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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.
OK, I admit it: I watched the recent Democratic convention in Charlotte, and Michelle Obamas’s speech stole my heart… and got me to thinking about how important it is to both presidential candidates to highlight their families. Some of the most intense feelings and experiences in our lives happen in the intimate spaces of family life. Fast forward to Rosh Hashanah and lo and behold, the Torah readings are narratives that takes place in the cauldron of familial relationships: Husband/Wife, Father/Son, First Wife/Concubine, Siblings.
On the first day of the new year, we read about Sarah, wife of Abraham, becoming pregnant at the age of 90; when she heard the news, she laughed, of course! She later names her son, Yitzhak, from the Hebrew root word for laughter. Unfortunately, Yitzhak’s life was anything but a barrel of laughs, as we find out on the second day when we read one of the most troubling narratives in the Torah, the “Akeidah,” the binding of Yitzhak (Genesis 22).
Back on Day 1, our narrative from Genesis 21 contains a story about Sarah’s maid servant, Hagar, whom Sarah earlier gave to Abraham to impregnate, in order that the elderly couple would have offspring. Hagar and her son, Ishma’el, are cast out of the household by Abraham at Sarah’s demand. Sarah sees Ishma’el, the big brother, playing with her toddler Yitzhak, and she is none to pleased. We don’t really know what Ishma’el was doing with Yitzhak, but the verb comes from that same Hebrew root that makes up Yitzhak’s name. And whatever is happening makes Sarah very angry. Abraham is distraught but God tells him to listen to Sarah, despite the fact that he loves Ishma’el as well as Yitzhak (and maybe he even loves Hagar too).
What a boiling pot of familial intrigue and passion!
The expulsion of Hagar and Ishma’el and the binding of Yitzhak have given philosophers (Kierkegaard for one), rabbinic commentators from 1800 years ago, poets, painters, playwrights, and others much to contemplate. Our questions way outnumber any satisfying answers.
I invite you to read the stories and talk about what happens in them. And why in the world do we read these particular stories on Rosh Hashanah as we renew ourselves and re-start our yearly Torah cycle?
Wishing you a sweet and bountiful year of blessings!
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