choose to carry out the divine plan.

In the Torah, human society has grown so corrupt that God decrees its utter destruction by means of a flood. Noah, who is considered to be remarkable for his moral stature, his wife, sons, and daughters-in-law are to be saved. They board the ark, which Noah has constructed at God’s behest, together with representatives of the various animal species, to facilitate postdiluvian repopulation. Humanity and animal life are destroyed by the flood. The rain stops, in time the waters subside, and the ark’s passengers disembark. God imposes basic moral obligations on humanity, reflecting a revised, more restrained divine estimation of human potential. Noah offers sacrifices to God, who vows never again to unleash such a universal destructive force with the rainbow sign. Subsequently, Noah plants a vineyard, cultivates its produce, and becomes intoxicated. Noah curses his son Ham, but blesses Shem and Japeth for their respective responses to his drunken and vulnerable state.

It should be noted that the Israelite nation descends from Shem. That is, we are Shemites, or more familiarly Semites. More specifically, we descend from Shem’s great-grandson Eber - perhaps the origin of the term Ivrit -- Hebrew.

Theme #1: “Olive Ha-Shalom”

“He waited another seven days, and again sent out the dove from the ark. The dove came back to him toward evening and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf.” (Genesis 8:10-11)

Derash: Study

“From where did the dove bring the olive branch? Rabbi Aba bar Kahana said: From in the Land of Israel. Rabbi Levi said: From the Mount of Olives. Rabbi Beibai said: The gates of the Garden of Eden opened for the dove, which brought the olive branch from there.” (Midrash Bereisheit Rabbah)

“What is signified by ‘There in its bill was a plucked-off olive branch’? The dove said to the Holy One Blessed be He: ‘May my food be as bitter as the olive but entrusted to Your hand, rather than sweet as honey and dependent on a mortal.’” (Talmud, Eruvin 18B)

“The dove dwelt upon the ark, and was fed by Noah for a full year. Is this any way to thank Noah for his devoted care? Rather, the dove was concerned that Noah would think its return to the ark was because here it was safe and its food provided, and that it preferred to return to the ark even though the waters had subsided. So the dove here made it clear that if could have found its own place anywhere on earth, it would have preferred food bitter as olives but provided by God – and not the ready food on the ark, even if it be sweet as honey. The one and only reason the dove returned was that it was still impossible to survive outside the ark.” (Mishkenot Yaakov, commenting on Eruvin 18B)

“The Sabbath, the day of rest, is not to be forgotten; its memory is like the sweet fragrance of sacrifice. On it the dove found respite, and the weary shall find rest therein.” (Yehudah Halevy, “Yom Shabbaton”)

“Knowing, to what violent resentments and incurable animosities, civil discords are apt to exasperate and inflame the contending parties, we think ourselves required by indispensable obligations to Almighty God, to your Majesty, to our fellow subjects, and to ourselves, immediately to use all the means in our power not incompatible with our safety, for stopping the further effusion of blood, and for averting the impending calamities.” (From the “Olive Branch Petition,” adopted by the Second Continental Congress, July 5, 1775, in a final attempt to avert open warfare. King George III refused to read the petition, and declared that the colonists had “proceeded to open and avowed rebellion.”)

Questions for Discussion

If we assume that the olive branch (or, perhaps more accurately, olive leaf) is a symbol of peace (a presumption not self-evident in classical Jewish sources), the debate recorded in Bereishit Rabbah is significant. Is peace only a possibility in the Garden of Eden – that is, in utopian fantasy? Or is peace a very real possibility?

In the Eruvin text, and as refined in Mishkenot Yaakov, the olive branch seems to symbolize something other than peace alone. The dove seems to articulate the value of liberty and independence even if it is necessary to endure bitterness and hardship to secure these blessings. How are we to balance the sometimes conflicting interests of peace on the one hand, and defense of liberty on the other?

Yehudah Halevy links the dove with the observance of Shabbat. How else does the experience of Noah and his avian surveillance help to elucidate the meaning and experience of Sabbath observance?

Whatever the treatment of the dove’s olive branch in Jewish literary history, by 1775 the olive branch was explicitly associated with our “indispensable obligations to Almighty God” to pursue peaceful resolutions to conflict before engaging in armed hostilities. Where else in the Bible (or elsewhere in Jewish tradition) is this ethical principle to be found? What elements of our tradition limit or contradict this principle of nonbelligerence?

Theme #2: “Viniculture, Viticulture, Vicious Culture”

“Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself within his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japeth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so they did not see their father’s nakedness.” (Genesis 9:20-23)

Derash: Study

“Some Jewish and non-Jewish teachers omit this story in children’s Bible classes. Yet, it is of deep significance in a child’s moral training. An intelligent child cannot help now and then detecting a fault or something to laugh at in his parents; but instead of mockery or callous exposure, it is for him to throw the mantle of filial love over the fault and turn away his face.” (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, citing F. Adler)

“‘Saw his father’s nakedness’ – Even though Noah was ‘a righteous and wholehearted man,’ Ham did not see his righteousness and good deeds; he only saw his father’s nakedness.” (quoted in Iturei Torah)

“Wine is a peep-hole on a man.” (Alcaeus c. 625 - c. 575 B.C. Fragment 104)

O thou invisible spirit of wine! if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil! (William Shakespeare, Othello 2:3)

“And Noah he often said to his wife as he sat down to dine/
I don’t care where the water goes, if it doesn’t get into the wine.” (G.K. Chesterton)

“Wine had such ill effects on Noah’s health that it was all he could do to live 950 years.” (Will Rogers)

Questions for Discussion

Did Ham judge his father unfairly, as Iturei Torah asserts and Hertz seems to suggest? Or was Alcaeus correct – did Noah’s unfortunate incident with the indignities of drunkenness reveal his true nature, both literally and figuratively? Are there parental failings that simply outweigh that parent’s good characteristics and become wholly defining? To what extent is filial deference and forgiveness rendered negotiable?

Is it entirely undesirable that teachers refrain from exploring explicit Biblical texts with youthful students? Do we not have a moral duty to shield young children from premature exposure to adult themes and relationships (as this delicately worded question is designed to do?!?). Does the Jewish community do all it should to protect our children’s moral development – to preserve the innocence and purity of youth?

In sharp contrast to Shakespeare, Jewish tradition treats the use of wine as far from diabolical. Wine is used for sacred rites of passage (brit milah, marriage) as well as for the sanctification of Shabbat and festivals. Where does the truth lie: is wine evil, sacred, or morally neutral? Is the potential for corruption and excess inherent in the consumption of alcohol an integral element in the ritual use of wine?

Chesterton’s light verse might (if not accepted merely as such!) be understood to suggest that Noah’s overindulgence in wine was a method of escape. As long as he had strong drink available, he could deny the horrors of the cataclysmic flood: “I don’t care where the water goes.” This is a fair reading of Noah’s postdiluvian debacle. What else might have led him to drink? Inexperience with intoxicants? The emotional letdown that can follow a peak experience? Survivor’s guilt? Post-traumatic stress? Does Noah’s motivation change how we view Ham’s reaction?

Halachah L’Maaseh

As is well known, the blessing recited over wine (as well as unfermented grape juice) is “borei p’ri ha-gaffen.” If, however, someone drinks a second kind of wine at the same meal (and notwithstanding Noah’s difficulties associated with wine!), the blessing “ha-tov v’ha-meitiv” (“God is good and bestows goodness”) should be recited (see Talmud Berachot 59A; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 175:2). This second blessing is only recited by someone who drinks in the company of others – not by one who drinks alone -- and only before Birkat Ha-Mazon has been recited. The blessing is also omitted if the second wine is known to be of a quality inferior to the first. Furthermore, the blessing is omitted if none of the first wine remains (See Rabbi Moshe Halevy, Birkat Hashem, p. 192). There is a debate as to whether the same blessing (“ha-tov v’ha meitiv”) is repeated for a third variety of wine! The difficulty may be resolved by removing other wines from the table before bringing out the third wine. In that case, all authorities agree that the blessing is to be recited.

Historical Note

Parashat Noah, read on October 29, 2011, describes the well-known episode of the great flood, and of the Noah built to save his family and to preserve progenitors of the various species of animals. This “nautical” Shabbat Parashat Noah is the 200th anniversary of the first Ohio River steamboat, which departed Pittsburgh for New Orleans on October 29, 1811.

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