Posted by: Subway Conductor | October 23, 2020

A Derasha on Parshat Noach

This week’s Torah portion is the story of Noah and the Flood. The portion begins with the verse, “Noah was a righteous man, he was perfect in his generation.” There is a famous comment of Rashi on this phrase. Why did the Torah say, “in his generation?’ It could simply have said, “he was perfect.” Rashi quotes a dispute from the Talmud between two of the sages. One of them says that this phrase is in praise of Noah and the other says it is to his detriment. The one who said it was praising Noah argued that Noah was righteous despite living in an evil generation. This view recognizes the influence that a person’s environment has on their character. To be a good person is encouraged by living in a society of righteous people. The fact that Noah was righteous while he was surrounded by bad influences is all the more remarkable. The other view which sees the comment as being to his detriment, says that Noah was righteous in comparison with the others in his generation, but had he lived in the time of Abraham he would not have been all that great. The comparison to Abraham is significant. One can make the case that Noah may have been righteous, but he failed in terms of having any influence on his society. In the end, he and his family were saved from the deluge, but he brought no one else along with him. Abraham, on the other hand, was active (along with Sarah) in trying to convert people to monotheism. He had a tremendous impact on his society and obviously on the whole world.

The story of Noah presents us with an interesting opportunity for comparison. There are other flood stories from the Ancient Near East. The most famous example is from a Babylonian saga known as The Epic of Gilgamesh.  The flood story that is told in this epic shares many similarities to the biblical account including many details. In the Babylonian version, Gilgamesh is seeking eternal life and is told that there is one human being who has been granted immortality by the gods. Gilgamesh goes off in search of this figure, whose name is Utnapishtim. When he finds him, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh how it came about that he was given immortality. Here he tells the flood story. The gods were angry because human beings had become too numerous and were making too much noise which was disturbing the sleep of the gods. They decided to bring a flood to reduce the human population and somehow Utnapishtim overhears the gods speaking about this plan. Since he has discovered the plan, the gods decide to spare him and grant him eternal life. The story goes on to recount the events of the flood and the building of an ark. In the end, the ark comes to rest on a mountain and Utnapishtim sends out two birds, a raven and a dove. These are the same birds that Noah sent out after the ark came to rest on a mountain.

The account of the flood story is very similar to that which we find in our Torah portion. However, there is a huge difference. In the Babylonian version the reason for the flood was that human beings were disturbing the sleep of the gods. The reason Utnapishtim was saved was based on an accident of his overhearing the plan. This stands in stark contrast to the Torah’s explanation that G-d decided to destroy all life because, “The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth…” “The earth became corrupt before G-d, the earth was filled with lawlessness.” And why was Noah saved? As we have already noted, because he was the most righteous person in his generation. The flood story in ancient Near Eastern literature is a story of the capriciousness of the gods. They have no concern for ethics or morality.

The Epic of Gilgamesh continues with Utnapishtim giving Gilgamesh a plant that is supposed to provide rejuvenation. This would be analogous to the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. On his way home, Gilgamesh stops to bathe in a pond and puts the plant down on the bank. While he is in the water, a serpent snatches away the plant. Again, this is reminiscent of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden where the access to the Tree of Life is taken away from them and, as we know, a serpent played a major role in this story. But here too there is a huge difference between the Babylonian story and the Torah. In Gilgamesh there is no parallel to the tree of “the knowledge of good and evil” which is the center of the story (and is at the center of the Garden) in the Book of Genesis. It is the knowledge of good and evil which most concerns the biblical story. This aspect is totally lacking in the Babylonian version.

The fact that we have preserved for us a piece of Ancient Near Eastern literature that provides parallel accounts of events described int the Torah allows us to see how the Torah changed the world. Stories that were completely disinterested in questions of morality and ethics were transformed by the Torah to be focused precisely on this concern. The story of Noah and the Flood is intended to teach us that G-d demands ethical behavior from human beings. The point of saving Noah was to start the story of humanity again, starting this time with an individual who had shown himself to be the most perfect person in his generation.

Ultimately, this second attempt at creating a righteous human society will also fail. And G-d will make a third attempt with the selection of Abraham as the progenitor o a nation which will embody the ideals of righteousness and justice and will be in the words of the prophet Isaiah “a light to the nations.”

Good Shabbos!

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