Parshah Summary – P’shat
The parshah opens with the description of Noah as an ish tzaddik, a righteous and pure person, and God expresses displeasure to Noah with the world which has become consumed by violence and corruption. God tells Noah that a flood is coming, and that he should build an ark to float upon the water, saving Noah and his family, along with members of each animal species. Rain falls for 40 days and nights, and the waters churn for 150 days more before calming and beginning to recede. When the ark settles on Mount Ararat, Noah dispatches a raven, and then a series of doves, “to see if the waters have subsided from the face of the earth.” When the ground dries completely, exactly one year after the onset of the Flood, God tells Noah to exit the ark and begin repopulating the earth.
Noah builds an altar and offers sacrifices. God swears never again to destroy humanity because of their deeds, and sets the rainbow in the sky as a testimony of the new covenant with human beings. God also commands Noah regarding the sacredness of life: murder is explicitly forbidden, and while humans are permitted to eat the meat of animals, they are forbidden to eat flesh or blood taken from a living animal.
Noah plants a vineyard, makes wine, and becomes drunk. Two of Noah’s sons, Shem and Yaphet, are blessed for covering up their father, while his third son, Ham, is punished for behaving inappropriately in the presence of his drunk and naked father, though his precise offense is not explicitly described.
The descendants of Noah remain a single people, with a single language and culture, for ten generations. Then they try to build a great tower to symbolize their own invincibility; God confuses their language so that “one does not comprehend the tongue of the other,” causing them to abandon their project and disperse across the face of the earth, splitting into seventy nations. The parshah concludes with a chronology of the ten generations from Noah to Abram (who becomes Abraham), and the latter’s journey from his birthplace of Ur Casdim to Haran, on the way to the land of Canaan.
Torah of Awakening
וַיֵּ֥ט מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־יָד֖וֹ עַל־הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם וַיְהִ֧י חֹֽשֶׁךְ־אֲפֵלָ֛ה בְּכׇל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם שְׁלֹ֥שֶׁת יָמִֽים׃ לֹֽא־רָא֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אָחִ֗יו וְלֹא־קָ֛מוּ אִ֥ישׁ מִתַּחְתָּ֖יו שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים וּֽלְכׇל־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָ֥יָה א֖וֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם׃
Moses held out his hand toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and no one could rise from their place for three days; but for the Children of Israel, there was light in their dwellings...
- Shemot (Exodus) 10:22, 23
לֹֽא־רָא֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אָחִ֗יו וְלֹא־קָ֛מוּ אִ֥ישׁ מִתַּחְתָּ֖יו – People could not see one another, and no one could rise from their place… On this verse, the rabbi of Ger said, “When a person refuses to see the other, they soon get to the point of cleaving to their place, unable to move.”
The aim of meditation is to relax the movement of the mind, to see from a place of stillness. This perspective of spacious repose is the opposite of refusing to see the other; Presence is a letting go of any fixed point of view, and simply meeting the moment as it arises. The immobility referred to in this teaching, however, is not stillness of mind, but deadness of heart; it is a crisis of connection. The shutting down of the heart is a natural, self-protective response to violence and trauma, but if it persists, it can be deadly. At such times, the stillness of meditation may not be enough to awaken the heart back to aliveness.
This is reflected in the halakhah concerning the Amidah. As the center of Jewish prayer, the Amidah is a meditative practice which should be intoned quietly, while the body stands attentive and relatively still. Ideally, one should not interrupt the Amidah for almost anything, but rather stay focused for the duration of the prayer. However, there are certain circumstances under which one must interrupt one’s Amidah. In the Talmud (Berakhot 33a), there is a discussion about when it is permissible and even mandatory to interrupt one’s praying of the Amidah:
אֲפִילּוּ נָחָשׁ כָּרוּךְ עַל עֲקֵבוֹ, לֹא יַפְסִיק. אָמַר רַב שֵׁשֶׁת: לֹא שָׁנוּ אֶלָּא נָחָשׁ אֲבָל עַקְרָב — פּוֹסֵק
Even if a snake is wrapped around one’s heel, one may not stop one’s prayer. Rav Sheshet said: They only taught this with regard to a snake, but with a scorpion, one stops.
There is a hassidic teaching that the “snake” and the “scorpion” are actually metaphors. The snake represents desire and passion, while the scorpion represents the opposite: lifeless apathy. So, when it says that the “snake is wrapped around one’s heel,” this alludes to one being disturbed by thoughts and feelings of desire. For example, you’re trying to focus on the sacred words of the prayer, and suddenly you get hungry and your mind is filled with thoughts of food. In this case, there’s no need to stop davening, because the desire you feel for the food isn’t a bad thing; all you have to do is redirect its energy into the prayer. In fact, the desire is actually a wonderful gift, because it is raw energy that you can use to bring the prayer to life. This is one of the core principles of hassidic teaching: the elevation of desire – a kind of inner alchemy.
On the other hand, if a scorpion approaches you, this means the opposite of passion; you are simply saying meaningless words with no life in them. In that case, you should stop the prayer and do something to awaken your aliveness first. But how do we awaken our aliveness, when the traumas of the world cause us to shut down and lose our taste for life?
אֵ֚לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃
This is the line of Noah; Noah was whole and good (ish tzaddik), embodying trust and simplicity (tamim) in his generation; Noah walked with Elohim… - Bereisheet (Genesis) 6:9
Noah is described as a צַדִּיק tzaddik – the opposite of one whose heart is shut down. To be a tzaddik is to live from your heart in service of the Whole. Further, he is described as תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹֽרֹתָיו tamim hayah b’dorotav. Tamim means simple, direct, whole-hearted, uncomplicated. B’dorotav, “in his generation,” clarifies that he was tamim toward other people, accepting them as they are, not seeding conflict.
תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה tamim hayah – “Trusting and simple he was…” The key to all this is הָיָה hayah, the verb “to be,” which consists of letters from the Divine Name. Everything is part of Being, part of the Divine, so the tzaddik receives the moment from the hands of God; this is the practice of meditation. But the end of the verse offers the key for how to do this, even when our hearts have shut down:
אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ – Noah walked with Elohim… The key is “walking.” When we are overcome with darkness, physical movement is a Divine gift that will reawaken your heart. Walking, swimming, yoga, whatever. The body is the temple of consciousness; if we find ourselves stuck in depression, anxiety or any other negative mind state, stop your sitting meditation and get some exercise, then come back to meditation, to the stillness of tamim hayah – receiving the moment from the hands of God with an awakened heart.
This week begins the new moon of Heshvan, the eighth month, and is associated with water and rain, since the traditional prayers for rain began on Shmini Atzeret. Heshvan is also the month in which the flood began, according to the parshah, and it comes as we are experiencing our own destructive “flood” in this time of war. Heshvan is also associated with the Zodiac sign of Scorpio – the sign of the scorpion, the symbol of spiritual deadness. The traditional idiom for Heshvan is Mar Heshvan, that is, “bitter” Heshvan, as it is the month with no holiday celebrations.
But in Kabbalah, water is also associated with awakening passion and desire for life, since water causes seemingly dead things to sprout and grow. Further, when we reverse the letters of mar, we have ram – “elevated,” or “transcendent.” In this time of much death and destruction, may we find the balance of stillness and movement to awaken our hearts and bodies to this gift of life that transcends the bitterness; may that balance manifest as beauty, harmony and peace in the world, speedily, in our day.
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