Haftarah Parashat Noah
October 13, 2018 | 4 Heshvan 5779
The story of the flood must have seemed a bit odd to the Israelites and Jews of ancient times. Living in a water-starved country where the possibility of rain only exists for a few months a year, the very thought of a flood covering the entire world was probably incomprehensible. A brief scan of the Tanakh finds lots of talk of famine (i.e. no rain), but little about floods. Similarly, the Mishnah and Talmud have an entire masechet (tractate) called Taanit (Fasts) dedicated to the subject of praying and fasting in times of national calamity. And the national calamity of choice was – you got it – drought.
The flood episode is only mentioned one time outside of the original story, in a passage from our haftarah, which dates from the period of Shivat Zion, the return from Babylonian exile, in a promise that God’s mercy is indeed eternal: “For a little while I forsook you but with vast love I will bring you back. In slight anger, for a moment, I hid My face from you but with kindness everlasting, I will take you back in love, said the Lord your Redeemer. For this to me is like the waters 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.” (54:8-9) In other words, for the prophet, the intent of the promise to Noah was that there would never again be a flood and this was taken to mean that God’s love would abide perpetually.
The rabbinic tradition saw this promise along similar lines. We had to worry about adequate water but would never have to wonder about its dangerous overabundance. Tosefta Taanit 2:12 tells the story of a miracle worked to whom the people turned to help bring the rain: “They said: ‘Pray so that rain will fall.’ He prayed and rain fell. They said to him: ‘Just as you prayed that it would rain, now pray that it will go (stop).'” The people seem to be afraid that the rain, once turned on by the miracle worker, will continue to fall long after it has ceased to be a blessing. But the miracle worker replies: “Go out and see if a man stands on the Ofel Rock (a high place) and can shake his feet in the Kidron Stream. Then we will pray that the rain will stop. Still, we are certain that God will not bring the flood again to the world, as it is written: ‘There will never be another flood’ (Genesis 9:11) and it says: ‘As I swore that the waters of Noah nevermore would flood the earth.’ (Isaiah 54:8).” It made sense to the sages that rain was a matter of divine providence that depended on human behavior. And it made sense that rain though normally a blessing, could sometimes cause damage. But they were confident that severe weather and flooding would never again destroy the earth.
Modern experience may have turned all of this on its head. Though “rational people” for a long time moved away from seeing the weather as divine reward or punishment (leading Reform Jewry to remove from the siddur the second paragraph of the Shema), we are slowly coming to grips with the impact of human behavior on weather. Severe weather events occur with greater frequency – with storms and floods causing tremendous damage and loss of life. Glaciers are melting and the sea is rising.
Perhaps all of this is wakeup call – a necessary reminder of the importance and impact of what we do as individuals and in aggregate. Hopefully we will not be like Noah’s generation, and we will find a way to change course before the ultimate calamity occurs.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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