Tuesday, November 8, 2016

A New Thought About the First Chapters of Bereshit/Genesis and Noah

I love teaching because it is always as much about learning for me as for the students I am privileged to LEARN with at all junctures. “Teaching” is truly about facilitating the process of learning for all in the room, myself included, in my mind. I am presently working with students on the early side of the age continuum as well as much more seasoned and experienced learners. I want to dedicate this blog post to my First Graders at Perelman Jewish Day School and my Senior Life Long Learners in the Samuel A. Green House Community, for it is as a result of what I have been learning as a result of dialoguing and thinking with them.

With both groups, the Parsha – that is the weekly Torah reading – is part of our steady diet. So we are following the cycle of these weekly readings that began with the first chapters of Bereshit/Genesis two weeks ago. Within a very condensed period of time and relatively few words, we are reading about the Creation of all that is and then a quick process of falling off of the trajectory of progress and moving forward. A snake tempts Eve not to listen to explicit instructions, one brother kills his sibling (where are the parents?), corruption reigns, a flood comes and destroys all that is, generations proliferate, more conflict occurs, and so on.

For me, the most jarring part of the narrative is when G-d regrets and is so distraught by the most amazing part of Creation, that of humanity – that part of G-d’s Creation that was singled out as “very good.” We read in Chapter 6: 5 - 9 of Genesis/Bereshit:

5 And the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And it repented the LORD (or G-d regretted) that G-d had made man on the earth, and it grieved G-d (he regretted doing so) in G-d’s heart. 7 And the LORD said: 'I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for it grieves Me that I have made them.' 8 But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD. 9 These are the generations of Noah; Noah was a completely righteous man for his time and Noach walked with G-d.

These words that express this regret appear as one weekly reading ends and the solution is suggested by the very next words of the Torah, in proclaiming that Noach was an “ish tzaddik tamim b’dorotav” – that is a completely righteous man for his time. It might appear that G-d has answered G-d’s own dilemma regarding the misinformed path of humanity with yet another human being. A newly created being and new hopes that reflect the previous and initial ones when G-d declared that this creation of humanity was indeed very good and not just good as was all else that resulted from the Creation process as articulated in the first chapter of Torah.

We then proceed to read about Noah and how G-d instructs him to build an ark (“tevah”) for his family and animals because all of the earth will be destroyed due to the corruption of the wicked deeds of all of humanity; so horrible even the ground became tainted. After the flood, we see G-d’s regret seems to have turned into a type of resolution and reality check. We read in Chapter 8: 4 of Genesis:

G-d said within G-d’s self: Never again will I doom the earth because of humanity since there is too much evil in the thinking of humanity from his youth as is his nature: I will never again destroy every living thing.

Here we see the process of pain that gives way to reality and realization of what compromises must be made which in turn may actually lead G-d to a new sense of compassion towards humanity. Further, I would suggest that we have to be careful NOT to take any statement as declarative in and of itself but rather within the context of the greater whole. Whether we are talking about G-d’s feelings, Noah’s characterization, or the corruption of generations, I don’t think that it is the statements that we should expect to be eternal when we learn Torah; rather, I think it is the questions that remain and spur us on to try to be and do better with the resources and opportunity we are all given here as members of this earth community generally and as part of the Children of Avraham more specifically and as the Jewish Nation even more narrowly. It is of most worthy note, therefore to remember that this covenant never to destroy all again, is given for all of humanity.

G-d regrets having created the human being; and yet how can this be? The Lubavitcher Rebbe poses the question of how can G-d actually regret – after all, how can we consider that G-d makes mistakes!

Lets look at the word itself that is used (and often translated as ‘regret’) at the end of Parshat Bereshit for a hint at the answer: וינחם (VAYENACHEM)-- Usually, this word carries the meaning of “being comforted.” As indicated in the Brown Driver Briggs Lexicon, we achieve a better understanding of this word if we understand it as expressing “was comforted or consoled,” which is its rooted meaning. How can this be reconciled with the regret and the angst expressed in the verses we read? Join me as we think of this in our terms. We are parents, we are members of nuclear families, we are colleagues, we are members of community. To be sure there are extremely frustrating situations in which people we deeply love and greatly respect disappoint us. Is this on them or on us? When we read that Noah was a perfect righteous man in his generation, this is often taken as the solution to G-d’s problem, be it regret or need for consolation, but is it? Perhaps for that moment but what about in the long run? When we look back in perspective, Chazal point out that Noah only acted on his own behalf and not with concern for those around him. The Midrash suggests that Noah was told to build the Tevah so that everyone could see what he was doing and repent; they did not do so nor did he try to get them to do so. Rabbi Yitzchak and so many others actually conclude that Noah was therefore not praiseworthy when he did not pray for his generation to improve, as others had done throughout the narrative of the Tanach. In Islam, Noah is truly the hero and paradigm of complete compliance and submission to G-d. Yet, in Jewish thinking and understanding, it is Avraham Aveinu, the exemplar of social justice… that is thinking of and acting on behalf of others… that is our role model of so much of what it means to be human generally and Jewish specifically. And then we find that there are moments in which we do not understand his actions either, such as when he advocates for other populations but puts his wife’s life in peril or is prepared to sacrifice his son.

Our commentators go on to present Avraham as the model to be followed for a Jewish sense of proper humanity, however this too is not a declarative statement but rather a question as we reflect on what it means to be human, and the context of the time in which one is part of humanity. Perhaps we are looking at the wrong comparison for Noah. Instead of comparing him to Avraham who leaves his homestead with all that he had as a somewhat wealthy man who takes his property, animals and all in his household with him, Noah is still in survival mode, trying just to get by from moment to moment. As my Senior Lifelong Learners and I discussed this at length, we compared this to the generations of immigrants who came to this country, the United States, escaping various lands of persecution, often with only the clothes on their back and perhaps a few treasures from their past lives. When people are so focused on survival mode, other ideal behaviors, such as concern for and acting for the benefit of others in one's community, may suffer a bit.

So now we return to the order of this early narrative and what I would like to posit as a paradigm shift in consideration of Noah. As we begin Bereshit/Genesis, we have a new world, literally with new beings who are not even sure what it means to be human. At this point, we are dealing with Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel and later others, with no indication of meaningful and constructive interaction. Where were Adam and Eve during that incident with the brothers in the field anyway? Its just a matter of each individual trying to figure out what it means to be “me,” not dissimilar to very young children first getting a sense of their world. At this point, there are attempted relationships but not a feeling of empathy or understanding. Adam blames Eve and denies anything done wrong on his part in the Garden of Eden, Cain feigns lack of knowledge of his brother’s whereabouts, and so forth. At this point, the closest we have to interaction are incidents more about missteps and miscommunication at best.

Next after the regret voiced by G-d, we meet Noah, who shows a sense of family and stays away from the troubled people of his generation, which while perhaps not the ideal, could be argued to be a few steps more evolved than actions witnessed in the earlier narrative. At this point we note that listening to G-d and familial loyalty are parts of the narrative given voice here. Not only that but when Noah goes astray, his sons know to act in the best way possible in a bad situation so as not to further embarrass or dishonor their father. So no, this is not as evolved as Abraham arguing on behalf of whole cities of people and welcoming guests and other interactive behaviors that he displays. However, if we look at this as a growing process, it makes more sense. Noah is still very much in survival mode and entrusted with the very beginning of the “reboot of humanity” as proposed by G-d.

Further, clearly Abraham does not act as we would like at all points. But again that IS THE POINT. Human beings are flawed; they are subject to the conditions and context of the time in which they live. Adam and Eve had to figure out how to be human (following this narrative, without addressing any scientifically informed issues), Cain and Abel did not know how to work together or cooperate, the generations that follow get progressively worse, Noah follows G-d’s instructions but does not know how to be empathic towards the larger human family while he does protect his own; and by the time we get to Abraham, we are looking at the larger picture and thinking about others.

This provides us with a paradigm for thinking of our own generations and their varied experiences. As time moves along, there will be ups and downs and resets continually. It is important to remember that we each may want to do and be the best we can be but that will be defined in no small way by the times in which we live. Perhaps we can look at Noah this way… not that he was okay given the corrupt generation in which he supposedly lived; but rather he did the best he could in the situation in which he was found.

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