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Torah Sparks

Parashat Noah - Rosh Hodesh Heshvan
October 25, 2014 – 1 Heshvan 5775

Annual (Genesis 6:9-11:32): Etz Hayim p. 41; Hertz p. 26
Triennial (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, 23): Etz Hayim, p. 1220; Hertz p. 944

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

Noah, God’s last hope for humanity, is commanded to build an ark in which to carry his family and two of every animal on earth. Forty days of rain ensue, with Noah and crew safely on board. Noah later sends a raven and then a dove to find signs of the reappearance of land. Once the Ark has run aground, God displays a rainbow as a sign of the covenant, promising that the world will not be destroyed by flooding again. God then reveals several basic rules for all of humanity to follow.

In later years, Noah plants a vineyard, and one day becomes intoxicated and strips out of his clothing. His son Ham discovers this and tells his brothers Shem and Yafet; the latter two cover up their father. When Noah awakens and finds out what happened, he curses Ham and his descendants while blessing his other sons and their families.

Later, a group of people attempt to build a tower to reach the sky, in an effort to stay together. God foils this attempt by giving each person a different language to speak, thus confounding the project. Ten more generations come and go, culminating in our introduction to Abram.

Theme #1: The Four Seasons

The Lord smelled the pleasing odor, and the Lord said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done. So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:21-22)

God promises that the flood would be a one-time occurrence -- yet potentially opens the door for other forms of destruction in the future. The generation of the Flood lived in idleness. They had no physical labor to do. According to the Midrash they needed to sow their fields only once to obtain crops for the next 40 harvests. Besides, they did not have the Torah to occupy their minds. Hence they became corrupt and wanton. Lack of work and cares, they drifted into sin and had to be destroyed. But now God accepted the sweet savor of Noah’s sacrifice and regretted the evil He had decreed. -- Kametz HaMinha

“Man and beast you save, Lord” (Psalms 36:7) -- You save man in merit of the animal, O Lord! … This verse refers to Noah. The Holy One said: All the kindness I did for Noah in the ark was not for him but for the great mountains. … When I remembered him it was not he that I remembered alone, but … “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the livestock” (Genesis 8:1). -- Genesis Rabbah

The Lord, who has never said that mankind, even by inclusion in the goodness of creation, was good, repeats even at this moment that “the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth”; that is, mankind is born evil, incorrigible. And were it not for the pleasing odor of the burnt offering, what would the outcome have been? The Lord has not planned every step of the flood in advance. His anger, and the violence that arose from it, was an interpersonal outburst of temper; it was a morose reaction without any clear consciousness of just what that human evil consisted of. His promise to refrain from further catastrophic violence is altogether unpremeditated and still lacks any stipulation of what he wants mankind to do or refrain from doing. -- Jack Miles, God: A Biography

Questions for Discussion:

Kametz HaMinha believes that when people are inactive, their minds drift toward sin. How can an active life keep us from wandering off a proper path? Does having a life of structure keep us focused on what is truly important? Or does it just keep us focused? What are some effective ways to keep ourselves active (physically, intellectually, emotionally)?

The excerpt from Genesis Rabbah claims that Noah himself is not a major reason why God saves the earth -- God seems to save it for the sake of all of Creation, with humanity being simply one aspect of it. If we accept this interpretation, would it cause us to rethink our understanding of the verse near the beginning of the Torah portion that "Noah was good in his generation" -- was he good, or simply the best of a bad lot?

Miles wonders whether God has revealed much of a criteria for destroying or not destroying humanity. Are there any indications in this Torah portion that God understands human evil better than before? Do the later episodes of Noah's drunkenness and the Tower of Babel hint that, while God might not be thrilled, God is at least more patient of human foibles? Does it make sense that the worst punishment in biblical history is given prior to the revelation of the rules of the Torah?

Theme #2: Under the Influence

Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. (Genesis 9:20-22)

The epilogue to the story of Noah is unsettling; the hero of the story of the flood appears all too human as he loses self-control, in full view of his family. Our hopes for the new Adam are short-lived; almost immediately we have to watch Noah’s fall from grace. Like Adam, he was a “man of the soil,” and was “the first to plant a vineyard” (9:20). After drinking some of the wine, he became intoxicated and fell into a drunken stupor. His youngest son, Ham, saw Noah lying naked in his tent … Adam and Eve had experienced their naked vulnerability after the fall, but Noah’s grotesque nudity lacks their pathos. It is a sign of the decline of humanity since Eden. Noah, the “righteous man,” lacked the spiritual resources to survive the trauma of the Flood. Damaged by his experience, he abused himself, his children, and the gift of the vine. When we woke, he refused to take responsibility for his state but immediately projected his guilt and selfdisgust onto an innocent party, his grandson Canaan, the son of Ham. -- Karen Armstrong, In The Beginning

The end of Noah’s story is his first speech. Noah’s only words come close after he has drunk the wine that celebrates his return to the world of ecstasy. He sleeps -- for the first time in 12 months? -- and unspeakable things are done to him by Ham, his son. He wakes, he knows, and he curses and blesses his children. Instead of the wicked being destroyed by God, they are from this point on described by man. Noah, dumb till now, takes over God’s role of blessing and cursing. -- Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire

This passage is maddeningly obscure. First, why is Noah so enraged at Ham’s act? Possibly, the words “saw his father’s nakedness” are a euphemism for some perverse sexual act Ham performed on his drunken father. Supporting this interpretation is the fact that the Bible commonly uses the expression “to uncover someone’s nakedness” -- similar to, although not the same as, “saw his father’s nakedness” -- as a euphemism for sexual relations. If that is the case, Noah’s wrath would be understandable. On the other hand, the Bible’s own words, and the reaction of Ham’s two brothers, suggest that all Ham did was look upon his father, a humiliating thing to do, certainly, but undeserving, it would seem, of the wrath it evokes. -- Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy

Questions for Discussion:

Armstrong thinks that Noah, like Adam before him, cannot handle being the torch-bearer for humanity. While we are accustomed to flawed human beings, Noah and Adam each seem to make one mistake that makes them unworthy of the relationship that God eventually has with Abraham. What do the characters of Noah and Adam say about the kind of human that God wishes to share in a covenant of a sacred nation? Why don’t Noah and Adam measure up? What sets Abraham apart later?

Zornberg writes that Noah, after remaining dutiful and passive during the days of the flood, finally is empowered to act when embarrassed by a loved one. Has this aspect of Noah’s personality always been present, but invisible to this point? Or has the experience with surviving the flood made him bolder? Why is this episode the tipping point that allows us to see Noah’s pro-active side?

Telushkin wonders whether Noah’s reaction to Ham is over-the-top. Is Telushkin too hard on Noah? Isn’t the shame of nakedness that Adam and Eve once displayed reflected in Noah’s reaction? Or is this simply the unfettered reaction of someone suffering from a hangover? But if that is the case, does it justify Noah’s reaction?

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