October 4, 2013
Temple B’nai Chaim
Rabbi David Lipper
The English poet Shelly wrote in the preface to his drama Hellas, “We are all Greeks; our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their roots in Greece.” More than a century later Pope Pius XI, addressing a delegation of Belgian pilgrims in 1938, referred to Abraham as “our patriarch” and admonished the pilgrims that “spiritually we are Semites.” Both allusions were reminders not to forget the source, the matrix from which we spring. They point to Isaiah’s call, “Look to the rock from whence you were hewn and to the hole of the put from where you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sara who bore you.”
It is universally conceded that for moral and spiritual truths, for sublimity of ethical precepts, for the ecstasy and profundity of its religious affirmations, for its majestic sweep of the heights and depths of human nature, and for its conspicuous role as great literature, the Hebrew Bible is the primer and textbook of humanity. Its moral maxims have marched like spiritual battalions across the map of history. In the whole compass of world literature there is no comparable book which looks with such profound compassion upon every phase of human life, which echoes such exquisite strains of poetry, which teaches man not only the best way to live, but also how to suffer nobly, and even how to die.
The Tanakh is, of course, a Jewish creation; the product of a minuscule people desert-born and desert-bred. It grew out of the struggles, the triumphs and defeats, the hopes and frustrations, the aspirations and the wrestlings, the loyalties and apostasies of our little people. The Hebrew canon, compiled some 2,400 years ago, is our permanent diary. Heine referred to Bible as the “portable fatherland of the Jews.” Not only is it the rock from which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were hewn, but also the quarry from which the ethics, the morality, the culture, and the social blueprint of western civilization were sculpted. Blossoming out of the desert, it transcended the frontiers in which it was cradled and became the life blood of society.
The universal role of scripture is emphasized in later rabbinic literature as well.
“Why was Torah given on Mount Sinai, in the wilderness of Horeb, No Man’s Land?” The Rabbis answered, so that no one could say, “It belongs to me.” Another midrash declares that the Voice on Sinai split into seventy languages so that it could address every nation in its own language. Still another suggests that God’s voice carries to the ends of the earth.
This postulate of universality is a logical implementation of God’s promise to Abraham. “In you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” Such insistence that the Bible is the spiritual inheritance of everyone has set it apart as the spiritual compass directing humanities travels over the centuries. Goethe was correct when he wrote that “the Jewish Bible is not the book of one people, but the book of all peoples.” Its substance and purpose are the support for the higher divine law which controls and guides the history of humanity.
With very rare exceptions, books man write have their day and grow obsolete. The Tanakh is the most notable exception. Long and vociferously people have debated if it is Torah Min HaShamayim – the direct word of God. Such a debate is academic and unfulfilling. Whether or not the Bible is literally the word of God or not, it is an indisputably divine teaching in its espousal of the lofty conceptions of truth, goodness, holiness and righteousness as the ultimate sanctions of divineness in the human spirit. Even if one denies that the authority of the moral law lies in its supposed provenance from God, one cannot question the validity of the divineness of the good and the goodness of the divine. The Bible is the most human book and the most divine book at the same time.
One can readily understand why this powerfully stirring and exciting book has excited more people and commanded more study than any other book ever written. It is the heart’s unfailing beat, the inner eye enabling finite man to gain a glimpse of infinite God. It is a mine so deep and rich that the more one digs into it, the more abundant the precious treasure that is extracted. It exercises a mystical pull that prompts unceasing human effort to unlock her secrets and grants great reward simply by trying.
This Shabbat, we read the beginning of the story of Noah. It is filled with metaphor and imagery that pulls at our emotions. In a nutshell, Noah was the son of Lamech, who named him Noah because he would bring rest from toil on the land which God had cursed (a reference to the curse God placed on the earth following the expulsion from Eden). In his five hundredth year Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. When Noah was six hundred years old, God, saddened at the wickedness of mankind, decided to send a great deluge to destroy all life. But he saw that Noah was a righteous man, and instructed him to build an ark and gather himself and his family with every type of animal, male and female. And so the Flood came, and all life was extinguished, except for those who were with Noah, “and the waters prevailed upon the earth for one-hundred and fifty days” until the Ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. There Noah built an altar to God (the first altar mentioned in the Bible) and made an offering. “And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odour, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease’.”
The righteousness of Noah is the subject of much discussion among the rabbis. The description of Noah as “righteous in his generation” implied to some that his perfection was only relative: In his generation of wicked people, he could be considered righteous, but in the generation of a tzadik like Abraham, he would not be considered so righteous. They point out that Noah did not pray to God on behalf of those about to be destroyed, as Abraham prayed for the wicked of Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, Noah is never seen to speak; he simply listens to God and acts on his orders. This led such commentators to offer the figure of Noah as “the man in a fur coat,” who ensured his own comfort while ignoring his neighbour. Others, such as the medieval commentator Rashi, held on the contrary that the building of the Ark was stretched over 120 years, deliberately in order to give sinners time to repent.
Each time I read this story I marvel at the opportunities for commentary and the many different paths down which we could take this story. Maybe that is the lesson here in this moment of pre-history. Its not about the literal truth, its about the creativity and imagination which we bring to our reading.
As Ben Bag Bag said in the Talmud … Hafoch Ba V’Hafoch Ba D’chilu Ba…Turn it over and over again. It is a multi-faceted story that can be interpreted from a million different viewpoints. Most importantly, every religious tradition pulls from this story. From the Gilgamesh epic of Akkadian culture to Islam and its many references to the story of Noah’s righteousness, every religious community has lay claim to this story.
I have often wondered of late how many of us have really read this sacred text … cover to cover. It should be our goal to read the books of the Bible, beginning to end. It is not a lofty goal, but one from which we will be infinitely rewarded. No one is too young or too old to begin. As this year begins, set aside some time to read and explore the depth and breadth of Judaism. Explore the texts and the traditions and maybe you too will become one of the righteous of your generation.