Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Noach, a righteous man, and his three sons Shem, Cham and Yefes
The world becomes corrupted and full of crime and lawlessness
At God’s instruction, Noach builds the Ark for himself, his family and all animals to save them from impending flood that will destroy the world
The flood waters destroy all human and animal life
The waters subside eventually and the Ark rests on the Ararat mountains
Noach, his family and the animals leave the Ark about a year after the Flood began and he offers God animals on an altar that he builds
God promises to never again kill all living things and assures Noach of the continuation of the seasons of the year
Animals become permitted food
Murder and suicide are prohibited
The Noahide Laws
God commands Noach to populate the world
The rainbow is designated as the sign confirming God’s promise that there will never be another flood to destroy the earth
Noach plants a vineyard, gets drunk and is abused by his son Cham (or by his son Canaan)
Noach is 950 years old when he dies
Listing of the descendants of Noach
The nations of the world unite (against God) to build a city and a giant tower
Leaving the Universal History behind, the Torah begins the detailed account of the formation of the Hebrew race by listing the descendants of Noach from his son Shem to Terach, who was father of Avram, Nachor and Haran
Terach leaves his home in Ur Kasdim (Iraq) with Avram and his wife Sarai and his grandson Lot; he heads to the Land of Canaan but only reaches Charan (Turkey) six hundred miles away, where he dies.
The Flood timeline
It takes Noach 120 years to build the Ark (to give the population opportunities to repent)
When Noach is 600 years old, on the tenth day of the second month ,God instructs him to board the Ark with his family; with a couple of each species; with seven couples of animals that later will be deemed suitable for sacrifices; and with sufficient food
A week later, on the seventeenth day of the second month, the wellsprings of the great deep burst forth and the heavens open up and pour down rain for forty days and forty nights
The Ark is lifted, then floats in water that rises to 30 feet higher than the tallest mountain for 110 days
The waters begin to recede and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the Ark rests on the mountains of Ararat
Seventy three days later, on the first day of the tenth month, the tops of ordinary mountains become visible
Noach waits forty days before he opens the Ark window and sends out a raven, a bird of prey that could sustain itself on carrion that would abound if the earth were dry
Seven days later he sends out a dove which, because it feeds on vegetation, would be a better indicator of the status of the earth. The dove does not find any place to land and Noach brings it back into the ark
After seven days the dove is sent out a second time but this time it returns at eve time with a freshly-plucked olive leaf in its mouth
When the dove is sent back out a second time seven days later, it does not return
On the first day of the first month of Noach’s six hundred and first years the waters from the earth had dried up
On the seventeenth day of the second month the earth was completely dry
The Flood Waters
• Water is the universal purifying agent
• Rebirthing process (like amniotic fluid)
• Cataclysmic geological/ environmental event ( including hot lava flows beneath the earth breaking through to the surface) that transformed topography and shortened Man’s life span
• Reversing God’s Creation (e.g., separated waters replaced with merging waters from above and below)
• Providing second chance for humanity to live in accordance with God’s will
On eating meat
Permission is being granted grudgingly, with strict regulations; we are only given a special dispensation to slaughter animals for consumption and not to totally dominate the animal world.
This interpretation is consistent with Rav Abraham Isaac Kook’s world view. Rav Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine, believed that Creation filled the world with harmony between Man and the animal kingdom, the two highest life forms. Initially Man’s food was to consist of vegetables and fruit. But with the moral decay that precipitated the Flood, this harmony was shattered and all Mankind was permitted to be carnivorous.
The killing of animals for food is not an ideal state. Rav S. R. Hirsch notes that in the realm of vegetation there are no plants that are prohibited. Perhaps the Torah seeks to “endorse emphatically the primal state of Man when meat was not allowed as food fit for Man” (Rav Jacobson). But since Man could no longer control himself, says Rav Kook, the Torah channeled these aggressive drives (cannibalism? murder?) to animals, in the hope that Man’s appetite for bloodshed would no longer find expression in killing his fellow Man. In his view, both the rituals relating to slaughtering and the dietary laws were designed to arouse our feelings of injustice committed against the animal kingdom.
The Noahide Laws
According to the Sages these moral imperatives were established for “the children of Noach” (i.e., all of humanity). Any non-Jew who adheres to these laws is regarded as a “righteous gentile”. They are:
• Not worshiping idols
• Not blaspheming God
• Establishing a just court system
• Not murdering
• Not committing adultery
• Not robbing
• Not eating flesh cut from a living animal
The first post-diluvian Man, Noach, was granted a blessing from and a covenant with God. The rainbow was designated to be the Divine reminder of God’s promise never to destroy Man by flood.
Yehuda Valladares thinks that it is the sun and colors of the rainbow soon after a rainfall that get us to think about what might have been. The rainfall could have brought destruction like the Great Flood during Noach’s time. Instead, we are blessed with light, hope and optimism.
Ramban first suggests that the rainbow is shaped like a bow pointing upward, thereby showing that God does not plan to rein arrows down on the world. He notes, further, that combatants will turn their bow the other way to show they want peace. But his conclusion is that there is no need to look for symbolism. The rainbow is a sign because God said so.
On the Tower and the City of Bavel
“The whole earth was of one language [idea? ideology?] and of common purpose.2 And it came to pass, when they migrated from the east they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks and burn them in fire." And the brick served them as stone, and the bitumen served them as mortar. 4And they said, "Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole earth."
5 HASHEM descended to look at the city and tower which the sons of man built, 6 and HASHEM said, "Behold, they are one people with one language for all, and this they begin to do! And now, should it not be withheld from them all they proposed to do?1 Come, let us descend and there confuse their language, that they should not understand one another's language."
8 And HASHEM dispersed them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.9 That is why it (The CITY) was called Babel, because it was there that HASHEM confused the language of the whole earth, and from there HASHEM scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”
At that time the people of the world, who spoke only one language that contained a small vocabulary, migrated Eastward (as viewed from Palestine) and settled in the plain of Shinar –an area that was rich in asphalt, a mineral that could be used in the technology they developed to form bricks by baking them. They hoped for immortality by building a city (that would keep them unified and together) and a towering structure that would reach up to the Heavens. But “Man proposes and God disposes” and He confused their language and scattered them across the face of the earth. The city is left unfinished and is named Bavel because it sounds like balal, the Hebrew word for confusion. Philip Sandos speculates that it was the ancient calendar’s lunar orientation that precipitated the people’s desire to build a stairway to Heaven in order to wrest control of the Moon.
The story is written in two parts of almost equal size. The first section describes Man’s behavior; the second part, God’s response. The Torah’s uses the Hebrew word rayayhu in the phrase “… to one another”. Rayayhu contains the two letter word raysh and ayen which, together, means “friend” but also, ironically, means “wickedness” -- perhaps suggesting that beneath the calm surface of unity and friendship was a raging desire to join together to do evil.
What was this generation’s sin?
The text provides no explicit explanation. The Midrash, focusing on the expression “when they migrated from the east” notes the similarly sounding Hebrew word “kedem”(east) and the phrase “kadmono” shel olam”(before the world existed) which refers to God. The people elected to move away from and to separate themselves from God and his ethics. Rather than acknowledging; being grateful to; and seeking to draw close to God—as did the predecessor Noach and as would do the Patriarchs—they elected to rely on their own strength to become “Masters of the Universe”.
Commentators have perceived this generation’s failings as being relating to a number of ideas including to the hubris of technology and the urge to create a society characterized by totalitarian uniformity of thought and behavior. Following is a sampling of these ideas:
Rashi (1040-1105) draws the contrast between this incident and the Flood story. In the latter the people perished because of their violent anti-social behavior. However, in this story, people lived in harmony and brotherhood with each other (they were one people with one language), so they were not destroyed, only scattered. We need to improve our behavior Bayn Adam L’chaveyro (between one another).
Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) believes that the original Divine plan was for Mankind to disperse. But the people in the story were a boisterous and arrogant bunch who elected to undermine God’s plan by settling in only one area; constructing a city for their residence and erecting a monument for their prestige and self-glorification.
Isaac Arama (1420-1494) sees in this tale a warning about the abuse of technical achievements and political organization. Instead of using the bricks they made for shelter, they considered the manufacture of brick an end itself. Furthermore, they elevated the role of the State to be the most important thing in their lives.
Seforno (1475-1550) focuses on God’s desire to “nip a problem in the bud”. The expression “God descended” is a phrase suggesting Divine evaluation of the longer term consequences of a given behavior, which may not be evident. A society characterized by totalitarian uniformity of thought and behavior eliminates the possibility of arriving at the truth. Only in an open and diverse society where there is free exchange and discussion of ideas and views can the Truth be found. Individuality and cultural pluralism are the paths to progress, not centralization. Religious freedom only exists where economic freedom is found.
Umberto Cassuto (Italian scholar, 1883-1951; professor of Bible at Hebrew University) notes that there is no similar or parallel story found in ancient Babylonian or Near East literature. He concludes that “the narrative essentially represents a protest against the outlook and ideas of these people…a kind of satire” on what the surrounding Babylonian culture considered to be a (vain) glorious thing of beauty. The moral is that in Life, the Divine prevails.
Benno Jacob’s (1862-1955) analysis is that the construction of the gigantic city (and Tower) was an attempt to frustrate God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”. The brick-making technical breakthrough enabled Man to live in places lacking natural building material (like a valley). Technological breakthroughs that free Man from the limitation of natural boundaries can yield enormous benefits, but can also lead to overweening pride and self-aggrandizement. These achievements become an end in themselves rather than a means to advance humanity and its needs. Having the power to create can lead to feeling all-powerful! The Midrash beautifully portrays this behavior as follows: “If (during the course of the construction) a man fell down and died, no attention was paid to him but if (even) one brick fell down they would sit and weep and say Woe betide us, when will another one be hauled up in its place?” Material achievements supplanted moral values. In every generation there is the risk of the technology becoming an object of worship and its developers considering themselves God(ly).This is certainly evident in our time with the profound technological breakthroughs being made in many fields(biotechnology, genetics, internet and computer technologies).
Rav S.R. Hirsch(1808-1888) thinks that they denigrated the importance of the individual relative to the role of the State.
Professor Robert Altman views the story as a polemic against urbanism and against humanity’s over- confidence in its technology achievements. He also notes the Torah’s use of “interechoing words and … a deliberately restricted vocabulary”. There is an elegant symmetry of the words: Man says “hava nilbena” (“let us build”); God responds “hava nayrayd” [“let us descend (to see what is happening)”]. Man worries “lest we be scattered” (pen nafutz); God does in fact scatter them (hefetzam).The words Safa (language) and Aretz (world) each are repeated five times. There are also clever variations: chaymar (bitumen) becomes chomer (mortar); shaym (name), shamayim (heavens) and shaam (there) each contain the shin-mem root .
Why does this incident begin with the statement “The whole earth was of one language”? This is nothing new. This was the situation all along. What purpose is served by repeating this now? Also, why does the Torah utilize and repeat the Hebrew word safa for language instead of using lashon?
Yehuda Valladares thinks this introduction may be a way to further underscore the inappropriate behavior of the people. The opening statement presents a picture of a tranquil, harmonious environment in which the population could and should have devoted their energies in a productive way to dominate the earth, to procreate and to engage in positive activities that would better the world, as God wanted. Instead of turning outward to the world and to God, they became introverted and focused on themselves. Instead of worshipping God, they idolized their technological prowess. Safa can also mean rim or border or limit. Its repeated use may be another way of emphasizing how they purposely and repeatedly constrained, limited and prevented themselves from fulfilling God’s will.
Jason Hoyt thinks that the detailed listing of the descendants of Adam (in parshat Bereshis) and of Noach (in this week’s parsha) is in recognition of each individual’s role in this chain of the selection process through which God singles out the Hebrew people from around the surrounding populations.
Marty Langert notes the lack of mention of the women thus far. But this changes when the Torah recounts the family of Avram, suggesting that it was only when civilization finally stabilized and when the roots of the Hebrew nation began sprouting that it became especially urgent to describe the critical influence of mothers, daughters and sisters on our (and society’s) evolution.
The re birth of Mankind after the Flood brought with it a series of structural changes that were deemed necessary for survival. These include:
o The Noahide laws-- without which civilization cannot exist
o Permission to eat meat-- as a means to re-channel our inherent aggressions away from humans to animals
o Prohibition of ingesting blood --as a way of curtailing pagan ritual and belief
o Promise of no repetition of the frightening world-wide devastation by flooding
o Public and permanent reminder of this divine promise and covenant in the form of a rainbow
Differences between the Torah’s story of the Deluge and other flood stories of antiquity. The Babylonian parallel story in particular “is unethical and polytheistic, devoid of any uniform or exalted purpose, and lacking in reverence and restraint” states Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz. The Torah focuses on justice as the basis for human society. Noach, who was saved by virtue of his being righteous and blameless in a perverse generation, was worthy of being God’s instrument for inaugurating a new era of humanity. This ethic contrasts with the Babylonian story in which celestial caprice and favoritism prevail; only trickery and being “superlatively clever” assure success; and gods quarrel.
A contemporary scholar, Dr. Shalom Holtz, points out the fundamentally differing concepts of the relationship between humans and the divine inherent in the differing Flood stories. In the Mesopotamian Epic the gods, whose main concern is overpopulation, bring on a flood after which they take steps to prevent the problem from recurring. These include human infertility, infant mortality and social institutions forbidding certain women from marrying.
The post-diluvian fresh start in the Torah story stands in sharp contrast. God directs Noach and family to repopulate and promises no repeat flood. Furthermore, He restricts violence against animals and outlaws violence between humans. Humanity is blessed with God’s covenant. Optimism and hope prevail; Mankind is given a second chance to thrive, but only by building a lawful society.