Parasha Noah

Parashat Noah stands apart from the rest of the Torah in its focus on humanity as a whole. True, we rehearsed our stories of creation last week, but chapters 6-11 of Genesis are the Torah's most extended consideration of the depraved state of humanity before narrowing its gaze to the family of Avram and then to the nation of Israel. The Torah's vision of humanity is realistic-a mixture of pessimism about the power of destructive desire and of hope that the regenerative forces of nature will inspire humans to rebuild the world and create a hardy form of civilization.

Our ancient Sages see in 8:21 divine recognition of the difficulty of overcoming evil. In Avot d'Rabbi Natan (a companion or commentary to Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers), he observes that children are different from young animals. Animals, they claim, instinctively avoid danger, but young humans run toward it, driven apparently by the evil inclination. I don't know whether this theory of socio-biology is accurate, but it is true that humans are drawn to danger and self-destruction and require constant training, first from parents and ultimately from themselves, in order to pursue virtue and health. 

Judaism could easily have become an evangelical religion, seeking to "save" humanity by promoting its program among the nations (as did Christianity and then Islam), but instead it bequeathed to the world a minimal program of seven natural laws (commonly referred to as the Noahide Laws). Indeed, in the Talmud Sanhedrin 58b, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, known as theReish Lakish (one of the Talmud's most prominent transmitters until it became "written"), deduces something quite alarming in reference to the final verse of chapter 8. In that verse (22), God promises that the natural rhythms of the seasons will never cease, "yishbotu." Reish Lakish takes this verse to refer not only to the natural world, but to natural law for humanity and strangely concludes that "idolaters" are "forbidden to rest". An idolater (gentile?) who rests is "liable to die." Rambam takes this quite literally-gentiles are not allowed to study Torah or observe the mitzvot beyond the Noahide laws and are especially forbidden to observe Shabbat. This is quite perplexing-what could be the harm? Isn't Israel supposed to be a light to the nations? Also, doesn't the Torah forbid Jews from asking gentiles to perform labor on Shabbat, and doesn't it include "your servants" in the blessing of Sabbath rest?

Rashi defends the right of gentiles to rest on Shabbat (and of Christians to rest on Sunday). He understands Reish Lakish to prohibit not the devotional rest of a Sabbath, but indolence. Idolaters who are indolent-who don't work-will die, because work is required for a full life. Jews apparently are not in any danger of indolence given their rigorous 613 mitzvot. Rabbi Barukh HaLevi Epstein develops this line in his commentary Torah Temimah (published in 1902), and applies it also to Jews. Hard work is necessary in order to invest life with purpose and vigor. Performing mitzvot and studying Torah is, for Jews, an important component of a healthy life, but all people, even the wealthy, must work in order to live. 

All of this is a worthy message as we leave the festival season behind and apply ourselves to the great tasks of this academic year. So, I wish you a restful Shabbat...and productive weeks and months ahead.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham