Dvar Torah on Parshat Noach

Parashat Hashavua Noach 2016 / 5777 - The Flood, The Tower of Babel, and What's Really Wrong With Trump

03.11.2016 by

OK, I give up. I really wanted to write something NOT connected to the damn election, but everywhere I looked, there were messages, signs and symbols, so I surrender – here it is.

God destroying the world with a cataclysmic flood is a pretty big deal, and a really drastic measure. The Torah, frustratingly, does not go into too much detail as to what the sins of the generation of the flood actually were, so it is less than perfectly clear why God got so angry that He decided to destroy mankind and essentially, with Noach, start all over again.

Last week, at the end of Parshat Bereishit, we were told that “God saw that the evil of man on earth was great, and all the desires of the thoughts of his heart were only evil, all day long. And God repented of having created man on earth, and was saddened in his heart. And God said I will wipe the man which I have created off the face of the earth…” This tells us, in extremely broad strokes, that mankind was very evil, and deserved to be wiped out. However, no details are given, so we are not at all sure what humanity is guilty of .

Parshat Noach then starts, and a few verses in we are told this: “And the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was full of violent crime.” Now this language – “corrupt” and “full of violent crime” does give us a bit more to go on. The Rabbis understand “corrupt” (ותשחת הארץ) as referring to sexual crimes, and some add idol worship as well (they make this identification through the use of the word “corrupt” in connection with these sins in other Biblical verses).  Interestingly, according to some of the commentators, one of the specific sins in this “corrupt” category is the taking of women by force, typically by big shots, powerful men of stature (!).

The second term, “violent crime” - “hamas” in Hebrew (חמס) - is understood variously as robbery or other forms of financial oppression. Some describe it as being violent, others do not. 

So, we seem to have two distinct categories of sin. The one, “corruption”, is about sexual and perhaps theological crimes, crimes primarily between man and God. Those who include forcibly taking women against their will in this category would see the sin against God in that (the illicit sexual act) as central, even though it is also obviously a sin against the woman, and her family. The second category, “hamas” – violent crime – clearly relates to crimes between man and his fellow man – robbery, physical attacks, and unfair, oppressive, financial or social practices.

These two categories, sins between man and God and those between man and man, are the two traditional frameworks into which we fit all sins, so, in this way, we understand that mankind is to be destroyed for engaging in the two categories of sin.  

The funny thing is that moments later, when God reveals His destructive plans to Noach, He tells him: “The end of all flesh has come before me, for the earth is full of violent crime because of them, and behold I will destroy them, with the earth.” In explaining His anger, and the punishment, God only mentions the “hamas”, the violent person-on-person crimes, and makes no mention of the “corruption”, the sexual and theological sins which are primarily against God.  Why?

 The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin explains that God only mentioned the violent crimes to Noach because it was for those types of sins that the final decision was made to destroy humankind. The other, man to God, sins, the “corruption”, was bad, but it was the sins committed to one’s fellowman, the violence, oppression, and theft, that sealed the deal.

The lesson is clear, and remarkable. Ultimately, it is the way we treat our fellows, other people, which is the most important element in judging what kind of people we are. Failing to live up to God’s demands about sexual morality, or the way we worship – issues of ritual law – is less crucial, and not what moved God to destroy the world.

Later on in the parsha, we read the story of the Tower of Babel, about which the Rabbis ask an interesting question. The sin of building the tower is understood as a rebellion against God, an attempt by man to use his new-found technology – glazed bricks – to challenge the rule of God in the world by building a tower reaching up to the very heavens. If that is the case, why, the Rabbis ask, are the people who built the tower let off easy, and only banished, scattered around the world, while the generation of the flood was executed, completely wiped out? Noach’s generation sinned, but they did not willfully rebel against God, why did they get the harsher punishment?

The answer given is that the generation of the tower at least worked well with one another, they shared a vision and followed it peacefully, lovingly, and cooperatively. There was shalom – peace – between them, while they were planning and building their rebellious tower, which is why their punishment was only to be banished. On the other hand, the generation of the flood, as we have seen, behaved poorly with one another – the world was full of violent crime – which is why they were totally destroyed.

This distinction is crucial. One can be guilty of many sins, but the worst sin is divisiveness, and hate. And the most redeeming feature one can possess, the behavior which ameliorates even the sin of rebelling against God, is the opposite – cooperation, fellowship, shalom, and love.

In this truly insane election cycle, I think this insight, more than anything else, has made the complete and total unacceptability of Donald Trump so crystal clear: he is the antithesis of shalom, of working together, of mutual respect and finding a common goal. It is that exact set of negative, hateful, attitudes and behaviors which, finally, sealed the fate of the generation of the flood. Whatever other sins he, or Hillary, may be guilty of – and in his case they are ridiculously numerous – it is this aspect of his personality - the divisiveness, the often violent pitting of one citizen against another - that will be the end of us if, God forbid, he is elected.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Ultimately, it is the way we treat our fellows, other people, which is the most important element in judging what kind of people we are.Rabbi Shimon

Torah Portion Summary - Noach

נֹחַ

Parshat Noach is the 2nd weekly Torah portion in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah reading. In it, the world is destroyed by a flood, as a punishment from God for humanity's bad behavior. Noach and his family are saved, and begin the story of mankind all over again.  The parsha takes us through the rest of Noach's life after his leaving the ark, and lists the ten generations between Noach and Avraham, whose birth and early family history end the parsha.

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