The humanizing power of a vision-directed life

Parashat Noach

In a mystical view of the garden of Eden, primordial human, adam kadmon, stretched across the entire world in complete devekut, inseparability, with the Creator.  Primordial human was characterized by total bittul ‘ani, a “nullification of ego.” It was as if the garden was inside of God and not the other way around. Indeed, nothing existed but the garden, since nothing could exist outside of God. 

However, this is not the final narrative of humanity’s origins. Humanity emerged in the world of actualized, physical existence. God’s energies pulsated, radiated and formed physical realities. The mystical tradition projects an image of this moment based on a verse from Shir haShirum, the Song of Songs: “I descended into the walnut garden.” That garden alludes to Eden, its reality covered, or clothed, in shells of physical existence. (Zohar Chadash, Bereshit, #759, & Shenei Luchot HaBerit, Shaar HaOtiot,hilchot biah, #3:25)

This was the earthly garden, not the celestial one. Humans were “planted” in that earthly garden. Everything they needed was there, in perfect ecological balance, to nourish them. Their task was to tend and protect that garden, representing the world of physical existence. Commentators wondered, “What work was there to perform, what required tending?” Ramban suggested that the trees were all perfect, but the humans could create and tend flower beds and vegetable gardens, ‘arugot. Another tradition understands that “work” in the garden meant “divine service,” avodah, specifically through Torah study:

 “And God put him into the garden of Eden to work it” (Bereshit 2:15). Perhaps this means, “to plough (the fields) and cast out the stones from the ground.” But the trees grew on their own! Perhaps this means, “There was some other work (to be done) in the garden of Eden, (such as) to water the garden.” But a river flowed through the garden! (Gen. 2:10)? What then is the meaning of this expression: “to work it and to guard it”? The phrase means to be occupied with the words of the Torah and keep all its commandments, as it is said, “to keep the way of the tree of life” (Gen. 3:24). For the “tree of life” signifies the Torah, as it is said, “It is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon it” (Prov. 3:18). (Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer, 12)

However, created in God’s image, people had the power to make choices, and their first choice was to violate God’s one command. Therefore, God decided that humanity would have to learn to survive in exile. Exercising their power of choice resulted in alienation. Perhaps outside of the garden humanity could learn to control that power, conceptualized as their yetzer hara, the passion, energy and desire that can drive people towards constructive ambition, but also seduces them to lust for power. 

The rabbis in the Talmud state this explicitly: If it were not for the yetzer hara, nobody would marry, nobody would build a house, nobody would learn a craft, nobody would raise a family.  The problem of human passion, ambition, and aspirations is central to God’s struggle to figure out how best to locate human beings in the world, and for what purpose. Without constraints, passion can lead to murder, sexual abuse, and idolatry. Murder was already committed in a moment of jealous rage in an act of fratracide. The generation of the flood would perpetrate acts of sexual abuse, the the generation of the Tower of Bavel was essentially idolatrous.

The rabbis identified the yetzer with precisely these acts of violence against human dignity. They considered idolatry as humanity’s arrogant willingness to worship the manufacture of their own hands. Humility enables people to acknowledge the universal mystery of Creation beyond human means, and therefore to respect God’s creatures. In a Talmudic discussion about idolatry, the rabbis decided that idolatry existed in order that the Jewish people gain merit for resisting it! Nevertheless, people asked God if they could destroy the yetzer for idolatry instead. People preferred to forgo their potential spiritual growth rather than resist the power of the yetzer. A note fell from heaven, inscribed with the word, “Truth!” Then, people realized that their passions for sexual gratification were the same as their seduction to idolatry, so they requested permission to destroy sexual passion. Again, God agreed. The next day, people discovered that chickens had stopped laying eggs! So they imprisoned the yetzer and blinded it instead, reducing its power. (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 64a-b)

Human creativity, passion, and desires can lead to tending and protecting the world, or to idolatry and the abuse of power. These dangers lie implicit already in the creation narrative of the garden. Banished from the garden, God determined that the two sources of survival that were woven into the fabric of Eden, agriculture and childbirth, would have to become a struggle outside the garden. 

However, humanity does not fare better outside of Eden. Humanity, unbridled in the outside world, people acted only on their passions alone with no self-restraint, with no sense of awe and fear of God. The civilizations, cultures, and cities people created became sources of oppression, abuse and suffering, none of which God imaged or desired. The angst of living with the empty feeling of alienation and exile and with a permanent sense of placelessness and banishment bred violence and abuse. Cain murdered Hevel, his brother. The world became filled with chamas. In the opening of parashat Noach the Torah states: God saw that the world had become corrupt, for every creature had corrupted its innate state (“darko”) throughout the world. (Bereshit 6:12) Ramban states explicitly that even mammals had sexual relations between species, and humans with animals. The word, chamas, Ramban explains, refers to lawlessness, specifically, theft and abuse. The Seforno wrote, “…this refers to the kind of theft that reflects the complete corruption of a society, of the government.” 

This was the reality that led God to re-create the world, and reimagine humanity’s existence and purpose for a third time. Humanity could not control their passions in the garden, and their passions led to the most egregious forms of abuse in all sectors of society outside of Eden. The world was characterized by sexual abuse, political graft, financial extortion, and unbridled lust for power and control. This is the context of parashat Noach, a continuation of the creation narrative. God decided to re-create the world again, but this time according to a different paradigm. Now God re-imagined humanity living a life that is not fundamentally grounded in one location, but which is characterized by the metaphor of a journey. Humanity needs to live in the world with a mind-set of “yearning for,” or “traveling towards,” never quite satisfied, but not demoralized by the feeling of absolute abandonment and despondency either. On a journey, humanity can gain a sense of purpose, a vision for a future towards which it is possible to strive. Perhaps God thought that a vision-driven humanity would be able to curb its drive towards egotistical self-worship, sexual abuse, or the violent thirst for blood.

What is so powerful about parashat Noach, from this perspective, is how many elements reappear from God’s initial attempts at creation. Indeed, the narrative of the flood retells the processes of creation. God first created the world through language, and during the flood, God actualized the possibility for new life through the agency of the tevah, the ark, which means, “word,” or “language.” God’s own light radiated through the darkness on the first day, and then later God created the sun and moon and stars as sources of light. Specifically, the sun generates light, while the moon reflects it. Noach is directed to place a tzohar on the ark. Rashi quotes the rabbinic dispute regarding this object. The tzohar was either a window or an incandescent gem. It either radiated light upon the world from the ark, or brought light from the world inside. Both allude to the first processes of creation. God planted the first humans in a garden, and when Noach emerged from the ark, he planted a vineyard, a kind of garden. God proscribed eating from the tree of knowledge, and Noach planted a vine, (Bereshit 9:20) which the rabbis identified as one of the possibilities for that same tree. On the fifth and sixth days of creation, God filled the world with fish, birds, and creatures covering the earth. The ark, of course, contained pairs (or sevens) of all creatures, a kind of womb giving birth once the waters of the flood broke. Upon exiting the tevah, they filled the earth. The snake was cunning, ‘arum, and after eating the forbidden fruit, those first humans realized that they were naked and vulnerable, ‘arumim. They quickly covered themselves with plants, and later, upon exile, God clothed them with skins.  (Bereshit 2:25; 3:7; 3:10-11; 3:21) After Noach planted his vineyard, he made wine, became intoxicated, and removed his tunic, exposing himself, vayitgal, which describes his nakedness and alludes to his sense of alienation and exile, galut. (Bereshit 9:21) Noah’s drunkenness is at counterpoint with the “opening of Adam and Chava’s eyes” upon eating from the tree of knowledge/passion. (Bereshit 3:7) The word for “opening the eyes,” pikeach, also means, “to become rational, sober.” In both narratives, the Torah states that humans were created in God’s image. (Bereshit 1:26-27 & 9:6) In the first creation narrative, God directs humanity to nourish itself by eating everything that grows from the ground, i.e., a vegan existence. (Bereshit 1:29). In the recreation through the flood and the ark, God allows meat, but limits consumption to the flesh, not the blood. The first creation marks the passing of days; the re-creation notes the establishment of seasons. (Bereshit 8:22). God commanded the first human beings to lord over creation, and God reiterates that command to Noah after the flood. (Bereshit 9:1-3) God also reiterates the command to bear children and populate the earth. (Bereshit 9:7) A covenant is renewed between God and humanity. The first covenant was established through the seventh day, and is renewed through the sign of the rainbow. (Bereshit 9:13-17)

These textual similarities are so numerous, they suggest that parashat Noach is a retelling of the creation of the world. On the one hand, the context is different. God has seen what humanity is capable of becoming. God has experienced the emergence of human society as fundamentally corrupt, characterized by abuse, arrogance, and oppression in all sectors. On the other hand, the similarities between the narratives help direct the reader to identify the significant difference between them. Noticing so many similarities between the two creation narratives also underscores to the salient details that distinguish them from each other. I would like to suggest that what distinguishes the two narratives, and informs God’s fundamentally new hope for humanity, are the two episodes at the very end of the parasha: the Tower of Bavel and the journey of Terach and his family.

The Tower of Bavel opens like a creation narrative: “The entire world had one language and one set of words.” This is a, “Call me Ishmael” sentence if there ever was one. Language, the very source of divine creativity that enabled God to generate a world characterized by diversity, becomes a source for mind-control, for group-think. Everyone is to think alike, speak alike, and act alike. There are only two places in the Torah that describe the manufacture of bricks: the Tower, and the enslavement in Egypt. The rabbis describe the culture of the Tower: A person would fall from a scaffold into the mortar, and another took his place. A brick fell off the scaffold, and the people wailed in mourning for their loss. (Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 24:6) The Tower of Bavel is the paradigmatic tale of human arrogance. They built their tower to kill God. The Tower is the result of a world in which humanity demands that everyone think alike, without room for any nuance or diversity or difference. Everything becomes “fake-news” except for the official version of truth. There cannot be any room for shades of grey. This was not the world God imagined. Therefore, God diversified language. Creating diverse languages caused people to fill the world, to explore and settle it, to create different cultures, to work hard to understand others outside of those cultures. Diversity, as I have written, is embedded in the initial vision of creation, implicit even in the statement, humanity was created in God’s image. Perhaps the very nature of diversity is intended as an antidote to humanity’s arrogant penchant for self-worship. Perhaps an appreciation of diversity can stimulate a sense of how awesome, how beautiful, how interesting, and amazing the world is, both the natural world, and the diversity of human cultures. And perhaps a sense of awe can help people sense the mystery at the heart of life, which would humble and tame our otherwise arrogant and cruel predisposition for power and personal gain.

But the potential for responding to creation with awe and humility rather than through arrogance and a self-serving lust for control is not guaranteed. After all, God saw that in the garden, the first human beings were easily persuaded to act on the “passions of their own eyes.” So the narrative of the Tower is followed by the narrative of the journey. Again, the Torah relates the populating of the world through the generations, and stops with the story of Terach. Terach was 70 years old. He had three sons (like Noach): Avram, Nachor and Haran. Haran’s son was Lot. Haran then died in Ur Kasdim. Meanwhile, Avram married Sarai, who is barren, while Nachor married his niece, Haran’s daughter, Milkah. (According to the midrash, Milkah’s sister, Yiskah, was Sarai herself.) Terach then picked himself up and left. He took his son Avram, his grandson, Lot, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, and started to travel towards the land of Canaan. However, he died in Charan. 

This is critical. The destiny of humanity suddenly depends, in this moment in the text, upon two phenomena. The first is diversity. The second is the yearning that emerges from an interrupted, unfulfilled, truncated journey. Instead of being seduced by the drive for power and control that breeds arrogance, violence and cruelty, God introduced the religious phenomenon of yearning into human existence. Yearning, at this moment, becomes one of the most important phenomenological experiences in the history of the human spirit. God infuses the human spirit with the grammar of “journeying towards” some place, with a vision-driven desire to reach a destination not immediately within one’s grasp. Humanity needed to be driven by something deep other than power or sexual passions. Those led to horrific abuse, as they still do today.  God now introduces a formidable counter-balance to the drives for power and domination, by introducing the drive towards a vision of the future that gives one a sense of purpose and meaning. The content of that purpose forms the rest of the narrative of the people of Israel, from lech lecha through Moshe’s final speeches of Sefer Devarim. Imagine a world today governed by leaders who are humbled by the immeasurable diversity of world cultures, overcome with awe in response to the mystery of creation, and driven by a yearning to actualize a vision of righteousness for a compassionate, interdependent, humanity. If it took God three attempts until the right family emerged only after many generations, perhaps we can remain hopeful yet.  

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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