Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Noach (Noah): Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

Our Parasha spans the Flood, its causes and aftermath, leading to the tower of Babel events and to the consequential dispersion of humanity. Here, as is the case in many of the other Parashot*, we find certain key words (words stemming from the same three letter root) which are repeated within a given passage, or strewn throughout the text. In the first section of our Parasha there are two words that are repeated several times over, while later on. scattered in a number of places, are a few derivatives of Noach’s name.

In Parashat* B’resheet 5:29 Noach’s name was explained: “Now he called his name Noach, saying, this one will comfort us… “ The root for the verb “to comfort,” in this instance, is (nun, chet, mem), pronounced nachem. Noach’s name, however, does not contain the consonant “m” (the letter “mem” in Hebrew). And whereas in his evil generation he was a comfort to Elohim, his name actually means “rest” (, noon, vav, chet). At the end of Parashat B’resheet, in Genesis 6:6, there is another reference to the root We read there, “And YHVH repented [or “regretted” that is, “was sorry”] that He had made man on the earth.” In this case “repented” is “(va)yinachem.” But how is “comfort” related to “regret” or to “being sorry”? The root’s primary meaning is to be “sorry,” which indicates that only deep empathy with another’s sorrow can be a source of genuine comfort at a time of grief.

At the end of our Parasha, an explanation is given for the name Ba’vel (Babel). According to 11:9, “Ba’vel” was so named because “there Elohim confused the language” of the builders of the tower. However, the verb “confuse” used in verse 9 is “balal,” and even though similar in sound Ba'vel does not originate with the same root and actually means (in the Sumerian and Akkadian languages) “Gate of El.” The names Noach and Bavel are two examples of how the Tanach (O.T.) employs puns (for another such case refer Joshua 5:9). In 11:7 another similar sounding verb – navla – is used in what is translated as “let us confuse [their language],” while the literal meaning of the verb is “cause to decay.” Thus the very condition of decay and confusion, which characterized the core of the said society, ended up also typifying its members’ form of communication. 

Now back to “rest.” Ironically, Noach lived at a time of great unrest prevailing among the world’s populace, a fact that led to the natural disaster that befell them. Yet, in the midst of it all, calm could be had in the 'eye of the storm' represented by the one who was found righteous at that time (ref. 6:9; 7:1), and by the place of refuge that he was constructing. In 8:4, we find the ark “resting upon the mountains of Ararat” (italics added). Following the raven, a dove was sent out “to see if the water had abated… and [it] found no resting place for the sole of her foot…. “ (8:8,9 italics added). Rest is depicted here, and even highlighted, against the backdrop of a great tumult. When Noach, his family, and the animals emerged out of the ark, Noach built an altar. In 8:21 we read, “And YHVH smelled the soothing aroma.” The word for “soothing” is “nicho’ach,” which once again originates with the root “rest.” Is this a premonition of a day to come in which the fragrance of “rest” and “peace” will suffuse all of that which had just been destroyed by the flood?

In YHVH’s Word it is not only the present word, or expression, which deserve attention. Frequently what is absent arouses interest, as well as the reason for this absence. Such, for example, is the case with the dove that was sent “to see if the water had receded” (8:8). “Receded” in this case is “kalu,” spelt with a “kof,” rather than the expected “kalu” with the letter “kaf” (meaning “finished, done, completed”).  The “kalu” that is used here means “having become light, or of little substance,” from which stems “k’lala”- "curse" (and literally, to “make something of light esteem”). In 8:21 YHVH says: “I will never again curse [a’ka’lel] the ground.” Was Noach using this unusual form of “recede,” bearing in mind the cause for the great deluge, which was YHVH’s curse?

Last week we dealt with the root of “erev” (“evening”), which means a “pledge” and “mixture” (being but two of its many other meanings)… this time, it is the “raven” (“orev”) which shares this same root. The association between “raven” and “evening” is found in the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) 5:11, where the beloved’s dark curls are compared to the dark raven. The black fowl, therefore, borrows its name from the evening’s fading light (and hence darkness).

In 6:11 the corruption of mankind is highlighted, the word there being “tisha’chet,” of the root (shin, chet, tav), which primarily means to “destroy or destruction.” In verses 12, 13 and 17 derivatives of this root appear four times, both as “corruption,” and also as the verb for the “destruction” which YHVH was about to bring upon the entire earth and its inhabitants. Inherent in the verb “sha’chot,” therefore, is corruption's self-destructiveness. In Yishayahu (Isaiah) 11:9 (and 65:25) we read the following: “They shall not hurt nor destroy – yash’chitu - in all My holy mountain.” Interestingly, this condition of ‘no destruction’ is characterized by water (“t
hey shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of YHVH as the waters cover the sea”), which in our narrative is the agent of annihilation. Additionally, the impact of the verb “sha’chot” (with a “tav” at the end) receives an extra emphasis, as it evokes a similar sounding verb with a different “t” consonant at the end (“tet”), which means to “slaughter” (e.g. Exodus 29:11,16, 20).

The other noun repeated in chapter 6 is “chamas” (ch.m.s., chet, mem, samech), which is translated “violence”: “…And the earth was filled with violence” (vv11, 13). “Chamas” as a rule is connected to sinful acts of violence and injustice. This verb (which is also a noun) rhymes with another - “chamad.” The latter means to “delight,” but can also mean to “desire or covet” (as was the case with the fruit of the tree in Gen. 3:6, which seemed “desirable – nechmad - to make one wise”). Quite often similar sounding words, like “chamas” and “chamad” are also connected in meaning. Thus, the violent actions of “chamas” are motivated by covetousness, or unbridled desire. (Is it a lingual coincidence that Chamas is also the name of the notorious terror organization, bearing in mind the similarities between Arabic and Hebrew?)
Planted right in the midst of these descriptions of corruption, violence and pending destruction, is the only (potential) solution: the ark - "tey'va." More than a millennium will pass, when another 'savior' will be protected by a "tey'va" (though translated "basket" in English), which will also float on water. This will be Moshe. In the process of the building this ark, our attention is first drawn to the act of propitiation and atonement: “kippur.” “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood… and… cover it inside and out with pitch" (6:14 italics added). The verb and noun for the action (of “covering”) and the material itself (“pitch”) are of the root k.f.r (kaf, pey/fey* resh) – which makes up “kippur.” Thus, this ark was to become a shelter, offering a covering for the sins of the age, as it were. The rabbis believe that anyone among those who had watched it being built, through the many years of its construction, could have also found refuge in it. Instead, the spectators chose to scoff and ridicule its builder. In most other cases, the verb and the noun stemming from the root k.f.r are used directly in connection with ‘atonement’ (e.g. Daniel 9:24), or as “payment of a price, or ransom” (e.g. Num. 35:31).

The very principles of atonement, and the reasons for its requirement, also find expression in our Parasha. Thus, we read in chapter 9:4-6: “But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning … From the hand of every man's brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed…”  Indeed, for atonement to be effective blood is imperative.

The importance of covering is brought out one more time in this Parasha, in the story of Noach’s three sons’ respective responses to their father's drunken stupor. Cham (Ham), the son who looked upon his father’s nakedness, was condemned by a curse to slavery, which was pronounced upon his son Cna’an (Canaan) (9:25), whose name stems from the root “subdued” (k.n.a, kaf, noon, ayin).

"And it happened in the six hundred and first year, at the beginning, on the first of the month that the waters were dried up from off the earth. And Noah removed the covering of the ark and looked. And, behold, the face of the earth was dried!” (8:13). “Dried” in both instances in the above verse is “cha’rvu.” In 7:22 we read, “All that was in the dry land, died.” Once again, “dry land” is “charava.” Both the verb, as well as the noun, are of the root ch.r.v (chet, resh, vet) which is also the root for “waste, desolate, attack, sword, plunder, wage war, fight” and more. In Hebrew thought “dryness,” denoting lack of water and rain (and hence drought), is commensurate with terms associated with lifelessness and destruction, which points to the shortage of water characterizing the land of Israel (even before the latter is ever mentioned!).

When they emerged out of the ark, Noach and his family were given the same ‘marching orders’ that had Adam’s, their ‘proto-type’ predecessor. Humanity’s survivors were to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (9:1). The injunction to be fruitful is “pru.” In the 10th generation, one of Noach’s descendants, Avram (Abram) will be informed, this time by the bestowal of a blessing, that he will become “fruitful” (Gen. 17:6), while four generations later his great-grandson will be named, in faith, “multiple fruitfulness” – that is - Ephraim.

Among the many names found in our Parasha, there are three in particular that call for our attention. All three persons are second cousins: the first is Yefet’s (Jepheth) grandson, the son of Yavan (Javan) - Dodanim (or Rodanim, as he is called in 1 Ch. 1:7); the second is Cham’s (Ham) grandson, the son of Cush – Nimrod; and the third is Shem’s grandson by his son Arpachshad, who is named Ever (Eber).

Yavan is the Hebrew word for Greece. Down the road of history Greece will become a major power of unprecedented influence over the entire world in a number of areas, one of which will be government (democracy). Yavan’s son’s two names, Dodanim and Rodanim mean, respectively, “cousins and rulers” (“rdu”, connected to Rodanim, is the verb YHVH used when He told Adam and Chava to subdue the earth in Gen. 1:28). His cousin, Cham’s grandson, Nimrod, is the one who built Bavel; a place which will become synonymous with the world’s hierarchal systems, especially as pertaining to religious matters. Nimrod means, “we will rebel,” and rebelling he does by setting up his own kingdom, as a direct counterfeit of Elohim’s Kingdom (10:10).

The third cousin, Shem’s grandson Ever, is of the firstborn lineage. It is his name which is given to the entire race - the Hebrews (“Ivrim”) who are to represent Elohim’s Kingdom on earth. The name Ever is derived from the verb to “pass or cross over,” a fact that this race will be demonstrating throughout biblical history, beginning with Avram. We will observe the Hebrews passing over from one place, or condition, to another, whether in a physical sense or otherwise, in order to earn the name of their forbearer.

The generation of the “cousins” (is it a coincidence that one of them is actually named “Dodanim” - “cousins”?) was a unique one, having left its imprint upon humanity to this very day.

We read above that Noach and his sons were to “fill the land.” It is quite likely that this “filling” was not meant only in a physical sense. But instead, Nimrod and the other inhabitants of the land of Shinar (ref. 10:10) had rebelled against Elohim and busied themselves by erecting a tower, which, by their own admittance was designed to prevent their scattering on earth (ref. 11:4). The verb “nafutz” (scattering) is a derivative of the root n.f.ts (noon, fey, tsadi), which conveys violent action, to dash or smash to pieces (Psalm 137:9 “… dashes your little ones against the rock”). Earlier, in 9:19, it says about the sons of Noach that “the whole earth was populated by them,” but with the verb (populated) being, literally, once again, n.f.z - “scattered.” The usage of this particular verb here, with its various negative connotations is quite appropriate for the spread of this largely rebellious population. As to the latter’s “scattering” - va’ya’fets - (11:8), it was YHVH who had initiated it  because, “indeed, the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they will begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them” (11:6). “Propose to do” is “yazmu,” which in Modern Hebrew refers to “initiatives” and “project,” but in Biblical Hebrew the root y.z.m. is unrestrained activity,” and not surprisingly is analogous to the verbs “zamom,” which is “to devise wickedness,” and “zimah” which is “to lust.”

At the very end of the Parasha we are introduced to the “exalted father” - Av’ram, whose goings forth, preceded by the command “lech lecha” (“go!”), will be reported next, in a Parasha by the same name.

*Parashot - plural of Parasha (feminine gender)

*Parashat – “Parasha of…”

* The p and f sounds are designated by the same letter and may be pronounced as “p” in one form of the word, and as an “f” in another. The same is also true about the “b” and “v” sounds.