Conquering Passions

Noah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 28, 1995 / 5756 | Torah Commentary

My favorite Jewish ritual is the recitation of havdalah at the end of Shabbat. It is a love rooted in childhood. Each week as I mark for my family the bittersweet passage of time from the sacred to the profane, my thoughts drift back to the old-fashioned kitchen in which I would hold the candle for my father in the presence of my mother and older sister. Before the onset of the normal frenetic pace of our lives that kept us apart for much of the week, we would unite to bid Shabbat farewell and give voice to our sense of loss and renewal.

Shabbat is a taste of eternity, the only relic that remains from the perfection of Eden. We welcome it weekly by lighting white candles of a single wick, whose tranquil flame bespeaks the enveloping peace. Contrastingly, the colored havdalah candle sports several wicks that yield a restless fury betokening the work week. Inhaling spices gives us one last whiff of Shabbat’s fragrance, even as they help us overcome our momentary weakness at its departure.

The Hebrew word havdalah means “separating,” and over the cup of wine we express our gratitude to God for having enriched our lives with distinctions and boundaries. As we reenter the mundane world, we find strength in God’s accompanying presence. “Indeed, God is my deliverance; I am confident and unafraid,” are the opening words of havdalah. The ceremony is brief, filled with things to do and songs to sing, and resonant with mixed emotions, a poignant transition between the two realms of our existence.

I write of havdalah because its theme of distinguishing lies at the heart of God’s creation. For the Torah creation is not a move from nothing to something, but from chaos to order. At the beginning the earth is “unformed and void, with darkness over the face of the deep (Genesis 1:2).” God’s intervention reconfigures that disorder with a profusion of bodies and beings cleanly separated by boundaries. The grandeur of existence is a function of its orderliness and predictability. Out of an acorn will always come an oak. The thrust of Judaism is to respect the demarcations of that orderliness. Kilayim, the mixing of distinct entities, has always implied for Judaism an assault on God’s creation. To erode distinctions is to risk the loss of meaning.

Alzheimer’s is a disease that besieges us in different ways. In one painful case known to me, it is marked early on by a loss of the ability to tell the difference between day and night. That is not the same as an inability to tell time, to read a clock, which is a skill that remarkably persists. Our mind does not unravel all at once. The impairment is far deeper and more existential, a loss of reasoning power that keeps chaos at bay. I no longer recite the first berakha of the morning service lightheartedly. “Praised are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has given the cock the ability to distinguish between day and night.” At the start of a new day, I thank God for restoring to me the ability to read the signs of nature. Age has a way of humbling us; we take less for granted.

What ignites God to flood the earth and return it to a state of chaos in our parasha was the steady human assault on the inviolability of divine boundaries. Behind the strong verb va-tishahet – “and the earth became corrupt before God (Genesis 6:11),” the Rabbis pictured a society sunk in depravity and decadence. “The generation of the flood grew insolent,” they said, “precisely because of the bounty that God had showered on them.” The flood was a form of measure for measure. In reaction to humanity’s obliteration of civil and social distinctions, God obliterated all natural ones. The Torah intentionally uses a form of the verb le-hashhit – “to destroy” to depict both the actions of God and humanity.

The Rabbis fleshed out the implicit sense of the Torah: creation rested on a moral as well as a natural order. They identified a series of seven divine commandments which were incumbent on all human societies and that predated the revelation at Sinai. Known as the seven No·ahide commandments, they define the basic standards of decency of civilized society, including six prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, bloodshed, incest and adultery, robbery, and eating flesh cut from a living animal. The one positive injunction was to establish courts of law.

According to Maimonides, six of these general laws were given to Adam, while Noah and his descendants received but one additional one, namely, not to eat flesh from a living animal. Moreover, although these seven commandments appear perfectly reasonable, in fact constituting a fragmentary Jewish theory of natural law, Maimonides insists they must be accepted and observed as divinely revealed, if they are to have any merit. His preference to ground them in the authority of revelation accords with the general rabbinic view that “A person who is commanded to do an action and does it is deemed to be more praiseworthy than one who does it without being commanded.” The Rabbis recognized that it is easier for us to do our own bidding than what someone else demands of us.

During this week of commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, it is also worthwhile to recall that Maimonides believed that it was the mission of the Jewish people not to convert the peoples of the world to Judaism but only to the minimal standards of decency expected of the entire human family, the progeny of Noah.

It is these seven Noahide commandments which the generations between Adam and No·ah progressively breached, returning human society to a state of chaos and evoking God’s wrath. Decadence is to turn the world upside down, to erode distinctions to the point where they disappear, to make all options equally valid and to do whatever we are physically capable of doing. The Torah celebrates the ultimate worth of every human being, but not without counseling a life of constant self-restraint. “Who is to be numbered among the mighty? Those who conquer (not others) but the passions (that seethe) within the self.”

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Noah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.