Friday, October 16, 2015

Parshas Noach: Contrasts in Light and Darkness

Contrasts in Light and Darkness

The unpacking of any parsha requires thorough language study as well as commentaries, research into Talmud, Midrash and for many of us, Chassidus. As much as that path will bring both a depth and breadth of understanding and erudition, most of us just don’t study at that level.  If we are not a Talmid Chacham/Torah scholar, how can we hope to deepen our knowledge and love for the “Instruction” of our G-d? Since we read the Torah anew each year, I always hope to find something that I haven’t seen before or make a connection with the text in a new way. This year our journey with Parshas Noach begins with his name, which means rest and tranquility.  Since personal names, names of angels as well as place names are of great significance in the Torah, how do we juxtapose tranquility and rest with the destruction leveled on the earth by the flood? I think that the answer to this question is found toward the conclusion of the parsha and comes in the form of a choice.

“Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations”(6:9) Here in the beginning of our parsha, it would make more sense if Noach’s name had been a word such as Tzaddik or any other appellation that means righteous or righteousness because that is in-line with what Hashem says about him. But rest and tranquility are a complete opposite of the world around him. Noach’s story is full of juxtapositions and choices including those made by his family members and in particular his sons, Shem, Cham and Yefes.

We are only one parsha away from the beginning of the Torah. In Parshas Bereshith darkness and light are created and separated, Gan Eden is created and when Adam and Chava will fall, good and evil are exposed. That theme continues in Parshas Noach and so the Torah tells a similar story, but in a new place and new way; more layers added to the concept of choice.

Amidst the deep darkness and perversion that the world had known since the Fall, there shone a singular light, his name was Noach and Hashem spoke to him, telling him to build something called an ark. Noach must have wondered about this building project called, ARK, but he obediently built one; after all, he had heard Hashem’s voice.   

Can you imagine clearly hearing the voice of the Creator King of the universe, being obedient for so many years in the face of a world that thinks that you have gone mad? It seems to me that this kind of hearing goes beyond the physical ability to apprehend sound and into a supernatural realm where truly only the righteous stand.  I am always awestruck when I ponder how the righteousness of one man, a husband, and father was enough to bring to safety his wife, his sons, and their wives. I believe that there is a lesson that we can glean from this reality. It is clear that a combination of good deeds, obedience to the Word of G-d and covenant are our eternal connection to Hashem no matter in which generation we find ourselves. And even though it is jumping ahead in our text, as with Noach, covenant still holds even if we “mess up.”  Perhaps this is a piece of tranquility and rest that we can all share during these particularly turbulent days.  So, we see darkness and light, righteousness and corruption, a safe haven and an impending disaster and our journey continues.

The animals that must be brought into the ark come of their own volition. We have male and female pairs that will repopulate a cleansed world and here we have a new juxtaposition to talk about, not the gender, but how many pairs of clean versus unclean animals board the ark. In Judaism, there are many aspects to the number seven and that is how many pairs of kosher animals come into the ark. But for our conversation, I just want to note the 7:1 ratio stacks the deck [all puns intended] in favor of purity and cleanness to out weigh impurity and treif/uncleanness when the animals finally leave the ark and set out to live in nature once again. This contrast between clean and unclean animals applies to both the raven and the dove.

There is wonderful aggadic material that you can find concerning the raven in the Talmud, (Sanhedrin 108b) and in (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 23). For today it is enough to acknowledge that the raven is not a kosher bird, but the dove is, moreover the dove is a gentle herbivorous creature while the raven is an aggressive flesh-eating scavenger. If we depart from the food that they eat, then we can use these two birds to ask ourselves a reflective question. How are my middos or character-traits? Which bird am I, what must I refine in my own life?

A raven, a dove, and a rainbow, a new day full of promise between
G-d and people, but is it paradise found? It is not long after leaving the ark that Noach plants a vineyard, becomes intoxicated thereby uncovering his own nakedness and his son Cham, who the Torah here tells us is the progenitor of Kena’ an, falls into depravity, while his sons Shem and Yefes act righteously.

How could this contrast happen so quickly after their experience of the flood? I think the answer lies in the reality that we are human.  We are created with a dual nature: a Yetzer Hara and a Yetzer Tov or a good inclination and a not good inclination. It is up to us, which direction we follow. There is always struggle because we are human but following the ways of Shem and Yefes, lead to the blessings of
G-d, while the ways of Cham lead to a life absent of blessing. Parshas Noach does not end here it continues on with the lineage of the three sons which leads to the story of the Tower of Bavel.

Bavel means confusion. It’s where our English word babble comes from. For me this is the final connection to Noach’s name and the last juxtaposition in this parsha. (The parsha however concludes with our introduction to Avraham Avinu / our father Abraham). Regardless of how we get to Bavel, confusion is the opposite of rest and tranquility. The Torah also called Torat Chayim (The Law of Life) teaches us how to choose life.

Before the flood, lawlessness possessed the land with disastrous results. After the flood, a despicable choice was made by a son and perpetrated upon a father.

If the choices we make lead us in the light of Torah then we will find rest and tranquility for our soul on the other hand if we walk in the darkness of the Yetzer Hara then our soul will not find rest but the agitated state of confusion. May we always remember to make our choices by following the Yetzer Tov, Hashem, and His Torah. Surely, this way of life can be understood to function as an ark of safety in the promises of our merciful, loving and covenant keeping G-d.

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