Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32
"Why," asks the Slonimer Rebbe, "does the Torah begin with so many accounts of degradation?" Both this week's sedra and its predecessor are rife with accounts of faithlessness, murder, violence, perversion and hubris. No sooner do we leave Bereshit's narrative of humanity's expulsion from Paradise and Cain's murder of Abel then we are greeted by Noah's story of the Flood and the Tower of Babel. If the Torah is meant to teach life-giving pathways, why begin with some of the lowest notes sounded in human history?
Several answers might be offered to solve this dilemma. First, these initial chapters of the Torah might well be meant as a warning of just how painfully easy it is for us to shred the fabric of creation. The Ethics of the Fathers, Pirke Avot, indicates that three vices have the ability to drive us from this world: Envy, Lustful Craving and Glory Seeking. The Slonimer demonstrates how each of these was manifest by one of the early generations and the deadly affect such traits can have when they go unchecked.
Cain envied Abel because God accepted Abel's sacrifice over his. Unwilling to channel his emotions constructively by improving his offering, Cain vented his jealous rage by killing his brother. The generation of the Flood was so besotted that the Torah claims "all flesh had perverted its way upon the earth."
The violence from that perversion grew so pervasive that the very planet itself had to be purged. Similarly, the leaders of the "Babel Project" were so vainglorious that they employed inhumane and coercive tactics to build a tower "so we can make for ourselves a name." Perhaps the Torah placed these three examples front and center to serve as graphic reminders of the alienation, destruction and dissolution we can cause others and ourselves when we let our darker passions run wild.
Of course, the Torah doesn't stop with these three tales. At the portion's end, we are introduced to Abraham and Sarah. Kabbalists and Chasidic masters saw the next three generations of our Hebrew forbears as offering specific tikunim — antidotes to first neutralize and then transform the poison spread by their predecessors. Cain's envy would be met by the chesed — the lovingkindness embodied in Abraham and Sarah's hospitality.
The profligacy of the Flood generation would be counteracted by the Gevurah, the powerful, disciplined faithfulness of Isaac and Rebecca for each other. To offset the status seeking of the "Babel-ites" Jacob, Leah and Rachel strove to manifest tiferet — beauty through balance in their often challenging lives.
The Torah offers both comfort and a challenge. It is teaching us that the way things were is not the way they have to be. The question is whether we'll have the strength through adversity to do so.
Think of Elie Weisel or Nelson Mandela. Each faced captivity and inhuman cruelty, yet each was able to prevail and bring hope to their people and to millions around the world. What was is not what has to be if there are those willing to seek transformation.
Some claim the progression from darkness to light illustrated by Parshat Noah and its surrounding chapters actually mirrors the pattern of Creation: There was evening and there was morning … . In the human equation, however, if light is to follow the darkness, then we have to be ready to raise the shades.
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. E-mail him at: [email protected]