Noah 5782

Noah 5782

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8 Oct 2021

by Lipika Pelham

D’var Torah basically means Word of Torah. It reflects a foundational Jewish belief in the infinite interpretive possibilities of Torah.

This week’s Torah portion entails the story of Noah’s flood, Parashat Noah, Genesis 6-9.

The story of Noah’s flood was essentially a creation, or more precisely, a re-creation story. But before we elaborate on that, let’s summarise – what happened before and after the Great Flood.

Genesis 6 tells us that the Earth was so corrupt and full of lawlessness that God was terribly disappointed, and gave up – well almost –  on humanity. A sullen God says in chapter 6 verse 7:

 כִּי נִחַמְתִּי, כִּי עֲשִׂיתִם

God regretted that they had made human beings on the earth. God’s heart was deeply troubled. 

“I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I repent that I have made them,” said the distraught Creator.

Noah and his immediate family, however, were exempted, as they found favour in the eyes of God.

The Great Flood was sent to purge the Earth of a bunch of delinquents, or serious vandals of moral values and revenues of God’s beautiful creation, the Earth. The 40-day deluge was unleashed by divine wrath, bringing death and destruction in its wake. 

But interestingly, when all the battering and wiping out most of the world were over, God arrived at a reawakening and said, “Never again to destroy every living being. Never again will I doom the Earth because of man” – or rather the perpetually erring humankind.

Genesis 6 tells us the story of the destruction of the Earth by a divine tsunami, because of humanity’s sinfulness.

But –  and it’s a definitive BUT –

In Genesis 8, (verse 20,) it all changes, and God says:

“Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.” 

כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו

“And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.”

This seems a very human contradiction, this drastic change of heart after 40 days – a blip in Godly measure of Time.

Two key words define this contradiction. Here’s a pun!

In Hebrew, the words are interchangeable, and therefore, there’s only one word – which is כִּי, “ki” – in English we understand it as “since” and simultaneously, “even though”.

“Since” humanity fell into grave self-destruction, God tried to cleanse the Earth by flooding it. And “Even though” humanity is terribly sinful, corrupt, God shall NEVER do it again. God shall never cast another divine deluge to dispose off  humanity.

This wrestling of God with reasoning takes us to the story of Creation: that in God’s image we were made. Let us for a moment reflect on God’s human leanings. What did actually change after the flood? Could it be that God finally understood true human nature – God’s own creation and yet, so baffling, so unpredictable? Is this then that humanity outwitted God, outmanoeuvred, pre-empted their creator’s design and revelled in free will, celebration of the SELF, however dangerous and self-destructive? If human beings felt that  God’s wrath was the price for their liberation, freedom of speech, then we can perhaps say, and Rabbis have also surmised, that what really changed after the flood was God’s attitude toward human nature. God UNDERSTOOD – not to judge humanity. In Genesis 8, judgement gives away to what we call divine mercy, condemnation to compassion or acceptance of human freewill.

So what lesson can we learn from this? How do we weave the flood story into today’s world? On the surface, the Torah says it’s simple.

The concept of D’var Torah is best articulated in Mishnah Avot 5:22, “Turn it and turn it; for everything is in it”. Rabbis have asserted that each person who stood at Sinai, saw a different face of Torah.

The great volumes, the five books of Moses aptly claim, “Torah is the world and the world is Torah.” I first heard the phrase from Rabbi Leah, when I attended a weekend of Talmud studies in 2021.

What do we understand from it? What do we want to take away from it?

What we can learn from this DIVINE contradiction, Rabbi Shai Held says, is that “the same attribute that we see as cause for reproach can often serve as a basis for forgiveness.”

God tried to teach humanity a lesson for their sinfulness, but in turn God LEARNS a lesson NEVER to cause pain based on impulse, however Godly.

From the language that the Torah uses – the double meaning of it – we get the picture of a confused God who cannot make up their mind – whether to wipe out the humanity or restore creation. God is caught in a human dilemma of when judgement is appropriate and when mercy should outmanoeuvre it.

It is this dilemma, or tension between judgement and forgiveness that even the God of Judaism finds difficult to wade through, to negotiate – is what entranced me to the faith and its philosophy, during my years of living with Judaism as – a fuzzy Jew, a fuzzy non-Jew, a Jew with a Hindu heart, a Hindu with a Jewish heart, a Jewish non-Jew, a non-Jewish Jew.

And it is this tension between faith and unfaith, ancestral religion and adopted faith, between adopted faith and ancestral religion, between judgement and mercy, occupied the inner struggle of the New Christians who became the Western Sephardim in Early Modern Europe. Their history is the subject of my book, Jerusalem on the Amstel: The Quest for Zion in the Dutch Republic. I was entranced during my research by the Marranos or secret Jews who were passing as Catholics in Iberia. And after they became Jews in the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century to form the Amsterdam Kehillah, some were still passing but as Jews. The most influential rabbi of the early seventeenth century Amsterdam, Saul Levi Morteira called them Jews with a Catholic heart, whom he tried to exorcise.

The point I’m trying to get to is that the historic inner dilemma – to a biblical proportion – obsessed me since the beginning of this journey through Jewish history and Judaism. I was naturally attracted to it. It was Rabbi Danny Rich, who was surprised to learn earlier this year, that no one had ever asked me if I wanted to be officially affirmed. Thank you Rabbi Danny, you took me on as a “special case”, “a non-Jewish Jew”, and helped me through the process of “naturalisation”, with the Beit Din.

While I didn’t know thirty years ago that I would become a historian of early modern Judaism and transformative identity, let alone the confirmation by the Beit Din of my belonging to Judaism, I had already been preparing for it, passing as a Jew, first, by moving with a Jewish family in Hackney where my first English home was – and then, falling in love with Nico, who’d become my husband, and having our first argument atop Ben Nevis whether or not our sons would be circumcised. You can tell, my propensity for a Jewish life won. Here we are all today, to celebrate that journey, as I embrace my Jewish name, Esther.

It is hardly surprising I chose Esther, the Hidden Jew passing as a Persian Queen of King Ahasuerus in the Achaemenid Empire. My Beit Din judges, in particular, Rabbi Mark Solomon, spent a considerable amount of time probing my “passing” as a Jew in the past, and he asked if I may pass again if circumstances required so, as a gentile!

Now, let’s go back to God’s dilemma after the flood. We were talking about where there’s judgement, there may also be the possibility of compassion, mercy, forgiveness. We can see why the flood story is also the story of renewal. And it is also a document of the existential Jewish dilemma.

The change of heart meant that God allowed humanity to persist after the flood NOT BECAUSE we suddenly seemed wonderful again or that we outwitted a naïve God. What appeared to be Godly dilemma was in fact, God’s COMMITMENT to CREATION.

It was the triumph of the ever so alive hope amid destruction, ever so vivid view of continuity of humanity, however faulty. Rabbis have described the persistence of the world in the face of so much destruction and cruelty as a testament to God’s commitment to CREATION, which is our beautiful Earth. And the Earth is nothing without man, without the living beings. And without our contrariness.  

The fact that we persist, that we continue to exist, is due to that original commitment arisen out of God’s change of heart. Something that has survived the original sin and much more.

In God’s resolve to save the world, we see a Creator who is a landscape artist.

The Earth is only the Great Artist’s attribute of love to a whimsical lover, the earthling.

The lover has repeatedly betrayed, the bride has been inconsistent, but the Great Artist remains stoical, because to blot it out would be blotting out the Earth, the Creation, God’s masterpiece. It survives because of God’s default commitment.

It was a chance escape from becoming a “dead star” in the orbit of the universe.

All we could do is to show our gratitude to our good fortune, the lucky escape, our COLLECTIVE survival.

Natural disasters have always been linked to the earth’s evolution, a palpable force in its transformation from the pre-historic to the beginning of history to our time. Noah’s flood – the metaphorical value of it is immense, in connection with humanity’s responsibility for natural and ecological disasters.

Since Antiquity, the imagery of Noah’s flood inspired art, literature, science and so on – it is also said that the birth of modern geology came out of the waters of the Great Flood. In the sixteenth century, the deluge was considered as a crucial moment of awakening about the process of the Earth’s continued decay. Martin Luther, the German Reformer, held this view in his commentary to Genesis in the mid-sixteenth century that the whole of nature degenerated into what he called “Natura Corrupta”, a corrupted nature.

With the destruction of the world by deluge, the decay and dereliction of both nature and man, continued. Our lifespan’s been shortened from Noah’s 950 years to first 120 years at the time of the flood, to much shorter as time went by.

Historical and contemporary floods, storm tides, epidemics were frequently described as divine punishment, in early modern Germany they were called sundflut, meaning flowing or flooding of sin. Towards the end of the 17th century, the meaning of the deluge changed from diluvialism to catastrophism. Many so called catastrophists have described the world as a sequence of calamities, starting from the myth of Noah’s Flood, which has played as a nucleus in this world view.

We’ve had many more earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis, forest fires, avalanches, volcanic eruptions, not to mention the Pandemic.You can probably guess what I’m arriving at, in light of one of the most pressing questions of our time – Climate Change.

Today more than ever before it seems the world has aged, and its lifespan shortened as we wake up to the climate call of catastrophism and ultimate doom. What can we learn from early modern interpretations of the flood to explain the modern environmental occurrences? What happened in the wake of the forest fires in Australia and California? After volcanic eruptions in La Palma?

From the ashes of destruction arises a call for self-awareness: Be mindful of collective callousness; learn from nature’s endurance in the face of living in 50 degree Celsius. That “even though” we’re callous, we shall not be doomed. We will not let the Earth become a dead star.

So we see today world leaders shamed by a Swedish teenager for their blahblahness. We wake up to joint action, coming together, COP 26. Boris Johnson retracting from his earlier climate-sceptic stance, Joe Biden pledging $11 billion in annual climate funding – are all but testament to our collective accountability. This is very much intertwined with nature’s endurance, as pledged by the once vengeful God who had a change of heart.

I would like to end this d’var Torah, on a happy note.

The last verse of Genesis 8 reads:

“As long as the earth endures—
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.”

Thank you!