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This week’s Torah reading (“parasha”) throws us smack into the middle of the nitty-gritty of the first Hebrew family, Avram and Sarai, whose genealogy we read last week at the end of parashat Noah.
Terach (the idol maker) lived in Ur of the Chaldees and had 3 sons: Avram, Nahor and Haran. When they were grown, Avram and Nahor both took wives; Avram’s wife was Sarai… and her sister married Avram’s brother! To complicate things even more, both wives were the daughters of the 3rd son of Terach, Haran — which means that Avram married his niece! Before we even get started on the patriarchal and matriarchal tales of the Hebrews, we get an intertwined genealogy.
Then, the first thing we learn about Sarai is that she was barren (Genesis 11:30). Finally, we begin our parasha in chapter 12, with the plot getting ever more intense. A few incidents: Sarai is passed off as Avram’s sister in Egypt, Sarai becomes terribly jealous and wreaks havoc in the household when, after she gives Hagar (her handmaid) to Avram, Hagar actually becomes pregnant (Genesis 16:4-11).
But, we’ll leave the juicy parts for another time.
The parasha commences with the words, Lech Lecha, translated as “Go forth” or “Set yourself forth,” a command from God to Avram that begins chapter 12. Just one of many names in the genealogy of the previous chapter, now this one name, Avram, has the spotlight turned on him; we see Avram emerge as an individual character, whose life trajectory we will follow all the way until Chapter 25. He is the first figure we really get to know in some depth, and whose adventures and conversations describe what feels like a real person. He is more nuanced than the biblical figures before him (Adam, Noah, etc.) and because of this, we realize we have moved from a universal history to a national history that is also a personal history. In his book, On the Bible: Eighteen Studies, Martin Buber writes a magnificent chapter titled “Abraham the Seer (chapter 3).”
What to say about this Torah portion, Noah (Genesis chapters 6 – 10)? There are just so many different ways to view this narrative. Many people like to think of the story of Noah’s Ark, the flood and the rainbow as a children’s story, and that’s fine–as long as you don’t look too closely at it. Because once you take a closer look, you will understand that not only did all the depraved human beings drown in this cataclysm sent by God to undo all of God’s own recent creation, all of the innocent babies, children, and animals also drowned, except of course, the fish, other sea creatures, and those saved on the ark.
So, first, let’s agree that this is more than a child’s fable, and it raises disturbing questions.
For the basic outline of the story, take a look at g-dcast for this parasha:
Who was Noah? Was he a “righteous man” as described in chapter 6 verse 9? And what does that mean? The rest of the phrase describing him is that he “was a righteous man IN HIS GENERATION.” The rabbis of the Talmud debate: does this mean Noah was absolutely pious and good, with the right moral compass or rather, that he was just a good-enough fellow, and good only in comparison with the absolutely debased human beings populating the earth at that time? What do you think?
Then, let’s agree that this biblical story has much in common with the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian tale recorded on clay tablets dating back to at least 2000 BCE, based on some even older accounts, written in archaic poetic style, found in the geographical area of what is today modern Iraq. Contemporary scholars believe that the biblical account fuses several traditions of near-eastern flood stories, and although there are dozens of similarities, the biblical authors have a different purpose in mind when they re-tell the story of the Flood. Instead of warring gods on a quest for immortality, the narrative in the Hebrew Bible is an argument for a Creator who demands adherence to a universal moral code. From this story, western civilization derives something called the Noahide Laws, which seem to be a precursor to the Ten Commandments and are laws incumbent upon all people, not just the Hebrews.
Finally, Noah gets off his Ark and builds an altar to God; he is witness to the sign of the covenant (the rainbow) when God promises never to destroy creation again with a flood. And what does he do? Plants a vineyard. And when the grapes are ripe, he gets rip-roaring drunk (chapter 9 verse 21). Why do you suppose this is included in this iconic story? And what do we think of the way his sons react and the consequences for the family? (verses 22-27) This is definitely some R-rated material, not just for kids!
If you’re intrigued by the more “mature content” of this story, here are links to reading material that may catch your fancy:
On SimchatTorah this year (Tuesday Oct. 9) we finished reading the entire Five Books of Moses and rolled the Torah scroll back to the first of the Five Books, Bereshit/In the Beginning, more commonly known by its Latin name, Genesis. This Shabbat, October 13, our parasha (weekly Torah reading) is called Shabbat Bereshit, and we start the annual reading cycle over again with Genesis chapter 1 verse 1. I don’t know about you, but I think new beginnings are exciting in and of themselves, partly because we have an expectation that something new and surprising is going to unfold.
No matter that we may have read these verses before — in fact, we may have read them many times. And no matter that echoes of these verses have entered our lexicon and the consciousness of Western Civilization. After all, here is the biblical creation story — the poetic rendering of the way our world began. This is where we here sonorous, lofty phrases such as “Let there be Light!” This is where we meet some of the best known Bible figures: Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel and Noah. Lots of us have memories of these guys from our childhood, from the comic book version of the Bible, or a beautifully rendered children’s book.
These first five chapters and the first 8 verses of chapter 6 are so chock full of interesting things — so many puzzles, so many questions, so much angst and drama and so many beautiful images — that it is really hard to focus on just one thing. In fact, the creators of the G-dcast produced TWO renditions of this Parasha; watch both — each has different big ideas!
Chapter 1 gives us the famous creation story. But right away, in chapter 2, we get another creation story! How does that happen? What are the differences between these two stories? Which do you like more? Why do you suppose that the editors of the Torah kept both stories? Chapter 3 gives us the story of the Garden of Eden, and how the two humans interacted with their new pristine environment, with each other, and with God. In Chapter 4 we read more about this first human family, the two sons born to the first couple, and the first murder! Chapter 5 provides the first biblical genealogy, which some folks think has lots of fascinating tidbits to chew on. And in the first verses of Chapter 6, we get the set-up to the flood saga…
Doesn’t it seem like this should be divided into at least a month of Shabbat readings instead of all being packed into one week??
Lots of people have favorite parts in Parashat Bereshit. I happen to love verses 27 and 28 of Chapter 1:
And God created adam (human) in the Divine image,
in the image of the Divine God created It —
male and female God created them (gender sensitive translation)
God blessed them and God said to them: “Be fruitful and increase
fill the earth and master it; rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky
and all living things that creep on the earth.”
Why? Well, it embodies a core Jewish belief—that each human is created in the image of God, and, at the very beginning, the first human was both male and female, some mystical androgynous being that later was separated.
Every year, like clockwork, we get to the last chapter of the Torah on the very last holiday of the fall season, Simhat Torah (literally: “rejoicing with the Torah”) coming exactly 23 days after Rosh Ha-Shana (the new year.) On Simhat Torah, we read Deuteronomy chapters 33 and 34, describing the death of Moses, the greatest prophet of Israel, the last to speak with God face to face. Then we begin the Five Books of Moses (aka the Torah) all over again with Bereshit (Genesis) chapter 1 verse 1. Since Bereshit typically gets all the press (who can resist the story of creation with its Garden of Eden mysteries…) perhaps it’s worth a moment to reflect on the end of the torah, called, V’zot Ha’bracha (And this is the blessing).
Moses winds up his lengthy speech (basically the entire book of Deuteronomy) by speaking to each tribe and bestowing a final blessing, in the form of a poem. Each tribe is reminded of its past and the figure after whom it is named—each of Jacob’s sons. NEW SENTENCES: After all, the tribes need some final message as they are at the brink of going into the Land promised to their forefathers, way back in Genesis. They will continue under new leadership—under Joshua—and will finally take hold of their special inheritance.
Back in Deuteronomy, after Moses’s final poem, we read a prose narration of how Moses, at the ripe old age of 120, takes his leave of this life. He has a final conversation with his best friend and confidant, God; God tells Moses to take one last look at the whole land set before him, from the vantage point of Mt. Nebo. Moses sees the entire land bequeathed to the Israelites, although he himself will never enter it.
Verses 5-7: So Moses, the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord. He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beit-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.
Wow! Moses dies with all of his vigor at the age of 120, his eyes “undimmed!” Pretty remarkable! And who is it exactly that buries Moses? The text hints that it is none other than the Holy One, the Rock, Moses’s closest and most intimate ally—God.
This last poignant scene has inspired many poets, painters, and other artists to create their own vision of what happened in those sacred moments of transition. It is Moses’s transition from life to death, but it is also the transition of the Children of Israel to a new period in their development, with Joshua at the helm.
Here’s how Zora Neale Hurston, the African American folklorist and author, describes the scene in her 1939 novel, Moses Man of the Mountain:
But Moses did not sleep on the mountain. He sat on the mountain top for a while gazing at the dim shapes of things over Jordan in the night…He took his rod in his right hand and lifted it and Nebo trembled. The moon in its reddest mood became to him a standing place for his feet and the sky ran down so close to gaze on Moses that the seven great suns of the Universe went wheeling around his head. He stood in the bosom of thunder and the zig-zag of lightning above him joined the muttering thunder…The voice of the thunder leaped from peak to plain and Moses stood in the midst of it and said “Farewell.” Then he turned with a firm tread and descended the other side of the mountain and headed back over the years.
The German (Christian) poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, in the early years of the 20th century writes “The Death of Moses”:
None of them were willing, just the dark
defeated angel; choosing a weapon, he cruelly approached
the commanded one. But even he
went clanging backward, upward,
and screamed into the heavens: I can’t!
For through the thicket of his brow, Moses
had patiently noticed him and gone on writing:
words of blessing and the infinite Name. And his eyes
were clear right to the bottom of his powers.
So the Lord, dragging half of the heaven behind him,
came hurling down in person and made up a bed from the mountain;
laid the old man out. From its orderly dwelling
he summoned the soul; and spoke of much they had shared
in the course of an immeasurable friendship.
But finally the soul was satisfied. Admitted
enough had been done, it was finished. Then the old
God slowly lowered down over the old
man his ancient face. Drew him out with a kiss.
and into his own older age. And with the hands of creation
he closed the mountain again. So it would be like one,
one created all over again among mountains of earth,
hidden to us.
Translated from German by Franz Wright; from Modern Poems on the Bible by David Curzon.
And finally, a favorite, by 20th century Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:
Moses saw the face of God just once and then
forgot. He didn’t want to see the desert
not even the Promised Land, only the face of God.
In the fury of his longing he struck the rock,
climbed Mount Sinai and came down again, broke
the Tablets of the Law, made a golden calf, searched through
fire and smoke, but he could remember only
the strong hand of God and His outstretched arm,
not His face. Moses was like a man who tries to recall
the face of someone he loved, but tries in vain.
He composed a police sketch of God’s face
and the face of the burning bush and the face of Pharaoh’s daughter
leaning over him, a baby in the ark of bulrushes.
He sent that picture to all the tribes of Israel,
up and down the desert, but no one had seen,
no one knew. Only at the end of his life,
on Mount Nebo, did Moses see and die, kissing
the face of God.
Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld from Open Closed Open, “The Bible and You, the Bible and You and Other Midrashim.”
What do all three modern renditions of the scene of Moses’s death have in common? How are they different? Why did both poets imagine that Moses died with a “kiss from God”?
How does the description of Moses’s death make you feel? Is there still regret, or does Moses know it is his time to die? Do you ever imagine your own ideal death?