Bereshit Nine: Dysfunctional Family #2

Noah and his family leave the ark, and are blessed by God with similar words to the ones He used with Adam. “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth (Genesis 9:1).” Creation has entered a new cycle, with humanity, and the world, needing to be replenished by man, who once again takes his place as a co-agent in the act of creation. Noah, who is responsible for replenishing the earth, is now given control over the creatures that populate the earth, the beasts and fish and fowl, and for the first time, man can eat animals. Prior to the flood, humans were vegetarians, but now that man has been responsible for saving the animals, he is given dominion over them and can become carnivorous. (yay!)

God establishes a covenant with Noah, and with his descendants, that never again will he destroy the world. He seals the covenant with a rainbow, which until today remains the symbol of a storm being over, thereby reassuring humanity that no matter how bad the storm is, the rains will end and the world will not be destroyed.

Now that Noah has left the ark, he plans a vineyard, drinks the wine that he produces, and gets drunk. “He was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his brothers…and Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his youngest son had done unto him. And he said: ‘Cursed be Canaan (Genesis 9:21-22, 24-25).'”

Crazy story, to say the least. This is one of the times that the Torah says so much by what it leaves out. What is it that Ham did to his father? Why is Noah’s reaction to curse Canaan? What does it say that finally, after several chapters with Noah as the central figure, the first words we hear him speak are a curse on his own descendants?

There are some commentators who say that Ham’s sin against his father was disrespecting him by seeing him in a compromised position and reporting it to his brothers, thereby humiliating him. There are others who hold that Ham’s sin was sexual in nature. Still, while both of these are terrible sins for a son to commit against his parent, they still leave me questioning why, then, Ham’s son is the one who is cursed.

There is one explanation that intrigues me. When the text says that Ham saw the nakedness of his father, it means that nakedness belonging to his father – the nakedness of his mother. This reading says that Ham behaved in an inappropriate sexual manner towards his mother, and that Canaan, his son, is the product of this act. Therefore, Canaan, the child of incest, is cursed throughout the generations.

Dysfunctional family alert!

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Bereshit Eight: A New World

Noah, his family, and the animals, have been on the ark for a while, and God finally stops the rains. The water, that by this time covers the entire earth, subsides over time, and finally, Noah decides to open the window of the ark to see if the world has recovered. First, he sends out a raven, but the raven comes back empty-handed (or beaked). Then, he sends out a dove. The first time, the dove too, returns without success. But Noah persists, and sends the dove again, with an olive branch, signifying to Noah that the waters have subsided enough that the earth is growing once again. Noah then sends the dove out a third time, and this time, the dove doesn’t return at all.

Noah, the protagonist who still doesn’t have a voice, shows himself to be resourceful and innovative, as well as persistent. Thinking about Noah’s position – being the leader of the only family left on earth, burdened with the knowledge that God is capable of destroying the world if He isn’t obeyed, I can honestly say that I’d probably be in the fetal position inside the ark. Unlike Adam, who had the burden of being the first man, Noah, the first man to step out into the new world, has the difficult position of all of the responsibilities of being the new first man, with all of the knowledge of the world that once was. If Noah was saved because he was comparatively better than the people he lived amongst. Now, there’s no one else to be judged against, meaning that Noah’s continued favor is completely dependent on his own actions, for the first time in his life. He knows about the world that existed before the flood, and now, as he steps out of the ark, he is completely responsible for how the new world will take shape.

“And Noah built an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled the sweet savor, and the Lord said in His heart: ‘I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth (Genesis 8:20-21).'”

Bereshit Seven: 40 Days of Rain

Noah obeys God, and enters the ark with his family and the animals – not through the two by two model that many of us learned in Hebrew School, but rather seven and seven, with unclean animals going two by two. Once he, his family, and all the creatures of the world enter the ark and shut the doors, it begins to rain on the world. The rains last for forty days, and covers the entire world, from the sea floor to the top of the tallest mountain peak.

As a result of the rising waters, “All flesh perished that moved upon the earth, both fowl, and cattle, and beast, and every swarming thing that swarms upon the earth, and every man; all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, whatsoever was in the dry land, died (Genesis 7:21-22).”

I have to say, this seems harsh.

The people in the world are evil? I get that. They’re evil enough that God regrets creating humanity, and therefore chooses to wipe them out? OK. God is still merciful in the end and preserves humanity? Great. But God destroying all of His creation? Animals and birds suffering on account of the evil of humanity? God regretting the whole world? How does this make sense? We’re still very early in the Torah itself (understatement), but also in Bereshit. We’ve barely finished the creation story, and already it seems like God is going back on the idea of having the world.

This is a story of a volatile God. The God of Tanakh isn’t always the God that I feel as present in my life. I experience God as the inner voice that speaks in the soul of every human being, not as the angry creator and destroyer of worlds. In some ways, this version of God seems almost immature – he doesn’t like what he sees, and so lashes out and gets rid of it. Once again, I must ask what the people were doing that lead to this need to destroy the world? There’s no evidence that they had received any laws yet, especially not the Torah itself, therefore I ask, did they know that they were wrong? Were they warned?

It’s more than slightly radical to say, but from this chapter alone, I don’t know that I like the God of Torah. Looking forward to the rainbow and make-up between God and humanity!

Bereshit Six: The Flood

In this chapter of Bereshit, God sees the evil in the world, the wickedness of men, and regrets creating the earth, and specifically humankind. He says, “I will blot out man whom I created from the face of the earth (Genesis 6:7).” This quote begs the question: what does it mean for God to feel regret? Once again, it calls into question the character of God in the Torah. What does it mean to have a God with volatile emotions, who is able to destroy His creation, including mankind, which He made in His image? What is Judaism, that has a God who feels sadness, who grieves, and who judges His creations in this arguably harsh light?

Luckily (for us), God recognizes Noah as righteous, and decides to save him and his family, thereby preserving humanity. Noah, who is viewed as the protagonist of this story, is an interesting character. While he demonstrates the type of loyalty and bravery necessary to be the one chosen to be saved, throughout the saga of the flood, he does not speak once. Noah follows God but does not appear to interact with God, simply complying with instructions. Noah is described to us in this chapter as being “In his generations a man righteous and wholehearted (Genesis 6:9).” What does this mean? Was Noah only judged as righteous because, in his generation, he was comparably much better than those around him? Would he still be considered righteous today?

Noah being chosen by God shows that even when a person is in less than ideal circumstances, if they’re surrounded by people of poor character, they can still rise above and be better than the situations that they’re placed in. Noah as a hero of the Tanakh is one who didn’t need to speak, but rather shows silent leadership by rising above the world in which he lived.

Bereshit Five: From Adam to Noah

This is one of the chapters of Tanakh that I struggle to find meaning in. On first reading (and second…possibly even third), it’s a list of names. Each verse names a generation of Adam’s descendants, his age, and the children that he ‘begot.’ This list stretches hundreds of years, until Noah. Lists like this tend to come off as boring, so I challenged myself to find something meaningful in the chapter.

“And Adam lived a hundred and thirty years, and begot a song in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth (Genesis 5:3).”

Cain and Abel, the first two sons born to Adam and Eve, are described in terms of each other, not their parents. In their story, Adam and Eve are not pivotal factors, with God assuming the parental role for the two brothers. However, in the case of Seth, he is described as being of Adam’s own likeness and image. This parallels the creation story, when Adam himself is described as being made in the image of God. “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness (Genesis 2:26).” Why, then, is Seth given a similar epithet? If all of man is made in the image of God, why Seth explicitly stated as being in the image of Adam [and therefore, of God]?

Cain and Abel are the first sons, but Seth is the one through whom the line of humanity continues. By ‘begetting sons and daughters,’ and thereby partaking in the ongoing enterprise of creation through the future generations, Seth truly embodies what it means to be in the image of God, which his brothers failed to do.

The list concludes with the birth of Noah, who is the son of Lamech and the father of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Noah, the only one in the list to have a description following his name, is described as, “This same shall comfort us in our work and in the toil of our hands, which cometh from the ground which the Lord hath cursed (Genesis 5:29).” This serves as our introduction to Noah, the next hero of the biblical narrative. I’m interested to see, as I move forward, how this intro plays through in the Noah story.

Bereshit Four: Dysfunctional Family #1

As becomes a theme throughout Tanakh, here’s our first dysfunctional family story. Directly following the first sin of man, we have the ultimate sin: the first murder.

Adam and Eve are exiled from the Garden of Eden, “And the man knew Eve his wife; and she conceived and bore Cain…and again she bore his brother Abel (Genesis 4:1-2).” From the beginning, Cain and Abel are described in terms of each other, because the sibling relationship is the pivotal one in both of their lives.

The story of Cain and Abel is one of the most unfathomable to me. “It came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him (Genesis 4:8).” As someone who is deeply connected to both of my siblings, I fail to see anything that could cause one brother to kill another. In this story, God seems to play the parental role to both Cain and Abel, and they are both vying for His approval. When one brother is lauded for his efforts and the other is rebuked, jealousy flares up and ultimately turns into murder.

Still, the relationship does not disappear. Cain rises up against Abel, his brother. Even at the moment of death, Abel is Cain’s brother. They are linked together with this shared bond, and no amount of jealousy or hate can take that away. Abel is left dead at the hand of his brother, who must live with the guilt of his sin and his punishment. Yet, in spite of his evil deed, God pledges to Cain that he will be protected in his wanderings, demonstrating the unconditional love that only a parental figure can show.

Bereshit Three: Ayeka

In the third chapter of the Torah, we have the first of many transgressions of mankind, when human beings are given clear instructions that we choose to ignore, and must suffer the consequences. In this story, Adam and Eve are living in the Garden of Eden. Eve, in a conversation with the serpent, an animal described as being “more subtle than any beast of the field which God had made (Genesis 3:1),” is seduced into eating the fruit of the tree that God had forbidden man from touching. This leads to a destructive chain of events: Adam, too, eats of the fruit, and then hides from God when it comes time to confess his sin.

This story, which leads to the cursing of man, woman, and the serpent, calls into question the omniscience of God. If God is all knowing, and therefore knew that man would sin, why did He place temptation within the Garden? If man was destined to fail this test, what was the purpose of it in the first place? Why begin mankind in paradise, only to have us inevitably leave it?

When Adam hides from God after eating of the forbidden fruit, God calls to him: Ayeka? Where are you? This question, the first of the Torah, goes far beyond the physical. The use of the word ayeka questions the very state of Adam’s soul. God asks Adam where he is physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. This is a question that every human being must answer.

When I think of where I am in my life in all of these areas, I find that I don’t necessarily have clear answers. Physically, I’m in Israel. Mentally, I’m torn between trying to be present in this year of study and reflection, and projecting into the future to figure out what my next steps are going to be. Emotionally, I’m happily content (most of the time). And spiritually? I truly have no answers. I want to find a deep spiritual connection, but find that I’m closed off to it somehow, for some reason unable to open my heart to the ecstatic experiences that I want to have. Finding my place spiritually is part of what my participation in 929 is about.

The chapter ends with Adam and Eve being cursed and expelled from the Garden of Eden. God “drove out the man; and He placed at the east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim, and the flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:24).” The tree of life, and all the wisdom that it contains, is guarded until today. I hope to let down the guards on my heart, and to release to secret wisdom within.

Bereshit Two: Shabbat

And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because that in it He rested from all His word which God in creating had made (Genesis 2:3)

Each day of creation, God made something pivotal to the world. The heavens and earth, water and air, sun and moon, birds, fish, animals, vegetation, and ultimately men, created in God’s image, are all integral to the natural order of the universe. However, the culmination of the creation story is separate from all the rest, both in terms of its location in the second chapter of Bereshit, and in that it is not a physical creation.

Shabbat is the climax of creation, God’s final gift to the world at its inception. In The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote, “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time…Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals.”

With the final act of creation, God created holiness in time, a holiness that has lasted throughout history until today. Each week, the physical work of creation continues as man and nature interact in the world. And as the climax of this interface, we have Shabbat, when time itself becomes sacred. It is at this time that man, made in God’s image, emulates the divine, by resting from the work of creating the physical world and thereby creating the sacred time that God deemed holy. The rules of Shabbat today seem to ensure that we, like God, cease creating on the day of rest. Yet, Heschel’s words demonstrate that through rest, we are creating the cathedrals of the soul.

Bereshit One: Creation

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.

The iconic first words of Bereshit (Genesis 1:1) introduce the pivotal force behind all that follows: God as the creator. God creates heaven, earth, and all that exists in both of these realms. Each day of creation, God puts forth new life into his creation, in the form of the earth, the water, the stars, the animals, and eventually, man.

God gives man the first commandment: Be fruitful and multiple, and replenish the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:28). This commandment, God’s first words to man, places upon humankind the responsibility of being co-creators in the world. Just as God created the earth, we are charged with the task of replenishing it, and in every generation, we are bound by this obligation. Today, it’s very easy to feel disconnected from the world around us. Living in a city, where much of the nature that I see is manmade, I don’t necessarily feel a part of creation on a regular basis. Yet, this is our challenge – to continue the creation of the world.

The first chapter of the Tanakh concludes with the sixth day of creation, the creation of man. While on  the one hand it seems like this should be the natural culmination of the opening story of the Torah, the final creation of God is left out: that of the Shabbat. Therefore, while man is created and charged with the responsibility to care for the earth and all of its creatures, God’s role in the initial creation is not yet complete by the end of this chapter. I choose to believe that this isn’t an arbitrary break in the text. Rather, I see it as representative of both man and God continuing with their tasks as co-creators, far beyond the limits of this particular story.