Noah — Genesis 6:9-11:32

"Who is like you
Who could reach you
Who has seen
Who has been
...When you ride a cherub
And glide on the wind
And wander through thunder
And move within storms
Making your way through the waters...
"

The liturgical poet Yannai here imagines the divine as controlling the universe, "from the sky to the heaven’s heaven." Water and its sacred nature are ever-present in the ancient Israelite imagination.

In our reading this week, as the only righteous person left standing in a world bereft of morality, Noah is called upon by God to design and build a wooden ark to escape the deluge that is about to wipe out all of creation from the face of the earth. Noah gathers his family and two members of each animal species to ensure continuity after the flood.

The ark settles on Mount Ararat after 40 days and nights of rainfall, which recedes 150 days later. From the window of the ark, Noah sends forth a raven, followed by a series of doves to find any traces of dry land. Finally Noah exits the ark, in a sense restarting the process of creation by repopulating the earth.

A covenant of the rainbow is made by God, testifying to never again destroy all of humanity. With the flood’s dramatic destruction fresh in mind, it is decreed that, henceforth, murder is a capital offense, and flesh or blood taken from a living animal is prohibited (while properly slaughtered meat is permitted to be eaten).

Noah drinks from the first produce of his vineyard, and becomes intoxicated. Again this righteous exemplar is being tested. This time, we see how effective Noah has been as a righteous exemplar through the behavior of his offspring: Shem and Japheth cover their exposed father while Ham takes advantage of his vulnerability.

With power comes responsibility, and the power of creativity is manifest through the divine song, channeled and composed by liturgical poets like Yannai who sought to intensify the experience of prayer for worshippers, making the contents of familiar weekly readings such as the story of Noah new again.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: Biblical scholars contend that the Tower of Babel story was not composed as a cautionary tale about universal human overreaching. Instead, they suggest it is a veiled screed against cities. Professor James Kugel (Harvard and Bar Ilan Universities) writes, "The whole point is Babylon (babel in Hebrew)...[and] the thing that most characterised Babylon in the minds of ancient Israelites was its big cities with…their massive populations. ... From [the Israelites] standpoint, who were sparsely settled in the Semitic hinterland, such teeming conglomerations and the complex urban culture they made possible…do not find favor with God." Here, we see the Tower of Babel rising from the desert as a towering metropolis. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Noah — Genesis 6:9-11:32

facebook_coverdesign_noahLiving in a world where hate-mongering, half-truths, and outright lies are so prevalent in our national media, on local college campuses, and even on social networks with our "friends," we might justifiably wonder — do we again find ourselves in a state where speech is exiled? This "exile of speech" is referred to by Jewish mysticism, but the mystics were not the first. Early on, the rabbis point to this danger in their exegesis by decrying that: "In every generation, we experience something of the mentality of the Flood generation." (Sifrai Ha’azinu 7).

The ending of this week’s reading, which tells of the Tower of Babel, causes us to re-read the opening story of Noah. He is the only righteous person left standing in a world bereft of morality, and so Noah is called upon by God to design and build a wooden ark to escape the deluge that is about to wipe out all of creation from the face of the earth. Noah gathers his family and two members of each animal species to ensure continuity after the flood.

The ark settles on Mount Ararat after 40 days and nights of rainfall, which recedes 150 days later. From the window of the ark, Noah sends forth a raven, followed by a series of doves to find any traces of dry land. Finally Noah exits the ark, in a sense restarting the process of creation by repopulating the earth.

A covenant of the rainbow is made by God, testifying to never again destroy all of humanity. With the flood’s dramatic destruction fresh in mind, it is decreed that, henceforth, murder is a capital offense, and flesh or blood taken from a living animal is prohibited (while properly slaughtered meat is permitted to be eaten).

Noah drinks from the first produce of his vineyard, and becomes intoxicated. Again this righteous exemplar is being tested. This time, we see how effective Noah has been as a righteous exemplar through the behavior of his offspring: Shem and Japheth cover their exposed father while Ham takes advantage of his vulnerability.

The model for celebrating diversity amidst dispersion appears in the covenant of the rainbow rather than the bricks and mortar of Babel.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by the raven that went missing. "And he sent forth the raven, and it went out, back and forth until the waters dried up off the earth." (Genesis 8:7) The image is dark, calling to mind a photographic negative. The Hebrew words for raven (orev) and evening (erev) are comprised of the same Hebrew letters, and linguists believe that orev was derived from erev because of the raven’s dark plumage. If so, the raven’s name is born of the gloaming, a special time of day, one electric with magic and possibility. For more on the significance of the missing raven, read this Kezayit feature. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Tazria -- Leviticus 12:1 - 13:59

CoverDesign_TazriaThe renowned Mexican poet Octavio Paz (1914-1998) once observed:

"Abstract painting seeks to be a pure pictorial language, and thus attempts to escape the essential impurity of all languages: the recourse to signs or forms that have meanings shared by everyone."

Nowhere is this "essential impurity of all languages" more evident than when reading about the laws of tumah and taharah — a signature of Leviticus (see, for example, Chapter 12). Debate still abounds as to how exactly to be best translate these key terms — Purity and impurity? Ritual fitness or exclusion? Death and rebirth? There remains a real need in communal life to continue to have "recourse to signs or forms that have meanings shared by everyone." Consider the passionately-committed but critical Orthodox, feminist Jew, Rachel Adler, and her translation of tumah and taharah as "a way of learning how to die and be reborn” and how this resonates with Octavio Paz’s poetic categories.

In grappling with the biblical text and its layers of rabbinic interpretation, a turn to poetics invites us once again to embrace halakhah as we continue to weave the rich tapestry of ritual into our daily lives through "forms that have meanings shared by everyone."

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is intended to be unsettling, and references the base manner in which our ancestors evaluated an individual's purity (or impurity). Many of the laws and rituals in Leviticus strike contemporary readers as anachronistic or even offensive. When reading Tanakh, we Jews are called upon to take our ancestral name seriously (Yisrael, literally "he who contends or strives with G-d"). We must wrestle with these texts not only because a growing number of our brethren embrace a more literal understanding of these decrees, but because this is our book, the "word" that binds Jews of all stripes, streams, and colors in our special tribal/communal relationship (klal Yisrael) -- even those of us who read our ancestors' purity tests as ethnic or ethnoreligious anthropology do not get a pass. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.