Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Parshat Noach

Why an ark?

In order to save Noach and his family from the impending Flood, God told Noach: "Make for yourself an ark (tevah) of gopher wood" (Bereshit 6:14).

Why an ark and not a boat or a ship? To help answer this question we must first find out what an ark is and how it differs to a boat or a ship.

The only other instance of an ark in the Bible, is the ark built by Yocheved for her son Moshe, when she placed him on the River Nile. (NB. We cannot compare this ark to the Ark of the Covenant as the Hebrew word for Ark in that instance is aron not tevah).

The common feature between both Noach's and Moshe's arks was that they were intended for refuge and not travel. They were not built to get them from point A to point B, but only to give them protection from the waters. Therefore, neither ark had any sails, oars, rudders or any navigational system whatsoever.

In essence, Noach had no control of the Ark. The Ark went wherever the waters took it. "When the waters increased, they picked up the ark, and it was lifted up above the earth" (ibid 17:7). "When the waters strengthened and increased upon the earth, the ark travelled along the face of the water" (ibid 18). "...The waters decreased and the ark rested...on the mountains of Ararat" (ibid 8:3-4).

Unlike the hero recorded in other traditons such as the Gilgamesh Flood epic, Noach could not steer the ark. He did not decide when to leave, in which direction to go and where to land the ark. He had an ark not a boat. Noach and humanity itself, was totally dependent on God for his security, safety and survival. By building an ark and not a boat, Noach submitted himself into God's care and trusted in His salvation.

Incidentally, Noach unlike the survivor from other flood traditions, is saved not because he was strong and wise, or because he was a descendent of a god and neither because of a fortunate chance. He is saved because: "Noach was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted; Noach walked with God" (ibid 6:9).

Once again, the Bible is introducing the revolutionary idea of Ethical monotheism in a pagan world that lives by the survival of the fittest.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Parshat Bereshit

Shattering Ancient Creation Myths

The ancient world had many myths about the creation of the world and the power of the gods. The children of Israel leaving Egypt, were well versed in these myths. Therefore the the first few chapters of the Book of Bereshit deal with shattering those myths. The new nation had to discard those myths. Here's a few of many examples of Torah attempts to shatter those myths:

Myth 1 - There is a pantheon of gods

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ - בראשית א:א
In the beginning God created the universe - Genesis 1:1 .

There is no pantheon of gods, only one God.

Myth 2 - The gods struggled with each other and with other powers in order to create the universe

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים... - שם ג
"God said..." (or "God willed...") - ibid 3

There was no epic struggle between different gods or powers. God's creation was effortless and unopposed.

Myth 3 - Nature is a force that needs to be worshipped so that it continues to generate its produce.

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים תַּדְשֵׁא הָאָרֶץ דֶּשֶׁא עֵשֶׂב מַזְרִיעַ זֶרַע עֵץ פְּרִי עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי לְמִינו, אֲשֶׁר זַרְעו בוֹ עַל הָאָרֶץ וַיְהִי כֵן - שם י"א
God said: 'Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth.' And it was so. - ibid 11

God alone has bestowed the earth with generative powers. Nature reproduces soley on account of God's will. God, and not fertility cults, must be worshipped in order for this cycle to continue. On the same realm, the sun, another creation of God, was created on the fourth day after the vegetation, to shatter the myth that it is the source of life.

Myth 4 - Ancient Kings are desecendents of gods and have dominion over other humans - note the name: Tutenkhamen (an Egyptian Pharaoh) - it means "in the image of Amun (an ancient Egyptian God".

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ - שם כ"ז
God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him - ibid 27

This radical concept taught that all humans are in the image of God - all are equal regardless of status. No human has the right to subdue or harm another - doing so would be an affront to God.

Other shattered myths include:

  • The Serpent - Partially because it sheds its skin, the ancients venerated it as a symbol of health and longevity; and its unblinking eys and its sudden venomous bite, gave it a demonic dread. Yet it was merely, "... the shrewdest of the wild creatures that the Lord had created" (ibid 3:i), and so undeserving of any worship.
  • Evil - believed to be a metaphysical primordial creation, existing on its own to destroy all the good the gods had done; was caused by human action. Calamity and hardship was not the result of a haphazard power that did evil in accordance with its own will, but due to the immoral actions of humanity.

Thereby, the purpose of the first few chapters of Sefer Bereshit are not necessarily to teach us the history of creation, but are in order to bring the world of ethical montheism to a humanity steeped in unethical polytheism.