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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Parashat Noah - the Haftara

Parashat Noah – The Haftara
Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5
Reading date: 1st November 2008 – 3rd Cheshvan 5769

Our Highlighted Haftara Text

"Ho, all who are thirsty, Come for water,Even if you have no money;Come, buy food and eat:Buy food without money,Wine and milk without cost.Why do you spend money for what is not bread,Your earnings for what does not satisfy?Give heed to Me, And you shall eat choice foodAnd enjoy the richest viands.Incline you ear and come to Me;Hearken, and you shall be revived.And I will make with you an everlasting covenant,The enduring loyalty promised to David." Isaiah 55:1-3

This week we read the familiar story of Noah and the flood. The Haftara taken from Isaiah, (54:1-55:5) includes an explicit reference to Noah: "For this to me is like the days of Noah: As I swore that the waters of Noah nevermore would flood the earth, so I swear that I will not be angry with you or rebuke you." The story of Noah illustrates that YHVH cannot stay angry forever. After the flood YHVH promised (in fact, made a covenant) to never again flood the world (I guess recent tsunamis and hurricane disasters excepted). Just like YHVH made a covenant with Noah and his descendants, YHVH would restore Israel to Zion. The word 'brit' (covenant) and the expression 'lo... od' (not again) and the root 'tzedek' also appear in both the Torah and Haftara.

Sections from this week's haftara portion are also read on Shabbat Re'eh and Shabbat Ki Tetze.This week's parasha of Noah could well be titled: ‘Breishit, The Sequel’. In many ways, it is the story of Re-Creation. Last week the Torah opened with the world covered in water, and this week, water destroys the world and YHVH starts over. After the flood, as the water recedes, the earth emerges from the water, with echoes of Creation as described in last week's parasha. Even Noah is like a second 'Adam' as all of humanity can be traced to Noah, and Noah is blessed (with a blessing that is usually more associated with Adam): 'to be fruitful and multiply' (Gen. 9:7). But Noah, while parallel to Adam, takes our relationship with YHVH up one level. Noah is the first person that enters into a covenant with YHVH. YHVH sets the rainbow in the sky as a sign of this covenant (Gen. 9:12-13). (Upon seeing a rainbow, the traditional blessing is: "who remembers the covenant [with Noah] is faithful to it and keeps promises"). Noah is still passive; although he builds the ark, we never hear Noah speak. Further, no expectations nor demands are put on Noah for his part of the covenant. Next week, Abraham, will continue this trend with a mutual (ie. two sided) covenant with YHVH, reflecting an even stronger relationship with YHVH. (This concept of covenant is stressed in the Haftara and the relationship between YHVH and Zion is even described as a (healed) marriage, with the husband (YHVH)Needless to say, the motif of water is pretty central to this week's portion. And the Haftara reading continues with the first five verses of chapter 55, where Isaiah compares water and food to YHVH's spiritual teaching.

The Talmud in fact uses this verse from Isaiah as the 'prooftext': Water means nothing but Torah, as it says: "Ho, everyone that thirsts, come for water (Isaiah 55:1)." Baba Kama 82a. Isaiah may have been familiar with the imagery, used by the earlier prophet Amos: “A time is coming, declares Adonai my God, when I will send a famine upon the land; Not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of Adonai”. (8:11)

Water is a common metaphor for Torah, and the midrash in Song of Songs has a long list of qualities of water that are analogous to Torah. Still, we find it surprising that the Rabbis chose to include this image of Torah as water for the week we read of the flood! Most of the examples they give in Shir HaShirim Rabbah favorably compare the Torah to water. However, they allow that, "Just as someone who does not know how to swim is drowned in water, so is Torah - if one doesn't know how to 'swim' one can drown in it" (Shir HaShirim Rabbah I:19).

There is a profound spiritual message in this. Water, like its opposite, fire, can be a source of life and blessing, or a force of destruction and devastation. The point is that water, like the rest of nature, has no moral value and is neither 'good' nor 'bad.' By comparing Torah to water we are cautioned that while Torah can be a source of wisdom and great spirituality, even it can be misused to be harmful. The Rabbis even compare Torah to a 'drug' (making a pun on the Hebrew word ‘sum’: which spelled one way means 'placed' and spelled another means 'drugs.' Used improperly, even the Torah can be poisonous (Taanit 7a). Everything in life has potential for good and for bad.Like water, events don't have intrinsic meaning; they have the meaning we assign them. This is true of personal tragedy, for example. We've all heard of a family or an individual who has suffered a terrible loss. Sometimes they are poisoned by it, and become depressed or bitter, while other times, the same tragedy has propelled them into becoming the greatest mitzvah and doers of good works. One of humanity’s greatest abilities is not to find meaning in random events, but to make meaning from them. Life can be likened to being dealt with a hand of cards. Some people are dealt a royal flush, or a full house, or a simple pair of twos. We don't have a choice of what we're dealt in life, but we can choose how to play with the hand we're given.

Shabbat Shalom.

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