Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Moral lessons from parshat Noach

While I personally find much of the material I present here fascinating -- which is why I select it, present it, and analyze it -- there is always the danger of over-focus on "trivia". To counter this, on occassion is it is a good idea to consider the moral lessons of the parsha, so as to analyze what the finger is pointing at, rather than analyzing the finger.

To this end, here is a short selection of Ralbag's Toelet, the purpose and lessons of the Biblical narratives. He writes that the purposes of the narrative in parshas Noach include (I am not providing all the lessons):

1: In thought, regarding Divine Providence for saving a tzaddik, and how He desires the repentence of the wicked. Therefore was this length of time in the construction of the ark, for perhaps they would repent. {Josh: and one can add, the idea of the 120 year span until the ketz for them to repent, as discussed here.}

2. In traits, that to be saved from a despicable trait, one needs to lean to the very opposite end, and then he may be healed. And the big problem with the generation of the flood was sexual immorality, and this was the cause of their condemnation. But Noach was saved because he was the very opposite of them in this deficient quality, and distanced himself from sexual congress until he was 500 years old before he fathered a child.

{This based on Bereshit 5:32:
לב וַיְהִי-נֹחַ, בֶּן-חֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה; וַיּוֹלֶד נֹחַ, אֶת-שֵׁם אֶת-חָם וְאֶת-יָפֶת. 32 And Noah was five hundred years old; and Noah begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

3. In thought, that Man, even where he is the recipient of extreme Divine Providence, even so needs to make effort {hishtadlus} with the appropriate actions for protection and saving. Just as Noach made the ark at the instruction of Hashem. And so too, in preparing food for all the members of his household all the days in which he was on the ark. And this despite the fact that Hashem was watching out for him.

4. In traits, that a person should always distance himself, at a time of suffering, from delights. Just as Noach and his sons separated from their wives for the span of the mabul.
Now you can probably argue with some of the assumptions here, and declare them midrash rather than peshat. But either way, these are moral and hashkafic lessons encoded either in directly in the Biblical text or in the words of Chazal. Or if not, at the least the moral and hashkafic lessons that Ralbag sees in the parsha, and that is valuable in and of itself. It is a different way of considering the parsha.


Hillel said...

Rabbi Waxman,
What do you think of the school of thought suggesting the moral lesson of Noach isn't necessarily inherent in the parsha itself but is evident when contrasted against the Sumerian and Akkadian flood epics that were written down much earlier, but were presumably popular lore at the time of Sinai? Specifically, that in flood epics the gods are arbitrary and capricious, destroy humanity for no (or frivolous) reasons and only one man and his family are saved because of internal treachery amongst the gods, and not for his inherent moral worth. Noach, however, features a just and merciful God who destroys humanity because of their evil and saves Noach because of his righteousness.

Does this approach strike you as acceptable/insightful or inappropriate/problematic in some way?


joshwaxman said...

i heard and like this approach, and do find it acceptable and insightful. for example, contrast how the gods are dependent upon humans, and swarm like flies to the sacrifice post-flood, while Hashem does not really *need* Noach's sacrifice, though he likes it. though see Hirhurim and the discussion there for potential problems with that approach.

and of course, gilgamesh in turn might be trying to teach its own moral lessons. consider:
"Reject the corpse-like stench of wealth.
Choose to live and choose to love;
30. choose to rise above and give back
what you yourself were given.
Be moderate as you flee for survival
in a boat that has no place for riches."


Hillel said...

Curious - we may have a girsah issue in the epic (I'm sure there's no shortage) but the version I have has no such moral lesson about rejecting riches an embracing moderation at the end, and indeed states at the time when Utnapishtim enters the boat:
"Whatever I had I loaded on it:
whatever silver I had I loaded on it,
whatever gold I had I loaded on it.
All the living beings that I had I loaded on it,
I had all my kith and kin go up into the boat,
all the beasts and animals of the field and the craftsmen I had go up."

Regardless, thanks for the link to Hirhurim, the shir by R' Weider on parable was quite interesting (, and the citation to Malbim On Gen. 4:22, where he explicitly states there are "harbeh sippurei Torah asher ba'u la'akor de'ot k'zuvot v'sippurei hevel" was quite enlightening.


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