The Parsha in a Nutshell
Mankind becomes wicked and this leads to God bringing a Flood and starting over. Noah is the only human God considers righteous enough to be saved. He is commanded to bring his family, and animals, into an ark. These creatures are the only survivors of the Flood.
After the rain ends and the water subsides, Noah emerges and offers a sacrifice to God. God then makes a covenant, through Noah, with all of humanity, laying down the basic commands how to be moral, and promising never again to destroy the world by flood. Noah plants a vineyard, makes wine, and then becomes drunk.
A second story is then told of a new generation of humans after the Flood who try to build a city whose tower will reach heaven. This was called the Tower of Babel. God stops them by confusing their language.
The parsha ends with a list of the ten generations between Noah’s son Shem and Avraham.
The Core Idea
Between the story of creation and the call to Abraham in next week’s parsha, the Torah tells us four stories: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. Are they there merely because they happened? Or is there a deeper connection between them?
The first story is of how Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Adam then blames Eve, who blames the snake. Neither takes personal responsibility.
Then, Cain and Abel bring offerings to God, but only Abel’s is accepted. In anger, Cain kills his brother, and when he is asked by God where his brother is he answers: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He denies he has any responsibility to his brother.
Next, the Torah tells us is Noah and the Flood. Noah is described as a pure and righteous man, and therefore God decided to save him and his family. Noah was righteous but not a hero. He only saved himself, not humanity. Noah did not see himself as responsible for their fate.
Finally, in the story of the Tower of Babel, although we know it was a great sin, it isn’t clear what the sin was. By trying to build a tower that would “reach heaven,” the builders of Babel wanted to take the place of God. They denied they had a responsibility to listen and follow God.
Questions to Ponder
1. What word or theme connects these three stories?
2. What is different between each story?
3. What does that word mean to you for your life?
It Once Happened…
This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody.
There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realised that Everybody wouldn’t do it.
It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.
Questions to Ponder
1. What do you think is the message of this story?
2. Can you think of a way you can apply this message in your life in the coming week?
Thinking More Deeply
Let’s look at those four stories from the beginning of the Book of Genesis in more depth.
In the first story, once Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit, they discover shame, and God asks them what they have done. This is the conversation that follows: And He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” The man said, “The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
The man blames the woman, the woman blames the serpent. Both deny personal responsibility: it wasn’t me; it wasn’t my fault. This is the birth of what today is called the victim culture.
The second drama, following the first murder in history, has a similar dialogue but with one important difference: Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.
Once again, the theme is responsibility, but in a different sense. Cain does not deny personal responsibility. He does not say, “It wasn’t me.” He denies moral responsibility. “I am not my brother’s keeper.” I am not responsible for his safety. Yes, I did it because I felt like it. Cain has not yet learned the difference between “I can” and “I may.”
The third story, that of Noah, also has responsibility at its core. Noah is a righteous man but not a hero. He is born to great expectations. “He will comfort us,” says his father Lamech, giving him his name. Yet Noah does not save humanity. He only saves himself, his family and the animals he takes with him in the ark. The Zohar contrasts him unfavorably with Moses: Moses prayed for his generation, Noah did not. We have to do what we can to save others, not just ourselves. Noah failed the test of collective responsibility.
The fourth is the story of the Tower of Babel. What was the sin of its builders? The story of Babel is a drama about the two key words of the first sentence of the Torah: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” Heaven is the domain of God; earth is the domain of man. By attempting to build a tower that would “reach heaven,” the builders of Babel were men trying to be like gods. What does this have to do with responsibility?
Not accidentally does the word responsibility suggest response-ability. The Hebrew equivalent, achrayut, comes from the word acher, meaning “an other.” Responsibility is always a response to something or someone. In Judaism, it means response to the command of God. By attempting to reach heaven, the builders of Babel were in effect saying: we are going to take the place of God. We are not going to respond to His law or respect His boundaries. We are going to create an environment where we rule, not God. Babel is the failure of ontological responsibility – the idea that something beyond us makes a call on us (ontology is the study of the nature of being).
What we see in these stories is an exceptionally tightly constructed four-act drama on the theme of responsibility and moral development. The first thing we learn as a child is that our acts are under our control (personal responsibility). The next is that not everything we can do may we do (moral responsibility). The next stage is the realisation that we have a duty not just to ourselves but also to others around us (collective responsibility). Ultimately, we learn that morality is not something that humans invent, but it is part of the universe that has a creator. There is an Authority beyond mankind (ontological responsibility).
From the Thought of Rabbi Sacks
This was perhaps the greatest contribution of Judaism – via the Judaic roots of Christianity – to the West. The idea that time is an arena of change, and that freedom and creativity are God’s gift to humanity, resulted in astonishing advances in science and our understanding of the world, technology and our ability to control the human environment, economics and our ability to lift people out of poverty and starvation, medicine and our ability to cure disease. It led to the abolition of slavery, the growth of a more egalitarian society, the enhanced position of women, and the emergence of democracy and liberalism…
To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope. Every ritual, every command, every syllable of the Jewish story is a protest against escapism, resignation and the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism, the religion of the free God, is a religion of freedom. Jewish faith is written in the future tense. It is belief in a future that is not yet but could be, if we heed God’s call, obey His will and act together as a covenantal community. The name of the Jewish future is hope…
Jews were and are still called on to be the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind.Future Tense, p. 249-252
Questions to Ponder
1. Where in the Torah and in Judaism do we see the idea that Jewish time is linear (where the future can be different, and better, than the past)? What is the alternative way of looking at the world?
2. How does this text connect to the ideas about responsibility found in this Covenant & Conversation?
Around the Shabbat Table
- Where do you think morality comes from? If God did not give us a morale framework through the Torah, do you think humanity would be able to work it out for themselves?
- Noah is compared unfavorably to Abraham who did try and save those condemned (Sodom and Gomorroh) as opposed to Noah who just obeyed God’s command and saved himself and his family by building an ark. Do you think this is fair?
- Why do you think the first 11 chapters of Genesis tells us these four stories and explores these four kinds of responsibility?
The Core Idea
- Responsibility. Each of the four stories resolves around a different kind of responsibility.
- Each story focuses on a different type of responsibility, that Rabbi Sacks suggests (in the main Covenant & Conversation essay A Drama in Four Acts) is similar to the four developmental stages of a child as they develop and mature. These are: (a) personal responsibility; (b) moral responsibility; (c) collective responsibility; and (d) ontological responsibility.
- Encourage your child/student to reflect on what they think responsibility means, where it comes from (as in when and why do they have to be responsible?) and when in their lives is it an important concept. Encourage them to formulate concrete examples from their own everyday life.
It Once Happened…
- The message of this story is taking responsibility. It is a humorous take on what can happen when no one takes responsibility for something that needs done in a group setting. We should be encouraging our children/students to be the person willing to do the task, even if they are surrounded by people who are refusing to step up and take responsibility.
- Encourage your child/student to think of a time in the coming week when they will have the opportunity to step up and take responsibility.
From the Thought of Rabbi Sacks
- The Torah itself (both the chumash and the rest of Tanach) tells a story, with many twists in the plot. Although some argue (Rabbi Sacks among them – see his book Future Tense) that the Torah is unique as a genre that does not come to closure and lacks a conclusion or the fulfillment of the narrative, it still progresses in the direction of a conclusion. This conclusion could be living as a nation safely and comfortably in our own land worshipping God, or it could be a future messianic age of world peace, or perhaps something else. But whatever our final destination is, the Torah as a philosophical text is built around the premise that the future will be different, and better than the past. This concept exists in Jewish philosophy and theology as well. The messianic concept, and the imperative of tikkun olam (mending the world), suggest that for Jews and Judaism, things can and will be better in the future, if we work hard enough making it that way. The concept of teshuva (repentance) means we always have the possibility to make ourselves and the world better. Other systems of thought disagree with this and believe in fatalism. Destiny cannot be changed, and we are set to play out specific narratives predetermined, either by “the gods” (Greek mythology) or our genes (some evolutionary scientists) or our early childhood experiences (Freudian psychology). Judaism challenges this way of looking at the world.
- This source introduces a fifth kind of responsibility – National Responsibility. This is a central concept in the thought of Rabbi Sacks. The Jewish people have a national mission, to be agents of hope and light in the world, and to help bring the world to a better and redeemed state (tikkun olam).
Around the Shabbat Table
- This is a complex question with many answers and positions both within and from outside of Jewish thought. The question aims to generate a discussion around your Shabbat table where people can share their gut reaction to this complex question – is morality innate and intuitive, or does humanity need guidance from the outside (i.e. God)? Be sure to bring the stories from Genesis (and other parts of Tanach) to illustrate and develop the discussion.
- Some thoughts to consider: Do we all have the responsibility for leadership or does this depend on the acquisition of a specific skill set and an innate nature? Maybe Noah just did not have the leadership ability that Abraham had? If God had wanted Abraham to take on a leadership role, He could have called Noah to this responsibility, like he did with Moses (who was reluctant to take the leadership mantle and left to his own devices it seems would not have stepped up). Having said that, God did command Abraham, and yet Abraham is celebrated for his initiative and leadership.
- The first few chapters explore and present an ontology of the human – what it means to be a human. After chapter 11 the Torah then turns its attention to the story of the Jewish people, and the rest of the book explores what it means to be a Jew – the ontology of the Jew. So these four stories are critical in understanding the moral development of humanity, and should encourage us to be aware of these four stages of moral development.
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.