B’reishit, Chapter 8: The flood ends

The rains came to a stop, and the ark rested on the mountains of Ararat.  To test whether the land had dried, up, Noah sent out a dove.  The first time, the land was still wet.  The second time, however, the dove brought back an olive leaf showing that the land was dry.  God commanded Noah to leave the ark with all the animals, and to be fruitful and multiply.  Noah made an alter and gave a sacrifice to God, and God promised never to destroy the earth again.  

Where, exactly, did the ark rest?  According to Josephus in The Antiquities of the Jews, Book I, Chapter 3:

5. When God gave the signal, and it began to rain … After this, the ark rested on the top of a certain mountain in Armenia; which, when Noah understood, he opened it; and seeing a small piece of land about it, he continued quiet, and conceived some cheerful hopes of deliverance. … However, the Armenians call this place, (Greek for) The Place of Descent; for the ark being saved in that place, its remains are shown there by the inhabitants to this day.

6. Now all the writers of barbarian histories make mention of this flood, and of this ark; among whom is Berosus the Chaldean. For when he is describing the circumstances of the flood, he goes on thus: “It is said there is still some part of this ship in Armenia, at the mountain of the Cordyaeans; and that some people carry off pieces of the bitumen, which they take away, and use chiefly as amulets for the averting of mischiefs.” Hieronymus the Egyptian also, who wrote the Phoenician Antiquities, and Mnaseas, and a great many more, make mention of the same. Nay, Nicolaus of Damascus, in his ninety-sixth book, hath a particular relation about them; where he speaks thus: “There is a great mountain in Armenia, over Minyas, called Baris, upon which it is reported that many who fled at the time of the Deluge were saved; and that one who was carried in an ark came on shore upon the top of it; and that the remains of the timber were a great while preserved. This might be the man about whom Moses the legislator of the Jews wrote.”

Marco Polo wrote about the location of the ark in his famous travelogue, as did Sir Walter Raleigh in his History of the World.  The search continues to this day.

Rabbi Roy Feldman

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B’reishit, Chapter 8: The flood ends

B’reishit, Chapter 7: God destroys the world

God commanded Noah to take his family on the ark, along with 7 pairs of each of the “clean” species and one pair of all the other species.  When it began to rain, they all embarked.  Indeed, the flood that God brought about killed every living thing and lasted one hundred fifty days.

Our chapter includes a verse that sounds shocking:

כב כֹּל אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁמַת-רוּחַ חַיִּים בְּאַפָּיו, מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בֶּחָרָבָה–מֵתוּ.

22 all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, whatsoever was in the dry land, died.

Why did God feel the need to take such drastic measures?  This question plagues me every time I read this chapter.  Of course, we cannot guess why God does what He does.  However, what have we to learn from His actions in this episode?  The answer lies in a central theme in how teshuva, or penitence, works.  According to Maimonides in the Laws of Penitence, the way to true teshuva is only through becoming a new individual.  We must see ourselves as different people, not the same person who previously had sinned, but a new person who would not act in the same way in a similar situation.  Rabbi Soloveitchik in On Repentance elaborated on this point.  When teshuva me’ahava, repentance through love of God, takes place, then the one who has sinned is no longer the one standing before God now.  Rather, it is a new individual.  That is, the mere act of thinking through our actions regarding our previous sin, and resolving not to act in a similar way again, is such a significant act that it deems us new individuals.  The previous individual had to be, so to speak, destroyed, in order for the new one to arise.

The story of Noah and the flood offers a very literal incarnation of this principle.  The world is God’s great creation; in some way, it is a part of Him (so to speak).  When the world turns so sinful, so evil, He realizes that in order to truly reform the world, He must first destroy its earlier identity.  A new world must be one free of former evils.  I still don’t know what to make of it the story in the literal sense.  However, at some level, we understand that before we can rebuild ourselves (or the world) in a positive way, the first step is to rid ourselves of our earlier evils.

Rabbi Roy Feldman

B’reishit, Chapter 7: God destroys the world

B’reishit, Chapter 6: God commands Noah

The people in the world were so immoral that God regretted creating man.  Noah, however, was an exception.  God commands Noah to build an ark.  He tells Noah that He will bring a flood, and that to save the world, Noah should bring onto the ark two of each kind of living thing as well as food.

God regretted creating mankind and planned to destroy the world.  However, Noah’s existence changed His mind.

ז וַיֹּאמֶר ה’, אֶמְחֶה אֶת-הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר-בָּרָאתִי מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה, מֵאָדָם עַד-בְּהֵמָה, עַד-רֶמֶשׂ וְעַד-עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם:  כִּי נִחַמְתִּי, כִּי עֲשִׂיתִם.  ח וְנֹחַ, מָצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֵי ה’.

7 And the LORD said: ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for it repenteth Me that I have made them.’ 8 But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.

The remarkable point in this chapter is that here we are taught that one person can really make a difference in the world.  Were it not for Noah, God would have destroyed the world.  Presumably, we would not be here today.  In a world of immorality, Noah was a good person.  He was the only righteous person in his time.  God felt that that if one person like Noah can exist, the world is worth keeping.  And so, on Noah’s account, God changed His mind.

Noah was the first hero.  The prevailing culture was wrong about something (really, about many things), and Noah perceived that.  He acted on his own accord, according to his compass which he knew to be right.  We know so many stories about individuals who made a difference: in a country, in a family, in an industry, in a war, in an oppression.  Noah taught us that it’s possible.  We hope and pray that we never be placed in situations where we are needed to make such a difference; but we should also pray that if in such a situation, we would follow Noah’s example.

Rabbi Roy Feldman

B’reishit, Chapter 6: God commands Noah

B’reishit, Chapter 5: Genealogies

This chapter summarizes the creation of man and then records the genealogies from Adam (through his son Sheit; generations through Cain’s descendants were recorded in chapter 4) to Noah.

The midrash on B’reishit cites a debate between two rabbis as to what is the most important principle in the Torah (other versions of this account include more opinions).  According to Rabbi Akiva, “ve’ahavta l’re’akha kamokha,” “love your neighbor as you do yourself” (Vayikra 19:18), is the most important principle.  According to Ben Azzai, however, “zeh sefer toldot ha’adam,” “this is the book of the generations of man,” from the very beginning of our chapter, is the most important verse.

There is so much that has been said of Rabbi Akiva’s opinion.  We ought to treat others and relate to others the way we would want them to treat us and relate to us.  Indeed, that is a guiding principle of so much of the Torah.  What do we make of Ben Azzai’s opinion, however?  Here is the full verse:

זֶה סֵפֶר, תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם:  בְּיוֹם, בְּרֹא אֱלֹהִים אָדָם, בִּדְמוּת אֱלֹהִים, עָשָׂה אֹתוֹ.

This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made He him.

Taking Ben Azzai very literally, the entire Torah (and the Tanakh) really is sefer toldot ha-adam, the book of the generations of man.  Largely speaking, the Bible is a book about people.  The main players will be Noah, Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe, Yehoshua, and so forth.  God is always present, but essentially the Bible records stories about people and their relationships with each other and with God.  Maimonides’s masterpiece The Guide of the Perplexed has more about God in it than does the Bible.  But the truth is, we can’t really understand God (as Maimonides writes), and so we tell stories about people.  In a sense, that verse really is the central principle (that is, the summarizing principle) of the Torah.

Not only is the Torah about people and their relationships, but Judaism in general is a religion about people and relationships.  The central focus of our religion has never been theology but actions: mitzvot.  People doing things: alone, together, as individuals, and as a community.  Furthermore, the second half of Ben Azzai’s verse (quoted above) reminds us that man was created in the image of God.  It is that fact that serves as the impetus for the Jewish principle of k’vod habriot, personal dignity.  Since we have all been created in God’s image, we all deserve to be treated with dignity.  Meaning… we should treat others the way we too would want to be treated.  Sound familiar?  Perhaps Ben Azzai’s opinion as to the core principle of the Torah is not essentially so different from Rabbi Akiva’s; they just disagree about which verse captures that core value of Judaism best.

Rabbi Roy Feldman

B’reishit, Chapter 5: Genealogies

B’reishit, Chapter 4: Kayin and Hevel

Adam and Eve had children, Kayin and Hevel; Kayin became a farmer and Hevel a shepherd.  They each brought offerings to God, Kayin from his crops and Hevel from his flock.  God accepted Hevels offering but not Kayin’s.  After God warned Kayin that “sin crouches at the door,” the two brothers struggle in the field and Kayin kills Hevel.  God punishes Kayin.  Then, the Bible tells us about the genealogies of Kayin’s descendants.  

With the story of Kayin and Hevel we have the first instances of professions (a farmer and a shepherd), sacrifice (a desire to please God), rivalry, jealousy, inclination to sin, murder, lying about guilt, and ultimately taking responsibility.  These are all parts of human nature, and their appearance within the first family in the history of the world is evidence of that fact.

We often translate the term derekh eretz as having to do with being a good person and doing things with due respect to others.  In that sense, we return to the Netziv’s point in our first post: derekh eretz kadma latorah, “Being a metsch, respectful to others, precedes Torah,” means that before one accepts the mitzvot and what the Torah has to offer, one must first be a decent human being.  That’s what we learn from our forefathers, who lived before God gave the Torah, and therefore represent the derekh eretz which came before it.  However, the very literal translation of the statement comes forth in our chapter: derekh eretz literally means “the way of the world.”  Before the Torah, came the way of the world.  Before the rule of law, everything was governed by human nature.

The story of Kayin and Hevel teaches us that these things – jealousy, rivalry, and lying, are all indeed part of human nature.  So is having a profession and desiring to please God.  While human nature contains both positive and negative qualities, the results of rule by human nature can be catastrophic.  Ultimately, that’s the purpose of this story’s being recorded in the Bible.  Kayin and Hevel were good people: they worked hard for a living and they wanted to please God.  They had God, but they did not have Torah.  They did not have rules, neither from God nor from society.  Derekh eretz may have come before the Torah, but ultimately what is necessary is both.  As B’nei Akiva’s motto goes, Torah with Derekh Eretz.

Rabbi Roy Feldman

B’reishit, Chapter 4: Kayin and Hevel

B’reishit, Chapter 3: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

Although God had warned Adam and the woman that they should not eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the serpent convinced the woman to eat it.  Delighted by the fruit, she convinced Adam to partake of it as well.  After realizing that they were naked, they covered themselves, and God knew that they had eaten from the fruit.  For this transgression, He cursed them and prohibited them from entering the Garden of Eden.  Adam named his wife Hava.

What is so terrible about knowing good and evil?  In fact, isn’t it better to know good from evil; don’t we value knowing right from wrong?  This is the most difficult question lingering behind our chapter.  After all, did God not create man in His image?  God certainly distinguishes good from evil!

The answer to this question that has resonated with me most is that of Maimonides, found in the second chapter of his Guide of the Perplexed.  According to Maimonides, the problem with eating the fruit was the introduction of new thought categories to humankind.  Up until Adam and Hava ate from the tree, the categories by which they judged ethics were the same as the categories by which they judged physics.  I’ll explain briefly: physics is the way we describe the physical things around us; ethics is the way we describe how we ought to behave.  Physics is judged by the categories of true and false.  “The sky is blue” is true; “the sky is green” is false (usually).  “Maimonides wrote The Guide of the Perplexed” is true; “Maimonides wrote The Brothers Karamazov” is false.  Ethics, however, are usually judged by the categories of right and wrong or good and bad.  It is right to help an elderly person cross the street; it is wrong to steal money from the bank.

Maimonides claims that prior to eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, humankind judged ethics by the categories of true and false as well.  That is, the judgments of ethics were objective.  Everyone (namely, Adam and Hava, but had they not eaten from the Tree this would have applied to all humans) knew and would agree upon what was ethical and what was unethical.  When Adam and Hava ate from the tree, subjectivity was introduced to the world.  Something could be right for me but wrong for you; something could be bad to me but good to you.  It is only because the first humans ate from the tree that the fields of ethics and moral philosophy are necessary; it is only because of that action that mitzvot are necessary to guide us as to what we ought to do.  Had they not eaten from that tree, the right things to do would be as obvious to us as the sky is blue.  What might the world look like if that were indeed the case today?

Rabbi Roy Feldman

B’reishit, Chapter 3: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

B’reishit, Chapter 2: God continues to create the world

God rested on the seventh day of creation.  The Bible then summarizes the story of creation, specifying the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden.  Then, God created man and warned him not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.   He then created all the animals and Adam named them.  After noting that it is not good for man to live alone without a human companion, God created the first woman.

The first words of this chapter are traditionally recited every Friday night as part of the kiddush before the Shabbat dinner.

ויכלו השמים והארץ וכל צבאם. ויכל אלהים ביום השביעי מלאכתו אשר עשה וישבת ביום השביעי מכל מלאכתו .אשר עשה. ויברך אלהים את יום השביעי ויקדש אתו כי בו שבת מכל מלאכתו אשר ברא אלהים לעשות

And the heaven and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because that in it He rested from all His work which God in creating had made.

Humans have forever been concerned with productivity, whether it was hunting or planting, managing the home, or working in a factory or on the trading floor.  With these words, God sets an example for all people to follow.  It is imperative, for our sanity and survival, to take time regularly to rest from our activity and appreciate what we have: to put a stop to the productivity.

Rabbi Abraham Joshual Heschel wrote in The Sabbath:
The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.

Our time is finite, and if we do not see it as imperative (as a mitzvah) to take time and rest, we risk losing our time to do that.  God understood that necessity, and so set the example Himself; after He created the world and was so productive, He took a significant portion of time to rest.  Later in the Bible, He will make this an explicit commandment to the Jewish people.  Indeed, it’s the idea of the Sabbath which draws so many people to Judaism in the first place.  It’s that day of rest and abstention from productive work that effectively forces families to get together weekly, sit down for long meals, and spend the day with each other’s company.  As Ahad Ha’am famously said on this point, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”  

Rabbi Roy Feldman

B’reishit, Chapter 2: God continues to create the world