Weekly Torah Commentary – Noah October 20, 2017

Torah reading:  Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

Haftorah reading: Isaiah 66:1-24

It took only nine generations from Creation for mankind to descend into a moral decay of such magnitude that God announced to one man His intent to destroy the world with a flood.  Noah, the Bible says, was ‘righteous in his generation.’ A great grandson of Enoch, Noah had a powerful spiritual heritage.  In the book of Enoch we read that Enoch entrusted the revelations God gave him to his son, Methuselah, who subsequently passed them on to his son, Lamech, who then taught them to his son, Noah.

Remember that Noah’s grandfather was still alive as Noah grew up, married and had children.  In fact, Methuselah died seven days before the rains began, on the very day that Noah and his family entered the Ark.

After the flood, when the waters receded, God spoke to Noah again:

And God said to Noah and his sons: I will keep My covenant with you and your descendants…and never again will a flood destroy all of life, and there will not be another flood destroying the earth….This is the sign I am making, testifying to the covenant between Me and you and all living souls, forever: I have put My rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between Myself and the world. When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will be seen in the clouds, and I will remember the covenant between Myself and yourselves and all living souls, and there will never again be a flood to destroy all life. The rainbow will be in the clouds and I will see it and remember the eternal covenant between G‑d and all the living souls on earth.  Genesis 9: 11-17

After the Flood, the LORD God promised that—in spite of how man might sin—He would never again cause a flood that would destroy the whole world. As a sign of that covenant, He created the rainbow.

rainbow

In Jewish thought, the rainbow has two very significant meanings.

First, the appearance of a rainbow is a sign that sin is proliferating in a nation or region.  As such, it is seen as an appeal for repentance.  There are accounts in Jewish history of generations that never saw a rainbow which the Sages understood to mean that within the population there was a remnant of righteous and holy people whose godly living and sincere worship of Almighty God were preserving factors for the entire generation.

Hmm – think about that for a while…..

The second meaning attributed to a rainbow declares that though the Flood brought destruction to the world, there was also an aspect of it that was a blessing. The Flood waters purified the world and gave to mankind a second chance, the ability to recover the meaning of their existence. The clouds, which are formed from the mist that rises from the ground, represented this transformation of the natural to the supernatural.

I suggest that there is yet another sign inherent in the rainbow.

The prophet Ezekiel described a vision in which he had seen the divine presence “like a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, with a corona around it; this was how the glory of God appeared, and I saw it and fell on my face and heard a voice speaking….”

The rainbow, therefore, is also a sign of the presence of God and the glory of God.Therefore on those occasions when we do see a rainbow, it serves to remind us that we serve a God in the heavens who is true to His word, His faithfulness extends to all generations and His mercies are new every morning. (Lamentations .3:22-23)   Every sighting of a rainbow in the sky is an opportunity to give thanks and praise to an ever faithful and loving Heavenly Father.

Continuing with Jewish thought, in Zohar 13, it is written that just before the Messiah appears, mankind will see an especially bright and vividly colorful rainbow in the sky.

In Tune with Torah this week = throughout history the rainbow has been used as a symbol in a wide variety of ways.  Our purpose here is to look at its origin and what God said about it. For the devoted Bible believer, the rainbow is a sign of His covenant, His faithfulness and His mercy, even in times of grievous sin in a nation or culture.

Let  us be thankful that our God is merciful as well as just, faithful as well as loving. His heart has not changed since the days of Noah.  He is the same today as He was then. It took 120 years for Noah to build the Ark.  From ancient sources we know that during that entire time, his grandfather Methuselah, a righteous man, appealed to the people to turn from their wicked ways lest God’s judgment fall upon them.

If only they had listened…..

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Noach November 4, 2016

Torah reading:  Noach  Genesis 6:9-11:32

Haftorah:  Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5

noahark

As chapter 54 of Isaiah opens, the prophet announces future blessings: the expansion of Israel, the blessings of safety and peace, and the portion of righteousness.

This chapter anticipates the ultimate salvation and restoration of Israel, begun in part at the restoration of the exiles from Babylon in 536 B.C. but for the most part yet in the future, for as this chapter unfolds it will become clearer and clearer that the return from Babylon did not fulfill all the promises of God. There yet remains the final culmination of the entirety of God’s covenant promises at the end of the age. In fact, as these chapters progress to the end of the book, the vision gets more glorious, and the hope for what we will see in the end of days that much more strengthened.

We have here Isaiah’s glimpse at the promises of the new covenant God promised to make with the House of Israel and the House of Judah. He does not provide the details of Jeremiah 31 or Ezekiel 36, but he complements what is there.

The verses describing the new covenant promised: a restoration to the land for Israel and to the pure worship and spiritual service as priests, the long awaited arrival of King Messiah to Israel,  the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh so that the Torah will be written in their hearts, the end of war and oppression in the land and in the world, and the reign of the Messiah in righteousness. Beginning with the restoration from exile, some of this was fulfilled, but not all; only with the coming of Messiah will all these things be completely fulfilled. Isaiah 54 lays out some of the promised blessings, but does not say when they will be fulfilled in part or completely.

But this chapter is also immediately practical as much for us today as it was for ancient Israel. The prophet describes clearly the plans God has for His holy people in this world; but the clues in the chapter, and the related contexts of the time, let us know that attaining these promises to the full called for spiritual service—which is why the chapter ends with the reminder that this is the heritage of the righteous servants of the LORD.

In verses 5 and 6 we are reminded that the promise is based on the relationship that the nation has to God; in His faithfulness to His covenant.

For your Maker is your husband,

the LORD of armies is His name;

and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,

the God of the whole earth shall He be called.

In creation He is our ‘Maker’ but now the prophet reminds us that not only did He create us, but, as clearly proclaimed in the book of Exodus, God is also our ‘husband’, a covenant term which calls to mind a marriage. The ‘husband’ is described as the sovereign Creator, the LORD of armies, the Holy One of Israel, the Redeemer, and the God of the whole earth. Any people related by covenant (marriage) to such a One need not fear anyone—except God Himself.

The condition of Israel is addressed as a wife that is bereaved, grieved in spirit, forsaken, and cast off. But will she be cast off forever?

The following verses affirm that the exile was a temporary manifestation of God’s wrath to purge the rebels and faithless from the nation.

Verses 7-10 record the speech of the LORD to assure Israel of future peace. The poetry is exquisite:

For a small moment I have forsaken you,

but with great mercies will I gather you;

In overflowing wrath I hid my face from you for a moment,

but with everlasting love I will have mercy on you.

The whole Babylonian captivity is referred to as a “small moment” when God turned His back on Israel. Seventy years may not seem like a ‘moment’ to us but in the context of God’s eternal plan of redemption, it is indeed but a moment.

The regathering of the Tribes will be with tender mercies. The exile is described as God’s wrath when He hid His face, a very human description to convey withholding mercy, but the restoration is a display of His everlasting loyal love and His absolute dependability. God is speaking to the nation as a whole; His anger was against sin, the exile was for the purpose of purging the rebels and drawing contrition and faith from the remnant. Now the restoration would show that the judgment time had passed, that there would be a new beginning.

The announcement is similar to the Noachide Covenant. So the comparison is made with the “waters of Noah”. Here too the LORD seals His promise with an oath, just as He did in the days of Noah.  And therein is the connection with this week’s Torah portion about Noah and the great flood.

It is noteworthy that the end of days is described elsewhere as being ‘like the days of Noah’ and as we look around our world today, it’s not difficult to see the connection.  While Noah built the Ark, the people around him scoffed, mocked and ridiculed him for obeying God, oblivious to the judgment that was about to be poured out on them for their national sins and rebellion.  In the end, eight people – only EIGHT – survived the Flood, a tiny remnant.

In Tune with Torah this week: we would do well to read Genesis 6 along with all of the Haftorah and consider the message as it relates to our world at this very moment in time.

What does it say personally to you, to your family?  If you had been alive at the time of Noah, would you have joined the mockers in belittling Noah for acting in faith?

Weekly Torah Commentary – Noah October 15, 2015

Genesis 6:9-11:32

These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a good and just man. He was a pure man in his generation. [Genesis 6:9]

The story of Noah and the flood is well known, yet Noah, the man, arouses our curiosity. The Bible says he was righteous “in his generation.” Does that mean that compared to an immoral and self-serving generation, Noah looked pretty good? Or was he indeed a noble soul?

To answer that question, let’s take a look at his contemporaries.

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were pretty; and they took as wives all those whom they chose … The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, ‘The end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.’ [Genesis 6:1-2, 11-12]

Noah’s society is one of corruption and thievery. Immorality is rampant. Men do as they please without regard for their neighbor’s welfare. Hmm, sound familiar?

Noah was apparently upright in his morals and did not partake in the evil actions of those around him. But neither does the Bible say he was performing all sorts of good deeds. We could suggest that Noah is an island, neither hurting others, nor helping them. This is the greatness of Noah – but also the tragedy of Noah.

Noah, as a righteous man in his generation, had responsibilities toward his fellow citizens. Noah did not intercede for his generation, nor did he defend them to God. He was detached. By contrast, when God informed Abraham that He was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham cried out for mercy; he pleaded with God to spare the city if there were even ten righteous within it. Also Moses interceded for the children of Israel repeatedly. But there is no evidence that Noah, aware of the coming flood, spoke even one word of prayer on behalf of his contemporaries.

Noah accepts the decree of God. If the people are guilty, in his mind there is no argument. So Noah toils for 120 years building the ark, yet in all that time, not one person was brought under the influence of this great religious personality. When he is finished building, he boards the ark with his family and the designated animals, leaving everyone else to perish.

Even after he leaves the ark, Noah’s spiritual stumbling continues. He and his family are the only human beings alive – surrounded by utter devastation. How does Noah cope with all this?

He plants a vineyard and then gets drunk on the wine. Is it that Noah cannot cope with the enormity of the destruction that he has witnessed? Does he perhaps feel that his own passivity towards his peers led to the destruction of an entire civilization? What thoughts whirled about in his mind – after the flood?

Noah lived for some 300 years after the flood, fathered children, watched countless generations come and go. Does he change his ways? Do we find him more involved, more concerned, more invested in those around him?

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech … And they said one to another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach to heaven … And the Lord said, “Behold, the people are one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have schemed to do.” [Genesis 11:1-6]

Noah was still alive at this time. A world of people gathered to challenge the Almighty.

Noah was tragically silent – again.

He will be remembered as a man who knew how to stay calm in the presence of incredible social pressures; a man who knew how to stand alone; but a man whose very ‘aloneness’ kept him from being a force for good within his generations.

But someone else is alive by now. Abraham was forty eight years old at the time of the destruction of the Tower of Babel and the dispersion of the peoples. Abraham saw and learned. Abraham would also have to stand alone but in a very different way. In next week’s Torah portion, we’ll be introduced to the other man who stood alone but in doing so changed the entire world.

In Tune with Torah this week = standing alone against the tide can be a great thing – or a mediocre thing. It depends on what moves the heart. Do we stand alone with a “could-care-less” about what others will have to suffer in this hour? Or like Abraham, do we stand for God – sometimes alone – but always with the welfare of our fellow man close to our heart?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Vayeira November 7, 2014

Genesis/Bresheit 18-22

After the beginnings of human history yielded several examples of the misuse of the gift of free choice, a new figure comes on the scene: Abram, who will eventually have his name changed to Abraham.

As we are introduced to him, he is commanded to leave his land, birthplace and father’s house and travel “to the land I will show you,” but why? What does God want him to do there? What is his calling?  What is so special about him that warrants his becoming the father of many nations? We are not initially told.

At the root of the failures of Adam and Eve, and of Noah’s generation was a failure of responsibility.  Abraham stands out as very different.

One of the first things we notice about him is that he, by contrast to his predecessors, does demonstrate personal responsibility.  When his servants and the servants of Lot begin to quarrel, Abram steps forward with a solution:

Abram said to Lot, “Let there not be a quarrel between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.” (Gen. 13: 8-9)

Unlike many of us, Abraham does not pass judgement; does not debate about whose fault it is or who started the argument.  He does not even concern himself about who will end up with the better deal! He sees the problem and he acts.

Shortly afterwards a local war breaks out and Lot is among the people taken captive. Immediately Abraham assembles warriors, pursues the invaders, rescues Lot and with him all the other captives. And…he takes no interest in acquiring spoils of the victory.  Unlike Cain, Abram appears to understand that he is his brother’s keeper; that humans have a moral responsibility towards each other.  Despite the fact that Lot had chosen to go live in Sodom, Abram did not assume a “got-what-he-deserved” attitude but chose responsibility because it was the right thing to do, not because Lot ‘deserved’ it, necessarily.

Then God informs Abram that He is about to pass judgment on Sodom and Abram challenges the Almighty:

“Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do justice?”

When you stop and think about this, it’s rather remarkable. By what right does the creature challenge the Creator, God himself?

Read the passage carefully:

Then the Lord said, Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him” … Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

Those words, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” suggest that God wanted Abraham to respond. It was a test.

You see, Abraham’s behavior can only be rightly understood when compared to Noah’s. God also told Noah in advance that He was going to judge the world:

So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.”

But Noah did not protest. Noah accepted the verdict and set about building a huge boat. Abraham, on the other hand, challenged the impending judgment. Abraham pleaded for mercy. Why? Because he understood that humanity is a community and we are responsible for one another.  The people of Sodom were not his personal family, yet he interceded on their behalf because they were fellow human beings, created by the same God who had created him.

So, why did God ‘invite’ Abraham to challenge Him?

Abraham was to become the role model for and initiator of not just one nation, Israel, but many nations.  To him fell the responsibility to exemplify the kind of faith that his descendants would need, a faith at once strong but also humble, courageous but also dependent on Almighty God, individual but also communal.  He was to model a faith that goes beyond ‘me and mine’ to ‘all of us’.

Abraham never held a ‘political office’. However, he was a role model of genuine leadership. He took responsibility. He was decisive; he didn’t wait for others to act; he took action himself. Of Noah, the Torah says, “he walked with God.” But to Abraham, God himself said, “Walk before me,” (Gen. 17: 1), meaning: be a leader. Walk forthrightly. Take moral responsibility for yourself and your family, but not just for yourself. Take responsibility for humanity.

Self-centeredness that does not concern itself with the needs of others is irresponsible.

Communal or national consciousness that degrades the individual is arrogant and dangerous.

True responsibility begins with you but doesn’t end with you.  It cares about your fellowman as well. Considering the needs of others as important as our own is what we are called to do.

In Tune with Torah this week = Abraham stands throughout history as a towering example of kindness, selflessness and responsibility towards God and towards mankind.  As children of Abraham, whether by natural birth or by adoption, it behooves us to follow his example and walk the moral high ground in our society.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Noah October 24, 2014

Noach  Genesis 6:9-11:32

This week’s reading brings up an extremely relevant issue: the relationship of individual and collective responsibility in a nation.

Our western society emphasizes individual rights while nations like Russia and China accord much more weight to the ‘national interest’ or national priorities over the individual.

The Torah presents a delicate balance between both.  Individual responsibility is given equal prominence with national or collective responsibility.  In simple words, the nation is only as strong as its individual members.  One of Judaism’s sages, Hillel, put it this way:

“If I am not for myself, who will be? (personal responsibiity) But if I am only for myself, what am I?” (communal responsibility).

NoahNow let’s look at this concept with regard to the Torah reading this week.  It begins with the flood of Noah’s day and ends with the attempt to build the Tower of Babel.  If we simply read without ‘connecting the dots’, it would appear that these events have nothing in common.  The failures of Noah’s generation are detailed for us: “The world was corrupt before God, and the land was filled with violence. God saw the world, and it was corrupted. All flesh had perverted its way on the earth” (Gen. 6: 11-12). Wickedness, violence, corruption, perversion: the hallmarks of national moral failure.

By contrast, the description of Babel seems enviable. “The entire earth had one language and a common speech” (11: 1). The events in Noah’s day were about destruction; in Babel the focus is on construction. Sin in that society is not described. Yet there certainly was something unpleasing to God, given the outcome of the story.

Both the Flood and the Tower of Babel are rooted in actual historical events.  Despite the attempts of liberal modernists to mythologize the Bible, excavations at Shurrupak, Kish, Uruk and Ur – Abraham’s birthplace – reveal evidence of clay flood deposits. Likewise the historian, Herodotus, tells of the sacred enclosure of Babylon, at the centre of which was a ziqqurat or Tower of seven stories, 300 feet high and many references have been found in the literature of the time that speak of such towers “reaching heaven.”

But the Torah is much more than history. The events contained therein express a profound moral, social and spiritual truth about humanity. The Flood tells us what happens to civilization when individuals rule and there is no collective and enforced moral code. Babel tells us what happens when national agenda sacrifices individuals for its own ends.

Are we not watching – in our very own day – the same kind of disintegration as that of Noah’s society: When there is no rule of law to constrain individuals, the world is filled with violence.

Babel demonstrates the opposite.  The practice of the neo-Assyrians of that day was to impose their own language on any and every people that they conquered.

The reference seems to be to the imperial practice of the neo-Assyrians, of imposing their own language on the peoples they conquered. One inscription of the time records that Ashurbanipal II “made the totality of all peoples speak one speech.” The neo-Assyrians asserted their supremacy by insisting that their language was the only one to be used by the nations and populations they had defeated. Babel, like Egypt would be later, represents nations or empires that subjugate entire populations, destroying their national identities and tradtional freedoms.  (Sound familiar???)

With this in mind let’s take a second look at this week’s reading.

Genesis 10 describes the division of humanity into seventy nations and seventy languages. Genesis 11 tells of how one imperial power conquered smaller nations and imposed their language and culture on them, refusing to respect the integrity of each nation and each individual. When at the end of the Babel story God “confuses the language” of the builders, He is not creating a new state of affairs but actually restoring the old.

Therefore we can see that the story of Babel clarifies the dangers of crushing individuality – the individuality of the seventy cultures described in Genesis 10.  When the rule of law is used to suppress individuals and their distinctive languages and traditions, this is wrong.

So the Flood and the Tower of Babel, though apparently opposites, are actually intimately connected. In fact, the entire Torah portion this week is a brilliant study in the human condition. There are cultures who exalt individual rights and there are others who place the national interest above the individual. Both will ultimately fail.  The first will lead to chaos and violence while the second will pave the way for oppression and tyranny.

Recognizing this, it will come as no surprise that after the two great failures of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, in next week’s Torah portion, we are introduced to Abraham who was called on to create a new form of social order that would give equal honor and attention to the individual as well as to the nation; to personal responsibility as well as to the common good. That remains the unique and special gift of the Scriptures to the world.

In Tune with Torah this week = the essence of the message is balance.  While God has endowed each human being with ‘certain inalienable rights’, with them comes a ‘certain inalienable’ responsibility to one’s fellow man.  Learning to balance the two appropriately may be our most challenging quest, particularly at this crucial moment of history.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Noah October 4, 2013

The account in this week’s Torah portion is one of the most well known of Bible stories – Noah and the Ark.
There are so many lessons that can be drawn from this text and I’d like to approach it a little differently this year.

What can we learn from God and from Noah this week?

1) Noting that Moses was 80 years old when God called him to bring Israel out of Egypt, and Avraham was 100 years old when Yitzhak was born, my first suggestion to all of us is this:
Stay healthy and fit – when you’re 80, or 100, or 600 (like Noah), God may call on you to do something very important! Seriously, it is never too late to make a difference in this world. Since when has an advanced age ever been a problem in God’s eyes? Think about it!

2) Don’t listen to critics; do what you are called or inclined to do in your service of God. If you have no critics, you’ll likely have no success, either. Theodore Roosevelt’s comment on critics bears repeating here: It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

3) Plan ahead – it wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark. There is a delicate balance between focusing on the present and making today the best day of your life and, on the other hand, planning ahead for efficiency and success in the various arenas of life. The wise man balances both of these aspects of living and learns wisdom.

4) Don’t miss the boat. All of us are offered unique opportunities in life. Sometimes we realize it and take advantage; some times we ‘miss the boat’ and regret it later. This is not limited to considerations about major, life-changing opportunities. How about the every day opportunities we have to do things like show kindness instead of ignoring someone, or hold our tongues rather than speak a word of gossip or criticism of someone else? Daily life is full of opportunities to become a better person. Don’t miss the boat!

5) Speed isn’t always an advantage. There were cheetahs on the Ark, but there were also snails. In our fast paced society, rushing has become so ‘normal’ that thoughtfulness and patience are nearly lost arts; not to mention that when we are overly rushed or in a hurry, we often make mistakes. The cheetah in you needs to slow down a bit and the snail needs to step it up. Impulsiveness and procrastination need to meet in the middle and find wisdom.

6) If it’s a rainy season of life for you right now, remember that no matter how long it rains, eventually the sun will shine again. If you have to start your life over, change careers, move to distant cities and make any other life changes that are difficult and stressful, have a companion by your side. Two are better than one.

7) Finally, remember that we are all in the same boat. The problems may look different, but we all have problems; we all have challenges; we all have issues to work through; we all need to grow in spiritual maturity. Therefore, we all need to develop a spirit of compassion and understanding towards our fellow man.

In Tune with Torah this week = ponder each of these seven thoughts and if you keep a spiritual journal, you may want to write your own thoughts in response to them. The story of Noah’s ark never grows old;
its message is as important to us today as it was in his time.

Shabbat Shalom!