Noah and The Flood: What You Don’t Know

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:

Finally: here are some life lessons one could take from the Noah’s Ark story; after you read the biblical narrative, pick which lesson is meant especially for you.

  • Plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the Ark.
  • Stay fit. When you’re 600 years old, someone may ask you to do something really big.
  • Build your future on high ground.
  • For safety’s sake, travel in pairs.
  • Speed isn’t always an advantage; the snails were on board with the cheetahs.
  • Remember, the Ark was built by amateurs; the Titanic, by professionals.
  • No matter the storm, when you are with God, there’s always a rainbow waiting.
  • You might be a righteous person, but someone still has to shovel the poop.
  • Remember: We’re all in the same boat.

Bereshit! Again!

On Simchat Torah 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.

The Death of Moses and The Torah’s End

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.”

TO CONSIDER:

  1. 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”?
  2. 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?

The Rock wants you to listen

We are at the penultimate chapters of the entire Five Books of Moses; in fact, the entire book of Deuteronomy has been one very long speech that Moses gives before he dies. In Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy chapter 32—50 verses), we get his poetic conclusion.

Ha’azinu literally means “give ear” and is addressed to the heavens and the earth. Moses wants the very heavens and earth to witness what the old prophet has to say as he winds down his life and his speech. This poem is his departing words to the people of Israel about God’s relationship with them, about God’s decisions to punish Israel, and about the ultimate deliverance of Israel from her foes (chapter 32 v 45-47). This poem isn’t an especially heart-warming one with beautiful, gentle metaphors. There is a lot of sturm und drang — warnings of the disastrous things that will happen if the “treacherous breed of children” disobeys the laws, as they are prone to do and have already done in the past.

God is referred to as The Rock in this poem, a powerful metaphor, one that avoids the anthropomorphic images stuck in some of our heads. The poem dichotomizes The Rock with the Children of Israel: The Rock is perfect, faithful, true and upright, whereas the Israelites are perverse, dull and witless, etc. Much of the poem sounds like an angry old man berating his ungrateful and wayward children for the terrible behaviors they have engaged in. After 43 verses of this dramatic exhortation, the chapter ends with a few lines of prose:

And when Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them: Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching (Torah). For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life; through it you shall long endure on the land that you are to possess upon crossing the Jordan.

In the last few verses of Chapter 32 we read the difficult conversation between God and Moses, as the old prophet is instructed on how and where he is to die, and that although he can take a look at the Promised Land, he will never enter it because he “broke faith…with God…by failing to uphold God’s sanctity among the Israelites.” Ha’azinu is a chapter of Bible filled with painful endings.

To consider:

  1. What metaphors for God work for you? The Rock is one presented here, but there are many other ways to think about God and the Divine.
  2. How do you imagine your “exit” from the world? What would you like to tell your real or imagined children or grandchildren in your last speech?

Yom Kippur

The most solemn and holy day of the entire Jewish calendar is the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, which starts the evening of September 25 and goes through nightfall on September 26. We pause for 25 hours or so to re-enact our death and re-birth by wearing white, not drinking or eating, reflecting on where we have gone astray (as one ideally does on one’s death bed) and devoting many hours to serious contemplation of how we lead our lives.

There are 4 different readings from Scripture on Yom Kippur:

  1. During the morning service, the reading from the Torah is Leviticus 16. Focusing on the awesome, arcane and mysterious rituals for atonement performed by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies (most consecrated part of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem) on the Holiest Day of the Year, it’s a triplet of holiness. This ritual includes sacrificing a scapegoat flung into the wilderness and another identical goat offered up to God.
  2. Also during the morning service is the Haftarah, written by the prophet Isaiah during the 6th century BCE after Cyrus, the Persian monarch, allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem. We are privileged to read an absolutely beautiful and inspiring sermon which serves as an antidote to the earlier Torah reading from Leviticus. Isaiah adjures us to repair the world; he warns us against empty fasts and rituals that ignore the suffering of others. When you read Isaiah’s strong words, you sit up and pay attention, and resolve to do better to fix the woes of the hungry and homeless in our midst.
  3. In the afternoon service, when the fast has really begun to have maximum effect, we hear either chapter 18 or 19 of Leviticus, known as the Holiness Code, found in the very middle of the 5 Books of Moses. Chapter 18 is filled with sexually unacceptable behaviors and Chapter 19 has some of the most salient commandments about what it means to be holy: “Love your fellow as yourself… You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind… You shall not profit by the blood of your fellow…” etc.
  4. Finally, also in the afternoon service, we read the four short chapters from the Book of Jonah, the reluctant prophet, who tried to run away from doing God’s bidding, telling the people of Nineveh to repent.

It’s a lot of scriptural reading on a very long day.

If you have never read Jonah, I recommend starting there:

It’s a universal story of one flawed human, called upon to be a prophet but he resists his task. Even the sailors on the boat he travels on and the regular townsfolk of Nineveh appear to know more about repentance than Jonah. What is this story about? Why read it on the holiest day of the year?

If you are somewhat familiar with the readings, think about the brilliant decision 1500 years ago to juxtapose the two very different morning readings: one all about rituals that are very distant and foreign to us, about slaughtering animals to expiate our sins; and the Haftarah, by Isaiah, demanding social justice. This prophet’s words still seem aimed at each of us here in 2012 and, I’m guessing, will always be relevant.

If you fast, may it be meaningful.

Writing Our Legacy

Outside, even here in northern California, we feel the seasons changing — time to shut the windows at night. It’s the new month of Tishray, the month loaded with Jewish holidays. It’s officially fall, which signals the very end of the yearly cycle of weekly Torah portions. This week’s portion is VaYelech which means “And He Went” (Deuteronomy 31) — the “he” referred to is Moses. This little chapter and the 3 following it comprise the epilogue to the 5 Books of Moses (the Torah). We hear God’s voice telling Moses that it is time for him to die (Moses himself admits aloud that at the age of 120, he no longer has the strength to lead the nation in battle).

In VaYelech, we read Moses’s preamble to his final poem, or “song”, as it sometimes called; he is tidying up loose ends. And what does he say? He repeats one phrase several times:

Be Strong and Courageous…don’t be afraid of what is before you, the Lord, your God, will not forsake you; He will be with you.

Along with this message we read of the appointing of Joshua, to take over as leader.

But how will Moses enable the people to remember to “be strong and courageous”? Good question! He and God have figured out that they must write down all of the history and laws so that this “teaching” or “Torah” will exist forever and will be recited in front of the entire people — men, women, children and strangers in the community. God and Moses both know that there will be backsliding, that things will go downhill, but, the fact that “the Good Book” exists in writing means that the “Teaching” will be around as a guidebook, “in the mouths” of the people, remembered and followed for generations.

For your consideration:

  1. When someone tells you, “put that in writing” what does it mean? What is it about the act of “writing” down words on paper (or parchment) that makes it different from only hearing those same words spoken?
  2. What is the written legacy you would want to leave behind before you die? What do you want your family and closest friends to know about life?

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Rosh Hashanah: A Family Thing

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!

Nechama