Noah: Rabbi Avraham
Torah Reading: Noah: Gen. 6.9-11.32. Haftara Isaiah 54:1-55:5 (Sephardi ritual: Isaiah 54:1-10).
Parshas BEREISHIS told the story of the first Ten Generations of the Children of Adam, establishing fundamental facts about the world and man’s existential situation within it. The Parshah of NOAH spans the second Ten Generations, from Noah to Abraham. The Parshah teaches profound lessons about “the generations of Noah”, the families of the earth — the Seventy Nations, their fundamental characteristics, how they interact and are destined to interact until the successful conclusion of human history as we know it in accordance with G-d’s plan.
“G-d will beautify Yafet, and he will dwell in the tents of Shem.” (Genesis 9:27). The genius of human civilization as expressed in Yafet’s art and technology will eventually be devoted to the service of G-d in and through the “Tents of Shem”, houses of prayer and worship of the One G-d — especially in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the House of Prayer for All Nations.
Human history is that of the rise and fall of civilizations. One after the other, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome. reached the heights of power and arrogance, only to enter into decline — just as we see contemporary “civilization” in its decline, with the widespread breakdown of security, social order and moral integrity. The parshah of NOAH teaches us about the global, ecological disaster that comes about in the wake of human arrogance, excess and immorality. When man breaks down the boundaries of restraint, the natural order also breaks down in response. This is expressed in the “bursting forth of the springs of the depth and opening of the windows of heaven” that brought the Waters of the Flood upon a corrupt civilization. The breakdown of ecological harmony is caused by the corruption of civilization. [In our times, the breakdown of the natural order in response to chaos in the human social order also finds expression in the widespread incidence of cancer and similar diseases, which are caused when cell growth exceeds the proper boundaries.]
At the core of the disease of “civilization” in the time of Noah were sexual immorality and violent robbery, both flagrant affronts to the dignity of man, ADAM, created in the image of G-d. “And the land was corrupted and the land was filled with violent robbery. All flesh corrupted his path on the land” (Genesis 6:11-12). The Midrash teaches that the latter sin was that of the spilling of seed — sexual immorality. When man abuses his sexual urge for self-gratification alone rather than elevating it to breed future generations who will glorify G-d, the entire earth is corrupted. The violation of the proper boundaries of personal moral conduct leads to a mentality in which everything is permitted, including violent robbery — HAMAS.
Noah was one who was fighting against the tide of his entire generation: a lone surviving torch-bearer of the religious truths handed down from Adam: belief in the One G-d, HaShem, the Supreme Power — and obedience to His law. Noah alone in his generation saw its corruption. However, Noah lacked the power to rectify it — Noah “went with” G-d, but unlike Abraham, he did not go on ahead “before” Him. Instead, Noah salvaged a remnant: his own family, together with choice representatives of the various species of animals and birds. After the corrupt world was washed clean by the purifying waters of the flood, Noah would build a new world on sound foundations that could endure.
The Ark — The Word: Prayer and Mystical Wisdom
In order to survive the waters of the flood, Noah was commanded to built an ark. The Hebrew word for the “ark” is TEIVAH [not to be confused with TEVA, which means “nature”]. TEIVAH also means a “word”: a word is a vessel that sails the airwaves between my mouth and your ear, bearing a cargo of meaning: the message.
Noah was commanded to bring his wife, his children, their spouses, birds, animals, food, fodder — everything needed to survive — into his “Ark”, the TEIVAH. This teaches us that to survive the stormy waters of life in this world, we too must bring our lives and all our affairs — down to the smallest details — into HA-TEIVAH, “the word”, i.e. the words of our prayers. In order to connect our alienated world back to G-d, we have to bring everything into our words of prayer. We should speak to G-d about everything.
The Holy Zohar, repository of the mystical wisdom of the Torah, teaches that the TEIVAH of Noah also alludes to the mystical teachings of the Kabbalah, which are a vital lifeboat for those seeking to the survive the chaos of the end of time (see RaMChaL, Adir BaMarom). The Kabbalah (which includes Chassidus) reveals the mysteries of the Unity of G-d, teaching us the meaning, purpose and end-goal of the misery-filled, conflict-torn world in which we live. As we navigate the dark, stormy seas of life, the Kabbalah gives guidance, comfort and light: the light of the TSOHAR (=Zohar), the “window” of the Ark (Genesis 6:16).
The theme of words, language and communication is apparent towards the end of the Parshah, in the story of the building of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). As the population of the world expanded in the generations after Noah, man set himself a new goal: to unite in rebellion against G-d. “Let us build for ourselves a city and a tower with its head in the heavens and let us make for ourselves a NAME.” (ibid. 4). Man wanted the “name” for himself — for his own glory — instead of giving all the glory to G-d. However, G-d confounded man — by sowing confusion through the very faculty that is uniquely man’s: speech. Instead of helping people to communicate with each other, the torrents of words they directed at one another simply led to incomprehension, misunderstanding, hatred and violence.
In order to overcome hatred and war, man must develop a new language and a new way of speaking. This will be a feature of the messianic period in the future. “Then I will turn the language of the nations into a pure language so that all of them will call on the Name of G-d to serve Him with one accord” (Zephaniah 3:9). Then all mankind will unite in prayer to the One G-d in the “House of Prayer for all the Nations” in Jerusalem (Isaiah 56:15). This House of Prayer is the Tent of Shem in which Yafet will dwell.
Underlying the present parshah of Noah and the ensuing parshiyos, which tell the story of the patriarchs, is the quest for the Holy Mountain of G-d, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Adam’s body had been created from the dust and earth of the Temple Mount. And “to dust you will return!” — mankind must return to this spot and bring sacrifices in order to attain complete atonement for the “sin of Adam”, which is man’s intrinsic selfishness.
Noah set off on his quest having no idea where he was going. He was commanded to take seven each of all the pure species of animals into the ark. However, it was only after the flood waters subsided that Noah understood through his own powers of reasoning what G-d wanted him to do with them.
“And Noah built an altar to G-d, and he took from all the pure animals and from all the pure birds and offered elevation offerings on the altar” (Genesis 8:20). G-d in His bountiful mercy gave man command over all of nature, allowing him to take what he wants for his needs and desires. What G-d wants of man is to learn and understand Who is the source of this bounty — by restraining himself from taking everything, and offering part of the bounty back to G-d, in acknowledgement. “And G-d smelled the sweet savor.” (ibid. v. 21).
The essence of the concept of KORBAN, a “sacrifice”, is that the offered animal — symbol of our earthly, animal side — is “brought near” (KAROV) and elevated by being brought into the service of G-d in the form of the sacrifice. The sacrifice of a representative of the species elevates the entire species and brings it divine blessing. Noah’s offering after the flood established an archetype for the whole of mankind, his descendants. The ultimate fulfillment of what Noah began will be expressed in the sacrifices in the Future Temple in Jerusalem as prophesied by Ezekiel (ch’s 40ff.).
When man carries out the will of G-d, the purpose of creation is fulfilled and G-d maintains and protects the creation in accordance with His Covenant. In response to Noah’s willingness to fulfill his mission, G-d established His Covenant with him (Genesis 9: 11). The establishment of the Covenant was accompanied by a “Giving of the Law” to Noah and his children, restating their mission in the world and the laws according to which they must conduct their lives. Prominent among these laws are the prohibition of murder (as discussed in BEREISHIS) and the prohibition of the consumption of a limb from a living animal. The sign of G-d’s Covenant with Noah and his offspring is the rainbow, symbolic of how all the different powers of creation — the “colors” — are actually refractions of the unitary “white light” of G-d.
Man’s side of the Covenant
Another of the fundamental laws of G-d’s Covenant with Noah is the prohibition of sexual immorality, which was one of the prime causes of the flood. Allusions to the rectification of sexual immorality are found throughout the Parshah. In order to correct the excesses of the generation of the flood, it was necessary for Noah and his family to practice complete abstinence during the flood itself (Rashi on Genesis 6:18). This is in accordance with Rambam’s teaching (Hilchos De’os, Laws of Attitudes and Personal Conduct 2:2): “If a person was at a far extreme, he has to distance himself from his previous behavior to the opposite extreme and conduct himself this way for a long time until he can return to the good path, which is the middle way.”
“These are the generations of Noah.”The names of Noah’s three sons are repeated several times in the course of the Parshah, indicating that Noah understood that the true purpose of the sexual urge is to create new life and breed children to glorify the name of G-d.
However, Noah himself was unable to rectify the entire world, and after the flood, he himself fell — he planted a vineyard, became drunk from the wine, and was uncovered in his tent. The theme of sexual immorality is uppermost in the story of how Ham “saw his father’s nakedness”. Rashi comments: “Some say he castrated him, some say he had relations with him.” Ham is the archetype of the unbridled sexual heat and passion, which brings man to the depths of degradation. Sexuality has its necessary place in the life of man, but its holiness is preserved only when it is appropriately covered with a cloak of modesty and dignity. This is expressed in Shem and Yafes entering backwards into Noah’s tent, averting their eyes, and covering his nakedness without looking, earning them Noah’s eternal blessing.
The tyranny of Nimrod
After the fall of Noah, the ensuing generations again degenerated. The subtle allusions contained within the Biblical text are discussed and elaborated in the Midrash, which provides many details of the world in the period between Noah and Abraham. This was dominated by Nimrod, the archetype of the G-d-denying tyrant. With the world again falling deeper and deeper into chaos, the Parshah concludes by tracing the lineage of a new prophet. This was one of Noah’s progeny who WAS able to accomplish the rectification of the world, albeit not by himself, but with the help of his progeny, Isaac, Jacob and Jacob’s children. Abraham did not fall. At the end of Parshas NOAH we see Abraham (or Abram as he then was) setting off on HIS journey of destiny — to the Land of Canaan, and eventually to “the Place”, the Mountain of G-d in Jerusalem.