Parshat Noah: Gd, People, and Special People Move the World

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The selections of Onkelos, Rashi, and Ramban I have highlighted in previous years grouped nicely into comments about Gd, people, and then about two special people, Noah and Avraham (often contrasted to each other, because each was the lone righteous person in his generation). The comments also focused mostly on the two major incidents of the parsha, the Flood and the Tower of Bavel. Let’s see where it takes us.

The Flood Had Miracles, and Didn’t, According to Ramban

Miracles are inherently about where Gd does or does not guide the world differently than its usual patterns. Ramban to 6;19 was sure Noah’s Ark, large as it was, could not possibly have held all the species of animals taken two by two. Gd had to have made the Ark miraculously able to contain much more than its volume allowed.

Nonetheless, Gd had Noah build a large Ark, to attract the attention of other people, in the hopes they might repent when they heard why he was building it. More revealingly about his view of how Gd engages with the world, he says Gd wanted Noah to build it large to lessen the miraculous element. His reading of Scripture told him Gd has people do as whey they can within the ordinary patterns of the world, uses a miracle to fill in the needed leftovers.

Where the Flood Went

After the Flood, 8;11 tells us the dove Noah sent out returned with an olive branch in its beak, implying the tree had survived the flood. Ramban first suggests the Flood did not produce the kinds of rushing water that uproots or destroys trees. He then noted Bereshit Rabbah 33;6’s quote of R. Levi, the dove found the branch in Israel, which wasn’t soaked by the Flood.

Ramban rejects the idea Israel was completely spared, because no barriers stopped the water from the rest of the world flowing into Israel. He suggests instead, along the same lines as his previous idea, no water originated in Israel, neither by rain or welling up from the deep, and the water that flowed into Israel had lost much of its force, so the trees survived.

Ramban gives us a Gd Who does perform miracles, only when and to the extent necessary.

Transcendent and Immanent, Able to Stop Evil From Proceeding

Onkelos gives other ideas of Gd. Noah builds an altar le-Hashem, to Gd,  in 8;20, and Onkelos changes it to kodam Hashem, before Gd. In the next verse, Gd’s smelling the pleasing smell of a sacrifice becomes Gd’s accepting it with grace, and he renders all examples of Gd’s “speech,” (el libo, to His heart, or making a covenant) as memri, Gd’s Word.

With his resistance to any physicality of Gd, he still sees Gd as active in the world. 11;5 says Gd “went down” to see the Tower of Bavel, an idea Onkelos converts into Gd revealing Himself to punish them. Rashi there thinks the decision had not yet been made, Gd modeling judges’ obligation to investigate a matter before they reach a verdict, even if they expect/suspect they already know the outcome.

After Gd mixes up their language, 11;8 says they desisted from building the city/tower. Onkelos writes ve-itmena’u, were held back. ArtScroll thinks Onkelos understood the Torah to tell us Hashem stopped them before they ever started, an idea that certainly shows Gd’s willingness to interfere with freewill. We might read Onkelos less radically, take itmena’u to mean Gd held them back going forward. Still, it would mean they wished to persist even after Gd mixed up their languages, only stopping because Gd prevented them, and would show some people’s stubborn insistence on pursuing self-defeating courses of action.

Onkelos’ Gd is completely, radically nonphysical while also “able” to be revealed to the world, act in the world, to the point of foiling plans, removing people’s freewill. And, for Rashi, only after investigating the matter thoroughly, as a human judge must.

Onkelos’ Version of the Human Role in the Destruction of the Flood

Speaking of people, Rashi and Onkelos make clear the ones of the time of the Flood brought it on themselves. 6;12 says Gd saw kol basar, all flesh (possibly including the animal kingdom), had perverted their ways, a phrase Onkelos translates as bisra enashhuman flesh. In the next verse, Onkelos makes clear the hamas filling the earth was what people did, human robbers destroying the morality of society to the point of no return.

Post- Flood, 8;21, Gd vows never again to curse the land ba’avur ha-adam, because of humanity.  Onkelos writes bedil hovei enasha, because of humans’ misdeeds. Those misdeeds were the entire story behind the Flood, for Onkelos.

Part of the new rules after the Flood included capital punishment for murder, an idea 9;6 formulates as ba-adam damo yishafekh, whoever spills another’s blood will have his/her own blood spilled by people. Onkelos adds be-sahadin al memar dayanaya, with witnesses, according to the word of judges. Gd was not promoting vigilantism, Gd was telling society to police what it had not effectively done before, punishing those who violate society’s norms and laws as a way to be sure they not descend again to the depths of the Flood.

People Do Not Learn, For Rashi

Rashi notes the verse’s focus on the hamas, the robbery, despite the generation also having engaged more serious crimes, sexual immorality, worship of powers other than Gd. He says the hamas, the bald-faced robbery, sealed their fate. The people of the Tower of Bavel, after all, sinned in more directly rebellious ways—Rashi thought they built the Tower as a direct challenge to Gd—but suffered a lesser punishment, because they had neither the open robbery nor the strife of such societies.  Respect for property and for others saved their generation, lack of it doomed the people of the Flood.

The need for a tipping point fits with Rashi’s thinking the Flood could have been averted until the last second. 7;21 calls the early water of the Flood geshem, rain, rather than a mabul (as in verse 17), because it could have been just rain, rain of blessing, Rashi says, had people taken Noabh’s message to heart and repented.

After, it didn’t get much better. Rashi understands 11;1 to imply the people of the Tower of Bavel decided the Flood reflected a weakness in the physical structure of the world, a natural phenomenon they could correct by building a Tower to shore up the firmament. Rather than learn about the importance of serving Gd, Rashi thinks the Flood gave them room to believe Nature had problems they could fix, without any recourse to Gd or Gd’s service.

Not an error any of us would make in our times, of course.

Ramban points to what seems to me another flaw in people. 10;9 calls Nimrod a gibor tzayid, a mighty hunter, a term Rabbinic tradition took to hint he hunted fellow human beings. Ramban thinks Nimrod found a way to convince people to submit to him his king, but thinks his success came only because it was the first time people were faced with war, needed a leader to help them defeat their enemies. Since I think cities and societies provide more benefits than better chances in war, Ramban to me shows how self-defeating many of us are, refusing to relinquish some individual rights for the many greater goods of membership in a larger group, willing to do so only when we see an outcome we fear.

Noah: Righteousness Isn’t Always the Highest of the High

The last phrase of the first verse of the parsha, 6;9, says Noah walked with Gd. Obviously, Onkelos could not let that stand, instead understands the Torah to mean Noah conducted himself be-dahalta de-Hashem, in the fear of Gd.  ArtScroll notes commentators who thought Onkelos meant to imply Noah only achieved fear, where Avraham loved Gd. Even if they’re right, Onkelos still had to have thought Noah’s fear achieved enough to deserve being saved from the Flood, miraculously.

Ramban, too, shows how much even a reduced righteousness earns. The verse calls Noah an ish tzaddik, a righteous man, where Avraham is described (18;19) as performing tzedakah u-mishpat. Ramban says Noah qualified as a tzaddik by refraining from sin, did not steal, did not commit sexual impropriety, did not join any of the sins of his generation.

Avraham performed mishpat, acted rightly and well, in addition to the tzeddakah of not committing wrongs. Clearly better than Noah, yet Ramban thinks the verse wants us to understand what Noah did was enough for he, too, to walk with Gd, to be spoken to by Gd (Ramban held the command to build the Ark was neither the first nor last time Gd spoke to him, it was a regular occurrence).

It foreshadows Devarim 13;5, where Moshe tells the Jewish people to walk with Gd, fear only Gd, reject prophets who call for worship of other powers. Noah set the baseline, not nearly as good as Avraham, but good enough. Stay away from evil in all its forms, and that itself can be walking with Gd.

Noah may have done one clear positive, for Ramban, educating his sons and their wives in the morality he held. To explain why they were saved, Ramban has two suggestions, the second the one I just shared, Noah had succeeded in inculcating them with this necessary baseline value. (His other option was that it would punish Noah to see his sons destroyed in the Flood; in that version, Ramban assumes Noah’s “do no harm” exempted him from the pain of watching evil sons go to their deserved perdition).

Greatness Isn’t Always Understandable

Avraham appears only at the end of the parsha, as a son of Terah, whom 11;32 tells us died in Haran. Rashi’s chronology of events puts Terah’s death much later in Avraham’s life, after he had already been in Cana’an for sixty years (meaning Avraham was 130 or 135). The Torah notes it here, Rashi says, to gloss over Avraham’s having abandoned his father, which casual readers might treat as a failure of kibbud av, caring for one’s parent.

Rashi defends both Avraham—he wasn’t wrong to leave, he was following Gd’s command—and the text’s truth, because evildoers (like Terah) are properly referred to as dead while still alive. The first point suggests Noah’s greatness was relatable; Avraham’s in some ways exceeded the bounds of ordinary people’s ability to understand.

Noah, as I found it, taught us about how Gd makes the world go in the directions it needs, sometimes by miracle, sometimes by suspending freewill, showed us ordinary human beings in their failures, and extraordinary people in the kinds of successes we can see ourselves doing and those we cannot.

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