November 1, 2003
As part of his promise of redemption, God vows to the people of Israel: “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. For the mountains may move and the hills be shaken, but My loyalty shall never move from you nor My covenant of friendship be shaken – said the Lord, who takes you back in love.” (Isaiah 54:9-10) This promise is directly related to a similar promise made by God to the descendants of Noah in this week’s parashah: “I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Genesis 9:11)
Rabbi David Kimche, the 13th century Provencal commentator, explored the interrelationship between these two promises: “The exile and the captivity were like Noah’s flood. As the flood will not happen again; so, too, there will not be another exile.” Rabbi Don Isaac Abrabanel, the 15th century Spanish statesman and exegete, expands this idea: “Just as Israel sinned, was redeemed and saved, so, too, in the generation of the flood. They multiplied and filled the earth and then became corrupt. God gave them time to repent but they ignored Him so they faced destruction with only a few of them, Noah and his family, remaining alive. God, however, promised them that He would never again bring a flood upon the entire world. Similarly God promised to show the same deference to the people of Israel.” (adapted translation)
This promise of unwavering love offered a sense of hope and solace to a beleaguered people but also raised serious theological questions. Reality challenged this promise and caused hope to dissipate. The confrontation with this dilemma was not new to Jewish thought. It is reflected in the following midrash from the 4th century in which Abraham challenges God over the fate of the people of Sodom: “You find that before the Holy One Blessed be He, brought a flood on the people of Sodom, Abraham said to Him: ‘Master of the universe, You have sworn not to bring a flood upon the world.’ What is the reason? ‘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.’ (Isaiah 54:9) Sure enough, You are not going to bring a flood of water, but You will bring a flood of fire. Are you going to act deceitfully against the intent of Your vow?! ‘Far be it from you to do this thing…’ (Genesis 18:25) (adapted from Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 19:3)
This midrash strengthens Abraham’s Biblical challenge to God. Challenges to God are not alien to the Jewish tradition. They are a serious part of our faith. If this is a religious anomaly, then it is a quintessentially Jewish one.
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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