Hill Havurah Torah Study/Meditation: Noah

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


(ה) ...בְּנֹהַג שֶׁבָּעוֹלָם מֶלֶךְ בָּשָׂר וָדָם בּוֹנֶה פָּלָטִין בִּמְקוֹם הַבִּיבִים, וּבִמְקוֹם הָאַשְׁפָּה, וּבִמְקוֹם הַסָּרִיּוֹת, כָּל מִי שֶׁהוּא בָּא לוֹמַר פָּלָטִין זוֹ בְּנוּיָה בִּמְקוֹם הַבִּיבִים וּבִמְקוֹם הָאַשְׁפָּה וּבִמְקוֹם הַסָּרִיּוֹת, אֵינוֹ פּוֹגֵם. כָּךְ כָּל מִי שֶׁהוּא בָּא לוֹמַר הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה נִבְרָא מִתּוֹךְ תֹּהוּ וָבֹהוּ, אֵינוֹ פּוֹגֵם, אֶתְמְהָה. רַב הוּנָא בְּשֵׁם בַּר קַפָּרָא אָמַר, אִילוּלֵי שֶׁהַדָּבָר כָּתוּב אִי אֶפְשָׁר לְאָמְרוֹ, בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, מִנַּיִן הֵן, וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ.

In the way of the world, if a king of flesh and blood builds a palace of sewers, trash, and refuse, anyone who comes and says, "This palace is built in the place of sewers, trash and refuse," wouldn't that be considered an insult? So, too, one who comes and says, "This world was created from void and darkness, wouldn't that be considered an insult? R. Huna in the name of bar Kappara: Were it not written [in the Torah] it would have been impossible to say! God created the heavens and earth from what? From "and the earth was void etc."

-- English as quoted in Richman's dvar*

*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:

(יא) וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס׃ (יב) וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְהִנֵּ֣ה נִשְׁחָ֑תָה כִּֽי־הִשְׁחִ֧ית כׇּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר אֶת־דַּרְכּ֖וֹ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ {ס} (יג) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כׇּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

(11) The earth became corrupt [v’tishachet]* before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness [chamas].** (12) When God saw how corrupt [nishchatah]* the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways [hishchit]* on earth, (13) God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy [mashchitam]* them with the earth.

-- New JPS via Sefaria [Hebrew transliterations added]

* 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)

(כא) וַיָּ֣רַח יְהֹוָה֮ אֶת־רֵ֣יחַ הַנִּיחֹ֒חַ֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ לֹֽא־אֹ֠סִ֠ף לְקַלֵּ֨ל ע֤וֹד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּעֲב֣וּר הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֠י יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֛ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו וְלֹֽא־אֹסִ֥ף ע֛וֹד לְהַכּ֥וֹת אֶת־כׇּל־חַ֖י כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִֽׂיתִי׃

(21) The LORD smelled the pleasing odor, and the LORD said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy [l'hachot] every living being, as I have done.

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.

(יא) וַהֲקִמֹתִ֤י אֶת־בְּרִיתִי֙ אִתְּכֶ֔ם וְלֹֽא־יִכָּרֵ֧ת כׇּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר ע֖וֹד מִמֵּ֣י הַמַּבּ֑וּל וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֥ה ע֛וֹד מַבּ֖וּל לְשַׁחֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

(11) I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy [l'shachet] the earth.”

*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

-- GitHub

to insult, do violence, to rob

-- Jastrow

Note that the 1917 "Old JPS" used "violence" for chamas and most of the translations at BibleHub followed suit. Some alternatives used are "wickedness" and "iniquity."

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.

(א) וַֽיְהִ֥י כׇל־הָאָ֖רֶץ שָׂפָ֣ה אֶחָ֑ת וּדְבָרִ֖ים אֲחָדִֽים׃ (ב) וַֽיְהִ֖י בְּנׇסְעָ֣ם מִקֶּ֑דֶם וַֽיִּמְצְא֥וּ בִקְעָ֛ה בְּאֶ֥רֶץ שִׁנְעָ֖ר וַיֵּ֥שְׁבוּ שָֽׁם׃ (ג) וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־רֵעֵ֗הוּ הָ֚בָה נִלְבְּנָ֣ה לְבֵנִ֔ים וְנִשְׂרְפָ֖ה לִשְׂרֵפָ֑ה וַתְּהִ֨י לָהֶ֤ם הַלְּבֵנָה֙ לְאָ֔בֶן וְהַ֣חֵמָ֔ר הָיָ֥ה לָהֶ֖ם לַחֹֽמֶר׃ (ד) וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ הָ֣בָה ׀ נִבְנֶה־לָּ֣נוּ עִ֗יר וּמִגְדָּל֙ וְרֹאשׁ֣וֹ בַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֖נוּ שֵׁ֑ם פֶּן־נָפ֖וּץ עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כׇל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (ה) וַיֵּ֣רֶד יְהֹוָ֔ה לִרְאֹ֥ת אֶת־הָעִ֖יר וְאֶת־הַמִּגְדָּ֑ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר בָּנ֖וּ בְּנֵ֥י הָאָדָֽם׃ (ו) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהֹוָ֗ה הֵ֣ן עַ֤ם אֶחָד֙ וְשָׂפָ֤ה אַחַת֙ לְכֻלָּ֔ם וְזֶ֖ה הַחִלָּ֣ם לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת וְעַתָּה֙ לֹֽא־יִבָּצֵ֣ר מֵהֶ֔ם כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָזְמ֖וּ לַֽעֲשֽׂוֹת׃ (ז) הָ֚בָה נֵֽרְדָ֔ה וְנָבְלָ֥ה שָׁ֖ם שְׂפָתָ֑ם אֲשֶׁר֙ לֹ֣א יִשְׁמְע֔וּ אִ֖ישׁ שְׂפַ֥ת רֵעֵֽהוּ׃ (ח) וַיָּ֨פֶץ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֹתָ֛ם מִשָּׁ֖ם עַל־פְּנֵ֣י כׇל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַֽיַּחְדְּל֖וּ לִבְנֹ֥ת הָעִֽיר׃ (ט) עַל־כֵּ֞ן קָרָ֤א שְׁמָהּ֙ בָּבֶ֔ל כִּי־שָׁ֛ם בָּלַ֥ל יְהֹוָ֖ה שְׂפַ֣ת כׇּל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וּמִשָּׁם֙ הֱפִיצָ֣ם יְהֹוָ֔ה עַל־פְּנֵ֖י כׇּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ {פ}
(י) אֵ֚לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֣ת שֵׁ֔ם שֵׁ֚ם בֶּן־מְאַ֣ת שָׁנָ֔ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד אֶת־אַרְפַּכְשָׁ֑ד שְׁנָתַ֖יִם אַחַ֥ר הַמַּבּֽוּל׃

(1) Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. (2) And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there [sham]. (3) They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.”—Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar.— (4) And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky [shamayim], to make a name [shem] for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” (5) The LORD came down to look at the city and tower that man had built, (6) and the LORD said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. (7) Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there [sham], so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” (8) Thus the LORD scattered them from there [sham] over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. (9) That is why it was called Babel, because there [sham] the LORD confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there [sham] the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (10) This is the line of Shem. Shem was 100 years old when he begot Arpachshad, two years after the Flood.

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."

אבי כל בני עבר. הַנָּהָר הָיָה שֵׁם:
אבי כל בני עבר THE FATHER OF ALL THE CHILDREN OF EBER — (עבר means the “side” or “ other side” of a river) — The father of all the children of עבר הנהר, the other side of the River (Euphrates), was Shem.


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

...........................................................................................Rot a
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,
.......................................................................................All were
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.