Torah Blog


A blog of Torah thoughts, poems and other random odds 'n' sods. For tag cloud click here.
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Noah and his moment

This year I have been feeling the story of Noah very deeply. Particularly, the image of this man who essentially went through a Holocaust with his family.

There is an interesting tension within our commentators (revolving around the words "in his generations") between those who would see Noah as righteous and those who would see him as mediocre at best.

It's easy to judge Noah. He wasn't Abraham - he did not plead to G-d to save the world, and he did not run around telling everyone that they needed to repent. He was "נח", passive. That is why we do not adopt him as one of our patriarchs or as a role model.

Abraham was told "Lech Lecha, leave behind everything you know and set out on a long journey." So was Noah. Both obeyed G-d. 

Abraham opened his house to guests. Noah built a (floating) house and faithfully took care of hundreds of animal guests for over a year.

Yet to be fair, Noah did not have any role models for action. G-d came and told him to do something very difficult, and he did it. He obeyed. We praise Abraham for his obedience at the Akedah, why should we not give Noah the credit for fulfilling the extremely challenging task he was given.

You could argue that neither did Abraham have any role models before him. True. But he did have Noah and the flood story (a midrash even claims that Noah was still alive when Abraham was born). He had a negative example to learn from. He also had a contemporary (and who knows, perhaps he even spoke to him?) to whom G-d had spoken and who had obeyed.  In other words, perhaps without Noah there could not have been an Abraham. Noah's actions and activities created the basis, was a precursor, for the greatness of Abraham.

Hegel speaks of thesis and anti-thesis. Perhaps Noah's very passivity and lack of pleading (thesis) led to the antithesis, Abraham's active mode and his intercession before G-d.

- - -

But, truth to tell, Noah did miss a tremendous opportunity. After the flood, all idol-worship had been wiped out. There was only Noah and his family, and they know of the one G-d. Judaism's entire theology is bent towards the day when the entire world will know G-d. Noah had an opportunity to set the world on a foundation of monotheism when he emerged from the ark; to go out into the world and serve G-d. Instead, he got drunk and ended up cursing his own descendants. It is hard to blame Noah for getting drunk - he must have been unimaginably traumatised by emerging from the ark into a world where nothing he had known even existed any more and everyone was dead. But it was a lost opportunity and hence, it was subsequently up to Abraham to try to introduce monotheism into a world already riddled with idol-worship.

N.B. Interestingly enough, a lecture I heard last week by Dr Paula Friedrikssohn taught me that during the time of Jesus, another such moment came along in history. At that time, pagans were pluralists, and even those who might admire the Israelite G-d, would still cling to their own nation's gods. In other words, the norm was to worship numerous gods at the same time, but never to let go of your family gods. Along came Saul/Paul and began to announce to the pagans that they must surrender their idols and worship only the G-d of Israel (who was of course the G-d that Jesus and his followers believed in, being Jewish). At that time, many pagans converted to a form of Judaism, or at least Jewish belief (I am not sure if they had any practice).

Of course, the moment was lost, on some level, when this form of Judaism then morphed into a new religion that no longer resembled Judaism. Still, this series of events set into motion the advent of a new monotheistic trend in the world that would come to embrace millions and bring them closer to one G-d. Let's hope, pray and believe that this has to be a good thing.


True direction of growth

Every year when shaking the arba minim, I find myself confused about which way up to hold the etrog. There are two ends, the pitom and the oketz, (stem). You are supposed to start off with it in in the wrong direction and then for the blessing turn it upside down to the correct direction. But which way is which?

This year, I discovered a way to remember it. According to the halacha, all the minim are supposed to be held in the direction of their growth. Thus, the myrtles must be held upright, for example. The etrog's growth is deemed to be upright too, and hence the correct direction is with the stem (oketz) facing down. In other words, we start off with the stem up, make the blessing, and then turn it around with stem down to shake it.

The problem is though, that if you look at a fruit tree, fruit do not grow upright! They hang down from the tree. The Mishnah Brurah (651:17) has an answer to this seeming contradiction to the laws of nature - its true direction of growth is, in fact, upright, but the fruit makes it heavy and that is why it hangs down.

And I think that this is an apt metaphor for our lives: our true direction of growth is upwards. Things do make us heavy and droopy but that's not who we really are...


The Two Towers and Carlebach

There is a musical refrain appearing throughout Peter Jackson's film "The Two Towers" (the second in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) that is extremely similar to a melody by R Shlomo Carlebach.  Compare the melody that appears in the film at 1 hr 32 mins, with (click mikdash melech, at 14 seconds).


Oddly enough, the Two Towers tells of kings who rise "mitoch hahafecha" to fight evil. I find the Lord of the Rings full of inspiring moral motifs, such as the need to stop fleeing and join to fight evil, the nature of true nobility and the importance of the courage of one small individual.


Mikdash melech is a verse from Lecha Dodi, one of the most beautiful Jewish liturgical pieces ever composed. I find Lecha Dodi, too, replete with noble and mythic elements and images, of blessing, kingdom, Messiah, awakening, rebuilding. The lines   
קומי צאי מתוך ההפכה

רב לך שבת בעמק הבכה


לבשי בגדי תפארתך עמי
have reflected my own feelings about my personal and the national situation on many an occasion when things were low.  What a privilege and joy to sing it every week, and even at times to the Carlebach tune (when I daven at Yakar).


And Frodo's lonely journey into Mordor, has inspired me whenever I feel as if life is one, long, huge mountain to climb...



For Holocaust Day

A thought I had on Holocaust day:

If we were to truly glimpse the infinite beauty of just one butterfly, perhaps then we would understand the necessity of placing a vast ugliness and evil in the world, without which free choice would be impossible.


Can I come to the King in the Inner Court?

This year I was reading the following verse from Esther 4:

11. All the king’s servants, and the people of the king’s provinces, know, that whoever, whether man or woman, shall come to the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is a law; to put him to death, except such to whom the king shall hold out the golden scepter, that he may live; but I have not been called to come to the king these thirty days.

The woman sitting next to me at the megilla reading had what looked like a children's megilla full of midrashim, and it cited a midrash that Achashverosh was indeed furious to see Esther there unbeckoned, but then he suddenly saw her and remembered how much he loved her, and could not be angry any more.

It's a well-known idea that although G-d's name is not mentioned explicitly in Megillat Esther, we can take (some of?) the references to the king as referring not, or not only, to Achashverosh but also to the King of Kings.

On a daily basis, or perhaps more powerfully on Rosh Hashanah, we feel "How can I go into the King? I am not desired. I am not in relationship. We have not communicated for many days. I have not heard Him call me." So we hesitate to enter. But know - once you enter, G-d will not be able to help Him (Her) self, but instantly fall in love with our beautiful souls.

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