Friday, October 11, 2002
Apologies for not posting this yesterday; work has been extraordinarily hectic, and sad to say, I'm going to skip a self-imposed blog deadline before I skip a work deadline. In any event, here are some thoughts on this week's parshah: Noah.
I have, needless to say, a particular and personal interest in this parshah. In the Ashkenazic (North- and Central-European) Jewish tradition, children are named after deceased relatives as a way of honoring their memory (in the Sephardic (Spanish-originated) and Oriental Jewish traditions, children are named after living relatives as a way of honoring them in life). I am not named for anyone, however, and that was a conscious decision on my mother's part in particular. She was born during the war, and came to this country only in 1951. Virtually the entire extended family was wiped out; my grandmother lost everyone and of my grandfather's family two brothers survived. Rather than name me after any of those who died, my mother wanted to name me Noah because he was the survivor of the deluge.
Noah has always bothered me as the symbol of survival, for two reasons. First, he is the survivor of a cataclysm that is very explicitly identified as a punishment, and that doesn't seem to me to be the best way to understand an event like the Holocaust. I have always preferred Job, who suffers for no good reason, as the archetype of and inspiration for survivors of tragedy or cataclysm. Second, his relationship to those who did not survive is equivocal. He seems in some ways comparable to Lot, who is rescued from Sodom because of his righteousness in providing shelter to the visiting angels, but who is otherwise a not very appealing figure. Rabbinic commentary, meanwhile, compares Noah to Abraham, noting that Abraham bargained with G-d for the lives of the sinners of Sodom, while Noah (in some interpretations) did nothing to save the lives of all the sinners of the world.
Of course, this is not the only rabbinic view. There is a debate about the character of Noah, and it centers on the apparent words of praise in the second verse: "Noah was a righteous man in his generation; Noah walked with G-d." The detractors take this negatively: in such a wicked generation, Noah was considered righteous, but in a truly righteous generation he would not have stood out. Moreover, walking with G-d in this context implies needing G-d's assistance to be able to walk; a truly righteous man would walk before G-d, confident of G-d's help and eager to advance His cause in the world. Noah's partisans, by contrast, take these terms to be high praise: even in a time of great wickedness, Noah was righteous; how much more righteous is he, then, than those who are righteous when it is easy to be righteous! Moreover, to walk with G-d is high praise indeed; most of us merit only to follow G-d, not to walk with Him. In response to the detractors who argue that Noah did nothing to plead for the sinners of the world, Noah's partisans relate a midrash that Noah in fact spent 120 years trying to convince the world to repent, and only entered the ark when the waters began to rise around his head. Noah, in this view, did more than Abraham, for Abraham only argued on Sodom's behalf on the grounds of a saving remnant of the righteous in the city, where Noah tried to change the wicked themselves, and repentance is more powerful than righteousness.
(This debate reminds me, ironically, of the debate about Pius XII and the Holocaust. Was Pius more saintly for having done what he did to save Jews and condemn Nazism in such a wicked time? Or is he to be condemned for having spent most of his energies trying to protect the Church - perhaps an analog of the ark? - while doing too little to save the many innocent victims outside of Catholic tent?)
I would like to side with Noah's partisans, of course, and I think there is some basis in the text for their view. Apart from the plain meaning of the second verse, there is more obscure support. It is noted that Noah had children later than his predecessors; this is explained by saying that Noah did not want to raise children in such a wicked world, and so waited long enough that they would still be children at the time the ark was launched, so that they would not be destroyed with the rest of the wicked. This time span - 120 years - corresponds to the lifespan ordained by G-d for human beings at this time, bringing an end to the era of extraordinary longevity. It is explained that this does not mean that everyone over 120 was killed immediately by G-d, but that 120 years was set as the period of repentance; if the wicked world did not repent by that time, it would be destroyed. And so, it is explained, Noah spent these 120 years imploring the wicked to repent, as noted.
The text also says that Noah plants a vineyard upon emerging from the ark, which raises the question: where did the cuttings come from to do the planting? It is explained that Noah brought three plants in particular onto the ark: the vine, the fig, and the olive. And this selection of plants strikes me as highly symbolic. I may be going out on a limb here, but I see in the three fruits a pre-figuring of each of the pilgrimage festivals given to Israel, as follows:
Pesach (Passover) = vine (grape)
Shavuot (Pentecost) = fig
Sukkot (Tabernacles) = olive
On what basis do I make this identification? The identification between Pesach and wine is straightforward. Wine is for celebration, and Passover is the festival of liberation, of freedom, and is characterized by celebration through wine - four cups are drunk at the seder meal, the only such injunction for a festival. The identification of Sukkot and the olive is more tentative. I make it on the basis that Sukkot is the festival of anticipation of entering the Land of Israel, and consequently of anticipation of the Messianic Era, and both of these are symbolized by the olive which provides the oil for the Holy Temple, and which is the symbol of peace. (Moreover, the olive is harvested in fall, the season of Sukkot.) Finally, the identification of Shavuot and the fig is the most tentative. I identify them on the basis of the importance of the fig in the story of Man's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It seems very likely to me that the Tree of Knowledge was a fig tree, and it is clear that fig leaves were used by Adam and Eve to cover themselves after they discovered their nakedness. As I noted last week, I read the expulsion from the garden as the same event as the eating from the tree, and I see this as a deliberate choice by Man to descend into the world to redeem it and thereby to grow through experience, rather than remain in the gilded cage of the garden. Having undertaken this mission, Man needs moral law, and Shavuot is the season on which this law was given. (This is actually the third time law is given: first, law is given to Adam, e.g. the commands to be fruitful and multiply; second, law is given to Noah, in the form of the seven Noahide laws binding on all humanity; lastly, law is given to Moses and the children of Israel at Sinai, and this law is binding on Israel alone.) So, tying the Tree of Knowledge to the Mountain of Sinai, I tie the fig to Shavuot. (Also, the fig is a summer fruit, and summer is the season of Shavuot.)
I'm going to go further, and suggest that these three fruits are also associated with the three key rabbinic holidays, those ordained by the rabbis rather than the Torah, and that these holidays are therefore and thereby connected with the three biblically-mandated festivals. Specifically:
Pesach = Purim = vine (grape)
Shavuot = Tisha B'Av = fig
Sukkot = Hanukkah = olive
Again, the first connection is the easiest. Wine figures prominently in the story of the Book of Esther; much of the plot takes place at drunken parties attended by King Ahashueros. Moreover, on Purim we are told we should drink until we cannot tell the difference between Haman (the villain) and Mordechai (the hero) of the story. Purim is tied to Pesach both comparatively and contrastingly. Both are stories of liberation from a genocidal enemy: Pharaoh in one case, Haman in the other. But in the story of Pesach, G-d is the overwhelming active agent bringing change and revealing his power to the nations of the world. In Purim, by contrast, G-d is conspicuous by His absence. Purim, then, is a Pesach story for our world, where G-d is apparently hidden and yet, in retrospect, His influence is manifest. The Hanukkah-olive connection is also very strong. Hanukkah celebrates the cleansing rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabees' victory over King Antiochus of Syria, who had turned it into a temple of Zeus. The central miracle of Hanukkah is that the pure oil for re-lighting the eternal flame in the Temple was sufficient only for one day, not long enough for more pure oil to be pressed, but miraculously the oil lasted for eight days. Apart from the obvious connection through the relation with the Temple, Hanukkah is connected to Sukkot in another way. Sukkot, together with Shemini Atzeret, form an eight-day holiday, the only one on the biblical calendar; and Hanukkah is conspicuously also an eight-day holiday, which is a strange number - so strange that a special menorah, with eight rather than seven branches, is used for the holiday. The similarity suggests that Hanukkah might have its origins in a displaced Sukkot celebration: because the Temple was unclean, Sukkot could not be celebrated in its season, and so was celebrated upon the Temple's cleansing and liberation, later in the winter.
The connection between Shavuot and Tisha B'Av is the most terrible and suggestive. I can't see how the fig is related directly to Tisha B'Av, which is, after all, a fast day for the destruction of the Holy Temple. But I do think Shavuot is connected to Tisha B'Av, and as with Purim-Pesach, both comparatively and contrastingly. Both are terrible instances of the manifestation of the power of G-d on earth over His people. At Sinai, on Tisha B'Av, the children of Israel committed the sin of the Golden Calf, with the consequence that the first set of tablets - written in G-d's own hand - were lost to Israel and to humanity. And it was lack of faithfulness to that covenant (specifically, the sin of idolatry) that is blamed for the destruction of the first Temple. At Sinai, it is said, G-d held the mountain over the children of Israel and said: accept the covenant, or you will be buried here. It is something of that aspect of G-d that is revealed through history rather than through direct manifestation in the case of Tisha B'Av.
That was a long digression, I know. But I find it deeply significant in integrating Noah, understood by the lights of his partisans, not his detractors, into the larger fabric of the biblical message. In Judaism, the spiritual history of humanity is enacted through the festival cycle: Pesach-Shavuot-Sukkot. First we are freed, then we are bound to the law, then we are redeemed into a Messianic kingdom. And the echo of this spiritual history is heard through mundane history in the rabbinic holiday cycle: Purim-Tisha B'Av-Hanukkah. The hinge of the whole cycle is the process of repentance, and this is how the whole cycle is connected to Noah. Because Noah spent 120 years trying to save the world, trying to get the wicked to repent. And when his failure was evident, he took into the ark the spiritual history of humanity in the form of these three fruits - vine, fig and olive - to preserve for future generations the tools they would need to rejoin that history, and therefore life. He sought, then, not only to save himself and his family, and therefore the future of humanity, but also to save repentance, which is the key to humanity's spiritual future.
After G-d destroys the world, He places the rainbow in the sky as a sign. This is not a sign for humanity; it is a sign for G-d, to remind Him of his covenant not to destroy the world again. Since it is absurd to talk about G-d repenting, or needing to be reminded, this action in itself must be a sign for us, a kind of pantomime for us to following in imitating G-d. G-d repents of the destruction of the world, and places a sign in the heavens to Himself to remind Him of His repentance, as a final sign to us of the transcendant importance of this spiritual act, and how it could have redeemed the world from destruction.