Parashat Noach: Man of Science, or Breaking Points

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11 Oct 2007

In case you missed it… Parashat Bereishit: Echoes of God, Beginning to End

Parashat Noach 5768

Rabbi Yochanan, in Sanhedrin 108a, is not very sympathetic to Noach. Regarding the verse that states that Noach was a tzadik (righteous man) in his time”, Rabbi Yochanan explains, “in his time”, but had Noach lived at another time, he would not have been considered a tzadik. Rashi, on this pasuk, explains that had Noach lived at the time of Avraham, he would have been totally over-shadowed by Avraham.

Neither Rabbi Yochanan nor Rashi explain why Noach is considered inferior to Avraham, when indeed, Noach’s status was apparently higher than that of Avraham, for Noach was the best that humanity had to offer at the time, whereas Avraham had the luxury of being able to learn the lessons of history and what the Creator does to transgressors.

It is the difference between Noach and Avraham that is the subject of this dvar torah.

The key to understanding who Noach was is his conduct after leaving the teiva (the ark). Of all the species of plant life which Noach took with him into the ark, we are informed that Noach chose to plant a vineyard, which eventually gave forth the wine which inebriated Noach, to such an extent that he became unaware of what was happening to him at the hands of his son, Cham. Why was Noach so interested in the vine?

The modern world began with the Industrial Revolution, about two hundred years ago. Since this period, we have progressed to the point that we are able to unravel the mysteries of huge celestial bodies, as well as sub-atomic particles. We have conquered the force of gravity to travel in space, and can produce number-crunching machines that do billions of mathematical computations in a fraction of a second – all this in two hundred years.

Noach and his generation lived one thousand years after the first man and woman were created. Now, if we, in two hundred years, were able to leap from a semi-primitive existence to the wonders that compose our lives today, it would be the height of arrogance to think that mankind in the space of a thousand years was unable to unfold the secrets of science.

I suggest. Noach and his generation had developed a society far beyond our imagination. Forces of nature not yet discovered by us were harnessed to serve mankind: cities enclosed in weather control bubbles; space travel which melted light years into days; a time where no one heard of the multiplication table and peace existed among all people. All this, and much more, were common place to the people of the time, but to the degree that society developed to a point of almost total bliss, the need to recognize and worship a higher being became redundant, and from there it was a small leap to form life patterns which negated the values of morality. At some point, God, the Creator, decided that the wisdom gained from the Tree of Knowledge was serving the interests of evil, and society could no longer continue, as such.

One man and his family still cherished the traditions handed down from generation to generation; one man and his three sons, against the corrupting vices which engulfed mankind where there was no place for spirituality, but only the need to satisfy the physical pleasures of life.

God appears to Noach, commanding him to build a primitive wooden ship whose configuration was not buoyant. Certainly not in a deluge which was to engulf the entire globe in boiling, sulfuric tumultuous waters. At that time, ships were no longer made of wood. Noach became the laughing stock of society during the 120 years it took to handcraft the ship. The very idea that there is a God who was interested in human affairs to the point that he would destroy all living things- for if indeed man had sinned, what had the animals done? – was absurd.

Noach was a man of the people; he was respected as a major scientist and, as Chazal point out, it was his ingenuity that freed man from the constraints of Nature. His contributions were the basis of the beautiful, post-modern existence of his generation. But he saw that Man had mutated from a tradition- steeped society, to a hedonistic lifestyle, and, since he and his innovative mind were, to a great degree, responsible for mankind’s fall, he had to be the vanguard of returning to a God- centered existence.

But man had fallen too far to return, and God opened the “windows of the heavens” (tractate Rosh Hashana 11b). Scalding waters cascaded down to melt the space centers from which rockets were catapulted into the far regions of the galaxies; waters which dissolved the huge 500- story buildings which dwarfed the miniature structures like the Empire State building, or todays highest structures in Kuala Lumpar, Malasia.

Noach enters the incredible three story wooden ship, together with the remnant of the vegetable and animal life, for an odyssey which was to last a year, which Chazal compared to Gehennom.

When at last, the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat and its cover was pulled back, what met Noach’s eyes was a world devoid of people, their inventions, cities, and structures. No self-powered cars riding on sensor riveted roads, never seen before. Noach called out, and the sound waves echoed forward in the valleys of Ararat, never to be heard, for there were no ears to turn the waves into sound. Noach was a destroyed man in the knowledge that he was, to a great degree, responsible for the inventiveness of society, and unsuccessful in influencing the return of mankind to morality.

Noach’s world was destroyed, and he was devastated. The only way to continue existing, Noach reasoned, was to escape the realities of today- to plant a vineyard, drink of its wine, and fall into the depths of sleep. To accept God’s judgment in destroying mankind and rebuilding life anew in a better way was not a practical alternative for Noach, and so he escaped into the soothing nothingness of slumber.

Avraham Aveenu discovered G-d at a young age, and developed a theological system that he successfully taught to countless numbers of people who, because of his teachings, abandoned idolatry. Avraham’s world order was perfect: there is a Creator who demands a moral lifestyle, and people must recognize the Creator and act accordingly. Avraham was blessed with a son who would continue his teachings, until the entire world accepts the mastery of God.

Then, one day, God appears to Avraham, commanding him to offer his beloved son as a sacrifice. Avraham’s world comes crashing down. The command for a father to kill his son as a sacrifice to the Creator cannot support the theological structure describing the essence of that Creator as being good and benevolent.

Noach’s physical world was destroyed, but Avraham’s spiritual world was being dismantled step by step, as he made his way from Chevron to Har Ha’mo’riah.

Noach is put to the test of putting his faith in God, and he fails, reaching a breaking point from which he cannot return; no longer with faith in whatever God does, but only the desire to escape from the cruel realities of today.

Avraham is brought to the breaking point of his own personal love for his and Sarah’s only son; moreover, he is being brought to the breaking point in his theological beliefs, which he cannot reconcile with the awful realities of the moment. But unlike Noach, Avraham does not break. He cannot understand how God promises him that Yitzchak will be the progenitor of the greatest race in the world, and yet Avraham must now end Yitzchak’s life.

Avraham does not escape. He carries on for three days, marching from Chevron to Yerushalayim, remaining quiet, while Yitzchak continues to question his father: “Here is the fire and the wood, where is the sacrificial lamb?” Avraham does not break, even when he lifts up the knife in his hand in order to do the impossible. It is then that the voice of a heavenly angel calls out, “do not send out your hand to the boy, nor do him any harm”.

The difference between Noach, the tzaddik in his time and Avraham, the ultimate tzaddik, is in their breaking points. Noach has a point at which he cannot continue; the only alternative is to escape. Avraham has no breaking point; he will never deny the existence of a loving, infallible, G-d.

All of us are descendants of Jews who never “broke” under the pressure of being tested: from the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash, and subsequent exile from Eretz Yisrael, to the Inquisition and pogroms; from the Crusaders, to Chmielniki and his gangs (who, in 1648-9, destroyed over 350 Jewish communities in Poland); from the czars of Russia, to the Communists, to the Germans, – our fathers and mothers suffered, but never broke.

Today, Am Yisrael is again being tested: will we return to Eretz Yisrael, despite the near-impossible odds we face? Will we break in the face of the challenges, and prefer to remain in galut (exile) where we indeed sacrifice the spiritual future of our children and grandchildren? Or, will we stand up in this difficult moment in our history, and take on the challenges that God (not the Arabs) has placed before us.

History will record that the miniscule number of Jews who held back the hordes of Islamic murderers, to carve out a home for Am Yisrael in all parts of Eretz Yisrael, were tzaddikim, not only “in their time”, but for all time.

Shabbat Shalom, Nachman Kahana

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.