Sunday, November 09, 2008

Noach and Moses: Human beings in places where there are no human beings.

D'var Torah delivered at Temple Israel Congregational Service, 1 Nov 2008.

"These are the generations of Noach: Noach was a righteous man, blameless in his generation."(Gen. 6:9a)

So begins our Parsha, and there Midrash we are fond of which hangs on the phrase "in his generation." "O Ho!" we say, "it doesn't take much to surpass the virtue of the Generation of the flood." We are content to suppose that Noah did not smell like a rose, but was merely the least offensive item in a barrel of fish-guts. But there is more to the verse than this:

et ha'elohim hithalech noach.

"Noach was in the habit of walking with God."(Gen. 6:9b)

This tells us much, and all to Noach's credit. hithalech, is the verb halach, walk, in the hitpa'el form. This form is used for reflexive, repetitive or habitual actions, so from it we learn that Noach was in the habit of walking in the ways of the divine spark within himself. The generations up to the flood were by and large without commandments, so the person who can walk with God is one who has shown a remarkble initiative for doing the right thing without being told.

This is perhaps why R. Nehemiah defends Noach against the idea that he was merely the best of a bad crop, saying: "If he was righteous even in his generation, how much more so [had he lived] in the age of Moses."(BR 30:9) His point is that it is more difficult to be righteous when surrounded by lawlessness than when surrounded by people who have some basic laws.

He is not the first person of whom this is said, however, of Enoch it is written "vayithalech Chanoch et ha'elohim v'eyneino ki lakach oto elohim" - "And Enoch was in the habit of walking with God, and he was no more because God took him." That Enoch gets this special treatment in what is otherwise a typical genealogy passage is of special noteworthiness because he is Noah's great grandfather. When Enoch exhibited this "walking with God" thing it might have been that God thought it was a one-off, but with Noah, it begins to seem like a family trait. Thus, after Adonai decides to destroy all creation, "Noah finds grace in in the eyes of Adonai"(Gen. 6:8).

So, although we are not quite clear on the nature of Noah's virtue, it was sufficient to persuade God that there was something worth preserving, such that he commanded Noah to build the ark and to save his family, and breeding pairs of all the animals. Thus God can now unleash harsh judgement on the world, but does not have to start from scratch, but rather can repopulate the earth from the ark (tevah). Thus R. Shim'on notes in the Zohar:

"The blessed Holy One wanted to engender from him generations for the world, from out of the ark. Further, judgment could not overpower him because he was hidden away in the ark, concealed from sight. . . ."(Matt I:395-6)

Thus, the ark, which is associated with Shechinah in this passage of the Zohar, is used to protect Noah from the harsh judgement that is destroying the world. It is preserving a remnant of creation for redemption. The word used for the ark here, tevah, is used in only one other story in the Bible - it is a tevah into which young Moses is placed when he is set upon the Nile. As was the case with Noah, destruction was walking the earth, albeit at Pharaoh's behest, and Moses merited preservation. We find discussion of this protection attributed to R. Judah in the Zohar:

[Rabbi Judah said] "What does this mean: She took a papyrus basket for him? She covered him with Her signs, so that he would be protected from those fish who swim the waters of the great sea.(Matt, IV:55)

Bearing in mind that "She" in this passage refers also to Shechinah, we can observe that Noah and Moses both merit divine protection, and both receive it through the same aspect of the divine, through Shechinah. We have already discussed how Noah merited this - being th only righteous person in his generation played a key role there, but we should also note Moses' merits, the auspicious beginnings of what would be the most significant career in Torah. Ibn Ezra notes two early deeds that show Moses to be particularly righteous in his generation:

. . . Moses killed an Egyptian because the latter committed an act of violence and . . . saved the daughters of Midian from the shepherds because the [shepherds] were trying to water their flocks with the water the women had drawn (Ibn Ezra, 39).

What Noah and Moses have in common is that finding themselves in situations where the people around them are acting in ways unbecoming even to animals, they both pay attention to that divine spark within and behave in ways that live up to human potential. The importance of this is central to our philosophy as Jews, for it is written in Pirke Avot: "In a place where there are no no men, try to be a man" (Avot 2:5).

This then is our charge and our challenge: to treat each other and our neighbors with the compassion and humaneness due them as fellow creatures created in the image of God, to strive to be human and humane, even if no one else is, because only by preserving that divine spark of humanity within the tevot of our souls can we fulfill that aspiration.

Works Cited

Blackman, Philip. Ethics of the Fathers. New York: Judaica Press, 1980.

Ibn Ezra, Abraham Ibn Ezra's Commentary on the Pentateuch: Genesis. New York: Menorah Pub, 1988.

Matt, Daniel. The Zohar 1: Pritzker Edition, Volume One. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Matt, Daniel. The Zohar 4: Pritzker Edition, Volume Four. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.

Simon, Maurice. Midrash Rabbah. London: Soncino Press, 1983.

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