The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

NOAH Genesis 6.9-11:32

by Avraham ben Yaakov

Torah speaks in the language of humans

A fundamental principle of rabbinic Torah interpretation is that "the Torah speaks in the language of humans" (Baal HaTurim on Numbers 15:31 etc.). Surely this could not mean that the Divine Writ would use language in the sloppy, imprecise, sensationalist or hyper-clever ways that language is too often used today in everyday chatter, the media, politics and other public forums!

As God's revelation to humanity, the Torah speaks in terms, concepts and ideas that have meaning to humans as they ostensibly relate to the familiar world around us. Torah speaks about all the various situations of human life - life-cycle, family and social relations, agriculture, making a living, war, peace and countless others. Indeed the lessons we learn are to be practically applied in our actual lives. Simultaneously the Torah is providing us with metaphors and allegories that help us gain a little grasp of spiritual levels that are intrinsically beyond our understanding during the present incarnation of our souls in our bodies.

Through the subtle weave of its tales and teachings, the Torah - the Tree of Life - nourishes our souls in preparation for the life beyond this life, among whose rewards is that we shall be given to know and understand what we sought earnestly to understand during our lives in this world. A small child may become absorbed in the Bible stories while elders and sages fathom ever deeper. The four levels of rabbinic interpretation are called PaRDeS ("orchard", "Paradise") standing for P'SHAT, the "simple" meaning of the text; REMEZ, its allusive meaning; DRASH, the homiletic, allegorical level, and SOD, the secret, mystical and esoteric level including mathematical equations, encrypted ciphers and much more.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105), prince of the Biblical commentators, universally known as RASHI, which is the acronym of the initial letters of his name, states a fundamental principle of Torah interpretation: "The Torah never leaves its PSHAT" (Rashi on Gen. 15:10, Exodus 12:2). That is to say: besides any other levels of meaning it may have, each verse means exactly what it says in simple terms. Yet this "simple" meaning is not necessarily the identical what some might consider the "literal" meaning (which sometimes seems ridiculous and impossible). Likewise many of the metaphors in constant use in everyday speech communicate simply and directly even though we know they cannot be taken absolutely "literally". Likewise, the stories in the Bible happened and are continuing to happen until today, but how they happened and are happening may be very different from what we might imagine. Ever since Moses gave the Torah to Israel , its lovers have spent lifetimes delving beneath first-sight impressions to deeper meanings. In the words of the Mishnaic sage known as Ben Bag Bag: "Turn it over and turn it over, for all is in it" (Pirkey Avot 5:22)

Noah's flood

Many scholars in the last few hundred years have dismissed the Torah account of Noah's Flood as a myth having no higher status than several parallel stories handed down in various other ancient cultures. But assiduous students of the original Hebrew text of the Torah see it plainly to be a perfectly chiseled Divine document embedded with multiple levels and lessons that apply at all times, past, present and future.

Contemporary culture's intoxication with its technological achievements coupled with an appalling ignorance of history have led many assume that prior to somewhere around 1750, human civilization was hopelessly primitive, not to speak of back in Biblical times. This flies in the face of clear evidence that the ancients possessed staggering knowledge of mathematics and astronomy as well as knowhow in agriculture, building and engineering, medicine and much more, as can be seen from relics like the excavated walls of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the Stonehenge astronomical-religious stone circle in southwest Britain and countless archeological finds.

Thus the Holy Zohar (Bereishit 56a) states that the people in the generation of the Noah's Flood possessed deep understanding of the use of magic, witchcraft and sorcery to control heavenly forces. What this means is that they knew formulas and ritual processes (comparable to some of the "wizardry" of modern science and technology?) through which they thought they could control the very elements of creation and master the world. This led them to an overweening, God-denying arrogance which caused the social fabric to deteriorate to a level where unashamed sexual immorality, blatant theft and robbery and other forms of wickedness were rampant, with the breakdown of all the limits and boundaries that are the necessary foundations of a God-aware civilization.

Noah's greatness lay in the fact that he was history's first Righteous Rebel. He defied the degeneracy and wickedness of his Godless age. To escape them, Noah, the father of humanity, took refuge in his " Ark ".

The Ark - the Word: Prayer

What really is this " Ark " that is described in such detail in our Torah portion? The Biblical Hebrew term TEIVAH that is translated as Noah's " Ark " or ship denotes simply and "literally" a CONTAINER, particularly what we might call a linguistic CONTAINER - i.e. a WORD. For a word is a CONTAINER of MEANING. The WORD in which Noah took refuge from the surrounding wickedness is prayer, which is made up of WORDS (Rabbi Nachman, Likutey Moharan Part I Teachings 9 and 112 translated in Tsohar , pub. Breslov Research Institute.) Noah's lesson to all humanity, his descendants in all the generations, is to pray. For Prayer is the second of the three things on which the world stands, together with Torah, as discussed in last week's commentary on Bereishit, and Acts of Kindness (Avot 1:20).

One of the primary lessons of the story of Noah's ark is that if we feel surrounded by the floodwaters of rampant materialism, degeneracy and other evils, we may find refuge by bringing all that is dear and important to us into our PRAYER to the Ruler of the Universe.

From early childhood we learn words and language as the means of communication between one human and another. Yet from the baby's first entry into this world, it instinctively cries a great cry to God. While the surrounding matrix of family, education and culture initiate the child into the world of human communication, secular culture teaches little about how to refine and elevate this incoherent cry to the level of a thoughtful, intelligent communication with our Maker using WORDS. Yet Prayer -- talking to God directly, expressing all our thoughts, feelings, needs and wants - is the logical corollary of the first of the Seven Universal Laws of Noah's children and descendants: the prohibition of idolatry. If idolatry is the denial of God's omnipotence, prayer to God is the affirmation that everything is in God's hands.

Idolatry is any form of religious service centered on the propitiation of one or more intermediary gods, angels, souls, forces or other powers rather than turning to the One Creator. Our destinies are ultimately governed not by the god of this or that or by fate or luck, nor by our boss, doctor, prime minister or any other human, but by God alone. We attain our greatest dignity as God's children when even as we seek to manipulate the material world through our own efforts in making a living, getting cured through medicines and attaining other goals, etc., at the same time we turn directly God, Ruler of all, through our prayers so as to draw God's blessing on all our endeavors.

There is a widespread childish conception of prayer as asking for the magical fulfillment of a wish list that may range from houses, luxuries and winning the lottery to making granny better. But mature prayer is when we use words as a means of communication with God and with our own selves in order to clarify our goals and purpose in this life and to help us attain them. God has given each one his or her own soul, self and unique life situation, and He has also given us the ability to develop, change and refine ourselves. We must ask God to help us overcome innate laziness, heaviness, excessive materialistic involvements and other personal weaknesses. The generic Hebrew word for prayer, TEFILAH, comes from the root PALAL meaning to judge. The Hebrew verb to "pray", HITPALEL, is grammatically a reflexive form of the root. This is because in true prayer we judge ourselves and examine where we fall short, and we turn to our Creator to help us improve. The Torah teaches "to serve Him with all your hearts and all your souls" (Deuteronomy 11:13). "What is the service of God that is in the heart? It is Prayer!" (Ta'anit 2a).

What sacrifices does God want?

We humans are made of two sides: (1) The physical, animal body, which is vitalized by the "animal" soul that manifests in our this-worldly ego; (2) The life-giving spiritual soul, which gives us the dignified ability, apparently not shared with animals and other living creatures, to be self-aware and to elevate ourselves so as to earn closeness with God through our own efforts. Torah teachings set goals for our self-development, while our way to attain these goals is through an interactive "dialogue" with God where do our part by praying and God responds as God sees fit in wisdom, love and compassion.

Our Torah portion tells us that after Noah came out of his Ark of Prayer into the new world washed clean of the old atheism by the waters of the Flood, he offered God burned offerings of animals and birds (Genesis 8:20). Was Noah teaching his descendants to offer such sacrifices?

The Torah does indeed command Israel to offer specific communal and personal physical animal, bird, meal, oil and wine sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem . Under Torah law a gentile may also send sacrifices to the Temple . Moreover, unlike an Israelite, a gentile may set up an altar to offer a burned offering elsewhere too, though this should only be done under the instruction of a competent Torah scholar (Rambam, Laws of Offering Sacrifices -- Maaseh Hakorbanot 19:16). The Torah in no way gives sanction to practice animal sacrificial rituals other than those which it specifies.

But are animal sacrifices what God really wants of you and me? "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen better than the fat of rams" (I Samuel 15:22; cf. Isaiah 66:3).

Slaughtering the evil inclination

The sacrifice God wants is that we "slaughter" our evil inclination by bringing our negative traits and desires under control so that we develop our positive sides and fulfill our soul's true destiny in this world.

The way to "slaughter" our "bad side" is through the discipline - "service" - of regular prayer. This way we "sacrifice" our animal side to God and turn ourselves into true servants of God. "Take with you words and return to God. for bullock sacrifices we shall pay the offerings of our lips" (Hosea 14:3). "O God, open my lips and my mouth shall declare your praise. For You do not desire a sacrificial offering, or I would give it, You will not want a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; God will not despise a broken and contrite heart" (Psalms 51:17-19).

In the words of the outstanding Chassidic luminary, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810):

"You must pray for everything. Even if your garment is torn and you need another, you should pray to God to give you something to wear.

"Do this for everything: make it a habit to pray for all your needs, great or small. Your main prayers should be for fundamentals: that God should help you to serve Him and draw closer. Even so, you should also pray for minor things.

"God may give you food and clothing and everything else you need in life even without your asking for them. However, you are then like an animal. God provides all living creatures with their food. But if you do not draw your needs through prayer, your livelihood is like that of an animal. A man must draw his vitality and all his needs from God only through prayer.

"Is it beneath your dignity to pray even for something minor? You must pray for everything, even the most minor things" (Sichot Haran #233).

Rabbi Nachman here explains how to fulfill Noah's lesson to all his children, the 70 Nations of the World, in taking refuge in the " Ark " - the Word: to bring everything in our lives, our affairs and our very selves into our prayers to God.





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