Shabbat Noah/ Rosh Hodesh - 5778 – Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

By: Rabbi Pat Fenton,
Yoetzet Limudei Rabbanut,
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Some thoughts on Parashat Noah

  Torah Reading:  Genesis 6:9 - 11:32

  Haftarah Reading:  Isaiah 66:1-24, 23

I've struggled to write this Dvar Torah. When times are tough, I find no comfort in complaint, and am instead silenced. Raised by British immigrants to the United States, who were themselves raised by Polish and Lithuanian immigrants to England, I was taught to "keep calm and carry on."

One of my favorite books is Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. This masterpiece deals with events of the French Revolution of 1789. Here is an excerpt from the famous first paragraph:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness... it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair... in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

Sound familiar? We too live in confusing times, and I hear many people saying that they don't remember a worse time. In a nation of remarkable prosperity and opportunity, we are experiencing natural disasters and horrific interpersonal behavior. We are at war at home with words, and abroad with weapons. What can one person do?

This weeks' parashah sees two terribly traumatic events occur to humankind: the flood and the dispersion. Seeing the wickedness of humankind, God regrets the decision to create people in the first place, and decides to destroy life on earth. Luckily for all of us, Noah finds favor in God's eyes, and so he and his family are spared from the destruction of the flood. And just a couple of chapters after the no doubt shocked and stunned Noah must be urged out of the ark, his descendants gather together and decide to "make a name" for themselves by building a big tower "with its top in the sky" (Gen. 11:3-4). They are able to cooperate in this project because they all speak the same language and agree on a plan. But as a result, they become the Generation of the Dispersion, when God confounds their speech so that they no longer understand each other, and scatters them over the face of the earth.

To go back to Dickens, one can imagine members of the Generation of the Dispersion saying to each other: Wow, things haven't been this bad since the time of the Generation of the Flood! And, if they were lucky enough to say this to someone who still spoke the same language, the other was likely to agree that things were as bad as they could be.

Commentators ask the question: Why did God destroy almost all life on Earth during the flood, yet spare the generation that built the tower? Was their wickedness any less?

In his commentary on Genesis 11:9, Rashi (who lived in the Middle Ages and knew the threat of Crusades) teaches us that in the generation of the flood, people behaved wickedly with each other. They robbed each other and quarreled, and for these reasons they were destroyed. In contrast, although the generation of the tower tried to war against God, there was love and friendship between people. This teaches us, says Rashi, that conflict is hateful and peace is great. Even though people rebelled against God, they were spared because they were kind to each other.

There is a lesson for us in Rashi's commentary, and something to be learned from considering our current situation in light of our parashah and human and Jewish history. Like Rashi, we know what we need to do to ensure better times. Like every generation from the creation of humankind, we know how hard it is.

May God bless us and keep us, and help us to increase kindness and cooperation in God's world. Shabbat Shalom.


Rabbi Pat Fenton, is the Yoetzet Limudei Rabbanut (Rabbinic Studies Advisor) for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, and the Manager of Judaica and Public Services at the Ostrow Library of the American Jewish University. She teaches courses in Talmud and Midrash to American Jewish University students in the College, the Graduate Center for Education and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University