This study for parashat Noach develops from the study and discussion begun on Oct 2 by Rabbi Hannah for parashat Breishit. Some material from that study appears below along with new passages from Noach -- beginning with (4) below.
From Hill Havurah discussion on parashat Breishit
Rabbi Hannah's remarks on Breishit were inspired by "Our Troubled Origins," a dvar torah from Rabbi Aviva Richman of Hadar. Richman's dvar torah focuses on parashat Breishit, but it's just as relevant to parashat Noah and the questions R' Hannah raised (more below) about humanity's origins.
Below is a quotation from Rabbi Richman's dvar. This is followed by one source, from Breishit Rabbah 1:5, which Rabbi Richman quotes.
(1) from "Our Troubled Origins":
Where do we come from? Are our human origins pure and innocent? Or do we stem from the most unspeakable act of violence one can imagine? As Parashat Bereishit traces our earliest origins, we see a conflicted picture of what lies at the core of humanity. This tension about whether humanity has pure or troubled origins parallels an age-old debate about whether God created the world from scratch or from a preexisting mess. Giving voice to the messier, more troubled origins of humanity can actually bring us into closer relationship with God, and more fully part of the divine work of creating something beautiful from a terrible mess.
Breishit has echoes of two different origin stories of humanity. The earlier genealogy (starting in 4:17) stems from Kayin and ends abruptly with a cryptic story about Lemekh. In the next chapter we meet a Lemekh who is the father of Noah (5:29). If we had only this genealogy, we could conclude that Noah descends from Kayin, and the entirety of humanity born after the Flood traces our lineage back to a forefather who committed the first act of murder.
...Knowing that I descend from Kayin makes me aware that I harbor Kayin's jealousy and impetuousness, that I could become a murderer too.
The more dominant genealogy from Shet [Seth] shuts down the troubling implications of Kayin as our forefather. Humanity as we know it stems from innocence, from the third son, who was a manifestation of God's benevolence to bring repair (4:25). I can gain comfort and inspiration from origins in a progenitor who represents purging violence and making a fresh start.
-- R' Aviva Richman
*NOTE: Not sure which translation R' Richman is using (possibly her own), but this version seems clearer than the one on Sefaria, which uses "nothing" for "void" -- thus confusing the controversy about Creation ex nihilo [from nothing].
(3) Questions Rabbi Hannah asked us to ponder:
What aspects of our origin stories -- from Torah or otherwise -- are important to your self-image and understanding of humanity?
What would you like to impart to future generations about where we came from and what we must do with that information?
Two thousand years from now, what do you hope people will remember about this time? How might they look at us, and how might they grow from our story?
moving into parashat Noah
(4) With the above questions in mind, let's consider some aspects of the Noah story:
- the "corruption" of the earth,
- God's regret about Creation and the subsequent Flood, and
- God's post-Flood responses, including the scattering of the people at Babel.
What does the Flood story add to our understanding of "the messier, more troubled origins of humanity"?
How does the Flood narrative influence our personal and collective origin stories?
What changes -- for God and for humanity -- pre- and post-Flood? Are we more or less messy?
Which about the Babel story? What does God's intervention, so the people will not be of "one language" or "one purpose," say about messiness?
(5) Complication and Regret
Meanwhile, the text itself [Gen 6:1-4, at the close of parashat Breishit] moves on quite quickly from whatever was going on between divine beings and humans, and it leaves a lot of mystery around why God so thoroughly regrets humanity. The overall impression is that it’s just complicated. Tamim can be “perfect, without blemish,” but also carries connotations of “innocent” or “simple.” And Noah’s name is related to comfort. So, maybe the Flood is God’s choosing simplicity over complications, comfort over unending struggle and sorrow.
…There are days when many of us have similar impulses, I think: This whole thing is a permanently entangled, irredeemable mess! This cannot go on. There must be a simpler way — can we just start over?…
However imperfect, even human, this impulse may seem, God has already shown a tendency to “regret” ([yinachem], Gen 6:6-7) and will do so again. Just a few examples:
- I Sam 15:11, 35 (regrets making Saul King);
- Jer 26:19 (regrets Hezekiah’s impending doom);
- Ps 106:45 (regrets distress of backsliding People); and
- Jonah 3:10, 4:2 (regrets anger against Nineveh).
Although the same (“regret”) verb is not used, God soon has a change of heart about the impulse that led to the Flood: The story closes with a promise of never again and a rainbow (Gen 9:11-16); this is followed by God deliberately scattering people when they became of “one language” (Gen 11).
In closing out the Flood episode, God unilaterally declares a covenant with survivors and their descendants. Covenants are announced with individuals and families — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as promises to Hagar, Ishmael, and Esau. But only with the Exodus story do the People, apparently willingly, enter into collective Covenant with God (Ex 19:8, 24:3)….Even with the Covenant in place, as Moses relates, things remain, or return to being, complicated: In anger, God hides, or turns away, from “children without loyalty,” and seems to threaten them with everything BUT flood (Deut 32:19-20).
In particular, God appears vexed by the people’s predilection for havleihem [“futilities,” puffs of vapor — as in “all is futility” in Ecclesiastes] (Deut 32:21). Maybe, just maybe, the tendency to twisting and bending, which Moses abhors, actually allows for absorbing and wicking of moisture over the long haul. Perhaps crookedness, contrary to Moses’ perception, is part of how we survive, retain, and share essential aspects of Torah and divinity.
-- from "Haazinu: Crooked, Twisted, Bent, and Wet" on Rereading4Liberation (a V. Spatz blog), full post
(6) The root shin-chet-tav appears many times in the Noah story, for both "corruption" and "destruction." Here are a few instances:
* See notes on shin-chet-tav below
** See notes on chet-mem-samech below
Everett Fox’s translation emphasizes the root linkage with the compound expressions “gone-to-ruin” and “bring-ruin,” for what the people did and what God does, respectively:
(11) Now the earth had gone-to-ruin [v’tishachet] before God, the earth was filled with wrongdoing. (12) God saw the earth, and, here: it had gone-to-ruin [nishchatah]; for all flesh had ruined [hishchit] its way upon the earth. (13) God said unto Noah: ‘An end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with wrongdoing through them; here, I am about to bring-ruin [mashchitam] upon them, along with the earth.
— Genesis 6:11-13 Everett Fox translation (Schocken, 1995)
Note that "destroy [l'hachot]" above is from the root -- נָכָה (v) heb -- meaning to strike, smite, hit, beat, slay, kill. Not the shin-chet-tav root of other "destroys" in this story.
*definitions of root shin-chet-tav -- shachat
שָׁחַת (v) heb
to destroy, corrupt, go to ruin, decay
-- from GitHub via Sefaria
root: to be low, bent
to pervert, ruin, do harm
-- from Jastrow via Sefaria
NOTE: BibleHub offers 20+ translations in parallel, including the "Old JPS" (1917). BibleHub is also offers an easy gateway to Strong's Concordance for the Bible as well as concordances and other tools in English. DO PLEASE NOTE: commentary on BibleHub, beyond the basic text references, is all quite Christian. The basic tools are powerful and useful.
For this verse, Old JPS has "corrupt," and most of the 20+ translations on BibleHub use the same.
A few use "ruined" -- e.g., NIV: "had become ruined in God's opinion."
Good News Bible has the inventive, "everyone else was evil."
Amplified Bible gives us bracketed additions: "corrupt [absolutely depraved—spiritually and morally putrid]."
**definitions of chet-mem-samech -- chamas
חָמָס (n-m) heb
violence, wrong, cruelty, injustice
to insult, do violence, to rob
Another source note: Old JPS is available at Mechon-Mamre.org in either parallel Hebrew and English or straightforward English. Reading Old JPS can be useful sometimes. And for copying of the Hebrew text, Mechon-Mamre can be a better choice in some circumstances because this site does not add trope marks -- which can be useful if you want them and a distraction if you don't.
It can also be instructive to compare the Old JPS and the King James Version. The KJV had a huge influence on how we read Bible stories, and it's helpful sometimes to pause and notice that.
In the Babel story, there is no mention of violence or evil or corruption, as in the Flood story. And God does not smite or destroy, instead dispersing or scattering the people and confounding their language.
There is a lot to notice, language-wise, in this story. One observation that I found relevant comes from Robert Alter:
The reiterated "there," sham, is the first syllable of shamayim, "heavens," as well as an odd echo of shem, "name." Meaning in language...is made possible through differences between terms in the linguistic system. Here difference is subverted in the very style of the story, with blurring of lexical boundaries culminating in God's confounding of tongues.
--from Alter's translation of The Five Books of Moses, Norton 2004
Another note: Earlier we are told "Sons were also born to Shem, ancestor of all the descendants of Eber [kol bnei-ever] and older brother of Japheth" (10:21). Eber עֵבֶר is Shem's great-grandson. His name is linked with ivri, Hebrew, and with the root ayin-bet-reish, which can mean "passed" or "crossed" and is sometimes linked specifically to "the other side (of the river)." Following Rashi's remark on Gen 10:21, "kol bnei-ever" in that verse is sometimes translated as "all those who lived on the other side."
Finnegans Wake is an acquired taste, and more trouble than its worth according to some, but I mention two short bits here because they reflect the themes of messiness vs. purity, carrying forward from Breishit into the Noah story. These passages also pick up on important literary ties between the Noah and Babel stories and stress the universality, in the human experience, of the tension between being defined by our past and forging a future.
I'm including the passages themselves below for those interested. Here, I'll give the nutshell version.
This week's Torah portion appears, in scrambled Wake fashion, on the very first page of Finnegans Wake:
- a rainbow on the water's face;
- brothers, called by names similar to "Shem" and a mashup of "Japhet and Ham," get into their father's drink; then
- a fall by a bricklayer building a wall (described in part by one of the Wake's 100-letter "thunderwords.")
Later in the Wake, we read a great deal about a character named Shem, who is simultaneously the biblical character as well as "Shem the Penman," one of two twin brothers in the story (and often the narrator), and sometimes other characters from bible and history and literature all mushed together. At one point, we hear from Shem's twin Shaun, with whom there is quite rivalry.
Shaun begins by laughing at the idea that Shem is considered of respectable ancestry and background:
- There are those, he says, who "pretend that aboriginally he was of respectable stemming."
- In truth, Shaun declares: Shem's "back life will not stand being written about in black and white."
- A childhood riddle, asking "when is a man not a man?" is answered "when he is a Sham."
Please note that Shaun, as Shem's twin, is besmirching his own ancestry and maybe background as well. And that childhood riddle is posed in the Wake passage as "the first riddle of the universe." That brings us back to R' Hannah's teaching about the tension between seeing Creation as ex nihilo or as crafted from pre-existing mess, and humanity as somehow pure or born of a messy past.
Quotations are set here in an attempt to mimic the particular way that Finnegans Wake is typeset. (Every edition follows exactly the same line breaks and pagination -- Joyce insisted on it.) Not sure if this will transfer to all size screens.
from Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory
end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.
The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-
nuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later
on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the
offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan...
- p.1, Finnegans Wake, James Joyce
Shem is short for Shemus as Jem is joky for Jacob. A few
toughnecks are still getatable who pretend that aboriginally he
was of respectable stemming (he was an outlex between the lines
of Ragonar Blaubarb and Horrild Hairwire and an inlaw to Capt.
the Hon. and Rev. Mr. Bbyrdwood de Trop Blogg was among
his most distant connections) but every honest to goodness man
in the land of the space of today knows that his back life will
not stand being written about in black and white....
..................................["Master Shemmy"]...dictited to all of his
little brothron and sweestureens the first riddle of the universe:
asking, when is a man not a man?: telling them take their time,
wrong, so Shem himself, the doctator, took the cake, the correct
solution being --- all give it up? ---; when he is a --- yours till
the rending of the rocks, --- Sham.
Shem was a sham and a low sham...
-- p. 169, 170, Finnegans Wake, James Joyce
Using Penguin edition 1976. Originally published by Faber and Faber, 1939.