EVILS & INCLINATIONS.
The first lessons that Man learned were how far he could go, both physically and metaphorically.
Physically he felt safe as long as the Garden of Eden lasted – but then came the expulsion which propelled him into an often unfriendly world. Thereafter his physical adventures and experiences sometimes brought discovery and delight, sometimes doom and destruction.
Metaphorically he started with the moral bounds set by his Creator, but soon (if one may mix the metaphors) he tested the waters and attempted to break loose into areas that God had forbidden.
Why did he step out of line? The Torah says (Gen. 8:21): because “the inclination of his heart was ‘ra min’urav'”, which some translate, “evil from his youth”. If that were correct it would suggest that man’s sins were inevitable, bound to happen, part of his make-up – and one wonders why he was punished simply for being himself.
But the translators had another option: to say that “min’urav” meant “because of his (moral) youth”. He was not yet morally mature enough to handle his competing inclinations, the passions and energies which could lead him in opposing directions. Only time and experience would teach him how to cope.
FOLDING A WING & FLYING.
The cast of characters in this week’s portion is both human and animal. The Midrash looks at both categories and suggests elaborate data about each. One of its favourite subjects is the dove which No’ach sent out of the Ark. The Torah says,
“The dove found no rest for the sole of its foot” (Gen. 8:9).
A Midrash in the Jerusalem Talmud asks,
“Why are the people of Israel likened to the dove?”
This is how it answers:
“As all other birds fly around, they get weary and need to rest on top of a tree or a rock, but the dove simply folds one of its wings and flies with the other”.
The lesson seems to be that Israel can never be still. Is this what the rabbis mean when they say that there is no rest for the righteous, either in this world or the next?
One explanation of the Midrash about the dove is that Israel – the people and the State – can never afford to relax its guard but must be constantly alert and look after itself.
In a wider ethical sense it says that there is never a moment in world history when the forces of mischief die down, when the flood waters abate, when mankind is safe. Social and ethical problems never vanish from the stage of history. The Jewish people as the source and agent of moral regeneration cannot relax. The struggle for peace, truth and justice must be fought at every hour of every day, whatever the enemy’s guise of the moment. After every deluge comes chaos and the need to rebuild and rehabilitate.
Israel’s values, visions and ethical energies will never be able to retreat into “rest for the sole of its foot”.
NOT GUILTY, YOUR HONOUR!
What are “Mei No’ach”, the waters of Noah (Isa. 54:9), which are mentioned in today’s Haftarah?
One possibility is that the phrase means no more than “the flood waters in the time of Noah”. Another view is that in some sense they are Noah’s waters, implying that Noah is at least partly to blame for them. If he had been a better leader of his generation, the argument runs, they might have been more faithful to God, and the flood might not have been necessary.
But Noah did try to teach his contemporaries, and it is not entirely his fault that they did not respond. Thus it is not fair to blame him for a wayward generation.
The Midrash Tanchuma declares that God believed that when the people of the time saw Noah building an ark they would ask what he was doing and Noah would have warned that if they did not repent there would be a flood… but things did not work out as God expected, and the people took no notice.
Yes, there is a rabbinic belief that had Abraham been the leader of that generation and not Noah, things might have been different, but another rabbinic principle is that you cannot transpose leaders between generations. All that you have is “the judge that shall be in those days” (Deut. 17:9), even if that judge is inferior to a judge of a previous (or a later) generation.
It sounds attractive to imagine how much better things would be if, for example, the Rambam were alive in the 21st century, but it’s only a dream, and the reality is that Noah was the best leader they had in his generation, and our leaders are the ones we have in our own days.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.