In the Shadow of 9/11

Noah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Oct 20, 2001 / 5762 | Torah Commentary

One of the lessons we have derived from the events of our time is that we cannot dwell at ease under the sun of our civilization, that man is the least harmless of all beings. We feel how every minute in our civilization is packed with tension like the interlude between lightning and thunder. Man has not advanced very far from the coast of chaos. It took only one storm to throw him back into the sinister. If culture is to survive, it is in need of defenses all along the shore. A frantic call to chaos shrieks in our blood. Many of us are too susceptible to it to ignore it forever. Where is the power that could offset the effect of that alluring call? How are we going to keep the demonic forces under control?

– Abraham Joshua Heschel, “No Time for Neutrality,” in Susannah Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity )

Written many decades ago, Heschel’s words reflect a profound truth that has existed from the beginning of time, to Heschel’s lifetime, to our own day. These words are particularly insightful against the background of this week’s parashah, Parashat No·ah. Only ten generations after the creation of the world, the careful order imposed by God has been replaced by chaos. The verses describing the situation leading to the Flood are at once instructive and cryptic: “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness. When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to No·ah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth'” (Genesis 6:11-13). These verses leave us wondering about the exact transgressions of the Dor ha-Mabul , the generation of the Flood. Who were these people and what did they do to warrant such drastic punishment? The rabbis of the Talmud and medieval commentators seek to fill in the blank spaces.

Ibn Ezra offers two interpretations of the expression vatishakhet haaretz lifnei haelohim, the earth was corrupted before God (Genesis 6:11) in the Flood story. First, Ibn Ezra suggests that the people of the land sinned openly, in public, before God. According to this reading, the generation of the Flood had no sense of shame or boundaries. They flouted their evil and waywardness before the Creator of the World. Alternatively, Ibn Ezra suggests, the phrase could mean just the opposite – namely that the people sinned only before God – engaging in transgressions that only God would be privy to. The second interpretation describes their behavior as less bold but more deceitful. They seemed to fear people more than God, eager to break the rules when no one was watching, but unrestrained by conscience and failing to acknowledge God’s omniscience.

The second half of Genesis 6:11 yields another clue: vatimale haaretz hamas – “and the earth had become filled with hamas.” Ibn Ezra defines hamas as thievery, oppression and rape. Umberto Cassuto suggests hamas “is cold-blooded and unscrupulous infringement of the personal rights of others, motivated by greed and hate and often making use of physical violence and brutality.” Finally, the Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 12a proposes that the primary sin of Dor ha-Mabul, the generation of the Flood, involved sexual transgressions.

In sum, Ibn Ezra writes that “every living thing did not act according to its nature; the natural, known, and correct order of living was distorted.” The order of creation reverted to chaos, blurring and destroying natural and ethical boundaries. Indeed, all of nature came to reflect this inverted sense of being. Commenting on the verse “For all flesh had become dissolute” (Genesis 6:12), Rabbi Azariah said in the name of Rabbi Judah ben Shimon: “In the generation of the flood all had become dissolute – the dog mated with the wolf, the rooster with the peacock.” Rabbi Bar Tibrin said in the name of Rabbi Isaac: “Even the earth acted like a harlot – when planted with wheat, it brought forth weeds. In fact weeds stem from the generation of the flood” (Genesis Rabbah 28:8). God’s act of creation, only five chapters earlier, was effectively and irreparably undermined by the acts of human beings and nature gone awry.

Over the past month, we have been witness to a world turned upside down. The violence of the few has instilled a sense of chaos and fear. Now like Heschel, we ask ourselves how to keep demonic forces under control? In out times, God does not ask one No·ah to build a refuge that will carry civilization through the storm to a new birth. Rather, today the challenge is for each of us to hear God’s call. Unlike the generation of the Flood, we must look at the beauty in our world and see God’s Presence; we must always act as if we are indeed in the Presence of God; we must stay attuned to the fragility of life and the suffering of others; and finally we, as committed and caring religious Jews, must devote ourselves to the continual task of creation – bringing order and blessing to a broken world.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Matt Berkowitz

The publication and distribution of Rabbi Berkowitz’s commentary on Parashat Noach has been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld