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SALT 2015 - Parashat Noach

Rav David Silverberg

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            The opening verse of Parashat Noach describes Noach as a “righteous man” who “walked with God” (“et ha-Elokim hit’halekh Noach”).  Seforno explains “walking with God” to mean, “He followed His ways, helping others and rebuking his contemporaries.”  As opposed to other commentators, who portray Noach as disengaged from his society and apathetic to the moral decline that characterized his generation, Seforno maintains that the Torah specifically describes Noach as a sensitive, engaged individual who treated others with kindness and made a sincere effort to influence them positively.  Seforno makes a similar comment earlier (5:24) in explaining the Torah’s description of Chanokh as “walking with God.”  There, too, Seforno explains this phrase as referring to kindness and an attempt to exert positive influence.

            Both these men, Noach and Chanokh, were eventually separated from the people of their time because of their exceptional piety.  Noach was protected from the floodwaters which ravaged his contemporaries by being secluded in an ark, and Chanokh, as Rashi explains, was taken to Gan Eden alive so he would not fall prey to the negative influences of the people of his time.  We might have assumed – and some sources indeed express this view – that Chanokh and Noach were permanently separated from their contemporaries specifically because they had chosen to separate themselves.  As righteous men living in a corrupt, sinful world, they chose disengagement and detachment, and God advanced this process further by extracting them permanently from the rest of the world.  This reading might seem consistent with the phrase “walk with God,” which could be understood to mean adhering to God to the exclusion of other people, distancing oneself from society for the purpose of clinging to spirituality.

Seforno, however, apparently could not countenance such an interpretation.  In his view, “walking with God” can only mean adhering to the Almighty’s example of kindness, sensitivity and direct, intensive involvement in human affairs.  If a person clings to God, then he does what God does – he compassionately cares for other people and seeks to provide their needs.  Just as God descends, so-to-speak, to care for human beings, people who “walk with God” are those who – not despite their lofty stature of piety, but specifically because of their lofty stature of piety – are engaged with society and with people of all kinds in order to care for them and benefit the world.  According to Seforno, “walking with God” cannot possibly refer to isolation, but must absolutely refer to active involvement and genuine concern.


            We read in Parashat Noach of God’s command to Noach to construct an ark, as well as the specifications of the structure, which included a “tzohar” (6:16).  The Gemara in Masekhet Sanhedrin (108b) cites two views in defining this word.  While both opinions agree that the Torah speaks here of a source of illumination for the ark, one view explains “tzohar” to mean “window,” while the other claims that it refers to a special kind of stone which shone and illuminated the ark.

            A number of writers suggested that symbolically, this debate reflects a broader question regarding Noach.  The difference between indoor illumination and a window is the ability to see outside the room where one is currently situated.  If one has a candle or some other form of lighting inside the room, then he can see his immediate surroundings, but not beyond.  If, however, one’s illumination comes from a window, then he can see both inside his room and beyond through the window.  Possibly, then, the debate concerning the “tzohar” in Noach’s ark relates to the question of whether Noach “shone” and provided illumination beyond himself and his immediate surroundings.  According to the view that the “tzohar” was a kind of shiny stone, this form of illumination symbolically points to Noach’s isolationism, his inward focus and neglect of the broader society.  This kind of “tzohar” signifies the fact that rather than work to disseminate the light of morality and holiness throughout the world, Noach was content illuminating only himself and his immediate surroundings.  This is in contrast to the view that “tzohar” refers to a window, according to which Noach was indeed committed not only to raising his own spiritual standards, but also to inspiring and uplifting the greater society.

            It has been suggested that this symbolism also underlies the Gemara’s ruling in Masekhet Berakhot (34), which is codified in the Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 90:4), that one should preferably pray in a room with windows.  Prayer should, optimally, be an experience which connects one with the world beyond his immediate surroundings.  We should not approach prayer as an opportunity to escape from the world and focus solely on our personal relationship with God.  Quite to the contrary, prayer is to connect us to both God and other people, whom we must see ourselves as representing as we stand before the Almighty.  Prayer must be done with “windows,” as we emotionally bond not only with our Creator, but with creation, petitioning God to bless the world at large, to help us all, and to shine His “light” of grace and kindness upon all mankind.

(Based on Rav Yisrael Yaakov Yoffey’s Techiyat Yisrael)


            Rashi, commenting to the first verse of the story of Migdal Bavel (11:1), writes that the people constructed the tower in an attempt to prevent another flood: “They said: Every 1,656 years, the sky collapses, as it did during the time of the Flood; let us make supports for it.”

            This explanation, taken from the Midrash, should perhaps be understood as an allegorical insight into the mistake made by the people of that generation.  They thought that they could solve their problems and ensure their wellbeing solely through their own ingenuity and industriousness, without any need for God or religion.  They sought to construct “supports” for the heavens in the euphemistic sense, by presuming for themselves the power and ability to protect themselves.  Rather than understand that God brought the flood in response to mankind’s sinfulness and corruption, they instead decided that they can somehow take control of the Earth by themselves and keep it safe, without having to rely on God. 

            This explanation dovetails with Rashi’s alternate approach to the Migdal Bavel story, claiming that the people built the tower in an attempt to “wage war” against God: “He does not have the right to choose the upper worlds for Himself; let us ascend to the heavens and wage war against Him.”  In this instance, too, the Midrash’s comment need not necessarily be taken literally.  It perhaps means that the people rejected the notion of God’s omnipotence and control over the Earth and sought to oppose it.  They assumed for themselves the “upper worlds,” the power and authority that until then was viewed as the exclusive province of God.  They “waged war” against the belief in God’s unlimited control, asserting their independent ability to govern and control their own affairs without any involvement on God’s part.

            God therefore responded by arranging a situation where the people were incapable of working together.  He demonstrated the limits of human capabilities, that despite our great potential, we nevertheless are and always will be dependent upon His kindness and grace.  The builders of the tower were correct in recognizing and seeking to harness human ingenuity.  They erred, however, by failing to recognize its limits, and that we are incapable of accomplishing and succeeding without the Almighty’s help.


            We read in Parashat Noach that Noach sent a dove out of the ark after the flood to determine whether or not the floodwaters had subsided and the world was again inhabitable.  The first time he sent the dove, the dove returned at the end of the day with an olive leaf, which signaled to Noach that vegetation had once again become available.  A week later, Noach again sent the dove, which never returned.

            The Gemara in Masekhet Eiruvin (18b) comments that when the dove returned to the ark with the leaf of an olive tree, it conveyed a message to Noach.  The olive has a bitter taste, and the dove was telling Noach, “Let my food be bitter as an olive from the hands of the Almighty, and not sweet as honey from the hands of human beings.”  Doves, apparently, do not normally eat olives, but the dove had limited food options when he was sent the ark, as much of the world’s vegetation was either destroyed or still underwater.  Yet, the Gemara comments, the olive preferred the freedom of its choosing its own food – even if this meant limiting its options to bitter and unusual foods – over receiving tastier food in captivity.

            The Gemara here conveys a vital lesson relevant to our pursuit of a livelihood and our overall perspective on material assets.  Namely, material luxury is often not worth the “captivity” that it often entails.  Too often, people are held “captive” by an overbearing workload, or unreasonable financial expectations.  And although the results are “sweet as honey,” and they manage to live at a high standard of luxury, this standard comes at the expense of “captivity,” of a lack of freedom and self-fulfillment.  Chazal here alert us to the fact that sometimes “food” that is “bitter” is preferable to that which is “sweet as honey.”  A life of simplicity and moderation may be preferable to a life of luxury if it affords one the freedom to be the person he wishes to be and allows him to avoid the “captivity” of a grueling schedule or the pressures of luxuries disguised as necessities.  We make a mistake by assuming that we must always prefer the “sweetness” of luxury over the “bitterness” of austerity.  Oftentimes, moderation allows us to enjoy a much “sweeter” life and help us escape from the “captivity” that the pursuit of luxury occasionally necessitates.


            The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 33) takes note of the fact that when the Torah tells of God “remembering” Noach during the flood and ending the destruction, it employs the divine Name of “Elokim”: “Va-yizkor Elokim et Noach” (8:1).  The use of the Name “Elokim,” the Midrash observes, is surprising, as it generally refers to God’s attribute of strict justice, whereas here the context is one of compassion and grace, as God decided to end the deluge and allow mankind to continue existing.  To explain this anomaly, the Midrash explains, “Fortunate are the righteous, for they transform the attribute of justice into the attribute of mercy.”  Indeed, this was a time characterized by justice and punishment, but the righteous have the capacity to arouse God’s compassion even when His attribute of justice would otherwise prevail.  Conversely, the Midrash observes, the Torah earlier (6:7) employs the Name of “Havaya,” which is generally associated with God’s mercy and compassion, in reference to the decision to bring the flood.  The reason, the Midrash comments, is because the wicked “transform the attribute of compassion into the attribute of justice.”

            Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Yalkut Yehuda, suggests an explanation for this concept of “transforming” one divine attribute to another.  The Gemara, in Masekhet Sanhedrin (108), comments that the people of Noach’s generation felt no need to act morally as God desired because they felt self-sufficient and capable of living and prospering without Him.  They looked at their large sources of fresh water and concluded that they had no need for rain, and they therefore felt free and perfectly at ease acting contrary to the divine will.  This, Rav Ginsburg writes, is the Midrash’s intent when it speaks of the wicked “transforming the attribute of compassion into the attribute of justice.”  They take the blessings which God compassionately bestows upon them and uses them to perpetrate evil, thus exposing themselves to His justice.  The righteous, however, do just the opposite.  Noach was subjected to the torment of living together with the animals for a year, trapped in the cramped confines of the ark.  And the Midrash, in this same passage, tells that Noach was spared in the merit of his tireless efforts to sustain all of God’s creatures throughout the period of the flood.  Under the harshest conditions, Noach rose to the occasion and did precisely what was expected of him, thus rendering himself worthy of God’s compassion.  Whereas the wicked use their blessings to betray God, the righteous use their periods of hardships to grow and become stronger, nobler people.  The Midrash teaches us that we earn God’s grace and kindness by “transforming the attribute of justice” – using life’s more difficult experiences as opportunities for growth, for strengthening our faith and resolve, and deepening our relationship with God.


            Among the striking aspects of the story of Noach is Noach’s seeming rapid decline after the flood. We read that the man who is described before the flood as “a righteous man” (“ish tzadik”) became intoxicated after the flood, humiliating himself by removing his clothes in a drunken stupor in his son’s presence.  This rapid decline might reflect a troubling aspect of Noach’s piety, namely, that he conducted himself righteously for the purpose of condescension, to appear better than the people around him, but not out of sincere religious conviction.  As long as he had an “audience,” people before whom to present himself as a beacon of morality, he was able to shine.  But after the flood, when he was alone, he was “exposed” – both literally and figuratively.  There was no longer anybody to watch and admire his display of piety, and so he fell into mindless, undisciplined indulgence.

            This insight into Noach may perhaps lead us to a novel reading of Reish Lakish’s comment in Masekhet Sanhedrin (108) that if Noach had lived in a more righteous generation, he would have been even greater.  The Gemara explains Reish Lakish’s view by way of an analogy to a bottle of fragrant spices placed alongside odorous waste products.  It is capable of emitting a pleasing fragrance, but its fragrance would be stronger if it would be placed among other pleasant-smelling substances.   Similarly, Reish Lakish maintained, Noach would have been far more “fragrant” if he had not lived amidst the “odor” of sin and corruption, and instead lived among righteous people.  Reish Lakish’s view is commonly understood (as Rashi seems to present it, commenting to the first verse of Parashat Noach) to mean that Noach’s spiritual growth was impeded by his environment.  He managed to resist the negative influences of his time, but had he lived among moral and conscientious people, he could have achieved more.  Alternatively, however, Reish Lakish’s remark may be understood as a scornful depiction of a man whose piety was inspired only by competition, by the desire to outdo his contemporaries.  Reish Lakish perhaps meant that if Noach had lived among righteous people, he would have had to appear nobler.  His “fragrance” – his façade of piety – would have had to be more pronounced in order to draw attention to himself.

            Whether or not this is Reish Lakish’s intent, the story of Noach should remind us of the need for sincerity and truthfulness as we develop our religious personas.  Our motivation should be the genuine desire to serve our Creator, not to draw attention to ourselves or appear pious.  Our objective must be to be true servants of God, not to make people think we are servants of God.

(See Rabbi Solomon Roodman’s “Noah Was a Showman”)


            Towards the end of Parashat Noach we read of how Noach became intoxicated and unclothed himself in his tent, in view of his son, Cham.  The Torah tells that Cham informed his two brothers, Shem and Yefet, about their father’s embarrassing condition, apparently inviting them to join him in making a mockery of Noach.  However, Shem and Yefet nobly took a garment and covered Noach, who, upon regaining his sobriety, heard of what happened and proceeded to curse Cham and bless Shem and Yefet.

            In describing Shem and Yefet’s response, the Torah tells that as they approached their father, “they faced backwards” (“u-fneihem achoranit” – 9:23) so that they would not see their father exposed.  The simple meaning of this phrase, of course, is that Shem and Yefet walked with their heads turned away from their father so they would not see him in his embarrassing state, as a sign of respect.  However, Rav Eliyahu Aharon Milikovsky, in his Devar Eliyahu (vol. 2, #65), suggests a deeper, symbolic meaning of this phrase, one which sheds light on the broader message conveyed by this story.  Whereas Cham gleefully focused his attention on Noach’s state of humiliation, and relished the opportunity to mock and ridicule his father, Shem and Yefet turned “backward,” to the past.  They focused their attention not on Noach’s current ignominy, but rather on his past, on the life of piety which he had lived and his having spared humankind by rising above the evil and corruption that swept the world before the flood.  Shem and Yefet had the nobility to “cover” their father’s “nakedness,” to look away from his disgrace, and concentrate instead on his impressive accomplishments and virtues.  Rather than peer at Noach’s current state of shame, they looked “backward” to his life of virtue. 

As children struggle to assert their independence, they search mightily for ways to criticize and look down upon their parents.  They find any “nakedness” – any source of shame – that might appear so they can feel superior to their parents.  Cham, therefore, relished the sight of his father’s embarrassing intoxication, which allowed him to look down upon his aged father.  Shem and Yefet, by contrast, had the nobility of character to look away from Noach’s drunken stupor and retain their respect and admiration for who he was and for all he had accomplished.

The lesson of this story extends beyond the area of relationships between children and parents.  People receive a great deal of satisfaction from hearing about the “erva” – the mistakes, foibles and faults – of others, especially of those whom they would otherwise have to view with respect.  Learning of other people’s failings allows us the opportunity to feel superior, or at least to unburden ourselves of our pangs of conscience over our own failings.  The story of Noach’s intoxication reminds us that we should be turning our eyes away from other people’s failings, and focusing instead on their admirable qualities.  Rather than search for and relish news of other people’s dishonorable conduct, we should instead search for and celebrate the fine qualities they exhibit, and try our hardest to emulate them.




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