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.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Parshat Noach

There are for Sedra Shoorts on Parshat Nooach. Scroll down for each Dvar Torah

  • Why an ark?
  • The Tower of Bavel
  • The Tower and Language
  • The Raven and the Dove

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.

The Tower of Bavel

Towards the end of this week’s Torah reading, a brief episode, merely nine verses long, is recorded. The people of Shinar, also known as Bavel, build a tower whose “top is in the heavens” in order to “make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth" (Bereshit 11:4).

It is difficult to decipher the precise crime of the ancient Babylonians. Jewish tradition brings many different opinions as to their intentions.

Modern scholarship has also enabled us to understand the issue a little better. The people of Shinar built many tall towers, called ziggurats. The remains of many are scattered over modern Iraq. We will examine why they built them.

The Psalmist writes: “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord; but the earth He has given to the children of men” (Tehillim 115:16). Essentially, the ancient world took this idea literally. God dwelt in the heavens while humanity dwelt upon the earth. If man wanted communion with God, he had to go to the place where heaven and earth meet, i.e. the mountains. Up in the clouds, heaven and earth meet and man can be at one with God. This idea exists within Judaism; after all, the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, with the cloud of God resting on the mountain after Moshe had ascended. So too, the Temple was built on Mount Moriah, the highest mountain in Jerusalem, Eliyahu Hanavi held his competition with Baal at the peak of Mount Carmel, and even the unofficial sanctuaries were known as the Bamot, the High Places.

This concept still has echoes in Christianity and Islam where churches and mosques are generally built on a village’s highest point.

However the people of Shinar had a problem. They had traveled “from the east” from the mountainous region of Ararat, and had “found a valley in the land of Shinar” (Bereshit 11:2). Their new home was a large, flat valley; there were no mountains and so, no place to have communion with God.

They solved the problem by building artificial mountains, i.e. very tall towers whose tops were in heaven, the ziggurats. Therefore, these towers, as the Sephorno writes, were actually temples. Hence, the name “Bavel”. “Bava” means “Gate” and “El” means “God”. The ancient Babylonians believed that “Bavel” was the gate of God, the place where heaven and earth connected.

The Torah mocks this idea saying that Bavel was more a place of confusion than the gate of God. As the Sephorno explains, Bavel’s leaders exploited religion to control the masses and to persecute humankind. They aimed to maintain power for themselves (”make ourselves a name”) and to keep a tight control of the people (“lest we be scattered”). God will not allow such ideas to endure and so the ziggurats crumbled. True worship of God calls for the freedom of humanity, not its persecution and enslavement.

The Tower and Language

The nine pesukim that make up the story of the Tower of Bavel are very cryptic and brief.

"Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth" (Bereshit 11:4)

Is there anything really wrong with this? So they want to build a tall tower. Are skyscrapers forbidden?

God then confuses their languages and scatters them. Did people really start speaking whole new languages overnight? What's really going on in this story?

In last week's Sedra Short, we saw that God gave humanity a mission: to fill and conquer the earth, i.e. to develop the world and continue the Creation that God began.

The beginning of the story starts well. "They traveled from the east, and they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there" (ibid 1).

Noach's arc had rested in the Ararat mountain range. The people left that region and settled in a valley later known as Babylon and nowadays, Iraq.

This is good, humanity are again beginning to fill the earth. But now they have a problem. Previously they were in mountains, with plenty of natural shelter and large boulders with which to build. Now, however, they are in a valley. Valleys have no natural shelters. Furthermore, the soil in Babylon is clay. There are no boulders with which to build. So what do they do?

They invent bricks and building materials! "'Come, let us make bricks and fire them in a furnace'; so the bricks were to them for stones, and the clay was to them for mortar" (ibid 3). How did do they do this? They noticed that when the clay is heated it becomes hard. So they built furnaces and created artificial stones: bricks.

All this again is wonderful. Humanity has made an incredible technological leap and is now conquering the earth as well as filling it.

However, they soon make a dreadful mistake: "Let us build ourselves a city (good) and a tower (also good)… lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth (very bad)" (ibid 4).

The leaders of this society are worried that the people are growing too quickly – if they are not careful, they will lose control over them. So what do they do? They try to stunt their development. They do not want to fill the earth. The tower acts as humanity's physical and technological prison.

God cannot allow this to succeed as it breaks the basic principles of Creation, so God acts. He "scattered them upon the face of the entire earth" (ibid 9), ensuring that humanity continued to fill the earth.

He did this by confusing their language. What does this mean?

With a close reading of the Hebrew text of passuk 3, you will notice that the technological developments were accompanied by a language development.

The Hebrew word "livna" (build) grew to "leven" (brick). The word "saraf" (fire) grew to "serefa" (furnace) and the word "hemar" (clay) grew to "homer" (mortar). The new inventions led to new words being invented, in the same manner that the inventions of the internet, cellular phones, flash drives etc has also led to new words being invented.

Now, even though I am fluent in English, I find it very hard to follow and join in a conversation with a group of information technologists, in pretty much the same way that I did not understand a word my physics teachers spoke.

This is what happened to the people of Babel. With all the major technological breakthroughs, different groups found it hard to communicate with each other. As Rashi explains, it led to misunderstandings, frustration, violence and separation. The different groups could no longer live with each other and they were forced to part and establish new communities. Over time these new communities developed their own distinct languages.

(Note: Rashi does not say that the people started speaking new languages overnight – only that they no longer understood each other – even though they understood the individual words being spoken, they could not understand the concept, e.g. if someone asked for a brick, his friend could not understand his need for a brick – surely he needed mortar. When the mortar was brought, his friend was frustrated and became violent.)

The Torah describes this process in one passuk: "the Lord confused the language of the entire earth, and from there the Lord scattered them upon the face of the entire earth", but as the Ibn Ezra explains, this process took hundreds of years.

The message of this story is now clear. Humans cannot be eternally enslaved. Its development and creativity cannot be stopped. God instilled the need to fill and conquer the earth into humanity's DNA. The Tower of Bavel was built to stunt humanity's growth. It was doomed to fail.

The Raven and the Dove

The Torah is full of doublets – stories that are told more than once from different perspectives. The episode of the Flood in this week's paraha, is undoubtedly two accounts of the same story, interwoven into one story. Let's see an example of this.

"The Lord saw that the evil of man was great in the earth, and every imagination of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that He had made man upon the earth, and He became grieved in His heart. The Lord said, 'I will blot out man, whom I created, from upon the face of the earth, from man to cattle to creeping thing, to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I made them.' But Noach found favor in the eyes of the Lord" (Bereshit 6:5-8).

Essentially, humanity, save one man, Noach, had become corrupted so God decided to destroy it. Let's now read the next few pesukim.

"These are the generations of Noach, Noah was a righteous man he was perfect in his generations; Noach walked with God…Now the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth became full of corrupion. God saw the earth, and behold it had become corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth. So God said to Noach, "The end of all flesh has come before Me…and behold I am destroying them from the earth'" (ibid 9-13).

Essentially, humanity, save one man, Noach, had become corrupted so God decided to destroy it!!

Bible critics concluded that each account was written by a separate author, probably in the two separate ancient Israelite kingdoms. Each recorded different traditions of Israel's history. A redactor later, interwove the accounts. The critics call one account "J" as it uses the Hebrew "J" name of God, translated here as "The Lord". The second account they call "E" as it uses the Hebrew "E" name for God, translated here as "God". I will show why I am not convinced by their arguments.

The two accounts continue throughout the parsha, and conclude with Noach sending a bird to see if the waters had receded. In Account E, Noach "sent forth the raven. It went out, back and forth until the waters dried up off the earth" (Ibid 8:7).

While the raven circled the ark, Noach understood that the earth was still flooded, and once the raven flew off, he understood that the waters had receded. Let's see what he does in the next pesukim.

"He sent forth the dove from with him, to see whether the waters had abated from upon the surface of the earth. But the dove found no resting place for the sole of its foot; so it returned to him to the ark because there was water upon the entire surface of the earth; so he stretched forth his hand and took it, and he brought it to him to the ark. He waited again another seven days, and he again sent forth the dove from the ark. The dove returned to him at eventide, and behold it had plucked an olive leaf in its mouth; so Noah knew that the water had abated from upon the earth" (ibid 8-11).

When the dove returned, Noach understood that the earth was still flooded. When the dove returned with the olive branch, Noach understood that the land was now visible.

Note, however, how the two accounts differ. In "J", God is grieved by humanity's plight and by His own actions. He cares for Noach. Noach cares about the dove and the dove cares about him. The "E" account, however, is cold and factual, devoid of relationship.

Also note how opposite the raven and the dove are. The raven is a predator, while the dove is an herbivore. The Raven is a symbol of aggression while the dove is a symbol of peace. The raven is black, while the dove is white.

These two accounts could not have been written independently, they are two sides of the same coin.

So why then are two accounts recorded? The ancient rabbis have explained that God's "J" name represents His trait of mercy while His "E" name represents His trait of justice.

Ancient Israel had a problem: If God was merciful, how could He punish them and if He was just, how could He ever be merciful? This interwoven story attempts to solve this problem. God's mercy and His justice work side by side, complementing each other. While God was acting with justice when He flooded the world, He was also acting with compassion. As every parent knows, trying to juggle mercy and justice with our children is a difficult task. Perhaps we should try to imitate God and act in both manner, at the same time.


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