November 4-5, 2016 – 4 Heshvan 5777
Annual (Genesis 6:9-11:32): Hertz p. 26-40; Etz Hayim p. 41-63
Triennial (Genesis 6:9-8:14): Hertz p. 26-31; Etz Hayim p. 41-48
Haftarah (Isaiah 54:1-55:5): Hertz p. 41-44, Etz Hayim p. 64-68
The Sky is Falling, The Sky is Falling
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, CY Faculty (Talmud, Midrash, Halacha)
The Tower of Babel story is unusual. We are not quite sure what the sin was in this episode since it is never stated explicitly. This gave interpreters throughout the generations a chance to weigh in with their pet concerns as to what the sins of that wayward generation might be. I have always found one attempt at defining the sin of that generation particularly interesting for what it says about the modern spirit.
I first want to present a little background. The following midrash presumes that the Flood in Noah’s generation was the monumental event in history for the people of the generation of the Tower of Babel and that the sin of the people of Babel was related to the Flood. What was their sin according to Rabbi Eleazar in the name of Rabbi Yose ben Zimra? “They said: ‘Once in one thousand six hundred and fifty-six years the firmament totters [and another flood occurs], therefore let’s go and build supports [for the firmament, one in the north, one in the south, one in the west, and the one here [in Babylonia] will be the eastern support.’” (See Bereishit Rabbah 38:1) The author of this midrash implies that their sin was in thinking that the Flood was an explainable natural phenomenon which was remediable.
Rabbi Eliezer considered this sin to be quite serious despite its not warranting the death penalty. The punishment was the people to be scattered throughout the world and to speak different languages so that they would be unable to complete their project. In addition, or more importantly for Rabbi Eleazar, they serve as an example to remind everyone of the gravity of their sin.
But what was so grievous about what they did? It sounds ingenious and not sinful. After all, we expect human beings to innovate solutions for the dangers that face them. What could be sinful about that?
The author of this midrash feared the assumption that world events and especially natural events would be considered merely “natural” phenomena which could be tended to as such and not God-determined, providential events granted as reward or punishment for right or wrong behavior.
Was the author concerned that such an idea would alter human behavior or was he worried that such a mindset reflected the idea that God was not involved in the world and that the world had its own natural order independent of God’s active participation? In either case, these are questions people still ponder to this day.
It seems to me that it is not a bad thing to operate with these two conflicting mindsets. We should always have in mind that our acts are consequential in God’s “eyes” and never lose sight of this idea (bad pun intended). On the other hand, God placed us in this world to use our resourcefulness to improve the created world. Neither of these perspectives should overshadow the other.
A Vort for Parashat Noah
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty
The flood destroys all life and existence that had been on the earth’s surface. “Just Noah was left – va’yisha’er ach Noah – and those with him in the ark” (Gen 7:23). Noah, who had been “ish tsadik v’tamim b’dorotav – a righteous man, blameless in his times” at the opening of the parashah (Gen 6:9), is now “just Noah.” R’ Pinchas of Koritz (1726-1791, Ukraine, a close student of the Baal Shem Tov) said that God was angry with Noah. A real tsadik must pray and solicit mercy for his generation; he has the capacity to mitigate the judgment; God yearns for the prayers of tsadikim. But Noah was silent, and the flood came. He is left, “just Noah,” without title and without glory.
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty
Last week we learnt about the creation of the world, and now we read about the destruction of this amazing enterprise because of the corruption of all living things. As life returns after the flood we read about the tower of Babylon and get a first glance at Abram’s family.
1) The story of Noah opens with a parallel between the actions of all living things and the actions of God (6:11-13). What are “all flesh” doing? What do you think that means? How does the Torah tell us, through the careful use of language, that God’s actions are a reaction to the actions of “all flesh”?
2) How long did the rain pour down on Earth? What other sources of water fed the flood (7:11-12)? For how long did the water continue to rise (7:24)? What thoughts do you think crossed Noah’s mind during this time?
3) Following the flood and the destruction, people came together speaking one language and working to build a tower that could reach Heaven (11:1-4). Compare this to the behavior of people before the flood. What has changed? Is their behavior viewed favorably by God (11:5-9)? What might be the reason?
4) Who is Abram’s father (11:26-32)? Who are his brothers? One of his brothers died, leaving behind 3 children. Who are they? What happens to each one of them? What does this teach you about the values in this family? One of them is not mentioned again in the story. What do you think happened to her?
5) Rashi (medieval commentator that frequently uses rabbinic sources) says on v. 29 “Iscah – This is Sarah” and proceeds to make linguistic links between the two names. What in the story pointed Rashi to the possibility that Abram married a relative?