Noach Saves the World

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Noach Redoes Adam

The framework R. Arama used for the story of Adam, Kayin, Hevel, and then Shet (who R. Arama thinks combined the best qualities of Kayin and Hevel) repeats itself with Noach. As he was the first human after the Flood, his three sons parallel Adam’s three, Shem taking the place of Shet. The two shared the quality of guiding and choosing their activities via their intellects, pointing themselves always towards how best to serve Hashem, bring Hashem into this world.

Cham, Noach’s youngest, repeated the role of Kayin, as indicated in his name, which means hot. The two followed whatever strong (or hot) emotion arose within them, including the blood-lust which led Kayin to kill Hevel.

Yefet, whose name speaks of beauty, took the best of Shem and beautified it with the good aspects of Cham [as before, R. Arama is promoting themix; for all that we Jews descend from Shem, he sees Yefet as the model most easily followed and which leads to the most productive outcomes. I am skipping his repeat of how this reflects the Trees in the Garden, but am struck by his insistence on taking all the good and using it, each to its own proper extent].

Noach’s planting a vine and getting drunk right after coming off the Ark repeats the error of Adam in the Garden, focusing too much on the physical. Cham celebrated his father’s choice, which is why he was excited to tell his brothers what he had seen. For R. Arama, rabbinic sources which spoke of Cham seducing Noach meant he drew him to his worldview. In that reading, he cannot have intended to mock or belittle his father when he related the story to his brothers; rather, R. Arama thinks he was triumphantly showing them he had won, had shown his father the advantages of his physicalist worldview.

Dealing with Cham, Then and Now

The brothers’ conduct models how we all should approach tempting physical excess. They take a blanket and walk backwards, careful to be properly modest in dealing with their father. As they walk, they occasionally look backwards, to be sure to know where to place the covering. When physical temptation comes our way, R. Arama think swe should also place a barrier between us and the temptation, put it behind us, and only occasionally look at it, even partake of it, as necessary for life and some enjoyment.

It’s also why Noach curses Cham to be a slave. We need the Cham view of life to take care of our basic physical needs as well as for the kinds of occasional pleasures to give some taste to life, but only if fully controlled by our intellectual side (what we today call executive function, the Yefet within us, which chooses when to go with Shem, when with Cham).

Notice Yefet also makes choices about when to take Shem’s approach, yet does not need to be a slave. I think R. Arama sees little danger in being too much like Shem—such people are more like angels, are perhaps too good for us. Most of us cannot reach such a state, but if we did, there would be little to mourn.

Man as Musical Microcosm

The idea of man as a microcosm, a reflection of the larger world, extends back to ancient times (the Babylonians, at least). R. Arama adopts it here, with a musical element, in that he sees people as instruments which harmonize with the music of the universe, when played correctly [he will return to the idea of instruments later in the work]. In practical terms, people in harmony with their nature and the nature of the universe (as set up by Hashem), the universe responds.

Hashem set the system this way, R. Arama says, in which the heavens and earth themselves respond to how we humans behave (or don’t). Human actions, good and bad, affect how nature expresses itself. [Many people today might dismiss his idea as a sort of metaphysical mysticism we need not accept; I think they err, forget he is telling us an idea clear in tradition and the Torah, that Hashem made the world itself responsive to our deeds. We say it twice daily, the heavens respond with rain or drought when the Jewish people in Israel do well or evil.]

I am skipping most of the examples he cites to support the idea; I’ll satisfy myself with only Vayikra Rabbah 35, which reads Hashem’s promise (Vayikra 26;3) im bechukkotai telechu, if you follow My laws, as referring not only to the laws of the Torah but the laws with which Hashem set up heaven and earth. This Midrash and others say what he was saying, Hashem applied the same principles to the universe as reflected in the Torah [the more extreme version says Hashem built the world according to the Torah, a Zoharic idea R. Arama quotes, Hashem looked at the Torah and created the world.]

Partial and Total Destructions and Salvations

Our impact on the natural world forces us to recognize the many sins which cause damage, elicit punishments addressed to specific wrongs. Taken too far, people can also sin enough to undercut the foundations of life. The Torah describes Hashem realizing the world has been corrupted; the corruption of human beings had spread universally enough the world itself could not continue.

The series of verses starting Parshat Bechukkotai (Vayikra 26) warns the Jewish people against reaching a situation of abandoning the Torah and observance. Chazal interpreted the stages of the people’s corruption as including moes be-acherim ha-‘osim, reviling others who choose to follow the Torah. For R. Arama, only when Jewish society frowns upon those who sin would the whole nation come to sin, the necessary prerequisite for national punishments.

Hashem does us a favor by waiting, inserting a time lag between even the worst sins, the broadest failings of a society or all of humanity, and the punishment/destruction those sins deserve. With time, we have a chance for righteous people to arise, save the day, keep the world going. Noach is one example—Avot 5;2 notes the ten generations between Adam and Noach as a marker of Hashem’s forbearance, holding back the Flood long enough to allow a Noach to appear. Avraham went Noach a step better, saving the world from the similar destruction the intervening ten generations incurred. (R. Arama slips in an idea I had never seen before, Hashem found ways, over the course of those ten generations, to prevent people from going so wrong they deserved more immediate destruction. He seems to mean people would not have made it the full ten generations without an assist from Hashem, for all the Mishnah in Avot is specifically addressing Hashem’s length to anger.)

With that introduction, to Parshat Noach itself.

The Righteousness of Noach’s Song

The Torah tells us Noach was a tzaddik tamim, a fully righteous man, righteous in all his actions. A tzaddik uses his money well; the opposite of atzaddik is a naval, someone who misuses his money. The opposite of a Noach, a tzaddik tamim, whose righteousness extends to his cultivation of the best character traits, is a rasha, an evildoer, who leaves the Torah. Noach worked at being as Hashem would want, gave it all his energies; those efforts decrease distance from Hashem, which the Torah calls being mithalech, walking with Gd. [R. Arama resolves the seeming physicality of walking with Hashem—it refers to striving to live as Hashem wants, which decreases spiritual distance, brings a person closer.]

We already know he defined evil as when people follow their whims, and that people’s evils affect the physical world, since we are like musical instruments harmonizing with nature. When the verse says Hashem saw the land had been perverted, R. Arama thinks it means Hashem saw Nature had sustained too much damage to keep life going [try throwing that into conversations about global warming or climate change, R. Arama thinks those changes reflect human sins, and could reach a point where the world can no longer support human life, “forcing” Hashem to step in.]

Noach, however, played the instrument of human life tunefully, which meant Nature worked in harmony for him, keeping him alive. His ark will allow Nature to protect Noach from the flood Hashem is bringing. [For R. Arama, then, once Noah was in the ark, his survival was natural. The miracle was Hashem warning him ahead of time, perhaps his being able to build an ark which would hold all the animals, gather the animals and provisions, etc.]

Flood was chosen for punishment because it reminds us of Hashem’s previous constant restraint of all those waters. People who choose to indulge their desires, despite Hashem’s commands, reap Hashem’s also loosing the waters, which had been similarly restrained by Hashem’s command, and find themselves flooded.

Noach accepted Hashem’s command to build the ark is a source of more credit than we might realize, in R. Arama’s view. No one had ever seen a flood of such fury before, which could have justified Noach refusing to believe, yet he did as told, spending a hundred and twenty years building an ark, gathering animals, provisioning them and his family.

The experts of the time heard Noach’s claims, did research for any reason there might be a Flood and could find none. Still, Noach persisted. [An image important for our times as well; following Hashem sometimes or often requires us to believe what Hashem asks or commands, in the face of the best conclusions of the finest minds of our times.]

More, as soon as he heard Hashem say it was on its way, Noach experienced the Flood as a looming reality, where the other experts did not believe until it actually came. [R. Arama is portraying Noach differently than Rashi, although he does not call attention to it. Rashi thought Noach, too, did not fully believe until the rains started. In 2007, Steve Carell starred in a movie called Evan Almighty, roundly panned by critics (and not all that good). I thought it portrayed well, however, the experience of a Noach, building something which everyone around him—including his family—doubted.]

Next sha’ar, the Flood itself, its value and why Hashem brought it.

About Gidon Rothstein

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