Friday, October 4, 2013


If last week's portion is the most talked about Torah portion for adults, Noah has become a story that most western children know as it has been almost Disneyfied.  Having a son named Noah I also know that you can get anything with a Noah theme, anything.

Noah's ark is also used by many businesses for impact.  From a Kosher deli (ironically) in New Jersey to 100s of veterinarians' offices to environmental groups.  Noah's ark is a sign of comfort and caring for the earth.

But the story of Noah is not a good one.  This is the story of an angry God, destroying creation and starting over.  The killing of all of humanity save one family.  The destruction of all civilization because people were wicked.

However the story brings us symbols that today have powerful images of peace in love, the dove with an olive branch and the rainbow.

This parsha has been picked apart by many but there are two stories that I think could use reflection.  The first is the story of Noah getting drunk on homemade wine right after the everyone left the ark and the ending of the story of the Tower of Babel.  (yes sometimes we forget this story is in this parsha).

The story of Noah and the wine if fascinating because it occurs at at time and in a place that should be a more serious time.  The world, destroyed, is being reborn. But Noah decides to get drunk.  Now his son Ham sees "his nakedness" and then Shem and Japheth cover Noah's nakedness without looking.  Now the Torah seems to be leaving something out of the story.  Did Ham do something with his father's nakedness?  Did he make fun of the old man's shriveled body?  Was Noah aroused and Ham explored that in some way?  We really don't know.  What we do know that this was a crisis in the Torah.

What happens next is a genealogy that includes a condemnation of Ham and his son Canaan.  But beyond that there is a clear discussion of the peoples of the earth growing out of these families.  Each son will father a different race or ethnicity of people.  The results of this strange encounter is that God defines humanity not as a single homogeneous group but as a diverse population that will spread out and engage the world.

In the midst of this story we get the story of the tower of Babel.  This story, like the flood narrative, is a common story among the people of the ancient near east.  What we find is a group of people, living closely in an urban environment all with one language.  They decide to build a large tower to make a name for themselves.  Some people say to become god-like.  God's solution, confound their speech, create new languages and make it impossible for them to easily work together.

In both crisis in this story God's solution to the problem of stepping outside of appropriate behavior was to diversify the population.  With Noah and Ham, the close relationship that grew deeper than father and son while cramped on the Ark make it hard for Ham to fully appreciate, let's call it, personal space.  A danger that can lead to all manner of problems.  Even if there was no contact between Noah and his son there was something that occurred that made the familiarity of the people too central.  Spreading them over the earth and having them create new cultures will focus their energy on something, hopefully positive, instead of what was occurring.  With Babel, the people had grown too comfortable again.  They wanted more.  God's actions remind me of a Sci-Fi story where a group (usually humans) are moving to fast with technology and not allowing their morality to catch up with them.  A godlike alien sends them backward in some fashion to make them figure out a new hurdle and in doing so give them more time to grow.

Perhaps that is one of the morals of Noah.  That we see humanity growing at too fast a pace.  God uses the flood to end the evil and make it easier for humans to grow more and perhaps better.  Then he separates the family of Noah who grew too comfortable by making people different.  Creating a test that we still struggle with today.  How to we work closely with someone so different in thought than us?  Then we see the final story of Babel.  Language confusion makes it hard to work together on a project of conceit.  Learning how to speak with your neighbor who has a different language is difficult without a reference point.  Just think of the work one has to do to get someone to understand them.  Point at a glass of water and say the first word that describes it.  Did you say clear?  glass?  container?  water?  liquid?  wet?  drink?  Think of all the words we take for granted.

In the end parsha Noach is a parsha that sees us as still children, and God is worried that we are growing too quickly and thus gives us a test.  A test of diversity that we must figure out.  We must find a way to balance who we are from those who are different and must humble ourselves to learn about others, their language and their culture.  In doing so we might find a new way to seek God, not by building a tower (or getting drunk) but by seeing God in the person so different from who we are that we have to get into his or her soul to see the real humanity there.  Diversity is good and a tool of God.

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