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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Parashat Noach

Updated: Nov 3, 2019


Parashat Noach

Cheshvan 4, 5780 – November 2, 2019

Torah Reading: Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

Haftarah: Isaiah 54: 1-10



Welcome back everyone to this week’s “Torah for the Earth” audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Noach – the parashah of Noah and the story of the Flood. The premise of this parashah is something that I am sure most of us are – at least – somewhat familiar with, as it is a story that has woven its way into movies, music, and many forms of popular culture over the years. It is a story that is given much thought and attention, as Noah is positioned as a significant intermediary in the genealogy of humankind between Adam and Abraham. (1) It is also a notable parashah, in that it contains an incident which sparks intense criticism of alcohol consumption – the only instance, in fact, in all of Torah, that is discussed in such a way. Noah builds an Ark, a great Flood inundates the world, and humanity is forced to rebuild. G-d establishes a covenant with Noah, the Sheva Mitzvot B’Nei Noach are given (these are the Seven Noachide Laws), and an unfortunate event between Noah and his son Ham occurs. The Midrash then tells us that 340 years pass from the time of the Flood to the story of the Towel of Babel (2), during which the whole world spoke one language and united to rebel against G-d. In response to this betrayal, G-d then “confused the language of the whole earth, and…scattered them [those involved]...” throughout the world (11:9) The parashah then concludes with a list of the ten generations from Noah to Abraham.


The first verse of Parashat Noach is quite curious in that it begins with the statement “These are the offspring of Noah,” which is then followed by a line which praises him as “a righteous man [ish tzadik],” before the mention of his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (6:9) Rashi (i.e. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), who is a medieval French Talmudist known for his commentary on Torah, points out that “according to the Midrash, the Torah means to teach that the primary ‘offspring’ of the righteous are their good deeds, for the worthwhile things that a person does are [their] primary legacy.” (3) While there is no doubting that Noah was a righteous man, given he was the one chosen to lead those who would be saved from the Flood, this interpretation of Rashi alludes to the relativeness of righteousness and its association with action (i.e. verb-based). Let me explain. Following the description of Noah as a “righteous man” is the phrase “perfect in his generations.” (6:9) Some Sages maintain that Noah was righteous, even in a world that was corrupt and falling apart. It is to his credit that he remained steadfast to his work, and if he had been born in another time – amongst the company and influence of other righteous people – he would have climbed to even greater heights. On the other hand, some Sages are more critical, suggesting that Noah would have been insignificant if he lived – say – in the time of Abraham. (4) It is this comparison that presses me to wonder: am I doing enough in my own time? Would the ecological actions that I’m taking now stand the test of time within a truly sustainable generation?


I do believe that there are indeed steps, however small, that we can take which clearly and obviously help ourselves and the planet. This may include riding a bike instead of driving a car, eating organic food and sourcing that food from local farmers, moderating the films we watch or abstaining from forms of entertainment that contain violence, composting, buying our clothes and other products from ethical supply chains, using renewable energy, praying, or even meditating. Any actions that move us in a direction of living a more compassionate and mindful life in relation to the sustainability of the planet are deeds that are to be honored and reinforced. But we must also must reach a point in our lives when we examine the paradigms that house those goods deeds, and question whether they need to be challenged as well. For example, perhaps I’m buying organic food and ethical clothing, but I buy those products online and have them delivered in boxes with plastic packaging. I may put that plastic, and those boxes, in my recycling bin at the end of the week, but I don’t know – truly – what happens to those materials or if they are even able to be recycled. The point here is that conscious consumerism, while a step in the right direction, is still consumerism, which is a paradigm that must be broken if we are to make a lasting change with respect to our impact on the earth. Even if we are to decentralize the deeds which govern a paradigm (through our own actions), at what point must we learn to entirely detach from that variety of living? And this begs the question: While Noah may have been surrounded by extremely wicked people and corrupt behavior, is there anything he changed about the existing paradigms that drove human beings to the edge before the Flood?


There are many transitions that occurred after the Flood, both to the world and to the laws that were to guide human behavior. For starters, G-d did make a concession that was not in place before the Flood, and that was the permission to eat meat. It may seem strange to read about the prohibition against eating a limb torn from a live animal, but – when placed within the context of what occurred before the flood – it’s entirely necessary. (5) B’ezrat Hashem, in future commentaries I will address what the Torah says about blood, but suffice it to say that the natural order between humans and animals (and humans and humans for that matter) broke down, which is why animals lost their innate fear of human beings. This was restored after the Flood, which is not so much about humans being superior to animals, but about humans living by their highest nature, which maintains a particular order to the world and a specific relationship amongst its inhabitants. In Genesis 1, human beings are granted dominion over the earth, but this is before human beings leave Gan Eden and alter the modes of their subsistence. Adam and Eve weren’t in the Garden planting vineyards and eating meat, which – perhaps – is a point that alludes to the despair Noah feels after leaving the Ark. My speculation is that Noah realizes that, although the world has been restored in some sense, the course of action that humans must take to fulfill G-d’s will has also been altered, and Noah is mournful of this change.


The Midrash tells us that there is progression and regression in the service of G-d, and there are two basic approaches to our course of action: “The first is to withdraw from society and focus entirely, in undisturbed seclusion, on one’s own spiritual growth. The second is to become active in the community and to devote oneself, even sacrifice oneself, for the physical and spiritual well-being of others.” (6) The Midrash teaches that Noah chose the latter course of action, preferring to focus on the perfection of his own character and to not extend himself for other people. While Noah did ascend the ladder of righteousness, for a time, he eventually fell from that status to be described as a “man of the earth.” (9:20) Taken within the context of the line, “Noah, the man of the earth, debased himself and planted a vineyard” – ‘man of the earth’ is meant to relay a negative connotation, and suggest a regression in the service of G-d; a fall, if you will. But I would make the argument that there is much more complexity in this line, which includes a progressive variety of devotion on the part of Noah. I have read bits of Midrash addressing the incident with Ham in Noah’s tent after he fell drunk. Some accounts explain that Ham meant to injure Noah in some way so that he couldn’t have a fourth child, which would have encroached on the territory that Shem, Ham, and Japheth were due to inherit. (7) When you couple this with the prophecy Noah later gives about the destiny of his sons, I certainly wonder to what extent Noah could foresee the future of the world, and whether his descent to becoming a man of the earth was an act of defiance in service of G-d. Firstly, the definite article is used to describe Noah as ‘the’ man of the earth, ish ha-adamah, implying that the earth was saved by him and him alone. This we know, but it is more to the point that Noah dedicated himself to working with and cultivating the earth, rather than building cities – which is a significant aspect of his character given what would unfold later with the Tower of Babel. Second, the word for earth used here is adamah, rather than aretz. Aretz is used when referencing the top layer of the earth – the three handbreadths of the earth that were wiped clean by the flood. The lesson here is that, perhaps, Noah remained resolute to a moral stance and conviction that was unchanging, and that could persist beyond any flood, or city built, or paradigm shift. Perhaps Noah was after something deeper, something closer to G-d. (8) It is my belief that Noah, as a righteous man (a tzadik) was somehow absorbing the shame and punishment of the generations to come by suffering on their behalf. (9) This is, perhaps, the principal paradigm shift that occurred after the flood – a shift that required a change of service to G-d, and a revision of the type of sacrifice needed for the spiritual well-being of others.


With that being said, I will leave you with this to ponder: If Noah did indeed absorb the shame and punishment of future generations, then how does that reflect on us – in the current ecological crisis – who are oftentimes said to have stolen the future of the next generation? How do our actions compare to a truly sustainable society and how can we become righteous people for the earth and for generations to come? (10)


Thank you all for listening. If you found this audio essay at all interesting, and want to hear more, I have uploaded a speech I gave last May on the moral parallels between our present day (the Age of the Anthropocene) and pre-flood (Antediluvian Era) frameworks. It can be found under the Transformational Media tab, in the podcast section, of the Deep Water Initiative website. Catch you next week. Goodbye for now.


Listen to this Podcast



Works Cited:

(1) There were ten generations from Adam to Noah, and ten generations from Noah to Abraham.

(2) Shuchat, Noah, the Flood and the Failure of Man, p.42

(3) Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.30

(4) Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.31

(5) Shuchat, Noah, the Flood and the Failure of Man, p.33 – This commandment – ever min hachai, tearing a limb from an animal – is the one commandment (of seven) that Noah received, as the other six were inherited from Adam.

(6) Kleinman Edition Midrash Rabbah, 36 §3 41

(7) Shuchat, Noah, the Flood and the Failure of Man, p.371 and p.378

(8) Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.39 – When Noah is commanded to leave the Ark, G-d uses the Name Elohim, which has the same numerical value as the nature. This is to re-emphasize the point the “G-d controls all natural phenomena.”

(9) Kleinman Edition Midrash Rabbah, 33 §3 71 and 72 – “A basic principle in Jewish thought is that a tzaddik can benefit his generation by suffering on their behalf…the tzaddik’s suffering appeases the Divine Attribute of Justice, which demands that the generation be punished on account of its sins. The tzaddik, by accepting some of that punishment upon himself, spares his brethren and atones for their sins…Every punishment in this world is meant to teach a lesson – through one of two methods of instruction. Either the sinner receives the punishment himself and derives the relevant lesson therefrom; or a tzaddik, in his love for his people, takes on the punishment…”

(10) Shuchat, Noah, the Flood and the Failure of Man, p.24 – Noah’s name is “grammatically is derived from the word menuchah, which means rest – physical and spiritual. In this respect, menuchah is also a form of consolation…It is the goal of the Sabbath.”


References:

Carasik, Michael. The Commentators' Bible: Genesis: The Rubin JPS Miqra'ot Gedolot. Jewish Publication Society, 2018.

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

Shuchat, Wilfred. Noah, the Flood and the Failure of Man: According to the Midrash Rabbah. Devora, 2013.

The Artscroll Series. Kleinman Edition Midrash Rabbah: Sefer Bereshis (Genesis Vol.1 – Bereshis – Noach). Mesorah Publications, 2014.

For reference on a great article regarding the Noachide Laws: https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4157474/jewish/Seven-Laws-for-a-Beautiful-Planet.htm


The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.