file Musings on Parshas Noach

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1 year 3 weeks ago #791 by Heshy Berenholz
Musings on Parshas Noach was created by Heshy Berenholz
I believe that:

• Each of us is duty-bound to examine the secrets of the Torah on our own to investigate the meaning of the Torah in accordance with our own mind’s understanding
• Torah is poetry and not always literal
• Torah records for us the history of our people and our unique relationship with God. Perhaps it is for us to take a mirror to ourselves and, armed with understanding of (or at least recognition of) our emotions, confront and re-channel our energies to become better people by living the Torah’s ethical and moral values
• Torah text needs to be understood in the context of the time that it was written. It is for us to put ourselves into Torah to extract its fundamental, timeless, human values

Parsha Life Lessons

The Torah “stories” in this parsha demonstrate behavioral norms necessary for Society to exist and to flourish.

From the Flood narrative we learn that:

No Society can survive if permeated with...

 Corruption
 Lawlessness
 Thievery

The City and Tower of Bavel saga warns us that:

No Society can survive when…

 Technological breakthroughs that free Man from the limitation of natural boundaries lead to overweening pride and self-aggrandizement

 Material achievements supplant moral values. In every generation there is the risk of the technology becoming an object of worship and its developers considering themselves God(ly).

 Society is one of totalitarian uniformity of thought and behavior. Such an atmosphere precludes 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.

 The importance of the individual is denigrated relative to the role of the State

Topics Discussed

 Overview
 The Flood
 The Flood Timeline
 A Re-Creation Saga
 Differences between the Torah’s Story of the Deluge and Other Flood Stories of Antiquity
 The Man Noach
 Noach’s Reluctance to Leave the Ark after the Flood
 Noach’s Personality Change after the Flood
 On Eating Meat
 Blood prohibitions:
o Consuming it
o Taking another’s life
o Self-injury and suicide
o Publicly humiliating a person is like killing him (Chafetz Chaim)
 The Noahide Laws
 The Rainbow
 On the Tower and the City of Bavel
 What Was That Generation’s Sin?
 Torah “Stories” Run Deep


 Noach, a righteous man, sires three sons Shem, Cham and Yefes
 The world becomes corrupted with crime and lawlessness and is ultimately destined to be destroyed because of Mankind’s rampant thievery
 God instructs Noach to build an Ark for to save himself, his family and all animal life, from the impending flood
 The flood waters destroy all human and animal life (but not fish, perhaps because they were able to swim away)
 The waters subside eventually and the Ark rests on the Ararat mountains
 Noach, his family and the animals leave the Ark a year after the Flood started
 Noach offers up animals to God on an altar that he builds
 God commits Himself to never destroy Mankind again
 The rainbow (which existed already) is selected to serve as a reminder of God’s commitment to never again bring a repeat of the flood; He promises Noach that there will never again be a disruption of the seasons of the year
 Animals become permitted food for Mankind
 Murder and suicide are prohibited
 The Noahide Laws
 God commands Noach to populate the world
 Noach plants a vineyard, gets drunk and is abused by his son Cham (or by his grandson Canaan)
 Noach is 950 years old when he dies
 Listing of the descendants of Noach
 The nations of the world unite against God and start to build a city and a giant tower (later named Bavel). But because of their self-aggrandizement and rebellious behavior, God confounds their speech and scatters them
 Having completed the history of the development of Mankind, the Torah begins the detailed history of the formation of the Hebrew race (which ultimately would become God’s chosen nation)
 A listing of the generations of Noach’s descendants from his son Shem to Terach, 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
• Cleansing process through water, the universal purifying agent
• Symbolic “rebirth” of Mankind (like amniotic fluid)
• Cataclysmic geological/ environmental event (including hot lava flows beneath the earth breaking through to the surface) that transformed topography; fossilized existent human, animal and plant life; and shortened Man’s life span
• Wiped out/dissolved all life (except fish) beyond recognition
• Global or local? Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman thinks—and scientific investigation supports— that the Flood was limited to centers of human habitation (in Mesopotamia), rather than covering the whole earth… Others reason that the world’s land mass was a supercontinent (Pangea) and it was this cataclysmic flood that caused it to break apart into continents that exist today.
• The Lubavitcher Rebbe views the flood as more than a punishment in that it purified the world and made people more attuned to repentance
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 (either Cheshvan or Iyar), God instructs him to board the Ark with…
• His family
• A male and female from each animal species
• Seven couples of animals from species that later will be deemed suitable for sacrifices
• Enough food
 A week later, on the seventeenth day of the second month, the wellsprings of the great deep (hot lava?) burst forth; the heavens open and the world experiences seismic upheaval, tidal waves and torrential downpours. Water from above and below continues 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 (in present-day Turkey)
 Seventy-three days later, on the first day of the tenth month, the tops of ordinary mountains become visible
 Noach waits forty days before opening the Ark window and sends out a raven, a bird of prey that could sustain itself on carrion, that would not return if the earth were dry. But the raven refuses to go and circles around the Ark
 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, not finding any dry place to land returns and Noach brings it back into the ark
 After seven days more the same (or another) dove is sent out in the morning but this time it returns at eve-time with a freshly-plucked olive leaf in its mouth
 When the dove is sent back out again 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.

A Saga of Re-Creation
Rabbi David Fohrman focuses on the correspondence of events in the original creation story and those reported here. The destruction of the earth by the flood sets the stage for a second chance for humanity to live in accordance with God’s will:

The New World of Man is different from God’s original creation in that Man is given greater dominion over animal life [they will now also fear him] and is also permitted to eat certain animals (that have been slaughtered properly). Also, God promises to never destroy Mankind.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the original creation story focused on the uniqueness of the individual--I am made in God’s image. After the flood, the focus is not on ourselves but on others who also are made in His image. The emphasis is on relationships and acceptance of others “whose colour, class, culture or creed is different from mine”. The operative and seven-time repeated word is “covenant”, which is a moral bond between people. Rabbi Sacks concludes that “The great religious challenge is: Can I see a trace of God in the face of a stranger?”

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 Biblical story of the Deluge possesses an intrinsic power to stir the conscience of the world, and it was written with this educational and moral end in view. Of this end there is no trace in the Deluge records outside the Bible”, concludes Alfred Jeremias (nineteenth century expert on the religions of the Near East, quoted by Rabbi Hertz).

The Torah focuses on justice as the basis for human society. Noach, who was saved by 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…
o No ethical reason is given for the deluge (other than the loud, annoying noise made by Humankind)
o Celestial caprice and favoritism prevail
o Only trickery and being “superlatively clever” assure success
o Deities quarrel and engage in subterfuge

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 was overpopulation, bring on a flood to reduce the number of people. They then take additional steps to prevent recurrence of this “problem” by focusing on human infertility, infant mortality and social institutions forbidding certain women from marrying.

But in the post-diluvium era, God directs Noach and family to repopulate and promises no repeat flood. Furthermore, He restricts violence against animals and prohibits 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.

The Man Noach

The Torah describes Noach as Ish Tzadik (righteous man) who walked “with the support of God”. Rabbi Marc Angel sees this as a testament to Noach who focused entirely on his relationship with God and was not shaken or troubled by the ugliness and evil of the everyday life in the Society of which he was a part. He had the inner strength to remain separated from the prevailing corrupt and sinful behavior surrounding him. Ultimately “Noach found favor in the eyes of God”.

The name Noach also means calm or serene. The lesson here, states the sixteenth century sage, Rabbi Elazar Azikri, is that calmness and serenity are the things that find Divine favor. Thus, concludes Rabbi Angel, the extremely arduous task of maintaining one’s spiritual equilibrium and internal strength in the face of external events or words (just as Noach did) “is the way to maintain inner strength, balance and righteousness”.

Rashi contrasts Noach’s relationship with God with that of Avraham who on his own could act with righteousness and who took the initiative to demand Divine justice from God even when it meant questioning, disagreeing and arguing with Him.

Sandra Gottesman thinks that Noach’s behavior vis-a-vis Avraham’s may reflect the difficult environment in which he was raised, surrounded by evil and anti-social behavior. That he could lift himself up and out of this environment is to his enormous credit. He also seems less involved with his children. When describing Avraham, the Torah states “These are the generations of Avraham, Avraham gave birth to Yitzchak” suggesting how deeply tied up the father’s life was with the sons. Regarding Noach, however, the Torah merely reports that Noach sired three sons and lists their names without referring to his own father.

Elliot Allen views the differences between Avraham and Noach as part of an evolutionary, maturing process for Mankind. Adam and his generation focused on the I, on themselves. Over time, people began to interact with one another. Noach appears to have been unable or unwilling to go to the next level to be concerned about or help others. It takes the passage of time until Avraham arrives on the scene. He is the example we are to emulate – an individual who lives his life in an honorable, unassuming manner who is also anxious to help others in need even if it means arguing with God.

Guila Kotler finds support for this approach in an earlier verse, where the Torah states “These are the chronology of the skies and the earth when they were created”. The letters that form the single word “when they were created” can be rearranged to form the name Avraham. It’s as if the Creation is awaiting the arrival of this extraordinary human being who represents the totality of the desired human persona.

Miriam Nathan notes that Noach seemed to have a more inward-facing, introverted personality as symbolized by being enclosed in the ark for nearly a year and then, later in his life, confining himself to his tent.

Noach appears to lack compassion for the world’s inhabitants that were about to be destroyed. He utters no words of concern nor pleads with them to mend their ways to save themselves. Though a righteous man, this was a fatal character flaw.

Noach accepts God’s plan for destruction without question; he just obeys and does as he is told. Furthermore, he does not even try to convince the people of the world to repent to prevent imminent destruction.

Noach’s Reluctance to Leave the Ark after the Flood

The Midrash states:
“Once the waters had abated, Noah should have left the ark. However, Noah said to himself, ‘I entered with God’s permission, as it says, “Go into the ark” (Bereishit 7:1). Shall I now leave without permission?’ The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, ‘Is it permission, then, that you are seeking? Very well, then, here is permission,’ as it is said: [Then God said to Noah] ‘Come out of the ark’ (Bereshit 8:15). Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai said: If I had been there, I would have broken down the ark and taken myself out.”

Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo sees in this a subtle criticism of the kind of religious behavior [that, unfortunately, we see so much of today] that “stifles human autonomy, action, innovation and responsibility”. Noach believes that there is no room for religious initiative and creativity, that one cannot make a move unless God expressly sanctions or dictates it—even when it comes to as important a task as rebuilding a broken world! Noach refuses to challenge God and to take initiative. Instead, he hides behind the letter of the law and fails to demonstrate the courage that was so badly needed then. It is this thinking and this behavior that Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai rails against. [Note: Rabbi Sacks quotes his teacher, Rabbi Dr. Nachum Rabinovitch, who drew a comparable moral: “…when it comes to rebuilding shattered world, you do not wait for permission. God gives us permission. He expects us to go on ahead.”]

Rabbi Cardozo sees the Ark as a metaphor for one’s physical and mental ghetto-- a place of security, “an oasis in the storm of human pain and upheaval.” The lone window is on the roof facing up only to heaven, to God. There are no other windows to see what’s happening in the world and to help others in trouble and to respond to their cries for help. Noach does nothing beyond the stated religious obligations. He attends to his family and to the other living creatures on board because he was commanded to. He is the very frum one, the one who lives by his blind obedience, believing that he cannot possibly know the difference between right and wrong and, therefore, must not veer from the exact words of God. He feels his belief and his behavior are the pinnacle of religiosity.

Is Noach the ideal embodiment of religious behavior? A better, more authentic model among the ancients is Avraham Avenu who had the courage of his self-found faith to question the validity of the idols belonging to his father-- and then destroy them. He is the one who later would contest God’s decision to destroy Sedom and Amora, arguing that the outcome would be unjust. Had it been him and not Noach, Avraham would have, no doubt…

 Argued with God about the decision to destroy all Mankind.
 Traveled among the population begging them and pleading with them to change their ways to head off the looming disaster.
 Broken down the door to get out as fast as he could when the Ark settled on Ararat to see how he could help the suffering and assist in the rebuilding process.

Rabbi Cardozo reminds us that authentic Judaism is based on the covenant between Man and God in which Man is called upon…

 To be creative (Ramban made the same point)
 To be a partner with Him
 To build (or rebuild) the world with God-given tools
 To stand on his own two feet and to make his own decisions

Religion is war says the Kotzker Rebbe. “It is a fight against indolence and callousness that stifles personal responsibility”.

Noach’s Personality Change after the Flood

Initially Noach was called a Tzadik, a pious and honest individual. After the flood he is described as ish adamah, a person of the land who first plants a vineyard then withdraws from the world and confines himself to his tent in a drunken stupor. [He may have been suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder brought on by witnessing the devastation of the flood.] “Vayisgal b’soch a’halow” means “he made himself naked inside his tent” but can also be translated to mean “he revealed himself” [i.e., he showed his new, true personality].He may have been withdrawn and depressed, perhaps trying to escape from his mental state by hiding under the covers of his bed, always staying “inside his tent”.

Noach, who is credited by the Sages for having invented the plow, is also the world’s first recorded winemaker. Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber notes that in the tabulation of the generations from Adam to Noach, everyone’s identification includes how long he lived, the children that he sired (who are named, without explanation) and that he died. All except for Lemech about whom the text explains in extensive detail why he gave his son the name Noach-- “he begot a son and he called him Noach saying ‘this one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which god had placed under a curse’.”

Man’s fate was to have to work the land by the sweat of his brow to grow the grains needed for consumption and survival. There is no better way to forget one’s toils than by drinking wine. So, it was this wine from his vineyard that, ironically, was the realization of the explanation of Noach’s name: “this one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.”

Rabbi Farber notes the thematic parallels between the stories of Adam, Kayin and Noach in that each was a tiller of the land and each story ends in sin. Furthermore, another commonality between Noach and the descendants of Kayin is that each was an inventor:

• Yaval’s offspring were shepherds
• Yuval’s offspring played the lyre and the pipe
• Tuval-Kayin forged implements of copper and iron.

On Eating Meat

Permission is being granted grudgingly, with strict regulations. We are given a special dispensation to slaughter animals for consumption.

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, writes 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 rooted in a covenant established for “the children of Noach” (i.e., all of humanity). It is a legal relationship implicit in the adherence to ethical commandments. Any non-Jew who embraces these laws is regarded as a “righteous gentile”. The laws 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 Rainbow

The first post-diluvial 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.

Ira Schmookler thinks that the shape of the rainbow is reminiscent of a shield, symbolizing that Mankind will be shielded from destruction.

Ramban first suggests that the rainbow is shaped like a bow pointing upward, thereby showing that God does not plan to rain 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. And it came to pass, when they migrated from the east they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 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. And 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."

HASHEM descended to look at the city and tower which the sons of man built, 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? Come, let us descend and there confuse their language, that they should not understand one another's language."

And HASHEM dispersed them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. That is why it (The CITY) was called Bavel, 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 spoke one language that contained a small vocabulary (Hebrew? primitive Semitic Hebrew precursor?). They 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 to form bricks by baking them thanks to a new technology they had developed. 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 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 uses the Hebrew word “rayayhu” in the phrase “… to one another”. “rayayhu” contains the Hebrew letters “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 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 Him; being grateful to Him; and seeking to draw close to Him—as did the predecessor Noach and as would do the Patriarchs—they elected to rely on themselves to become “Masters of the Universe”.

Some commentators conclude that this generation’s failing was its hubris following the technology it created and its urge to create a society with totalitarian uniformity of thought and behavior. Following is a sampling of these ideas:
o Rashi (1040-1105) emphasizes their antagonistic attitude towards God— “v’naase L’ANU shaym” (“let us make a name for ourselves”). They excluded God from their aspirations and focused instead on their own goals and abilities. He also 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. The moral of the story is that We need to improve our behavior “bayn adam l’chaveyro “(between one another).

o Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) writes 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.

o 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 in and of itself. Furthermore, they elevated the role of the State to be the most important thing in their lives.

o Seforno (1475-1550) focuses on God’s desire to “nip a problem in the bud”. The people wanted to create a new god to rule over them. The expression “God descended” is a phrase meaning Divine evaluation of the longer-term consequences of a given behavior, which may not be evident now. They tried to impose one religion on mankind. But 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-- not centralization --are the paths to progress. Religious freedom only exists where economic freedom is found.

o 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.

o 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 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 breakthroughs being made in many fields (Artificial Intelligence, biotechnology, genetics, internet and computer technologies).

o Rav S.R. Hirsch (1808-1888) thinks that they denigrated the importance of the individual relative to the role of the State. Furthermore, as God observed the construction, He realized that their connection to Him and His language “withered”, causing each group to create its own vocabulary and language [Note: this interpretation is based on translating the word “navla” to mean “withering” rather than “mixing”.]

o 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”? Also, why does the Torah utilize and repeat the Hebrew word “safa” for language instead of using the more common Hebrew word “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.

Torah Stories Run Deep

Torah narratives contain within them universal truths or life behavior patterns for us to develop.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, the stories of the Flood and Bavel are not merely historical, because the Torah is not a book of history but a book about teaching and about ethics. “They are there because they represent a profound moral-social-political-spiritual truth about the human situation as the Torah sees it. The Flood tells us what happens to civilization when individuals rule and there is no collective. Bavel tells us what happens when the collective rules and individuals are sacrificed to it.”

The Torah lists the many descendants of Noach’s three sons and outlines how they evolved into many nations living in different geographic areas. Then one or more imperial power(s) vanquished the other nations and imposed their language and culture on them, directly contravening God’s intent that humans respect the integrity of each nation and the dignity of everyone. The story of Bavel is a critique of the power of the collective when it crushes individuality. When at the end of the story God “confuses the language” of the builders, He is not creating a new situation but restoring the old.


 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 everyone’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 change 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 rebirth 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-- 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

The Hebrew word for the tar that was used by Noach to coat the ark both inside and outside is “kofer”. But that Hebrew root-word can also mean forgiveness, as in Yom Kippur. Guila Kotler theorizes that the implicit idea is that the ark was to be reinforced both inside and out to provide a secure space in which the human passengers could engage in repentance and pray for forgiveness.

Rabbi H. L. Berenholz, C.F.A.

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