Haftarah Parshat Noah (Isaiah 54:1-55:5)
October 17, 2015/4 Heshvan 5776
How is one to read biblical stories? Should we read them simply as historical recollections or do they say something deeper about divine-human interaction? The story of Noah has much deeper ramifications than merely recollections of a flood in humanity’s ancient past. Noah, the reluctant hero of the drama who saves the remnant of humanity from the flood, was also a human being thrust into the abyss of an unknowable and frightening future. How should a human being respond to a God who has just brought about the veritable destruction of humanity? Is it possible for such an individual to remain optimistic about his or her future and the future of his or her progeny? Such questions have an almost modern ring to them in light of the Shoah where some victims were reticent to bring children into the world.
This sort of anxiety likely underlies the promise made in the prophecy found in this week’s haftarah when it states: “For this to Me is like the waters of Noah: as I swore that the waters of Noah would never [again] flood the earth, so I swear that I will not be angry with you or rebuke you.” (54:9) This prophecy was delivered by a prophet from the period of the return from Babylonia. It was probably a response to a deep-seated fear of doom which had befallen the people. Under such circumstances, it would only be normal to fear the futility of rebuilding. The prophet’s intent was to promote a sense of God given optimism.
This angst seems to be a constant component of the Jewish psyche as is reflected in the following midrashic explanation for Noah’s reluctance to leave the ark: “But he [Noah] was reluctant to go out [of the ark], saying, ‘Am I to go out and beget children (be fruitful and multiply) [only for them to be consumed] by a curse?’ Only when God swore to him that He would not bring another flood upon the world, as it says: ‘For this to Me is like the waters of Noah; as I swore that the waters of Noah would never [again] flood the earth.’ (Isaiah 54:9): you will indeed be fruitful and multiply.” (Genesis Rabbah 34:6)
The message of the Jewish tradition is that optimism must face down and triumph over the obstacles which have the potential to overcome us, lest we be overcome and contribute to the destruction of the world. God may have set an enormous obstacle before Noah, but He also gave him the strength and promise to overcome it. Is there a greater life lesson than that?
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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