Thursday, 19 Oct 2023

Written by Nicola Feuchtwang

I had hoped to reflect amusingly on arks (floating) and arcs (rainbow), but as I write the world is still reeling in the wake of the Hamas attacks on southern Israel on 7th October, and there is nothing picturesque or pretty about the horrors which have taken place, and which are still unfolding.  Even more terrifying – if that is possible – is the awareness that this may be just the beginning of an escalation into regional and possibly global conflict with cataclysmic consequences for humanity and ‘civilisation’ as we know it.

“God saw the earth and it was corrupt…

…and God said to Noah: ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with hamas because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth….’”  (Genesis 6:12-13)

Hamas: Long before it became the acronym for an Islamic Resistance Movement, the word existed in many languages.  It means ‘Zeal’ in Arabic, ‘Enthusiasm’ in Urdu; elsewhere it can have the sense of ‘something that lasts forever’.

In Hebrew, however, hamas has never had any positive connotation whatsoever.  It is the personal injury Sarah perceives when Hagar achieves the pregnancy she herself craves; the mindless behaviour of two of Jacob’s sons which he recalls on his deathbed; the culpable failure to nourish a vine. From our earliest beginnings, hamas has meant injustice, ruthlessness, lawlessness, physical and ethical violence; reason for God to regret (n-h-m) having created humankind (Genesis 6: 6-7).

N-h-m:  An intriguing Hebrew root, which at its core is about change in affective state.  The semantic field includes the meaning ‘to be sorry or suffer grief as a result of one’s own doings’.  Here then, in the prelude to the flood myth, is the bold suggestion that perhaps even God has feelings, as it were, and that extreme human behaviour can effect change in those feelings, with catastrophic result.

In this week’s parasha, Noah is instructed to build the floating sanctuary which will preserve him and a few selected people and creatures from the imminent destruction.  Noah may be described as a ‘righteous’ man, but he is no hero:  he obeys instructions, he does not challenge God. He does not advocate or negotiate on behalf of his species, nor do we have any hint in the biblical account that he attempts to bring about change, to persuade anyone else to mend their ways in the hope of altering the Divine plan.  The outcome – flood and death – is portrayed as inevitable.  Noah himself may survive the waters of the flood, but he will subsequently ‘drown’ his sorrows and his consciousness in alcohol.

And yet…even within this narrative, there is perhaps a hint of hope, for we also read that after the near obliteration of the world, whether because of the impact of the destruction itself or just perhaps ‘soothed’ by the aroma of Noah’s sacrifice,

“…God resolved: ‘Never again will I doom the earth because of humankind…’ “ (Gen 8:21).

Not until ten generations later do we find a person who dares to challenge a divine plan of destruction, albeit unsuccessfully.  Abraham not only negotiates (‘…what if there are only 40 righteous people, or only 30….?’) but has the affrontery to question the whole basis of the plan:

“Do you really intend to wipe out the innocent together with the guilty?….
Will the Judge of all the earth not act justly?…” (Gen 18:23, 25)

And not until Moses is there a recorded confrontation, invoking both divine mercy and divine reputation, which successfully averts disaster:

“God renounced (vayyinahem) the punishment planned for the people…”

The implication is that human endeavour can influence divine intention to our advantage, not just our detriment.  Does this represent an evolution in the human relationship with God, or in the divine capacity for empathy and change, or merely in our understanding of it?

The scholar and author Judy Klitsner invites us to pay particular attention to resonances of language between different biblical texts, in order to discover both parallels and divergences which can be illuminating.1 For Noah is not the only imperfect non-heroic biblical character whose story tells of human atrocity, divine destructive intent, a lot of water and a sanctuary from it, as well as what we would now term post-traumatic stress, to mention but a few shared features.  Klitsner argues that the story of Jonah is a ‘Subversive Sequel’ to that of Noah, for Jonah’s mission is successful despite his reluctance, in that at the instance of Nineveh’s ruler:

“…Let everyone turn from their evil way and from the injustice (hamas) of which they are guilty…
…and God renounced (vayyinahem) the punishment which had been planned for them and did not carry it out.” (Jonah 3: 8, 10)

Whatever our personal theology, it may be possible to take some comfort (nechama) from the recognition that even within our foundational texts, the longer-term outcome of hamas is not inevitable.  For if we dare to assert that mere humans can cause change in the God in whose image we identify ourself, we have to believe that we too can change ourselves and the world for the better.

In the words of Nachman of Bratslav, whose very name includes the ‘n-h-m’ of positive change and comfort:

“May it be Your will, Eternal God, that war and bloodshed be abolished from the world, that a great and wondrous peace rule forever, that never again shall nation lift up sword against nations, and never again shall they train for war.

But may all who dwell on earth recognise and understand the basic truth, that we have not come into this world for strife and division, nor for hatred and jealousy, contrariness and bloodshed….”

Kein yehi ratson.  May such be the Divine will.

Nicola Feuchtwang LBC student rabbi

1Ḳlitsner, Judy.  Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other. Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd., 2011. Introduction & Chapter 1.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.