Sunday, October 22, 2006

Thoughts on Parashat Noach

אֵלֶּה, תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ--נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה, בְּדֹרֹתָיו: אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, הִתְהַלֶּךְ-נֹחַ.

The puzzler here is in the final phrase. הִתְהַלֶּךְ is the hitpa’el form of the root הלך, “walk, go.” The hitpa’el form is Hebrew’s way of expressing the reflexive:

יֹסֶף שָׁמַר אֵת שָׂרָה.
Joseph guarded Sarah

שָׂרָה יַפָה מְעֹד.
Sarah is very pretty.

עַל כֵן, יֹסֶף הוּא הִתְשַׁמֶר
Therefore Joseph guarded himself.

So, back to the question at hand, Gen. 6:10b is generally rendered “Noah walked with God,” but this rendering does not account for the reflexive sense of הִתְהַלֶּךְ. The question therefore arises, just what is that hitpa’el doing there and what is its implication?

Rashi looks at the verb and notices two things: it is in the past, and the preposition is את rather than לפני neither of which addresses the binyan. Maybe I'm trying to read too much into an idiomatic expression. But it seems unusual. The only other place I've seen it is in the imperfect describing Enoch's relationship with God, right before God takes him.

One thought is that this reflexivity tells us that, to a degree that was unique to his generation, he was capable of journeying within himself to find that still, small voice within that said, "hey, it might rain for a bit, build a boat."

The other puzzler of this parsha for me at the moment is in the Bavel tale. Before launching into the Bavel narrative, we are told how each of the nations descended from Noach goes to its own and according to their nations and their tongues (לשון). When we get to Bavel, everyone is using the same language. This is unsurprising, and does not contradict the earlier division, because they are all in the same city. But the word used for language here is not לשון, but שׂפה, lip. What is the meaning of this distinction?

I will say that I think something profound happens at Bavel. I don't think that this is the birth of separate languages - I believe we saw that earlier. I think, instead, that God's "confusion" of language is something deeper. I think that prior to Bavel, when somebody said something to his neighbor, his neighbor, without fail, understood exactly what was meant. That the chasm that must be bridged between the consciousness of the speaker and of the listener did not exist until that moment, that to hear was to know exactly the speaker's thoughts. When Adonai confounds their language it is so that לֹא יִשְמְעוּ אִיש שְׂפַת רֵאֵהוּ, a man will not hear his neighbor's lip. The breakdown is not in the speech, but in the hearing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

that's an interesting view. thanks for sharing... and Shabat Shalom!