Parsha Potpourri: Parshas Noach

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Vayomer Elokim zos os habris … es kashti nasati b’anan v’haysah l’os bris beini u’bein ha’aretz (9:12-13)

Hashem told Noach that the rainbow will be the sign of His covenant to never again destroy the earth. Does this mean that rainbows never existed prior to the flood and Hashem changed the laws of nature in order to bring about their existence, or that they occurred previously but only now achieved a new symbolic meaning?

A number of our greatest Rabbis disagree about this very question. After initially assuming that if Hashem declared that He was creating the rainbow to serve as a sign, it must have been a new creation at that time, the Ramban proceeds to quote the Greeks, who maintained that their advanced scientific knowledge indicated that a rainbow was a natural result of light shining in moist air.

As a result, the Ramban concludes that rainbows naturally occurred prior to the flood, but only took on new significance at that time. As a proof to this position, the Ramban and Rav Saadyah Gaon note that Hashem didn’t say, “I am placing,” which would indicate that the rainbow was created at that time, but rather, “I have placed my rainbow in the cloud as a sign of the covenant.”

The Derashos HaRan (Derush 1) and the Gur Aryeh disagree. The Ran questions how something which has always existed, such as the rising of the sun in the morning, can suddenly take on symbolic properties. They both write that although scientists teach that a rainbow is a naturally-occurring phenomenon, the laws of nature prior to the flood were such that the sun’s rays weren’t strong enough to create a rainbow. As far as the proof from the past tense of the verb, the Ibn Ezra suggests that it can be reconciled with this opinion by reading it as saying, “I have placed – now – my rainbow in the cloud as a sign of the covenant.”

Vayikach Terach es Avram b’no v’es Lot ben Haran ben b’no v’es Sarai kalaso eishes Avram b’no vayeitzu itam me’Ur Kasdim laleches artza Canaan vayavo’u Charan vayeshvu sham (11:31)

Parshas Noach ends by recording that Terach took Avrohom, Sorah, and Lot, and they set out for the land of Canaan. Curiously, the verse concludes by stating that they arrived at Charan and settled there. As we know that the Torah only records information that is relevant to all generations, what lesson could this seemingly trivial detail about their travel itinerary be coming to teach us? Further, if they set out for the land of Canaan, why did they stop in the middle of the journey before reaching their destination?

The Chofetz Chaim notes that next week’s parsha – Lech Lecha – contains a similar verse. After Hashem commands Avrohom to leave his homeland to go to the land which He will show him, the Torah relates (12:5) that Avrohom took Sorah, Lot, their possessions, and those they had converted and set out for the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan. Why does the Torah emphasize that they left for Canaan and that they successfully arrived there? Why isn’t it sufficient to simply state that they successfully arrived in Canaan, the land to which Hashem had directed them?

The Chofetz Chaim explains both verses by noting that while our Sages don’t tell us exactly what happened, it’s clear that although Terach set out with a certain itinerary in mind, he wasn’t sufficiently focused and determined to see it to fruition. As soon as the first difficulty arose, his plan was derailed and he aborted it in the middle to settle in Charan.

Avrohom had been traveling with his father and saw what could happen when one’s commitment to a project is deficient. He understood that at any moment an obstacle could present itself and threaten the success of his entire mission. He therefore guarded that initial enthusiasm one has at the beginning of a new endeavor, constantly reminding himself, “I’m going to Canaan, I’m going to Canaan,” not letting his guard down to stop even when he was only a step away from the border of Canaan. The Torah emphasizes that when Avrohom began his journey it was with a clear focus on his objective – to arrive in Canaan – and not surprisingly, he succeeded in doing so.

We all have moments in our lives – an uplifting Torah class, Yom Kippur, or a miraculous “sign” from Heaven – when we see, hear, or experience something which gives us a flash of inspiration and excitement to make changes in our lives or undertake new projects, yet so often the passage of time wears away that enthusiasm and we are left – like Terach – without achieving any of our goals. We should learn from the Torah’s example that the best way to seize such moments is to make concrete resolutions – such as Avrohom’s mantra which kept him focused on his target – which remind us of our initial burst of inspiration so that we may keep it with us forever, and not just set out for Canaan but actually arrive there.

Ki mei Noach zos li asher nishbati me’avor mei Noach od al ha’aretz (Haftorah – Yeshaya 54:9)

The Zohar HaKadosh (Vol. 3 15a) notes that the Haftorah for Parshas Noach curiously makes reference to “the flood-waters of Noach.” If Noach was the only one found worthy of salvation in his generation, wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to refer to the flood of his wicked contemporaries? The Zohar HaKadosh explains that during the 120 years Noach spent building the ark, he neglected to pray for the repentance of his contemporaries. The Medrash compares Noach to a captain who saved himself while allowing his boat and its passengers to drown. Had he been more concerned about them, he could have prevented the flood. Hence, it is memorialized as “the flood of Noach.”

The Arizal writes that Moshe mystically contained within him a spark of the soul of Noach, and part of his life’s mission was to rectify Noach’s mistakes. How did Moshe correct Noach’s lack of concern for others? Although Divine Providence brought him to Pharaoh’s palace where he was spared the fate of his fellow Jews, Moshe felt their pain from his youth and sacrificed his own growth for their sake. In spending the 120 years of his life living completely for others, Moshe perfectly rectified the 120 years that Noach spent building the ark solely absorbed in ensuring his own salvation.

After the sin of the golden calf, Moshe proved the extent of his dedication. Hashem wanted to destroy the people and create a new nation consisting of Moshe’s descendants. Moshe had every right to be furious with the Jews. Instead, he prayed that if Hashem refused to forgive their actions, He should erase Moshe’s name from the entire Torah (Shemos 32:32). This selflessness represented the ultimate correction of Noach’s errors, which is hinted to in the word “m’cheini”é (“Erase me”), whose letters also spell “mei Noach” – the flood-waters of Noach.

The Ponovezher Rav, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, understood this lesson well. He was one of the most indefatigable builders of all that was destroyed in the Holocaust. He explained that he was haunted by his inability to save the rest of his generation, accusing himself of falling pray to the error of Noach. Instead of being dejected over his perceived failure, he reasoned that if he was unsuccessful in rescuing the previous generation, he would at least do everything in his power to help save the next one.

The lesson for us is clear. We live in a time when there are numerous “floods” surrounding us – religious, financial, and emotional. We cannot content ourselves with our own personal survival. We must each prepare an answer to the question we will one day have to answer, “Did you do all that you could to help save your contemporaries from their floods?”

Answers to the weekly Points to Ponder are now available!
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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1)     How many rooms were there in Noach’s ark? (Yalkut Shimoni 53)

2)     The Gemora in Bava Kamma (91b) derives from 9:5 that it is forbidden to injure one’s body. Does having plastic surgery for cosmetic reasons violate this prohibition? (Shu”t Igros Moshe Choshen Mishpat 2:66, Shu”t Chelkas Yaakov Choshen Mishpat 31, Shu”t Minchas Yitzchok 6:105, Shu”t Minchas Shlomo 2:86, Shu”t Tzitz Eliezer 11:41, Shu”t Mishneh Halachos 4:246-7)

3)     Rashi writes (9:22) that Canaan was cursed by Noach (9:25) because he saw Noach’s nakedness and told his father Cham about it. As Canaan isn’t listed among those who entered or exited the ark, it must be assumed that he was born just after the flood. How was he able to walk and talk like an adult when he was at most a few months old? (Maharzu Bereishis Rabbah 36:4)

4)     What is the connection between Parshas Noach and Sefer Yonah? (Chizkuni 10:12)

© 2011 by Oizer Alport.