NOACH

SERMON FOR PARASHAT NOACH

 

3.6mm per year; this is apparently the current rise in sea level per year…   At the end of the Flood story God swears Genesis 9:11) never to bring a Flood upon the Earth again – or at least, not a flood of Waters, there are many other destructive options available – but God does not say that Mankind will not ever bring this upon itself. If it is so important for God to ensure that Noah saves and preserves and maintains continuity by keeping specimens of all species – what does it mean if we make several species extinct each year? How long could it be before not just coastal areas of other continents a long way away, but also large areas of Northern and Central Europe are also flooded and where will the refugees go then? And where will crops for food be grown then? There are many questions one could pose.

The sidra Noach has many inconsistences and contradictions. Noach himself is no hero – the rabbis pounce on the term that he was ”good for his time” to show how relativising this term is. His father has given him the name ”Noach” with the deliberate idea or hope or prophecy that being of the tenth generation he will bring ”Rest” to the world – ”Menucha” – and in essence cleanse the world from the curse which God had placed upon the earth as a punishment for Adam. (This is not the same thing as the doctrine of 'Original Sin’). And – well – in the time of Noach the world is indeed washed clean, but in a destructive rather than constructive way).  At the end of the story, God does not promise never the destroy the Earth again; God merely says ”Never again with a FLOOD” – thus leaving many options open (a Black Hole? A meteorite? Drought? Radiation?)

 

    The Flood story is the last time in the Torah that we speak of ”the whole world’ as one unit. The Creation stories speak of the world as being ”the World” – part of a unity described as ”the Heavens and the Earth” – but soon this unity will be divided into different languages and then different cultures and different people, ethnic groups, nations, each thinking only of their own interests, each prepared to conflict with the others, to focus not on ”The world” but only ”My part of the world”.  ”This Land, that Land, the Land of the such-and such, the Land we left, the Land that was promised to us… ”  Later certain prophets and the Psalmist will take a universalist vision, that God will ”come to judge the Earth”, but this is much later and more a messianic vision for the future.

Noach is picked by God for survival, together with his three sons (and their respective spouses who are never named) and certain animals are picked for survival but we are never told what makes them so special, so deserving, compared to their fellows. Nor are we told why the rest do not deserve this. The question facing us now is: How many of US may be picked for survival? How often have we seen in recent years the images of inundated towns and landscapes – this is not the same as Sea but was technically Land – but Under Water? Buildings and trees and embankments poking above the surface of the water after a high tide, a heavy rainfall, a tsunami, a flood?  A denial of the original division between wet and dry made in Genesis 1:9f. The answer may depend upon the extent and the speed with which we learn to think once more of ”One World” rather than of ”Our own personal Ark”.

The so-called ”Chaos Theory” formulated by the mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz (1917-2008) speaks of the way in which everything is, if one goes far enough, interlinked. The example best known, though not always understood, is of a butterfly in the Amazon jungle which flaps its wings, the ultimate consequence of which could be a hurricane somewhere else, in Europe. Everything links to everything else – but we do not know how. Now we are confronted with what I will call ”Rothschild’s New Chaos Theory”: If that Butterfly is not there any more, and is therefore not able to flap its wings, because it had been a victim of pesticides or its habitat had been destroyed, then this ABSENCE of a little movement can also lead to a natural catastrophe elsewhere. So the absence of some insects and plants can for example lead to an absence of birds and other predators which in turn leads to a migration or extinction of further species which would have been dependent on this part of the food chain. And so on. It may be rather over-simplistic to say that burning the trees in Brazil could lead to trees burning in California, but at the same time it may also help to realise that burning the one can lead to a warming and a drying-out of the atmosphere generally and thus help enable the other to happen. In Genesis Chapter 1, which is of course a poem and not a scientific treatise, it is made clear that ground, water, plants, light, crawling creatures, birds, fish all have a part to play somewhere in the world – and not JUST the Person created on the Sixth Day.

So one message is that a catastrophe, whenever it comes, does not respect so-called artificial national boundaries, nor even ethnic or cultural boundaries. It obeys natural laws. Sometimes there is nothing that tiny, ineffectual homo sapiens can do – against a volcano, an earthquake, a tsunami, a meteorite – but sometimes we could indeed have an impact – a minor impact but better than none at all – if we obey natural laws as well. If we respect the food chain and our place in it, and the need not just for we as mammals but for certain other life-forms and plants to survive and the water and the air and the atmosphere in general – we do not Bless the Earth, but we may possibly reduce the Curse.

Slowly, maybe too slowly, but inevitably, we are learning to perceive the alternatives. Shamayim – the Heavens – is written in the dual form; but HaAretz, the Earth, is in the Singular.

 

            Shema Yisrael, HaAretz Beiteinu, HaAretz Echad.

             Hear O Israel, the World is Our Home, the World is One.

 

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

 

Too Big, It Must Fail

Too Big, It Must Fail

Toughts on Parashat Noah

This week’s parasha contains two great narratives that are at the foundations of the Judeo-Christian civilization and have inspired people for centuries: the story of Noah and the flood as well as the story of the Tower of Babel. The beginning of the story of Noah tells us about the great corruption that permeated the earth. To quote the Torah:

God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth (Gen 6:12)

The Hebrew word nishkhata (from the root shakhat), translated as corrupted, bears also other synonymous meanings like: to be marred, be spoiled, be injured, be ruined or to be rotted. The previous verse:

The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness. (Gen 6:11)

uses the Hebrew word hamas which also means violence, cruelty, injustice. According to this narrative, the only remedy for this terrible state of affairs on earth was to clean up this ‘horrible uncleanness’ with the greatest water the planet earth had ever seen.

Thus we have corruption and renewal of life, a brutal renewal. Humanity has been decimated, no wonder then that in another story, in the same parasha we read that:

Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. (Gen 11:1)

The Hebrew word sapha (language) has also other meanings such as: rim, border, binding and they are actually primary, not secondary meanings of this word.1

Given that, we can rightly assume that after this great purgatory event not only languages but also human beliefs, value systems did not manage to diversify yet. It provides us with a slightly different (and deeper, in my opinion) perspective on the story known to us as “about the confusion of languages” in which the aspect of simple, everyday and practical communication goes to the background.

According to this reading of the story, this joint human venture was not accomplished not only because humanity lost a common language, but rather, a common ground: common values and goals, which diversified during the construction of the Tower of Babel. This venture also does not have to be understood in a negative way. According to rabbi Jonathan Eibeschuetz, who lived in 18th-century Prague (and was considered ‘a heretic rabbi’, because of promoting universal brotherhood and gender equality) the goal of the venture was to reach the moon. In his work Tifferet Yehonatan, Rabbi Eibeschuetz writes:

“… their reasoning was wholly scientific: All rain is the effect of gases and vapors, the watery element, rising from the earth. Thus are clouds formed; thus does water rain down. From heaven itself no water can fall. They calculated from observation that the clouds, which are the thick vapors that rise from the earth, go no higher than five miles at the very most. It necessarily follows that the more delicate vapors composed of water particles can go no higher than this. If they did, the thicker clouds would also be found at the higher altitudes. Hence their plan was to build a tower higher than those clouds, a place where rain could never again fall upon them.”

And thus no more Floods. No more need to behave themselves. According to rabbi Eibeschuetz, people of that generation also saw the moon as a sphere no less inhabitable than the terrestrial globe. They believed that they could reach and inhabit the moon by building a ship that could “float in the air” lifted up with a huge sail because it seemed to them that ultimately all the winds ascend from the earth in an upward direction.

But their plan, of course, failed. They lost their ‘common language’ in the deeper meaning of this word, as I suggested above. This is a problem that humanity has never stopped struggling with and this seems to be particularly evident to us today. Our western societies are torn apart ideologically. They are tormented by the incoherence and incompatibility of professed value systems and visions of the world.

What is important, the lines of all these divisions do not run along national, cultural or religious borders, but basically divide all of these groups. Therefore, multiculturalism is possible to be permanent, but it must be built on common foundations, namely values professed by all the peoples.

Do such common values exist? Yes of course. The belief that they don’t is due to the excessive ideologization of our lives. When we focus on practice, it turns out that it is not difficult to find them. These values, which I think we would all agree, include respect for others, being honest, responsible, grateful, understanding, compassionate, loving. These are the first that come to my mind, I believe that this list is much longer.

It is worth to reject gigantism, utopias, maximalism and all systemic visions of “salvation of the world that will come if only the rest of humanity will listen to us and do as we believe is right,” because we are either the smartest of all people and have remedies for all problems, or a mandate from God Himself, whose envoys on earth we are. This approach is doomed to failure, because we will never gain everyone’s support for our visions. Even if anyone ever succeeds in it, it won’t be permanent. By believing in similar utopias, we condemn ourselves to eternal frustration and overlook a lot of everyday life. Everything good that humanity has achieved so far has its source in mutual understanding and cooperation starting from the most basic level – the level of everyday, practical life. And the fact that we are where we are and we do not believe that we can fly to the moon by the ship with a big sail proves that our mutual cooperation has been pretty good so far, despite the eternal, ideological differences between us.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski

According to the Marcus Jastrow Dictionary of The Targumim, The Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi and The Midrashic Literature.

Enslaved in Parental Lack of Attention and Brotherly Jealousy

Enslaved in Parental Lack of Attention and Brotherly Jealousy

Mati Kirschenbaum,

When I was 13 or 14 years old, I really wanted to have a pair of Wrangler jeans. However, my parents thought they were relatively expensive, so they would buy me pairs of other, cheaper brands instead. Then they would spend the money thus saved to send me to an additional summer camp or to pay for my foreign language classes. Today I’m grateful that my education was a priority for them. However, as a teenager I saw it differently. I truly envied some of my classmates who owned such designer jeans. It seemed to me that they would respect me more if I also had such a pair of jeans. As time passed – and also due to the fact that I’ve had a chance to buy myself designer jeans (thanks to which I know that wearing them did not magically make my life better) I forgot about how jealous I was of my classmates who wore Wranglers. But I was reminded of this feeling as I was reading this week’s Torah portion Vayeshev, which tells the story of Jacob-Israel’s approach towards his twelve sons. It is described as follows:

Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him. (Genesis 37:3-4.)

Joseph, just like my classmates, wore clothes which served as a symbol of social status and which could turn into a coveted object, or even into an object of envy. The underlying source of these feelings was the need to feel accepted and recognized. As a teenager I personally wanted to be part of a “cool” group, and the pair of jeans was in fact only of secondary importance to me. And Joseph’s brothers were not actually jealous of his ornamented tunic, but of what that tunic symbolized – the recognition and love of Israel.

My need to find a group of school friends was fulfilled; with time I did find friends with whom I shared a hobby and who did not care about designer clothes. The need to feel accepted and to feel like you belong is much more difficult to fulfill when it is associated with long-lasting relationships, especially within one’s family. As parents bring up their children, it is extremely important that they adhere to rules of justice by showing all their children equal attention and warmth. Otherwise tensions arise between siblings, as they increasingly seek their parent’s attention, since they feel neglected and passed over. Such tensions can turn into an open conflict and hostility, which stem from an underlying sense of hurt which has been growing over the years. And that’s exactly what happens in the family of Israel – his sons are no longer able to stand Joseph’s arrogance, as he considers his status as their father’s favorite as something obvious. Finally, Joseph’s brother’s hatred bursts out and they relieve the tension present in their family by selling him into slavery. Such a way of “resolving” their family issues brings great suffering to their father, Israel.

Most of us would probably never even think of selling one of our family members into slavery, not even the most annoying ones. But this does not mean that there is no tension present in our families. On the contrary, in almost every family someone feels hurt because their parents showed or still show more attention to one of their siblings; or because their parents had no time or energy to take care of them when they were little, but they did have time to take care of their brother or sister; or because their parents portrayed their older sister as an unparalleled example of virtues.

Such a sense of hurt can reveal itself after many years and erupt with much more intensity. What can we do in order to avoid this? It depends on our role within the family. If we are the parents, we can try to show all our children, even the most rebellious teenagers, how much we care about them. If we have siblings, we can ask ourselves if we are not trying to attract our parent’s attention at the expense of our brothers and sisters. In addition, if we sense a tension in our relationship with our brother or sister, we can ask ourselves if it doesn’t stem from the feeling that one sibling was always the favorite. If that is the case, we must ask ourselves if we can improve our relationship by undertaking actions aiming to promote our family’s reconciliation. This is not easy, and such a process can often take even many years.

Selling Joseph into slavery, which was the culmination of the hatred growing within Israel’s family, proved to be beneficial for the Jewish nation, since it allowed the Israelites to find shelter in Egypt during the famine. However, this became possible only after a long time of separation and a painful reconciliation. By describing the eruption of hatred between the sons of Israel, which stemmed from the mistakes that he [Israel] made as a parent, Parashat Vayeshev warns us to avoid situations which could lead to the escalation of family conflicts. This Shabbat I encourage you to reflect on how you could alleviate conflicts and tensions within your family.

Shabbat Shalom!

Mati Kirschenbaum,

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Trying Our Best – Just Like Noah Did

Trying Our Best – Just Like Noah Did

 

This week’s Torah portion Noah describes the great flood sent on Earth by the Eternal because of humanity’s sins. Only Noah and his family are saved by the Eternal from dying in the midst of the rising waters. What did Noah do to deserve such a privilege? The answer to this question can be found at the  beginning of our Parashat,

„This is the line of Noah: Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age.” (Genesis 6:9.)

At first glance this verse seems to provide a compelling reason for saving Noah, who is described as a righteous and blameless man. However, the words that caught the attention of our sages were the following: “In his age”. The Rabbis wondered whether this phrase meant that Noah could be viewed as righteous only in the context of his own era, marked by a general decline in morality. In Bereshit Rabba, a book of Midrashim on the Book of Genesis, we find a discussion between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemia concerning Noah’s character. Rabbi Judah compared Noah to a person with one eye blind taking a stroll along a street full of blind people. In such circumstances even someone partially blind would be viewed as capable of seeing. Rabbi Judah was convinced that Noah would not have been viewed as righteous in the times of Moses or of prophet Samuel. Rabbi Nehemia opposed this view, comparing Noah to perfumes used in a place with an unpleasant smell. We could still sense their scent, although it would not be strong. Rabbi Nehemia claimed that in a different era the scent (righteousness) of Noah would have been sensed even from afar.  

Both Rabbi Jehuda and Rabbi Nehemia seem to believe that Noah was never punished for his pre-flood actions. Some of the sages disagreed with them. Rav Huna claimed that as a punishment Noah was bitten by a lion as the animals were being released from the ark after the flood waters had subsided. In such case the question arises what Noah’s transgression might have been.

Devarim Rabba, a Midrash on the Book of Deuteronomy, seems to provide us with an answer to this question, as it compares Noah and Moses to two captains of sinking ships. The first one, Noah, saves from death only himself and his family, whereas the second captain, Moses, saves all the passengers (by asking the Eternal not to wipe out the Israelites who were worshipping the golden calf.) According to this interpretation, Noah might have transgressed by showing no interest in the fate of the rest of humanity once the flood came.

The above mentioned Midrash shows us why Noah cannot be viewed as being equal to Moses. However, I am not sure whether Noah’s actions truly deserved punishment. The Midrash teaches us that Noah warned humanity about the flood, repeatedly admonishing them to change their behavior. After undertaking many such attempts Noah simply gave up. Once the flood came, he was convinced that it was already too late and he focused on saving his own family instead. His behavior right before the flood may not rank as the greatest act of altruism; however, it was profoundly human. In my opinion this moment portrays Noah’s character – of an imperfect human being trying to act the best he can.

Noah’s character reminds me of the words of Rabban Gamliel from tractate Pirkei Avot,

In a place where there is no man [where no one follows moral rules], strive to be a man (Pirkei Avot 2:5.)

This Shabbat I encourage you to ask yourselves if sometimes you find yourselves in situations when no one does the right thing. If you do, I encourage you to behave decently in such cases. Who knows, perhaps just like Noah you will manage not to drown in an ocean of excuses such as, “everyone does it”, “nothing can be done to change it” or “that’s just the way it is”. Shabbat Shalom!

 

Mati Kirschenbaum

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

 

 

 

 

 

progresive judaism in Poland, reformed judaism in Poland, Beit Polska, Beit Warszawa, congregation Beit Warszawa,