Parashat Noah – The Flood
Noah was a righteous man. God said to Noah, “Because the earth is filled with
wrongdoing, I am about to destroy it. Make yourself an ark of wood with enclosures for animals. I shall bring
a flood to destroy all flesh. But with you I will maintain my covenant.”
Noah and his household entered the ark. Then all living creatures, two by two, male
and female, came to Noah in the ark.
And the rain came upon the earth for 40 days and nights, covering the highest
mountains and blotting out all living things. Only Noah and those who were with him in the ark were
God remembered Noah and the ark. God caused a wind to pass over the earth and the
waters subsided over many months.
God said to Noah, “Go forth from the ark with your household. Be fruitful and
God said to Noah and his sons, “I will establish my covenant with you and your
descendants after you and with every living creature on the earth. Never again shall all flesh be destroyed
by flood waters.”
Now, the whole earth was of one language. And one said to another, “Come, let us build
ourselves a city and a tower whose top shall reach to heaven. Let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be
scattered all over the earth.”
God came down to see the city and the tower. He made their language wither away so
that one no longer understood the other. Then God scattered them across the earth and they stopped building
the city. God named the city Babel.
Commentary on the second
parsha (portion of the Torah)
The Torah consists of the five books of Moses, the first part of the Old
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are. He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
SAS: Now, what about the story of the flood? You don’t seriously expect us, as adults,
to believe that God made it as a punishment for mankind. Again? Why are we always to be
MS: I’ve told you before – we
use cautionary tales to make sure that people follow the correct ways of living.
SAS: Do I get you right? One man is saved along with his family, because he was
righteous? So, are we supposed to believe that if you are good, you will be spared punishment, even natural
MS: Well, the truth is, as you
know, some people do survive floods.
SAS: Sure, and they do so by
building arks and getting a pair of every living species into them! What on earth makes you think anyone will
believe this story?
MS: Just because you are a
rationalist, Sigmund, doesn’t mean you have to be so literal. Of course it never happened exactly like in the
story. But it’s a very good story. It makes some very useful points.
SAS: Such as? If you are good,
God will save you? And extra points to those who look after
MS: Well, how about this? We
cannot defeat nature in all its ferocity, but we can shelter in the vessels we build for our own journeys
through life. We need to believe that living ethically and building ourselves a careful protection against
forces we cannot fully understand will keep us safe.
SAS: That’s reasonable advice.
But it doesn’t seem to help all the people who are wiped out by natural, let alone man-made, disasters.
MS: Well, humankind is still
alive and thriving, even though many have been wiped out. So far, we have built our physical arks and they have
stayed afloat. The idea of the ark is just as powerful in the waters of tradition, history, culture, law and
ethics. Our ark is our culture and our tradition, and our faith is that we will be protected as long as we stay
within the ark.
SAS: Well, I wonder if faith is
necessary to keep that ark afloat. Our culture and our tradition are enough.
MS: I don’t know what’s enough. What matters is that it’s a Jewish ark, and it’s the ark that’s lasted the longest. Stay on board. That is the point.
SAS: Can we discuss
MS: The point of that story is simple – we made up a
tale to explain why different races are scattered across the earth. People need to understand that there are
reasons for our differences, in language, culture and ethnic origin.
You storytellers must have had a problem trying to explain why there are so many different languages and how
it is that people didn’t understand one another.
MS: Well, that’s true. Even in biblical times, there
were many different languages. But they all started from one language.
SAS: Well, perhaps. Language development is a
natural phenomenon. It’s like genetics. Different groups who stay together in closed communities begin to
develop their own language. The more separated they are from other groups, the more their languages diverge.
It’s quite possible their languages were once the same, or closely related. But over time, languages follow
their own developmental path.
MS: Yes, but we wanted to explain to people why that
SAS: You didn’t need to bring god and punishment
into it, again. It’s perfectly clear without any mystical explanation. Why should the wonderful fact that
human beings use such a diversity of languages be the result of punishment?
MS: People always need to humble themselves before
God – bow down before him. The Babel crowd did the opposite. They were asserting themselves too arrogantly
and too confidently. That’s not the sort of behaviour that
maintains small group identity and keeps people tightly knit in their community and strong in their
SAS: You could have let the people of Babel prosper.
Surely we should all aspire to speaking the same language and understanding one another without any
difficulties? In many respects, the Babel crowd was ahead of its time.
MS: Look, people had a
responsibility to the land, not to building big cities. That’s part of what the story is saying.
SAS: Fair enough. We urbanites don’t give the land enough thought. But, really, the
story of Babel is just one of a number of possible accounts. Surely you can see that?
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
We now continue the conversation about Jewish
history between Ben Israel, his sister Chaya and their father.
Three celebrants can read the parts of Ben, Chaya and their
Father: Well, Ben and Chaya.
I promised you a continuation of the Jewish story. Let’s talk about the time of the
I get the idea from what you’ve told us recently that we can regard the creation story,
the Garden of Eden story and the story of the Flood as myths based on folk memory. Well, that’s all very
well, but obviously these sorts of stories can’t be proved or disproved. So the roots of Jewish history must
come from somewhere else.
Father: You’re right. From
what I’ve read, the beginning of our history wasn’t as sudden as the bible makes it, but it was dramatic in
its own way. Sometime around 2000 BCE there was a disruption in Central Asia caused by invaders from the
East. This invasion forced people from Mesopotamia to be displaced and move towards the
Ben: You mean like a giant
Father: Pretty much. And it
looks like our ancestors were amongst those who were shuffled along the chain. I’m talking about the Habiru, a
group comprising a real mixed bag of people. They included mercenaries, tinkers, merchants, pedlars, bandits,
fugitives and runaway slaves. Many scholars believe that the Habiru were our Hebrew ancestors and, if that’s
true, then the leader of one Habiru group was the character we know as Abraham, our famous forebear, who is said
to have made a special deal with God. It is a traditional belief that, in terms of this deal, the Jews became
the Chosen People. Different Jewish groups understand this concept in different ways and there is a mass of
argument about what it means to be the chosen people. For non-believing Jews, for instance, there is no god to
elect the Jews as his chosen people – so they reject the concept.
Chaya: OK, whatever the case,
the story then goes on to God giving Canaan (which Jews call the Land of Israel) to his people as he had
Father: Yes, and Jacob,
Abraham’s grandson is then tasked with bringing the Land of Israel and its people into existence. According
to the Bible the twelve tribes of Israel were descended from Jacob. Then through Joseph, Jacob’s favourite
son, they land in Egypt. That’s the bible. But there are other, historical sources that give us some evidence
that the Habiru were in Egypt and of their struggle against the Egyptians.
Ben: So where in history does
the story of the exodus from Egypt come from?
Father: Good question. The
short answer is that it comes from a later period – around the 14th century BCE. According to
Egyptian documents there was a rebellion of the Habiru against the Egyptians and they were taken into slavery
as punishment. But in about 1220 BCE a group of Habiru slaves escaped Egypt and returned to Canaan. Meeting
up with other Habiru, the united group formed a powerful army that conquered most of Canaan. This seems to be
the historical origin of the story of the escape from Egypt and the opening of the Red
Chaya: And what about the
story about Moses being given the Ten Commandments?
Father: Well, that’s part of the bible story. Today, however, we know that similar
codes of ethical behaviour had existed in the Near East in various versions for centuries. The story of Moses
carving the commandments in stone tablets is probably a dramatic invention. Actually, Jewish law was codified
over a long period of time.
If you’d like to know
more about the real history of our extended Jewish family, read on.
In the following centuries the Hebrew tribes united under the monarchy of Judah.
Later, King David captured Jerusalem, built the Temple, and united the two kingdoms in which the Hebrew
tribes lived: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. David was a warrior. As well as a musician and a
poet, as far as we know. David’s son, Solomon was a much more secular person and his writings are less
religious. His policies caused the two kingdoms to separate. Then, Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in
722 BCE and the northern kingdom ceased to exist. Judah was conquered by the Babylonians around 586 BCE. The
Hebrews were taken into exile and the centre of Jewish learning moved to Babylon, ruled by King
Nebuchadnezzar. This move into exile was very important in the development of Jewish
It was during the short period
of the exile that circumcision became an entrenched ritual as well as the keeping of the Sabbath, and the
celebrations of Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The harvest festivals of Sukkot and
Shavuot gained in significance because the Jews were cut off from their land, and these ceremonies were powerful
reminders of the community’s agricultural background.
The exile, interpreted by the Jewish prophets as God’s punishment for a lack of
devoutness by the community, ended after King Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylon. Between 520-445
BCE four waves of Jews were allowed to return to Judah and the Second Temple was built in
In the long period up to 165
BCE the Jews lived in harmony with the Persians, and as far as we know, Jewish scholars wrote and codified the
five books of Moses, what we call the Torah. But it wasn’t very peaceful after that. The Jews were conquered by
many different armies, one after another: first by Alexander the Great, then Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucids.
And after all that, the Greek world influenced the course of Jewish culture too.
These events hardened the
resolve of the Jewish ancestors to defend the Temple they had built and to protect the Torah and the tradition
they practised. Jews saw it as their purpose as a people to protect
what was special: Jewish traditions and Jewish beliefs.
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate
the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing to changing the world for the better and having an
extraordinary impact on those around them.
Rosa Robota: Heroine of Auschwitz
In November 1942, Rosa Robota,
at age 21, arrived at Auschwitz. She organised about twenty other women to smuggle explosive black powder into
the crematoria and chambers. The explosives were made into bombs using sardine tins and assembled by a Russian
POW munitions expert named Timofei Borodin, and then hidden around the camp. On October 7, 1944, Crematorium IV
was blown up. Four SS men were killed and several wounded. In the panic and pandemonium, around 600 of the
Sonderkommando were able to break through the fences and escape.
Captured by the Germans and subjected to horrendous torture, Rosa did not betray the underground. She asked that
the underground continue its work even in the face of retributive acts, such as her own imminent execution. At
23 years old, Rosa and her three comrades Regina Sapirstein, Ella Gartner and Esther Weisblum were hanged before
the camp population. Her last message was a note scratched on a piece of paper she managed to smuggle from her
cell: “Hazak V' Ematz”: Be Strong & Brave. The actions of the
underground activists meant that the capacity of the camp was reduced and thousands lived who otherwise would
have died. Of the millions killed at Auschwitz, only a few individuals have been immortalised. Rosa Robota will
be remembered as one of the few who did not follow the lines into the chambers – but chose death by
The achievements of Rosa Robota
will not be forgotten.
Levi Strauss (1829 – 1902)
Over a hundred years ago men wore clothes that identified them as men, and women
clothes that identified them as women. There was no shared item of clothing. Then a clothing revolution took
place, started by an itinerant German peddler in San Francisco. Levi Strauss set up a wholesale business
selling durable canvas pants, and both men and women wore these new clothes that he invented. He brought
about the change from using canvas, which chafed the miners, to “serge de Nimes”, which we now know as denim.
In 1873, Strauss incorporated copper rivets to strengthen the pockets of denim work pants and he also added a
pocket stitch design. The result? The first blue jeans in San Francisco! Once the workpants of cowboys,
miners and ranchers, jeans have swept the world in recent decades to become the daily choice of men and women
in practically every country in the world.
And their inventor, Levi Strauss, was Jewish.
Every Shabbat we read five
short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and humour, insightful reflections on this life of
Here are tonight’s
- Give every man the benefit
of the doubt
- Don’t offer pearls to men
who deal in onions
- Better ask 10 times than
get lost once
- If things aren’t the way
you like, like them the way they are
- Grey hair is a sign of
age, not wisdom