Five Rashis A Week, Parashat Noach

A project in memory of Baruch Leib haKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.

Since one of my goals is to remind us of how much of Rashi we often miss, I am making a concerted effort to avoid that which seems to me repetitive, even where I might think I have something to add.  For example, I am not going to deal with the many, many Rashis in this week’s parsha that read the Torah as referring to wrongful sexuality, despite its’ being an issue and concern very much alive in our time (it does show us how timeless and universal the topic is—the Midrash assumed that wrongful sexuality was one of the central flaws in the Flood generation, which implies that it was also a deep concern in their time, and Rashi saw it as worthy of including, repeatedly, in his commentary. Bringing us to now).

Still, I don’t want to get caught up in that which is already much discussed.

Fortunately, Rashi is rich enough that taking all of his many comments that touch on that off the table does not stop us from finding much that illuminates.

Open Theft, the Tipping Point of the Flood

The Torah, Bereshit 6;11, speaks of the world becoming perverted (for Rashi, idolatrously and sexually) and filling with חמס, which he defines as גזל. Halachically, that last word means open theft, where the robber does not care to hide his identity. Many of us think of armed robbery, but the Gemara says a גזלן is indifferent to his or her identity being known. It’s not the force that’s the issue, it’s the brazenness.

Two verses later, Hashem tells Noach the flood is coming because the world has filled with חמס, ignoring the previous reference to חשחתה. Rashi says that the brazen robbery sealed their fate. The other sins were more significant, contributed more to their downfall, but open theft pushed them over the edge.

The social importance of respecting others’ property rights comes up in 11;9, where Rashi wonders at the lighter treatment of the Tower of Babel people (whom Rashi, for reasons we can’t explore, sees as worse than the generation of the Flood): whatever they did, they didn’t brazenly take what shouldn’t have been theirs. To Rashi, that shows the greatness of societal peace and conviviality.

I see three points that apply to our lives. First, relatively small matters can have an outsized impact on a tenuous situation (Rambam echoes this in Laws of Repentance 3, where he warns us to see ourselves as always half meritorious and half liable, with any act pointing us one way or the other).

Second, taking money from others without worrying about being caught or punished damages a society more than its technical legal definition might indicate.  Theft is a blight, but one that everyone works to remove.  When some members of society can take money that shouldn’t belong to them (the Mafia is a simple example, but many would say that those who manipulate the financial system in a way that’s well-known but not punished are part of that as well), tears a society apart.

Third, what happens to a society does not always reflect all of how Hashem views that society. Rashi thought the people of the Tower of Babel challenged Hashem directly, blasphemed fully, but none of that came out in how they were treated, because they built a functioning society. It’s a reminder both to treat others well and to free ourselves of the idea that success implies overall righteousness.

Losing Chances to Snatch Victory From Defeat

On 7;12, Rashi notes that the verse speaks of rain, where verse 17 says the flood arrived.  He explains that that shows that the first rains came down lightly, ready to be turned into rains of plenty and of blessing, if the generation repented. When they did not, the rains turned into the Flood.

Remember that Rashi saw all ten generations from the time of Adam as evil; thought that this generation was filled with idolatry, sexual perversion, and brazen theft; thought Noach had spent a hundred years building an ark, telling people a flood was coming, all the time being ridiculed by his neighbors; and were certain they could stop Noach from entering the Ark to be saved.

With all that, Rashi sees Hashem as starting the Flood with rain that could seamlessly convert into blessing. This makes a first similar point to the one about the Tower of Babel, that we often do not see our downfall even at our doorstep—the world might be going swimming along, and we assure ourselves all is well, when we are actually ignoring or ridiculing those who are telling us that which we need to know.

But that’s a repeat point. Rashi here tells us how alert we should be to opportunities Hashem sends to rectify and right our ships, right until the end and long after we don’t deserve.  The Flood, as it started, could have been averted and changed to a blessed event.

Our Certainty that We Know How the World Works and How to Fix It

The first verse of chapter eleven speaks of the world being of one language ודברים אחדים, having a common vocabulary or speech.  Rashi offers several readings for that term, the last of which has a remarkably modern sound.  He sees the people of that generation as saying that once every 1656 years, the firmament weakens, allowing the Flood waters to fall to the earth. They therefore decided to go up there to support it, to strengthen it and avoid it doing so again.

For all that the Flood was declared a supernatural event ahead of time, for all that Hashem had Noach warn give a century’s warning of what was about to happen and why, this Midrash sees the people as insisting that it reflected a hitherto-unknown law of Nature, a periodic weakening of the firmament (the ozone?), letting flood-waters through.

Compounding their error, they decided they knew how to prop up that firmament so it would not repeat that flood. They did this despite the fact that this future flood was beyond their lifetime and their children’s lifetimes, and their current society was far from perfect.

Rashi is showing us how we can become overconfident about our assessment of the world, decide we can take actions to set the world on an unchangeable better course far into the future, all while ignoring more pressing and immediate problems that affect us in the here and now.  When we do that, we are repeating this Midrash’s view of the missteps of the generation of the Tower of Bavel.

To Be a Judge, You Have to Judge

11;5 tells us that Hashem descended to see what the tower-builders were doing.  Rashi notes that Hashem does not need to go down, as it were, to see, but that this was to teach us a lesson, that judges should not render a verdict until they weigh all the evidence in close contact to that evidence.

Straight out, Rashi is saying that Hashem taught judges that each case requires a judge’s active investigation and considered input. That would seem to be true for we non-judges as well; we think we know this, that, or the other, but Hashem’s actions here (and at Sodom, actually) remind us that when we are about to act, especially an act with serious consequences, we need to check ourselves, to make as sure as we can that we know the situation and the right response.

Avraham Leaving His Father, Alive or Not

The last words of the parsha tell us that Terach died in Charan. Rashi proves that Terach lived more than sixty years after Avraham left for Canaan, and wonders why the Torah told us o his passing here.  He answers that the Torah did not want people to know Avraham had abandoned his father, so it said he died. This was also not inaccurate, since evildoers (Terach was, as far as we know, an idolater his whole life) are called dead even when alive, while the righteous are called alive even after having left this world.

His view seems to be that Scripture sometimes (or often) hides truths we cannot accept.  Justifying Avraham’s apparently neglectful treatment of his father was too complicated or too likely to fail; instead the Torah misled readers about the timing of events.

There are lessons here about esotericism, which truths we share with whom, and how. The second point reminds us of one such truth many will forget, that being “alive” doesn’t always refer to the physical state.  We focus on life, breath, a heartbeat, but life encompass more than the physical and may therefore be at odds with what we expect.

A few Rashis, many lessons:

  1. Creating a fair playing field in society matters more than we know, more than its’ technical legal importance.
  2. Tipping points can make a smaller matter enough to bring a great fall. We need to both avoid reaching such a dangerous point and to watch all our matters, large and small.
  3. Hashem wants us to change and improve, not bear the punishment for our misdeeds. Right up until the end, we are sent chances to go back, to do it better, to make it better.
  4. The Tower of Babel people came up with a theory for how the skies work, and assumed they knew how to work it better, thousands of years into the future.  Overconfidence leads us to invest time, effort, and resources in that which is beyond our pay grade, neglecting much of value that we are more competent to do, here and now.
  5. Judging, in the strict legal sense and in the broader real life sense, can only be built on close investigation. Even when we are sure, we should look again.
  6. People superior to us sometimes follow a nonobvious standard of conduct. Abandoning an elderly parent is not generally proper; Avraham had Divine mandate to act differently.
  7. The Torah knows there are truths—such as point number 6– that people are not ready to accept.  It sometimes glides over those truths rather than lay them out there for public consternation.

The definition of life and death is not always (or, perhaps, most importantly) physical. The more we can attune ourselves to that higher truth, the better off we will be.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.