Torah Reading for Week of September 29-October 5, 2013
“Silence and Grace”
By Dr. Tamar Frankiel, AJRCA President
Noach has the peculiar honor, among the early biblical heroes, of being almost completely silent throughout his narrative. When G-d commands him to build the ark, he complies perfectly, in silence. There is no recorded interchange between him and his neighbors; indeed, as the Sages comment with some disapproval, he does not try to persuade his fellows to repent. In the many months of being shut up in the ark, we hear no conversation among the family. The Midrash tells us he spent all his time feeding and caring for the animals. Even when he emerges, there is no verbal exclamation of joy or thanksgiving, only an altar and a sacrifice.
This is hardly what we would expect. We are told first that Noach is a righteous man – apparently the righteous man of his generation – who found grace in G-d’s eyes. Indeed, his name, spelled nun-chet, is a palindrome of the word for grace, chen, spelled chet-nun. He embodies grace and attracts it. His father Lamech chose that name because he expected, with the birth of this child, relief from constant toil: “This one will comfort us from our work and the pain (itzavon) of our hands, from the land cursed by the Lord” (Gen 5.9).
Perhaps Noach’s silence, his complete withdrawal into the tasks assigned him, is the only response a truly righteous person could make to the extraordinary judgment of G-d that had come upon the earth. Perhaps we cannot quite imagine what the world was like when it had descended completely into corruption. Since the days when Adam and Chava hid from G-d, and Cain murdered his brother then complained about his punishment, G-d had been ignored. Human culture had developed with arts, music, and urbanization, while morality plunged and a gang culture of robbery, rape and violence became the norm, to the point that “all flesh had corrupted their ‘way on earth.’”
G-d’s assessment of man is emphatic: “Every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil, all the time.” The revulsion G-d felt is equally clear: He regretted making man, and “it pained (vayitatzev) Him at His heart.” (Gen 6:5-6) The root of the word is the same as Lamech’s for the pain of agricultural labor. Neither man nor G-d is happy, but for very different reasons. Man seeks physical relief as though it were his due; G-d turns away in deep anguish.
So the flood came. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch translates the word for the flood, mabul, as the Unsoulment: the vital force was drained from the world as the torrents poured down and the oceans filled.
Emerging from the ark, Noach offers a sacrifice: and suddenly, G-d changes again. “Never again!” He proclaims twice. Never again will G-d destroy the earth, even though the inclination of man’s heart is still evil. What in Noach’s action brought about such a dramatic change?
There are still no words. The horror is unspeakable. But the olah sacrifice alludes to the possibility of ascent. This is the type of sacrifice made for one’s unintentional sins. The Midrash interprets this as Noach’s personal sacrifice in case he had wayward thoughts during his days in the ark. But I would suggest that here, he is acting as a priest on behalf of all those who died. Still in awed, perhaps tormented silence, he offers a movement of teshuva, repentance. Indirectly, Noach’s act suggests that all the previous generations’ sins were in some sense unintentional. They had gone too far, even infecting the animal world; their reality could not be redeemed. But now, Noach testified, there was an inner change.
G-d responds inwardly as well, speaking again to Himself, reflecting that the human heart has been evil “from its youth” – that is, because of its youth. The human being had mastered technique and craft, but perhaps had not yet been given enough time, as a species, to master his “inclination,” that far-reaching, all-imagining desire.
Noach’s sacrifice brought a “sweet fragrance” to G-d, not the external smell, but the inner sense that the world could smell sweet again. A new potential was emerging.
And, as it turned out, Noach fulfilled his father’s prophecy, as G-d declares: “I will not curse the ground any longer for man’s sake; neither will I again smite every living thing as I have done.” The external world would be completely different as well, with possibility for beauty and richness evolving over millennia to come. .
Noach’s grace – the tempered silence, the humble work – resulted in the expression of a subtle but so very important turn in consciousness. Teshuvah was born, and from that, we could hope for goodness.