“Parsing” Bereishit 5776

Most people don’t realize just how important parsing is. The Babylon Dictionary on my laptop defines the word “parse” as “break a word into parts, analyse the grammatical structure of a sentence”. Here is one example: In the Kabbalat Shabbat service we say the words [Tehillim 97:10] “Those who love Hashem hate evil; He guards the souls of His pious ones, He rescues them from the hands of the wicked”. The last words in the verse in Hebrew are “mi’yad resha’im yatzilem”. This verse is correctly parsed as “mi’yad resha’im [pause] yatzilem”. If the verse is incorrectly parsed as “mi’yad [pause] resha’im yatzilem”, the translation changes to “immediately the wicked will rescue them”, which is obviously not the same as the correctly-parsed translation. The moral of the story is that incorrect parsing of a sentence can have a major influence on its meaning.

In other news, my son, Elyassaf, has informed me that he saw an advertisement for a new Tanach. This Tanach advertises itself as having a “Jewish parsing”. The parsing of the Tanach into chapters is not a Jewish invention. It is the work of Christians who happened to be translating the Torah from Hebrew into Latin and Greek. The original Jewish parsing of the Torah is based on “parshiot[2], visible in a Torah scroll as line-breaks or new paragraphs. The problem that we have today, the problem that the new Tanach is trying to address, is that we tend to parse an episode according to the Christian parsing and this parsing can sometimes result in an incomplete understanding of the Torah. This is because the parsing of parshiot can be used to gain insights that are missed when the Christian parsing is used. In this shiur we will look at an example of this that occurs in Parashat Bereishit.

Turn back the clock five thousand years. The world is going to custard. Society is destroying itself. Hashem is sorry that He created the universe in the first place. All that is left is Noach. The Torah writes in the concluding verse of Parashat Bereishit that [Bereishit 6:8] “Noach found favour in the eyes of Hashem”. Parashat Noach begins with the next verse [Bereishit 6:9]: “These are the generations of Noach, Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noach walked with Hashem.” Hashem decides to destroy the world, He tells Noach to build an ark, and the rest is history.

Why did Noach “find favour in the eyes of Hashem”? Perhaps it was because he was righteous. This is a reasonable hypothesis, because in the very next verse we are told that Noach was righteous and that he “walked with Hashem”. This hypothesis fits in well with Christian parsing because these two verses are successive and they lie in the same chapter. Jewish parsing, however, cannot accept this answer because the verses, while successive, lie in two separate parshiot. It must mean that Noach’s “finding favour” had nothing to do with his being righteous. In order to correctly understand the episode, we will start at the beginning, where we will uncover some critical insights that become evident if and only if we parse according to the Jewish parsing of parshiot.

The story begins with the Torah’s description of the ten generations from Adam to Noach. Each generation is described in the same format: A generation had a leader. He bore a successor as well as a number of other children, and then he died. For example [Bereishit 5:25-27] “Methuselah lived a hundred eighty and seven years and he begot Lemech. Methuselah lived after he begot Lemech seven hundred and eighty two years and begot [other] sons and daughters. All the days of Methuselah were nine hundred and sixty nine years; and he died.” The lineage ends with Lemech, the father of Noach. After Lemech dies, a new parasha begins with the words [Bereishit 5:32] “Noach was five hundred years old; and Noach begot Shem, Ham, and Yefet.” According to Christian parsing this is the last verse of Chapter 5. Chapter 6 [1:4] begins with a description of mankind’s fall from grace: “And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of Hashem saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took wives from whomsoever they chose. Hashem said: ‘My spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he also is flesh; therefore his days shall be a hundred and twenty years…’” Why is the fact that Noach fathered three children included in the same parasha that describes man’s demise? For that matter, why does the Torah explicitly name all three of Noach’s sons? Why doesn’t the Torah remain faithful to the format of the ten previous generations and say that Noach had Shem and then he had “other sons and daughters”? Rav Zalman Szorotzkin answers that while each of the previous generations had one accepted leader, Noach’s sons were all leaders, each pulling in a different direction [Bereishit 10:32]: “From these [three people] the nations were separated on the earth after the Flood”. For one thousand years mankind had remained united. The Torah gives great weight to unity, even when those who are united are terribly evil. The Midrash teaches that King Ahab, a man so evil that he lost his share in the World to Come, had great success in war only because his generation were united. Until Noach, as far as man had fallen he was still united. The discord between Noach’s children signalled the beginning of the end and so the verse describing their birth is the first verse in the description of man’s fall from favour.

The next parasha describes Hashem’s reaction to man’s evil [Bereishit 6:5-8]: “Hashem saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was continually evil. It saddened Hashem that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart. Hashem said: ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth… But Noach found favour in the eyes of Hashem.” Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch makes a critical point: The Torah does not say that “Noach found favour in the eyes of Hashem and so Hashem saved him”. It is saying that “Noach found favour in the eyes of Hashem and so Hashem did not destroy the world.” For six hundred years[3] Hashem allowed life on earth to continue as man went from bad to worse. The only reason that He did not “blot out man” was because of one person: Noach. Noach was different, not because he was a saint, but because he was not a sinner. He was living proof that man was not doomed to sin. Noach, for the moment, justified the creation of mankind. And so Hashem decides to wait and see. The Torah tells us that Noach found favour “in the eyes of Hashem” to parallel the words in the first verse in the parasha: “Hashem saw”.

Man continues his downward spiral and Hashem finally decides to destroy the world. This is the topic of the next parasha [Bereishit 6:9]: “These are the generations of Noach. Noah was righteous and wholehearted in his generations; Noach walked with Hashem” Noach alone is not saved because “he found favour in Hashem’s eyes”. He was saved because he was “righteous and wholehearted in his generations”. Our Sages disagree as to whether Noach was truly a spiritual giant, or whether he could only be considered righteous when compared to the others in his generation. It seems clear that Hashem decides not to reinvent man, but to base all new generations on Noach because Noach was indeed special. Not because he was a saint, but because he had the ability to do the right thing even as the world around him was morally bankrupt. What we have all inherited from Noach is the recognition that man’s actions are not unequivocally determined by his environment. Man will always retain his Image of Hashem, that which separates man from beast: his freedom to choose.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya

[1] Each year, my son, Amichai, protests that Parashat Bereishit gets the short end of the stick. People write about Sukkot and maybe even Simchat Torah, but usually there are only a few days between the end of Sukkot and Shabbat such that Bereishit tends to suffer from an under-abundance of shiurim. I’d like to right that wrong, at least once.

[2] To avoid confusion with the weekly portion we will use the uncapitalized and italicized “parasha”.

[3] Noach was six hundred years old when the flood began. We’ll discuss this more next week.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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