Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with violence (hamas).” (Genesis 6:11).

This week we read the story of Noah and the great flood which destroyed most of humanity. God decides that humanity is filled with violence and lawlessness. The Hebrew word for violence is hamas. Now we know how Hamas, the terrorist group that rules Gaza and conducted a vicious attack against Israel, got its name.
The violence and cruelty perpetrated against Israel on Simchat Torah, one of Judaism’s most joyous holidays, defies description. Killing over a thousand innocent souls, many of them teens at a music festival, slaughtering babies in front of their parents, and kidnapping hundreds of others, defies description. It shows the barbarity that humans are capable of. Small wonder that God regrets ever creating humanity. Humans are capable of such horrible violence and cruelty.
What is sad is how many intellectuals in our country defended the Hamas terror. At America’s most prestigious university, Harvard, 34 student groups signed a letter placing the entire blame on Israel. I am pleased that many of Harvard’s largest donors have publicly said they will cease all donations. But many other major universities such as Penn and Stanford also had prominent groups of students and faculty defending Hamas. The Chicago chapter of Black Lives Matter put out a proclamation claiming that the terrorists were justified. (They soon retracted it.) My wife and I have been visiting our daughter and her family in the Charlotte, NC area. During our visit, there was a very public demonstration locally of Palestinian supporters in favor of the terrorists.
Violence seems to exist as a deep part of human nature. I am writing this from Charlotte–Douglas Airport. At the security line were multiple signs warning against violence and verbal threats. There were also signs warning against carrying firearms. The very fact that we have to wait in long security lines to fly on an airplane demonstrates the violence humans are capable of.
What should one do about violence? Jewish tradition is clear. The Talmud teaches, “If someone rises up to attack you, rise up and attack them first” (Sanhedrin 72a). Self-defense is justified by Jewish law. Israel faces some difficult choices, but it must do whatever is necessary to protect its citizens. What about the innocent lives of Palestinians who live in the Gaza? Obviously, Israel must do its best to prevent civilian casualties. But Hamas has deliberately placed its rocket launchers and dug tunnels into Israel in the midst of the civilian population. They are responsible for the violence against their own people.
After reading the story of the flood and the violence that humans perpetrate on one another, one can ask the question, why did God save Noah and his family? Why not destroy humanity altogether? Perhaps God’s hope was that humanity would change its ways after Noah. God explicitly gave Noah a law forbidding bloodshed. “Whoever sheds human blood, By human [hands] shall that one’s blood be shed; For in the image of God Was humankind made.” (Genesis 9:6)
Can humanity change? Can we overcome our natural tendency towards cruelty and violence? Is human nature malleable? That is the of the true lesson of the Torah’s story of Noah. That is the hope of Scripture. A new humanity can be reborn without cruelty and violence in their hearts. Unfortunately, it has not come true in our lifetimes. We can only pray for the day when hatred and brutality will disappear from the earth.

“I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.” (Genesis 9:13)
Who can forget the scene from The Muppet Movie where Kermit the frog, sitting at the edge of the swamp playing a banjo, sings, “Why are there so many songs about rainbows?” It continues with the lovely words, “Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection, the lovers, the dreamers, and me.” The rainbow is the symbol of Kermit’s dream. He will one day leave the swamp.
Most experts believe the greatest song to ever appear in a movie was Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz. Rainbows are powerful symbols of the human dream for something better. Most people do not know that the song was written by two Jewish young men, music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Yip Harburg. It reflects their dream that America would be a better place than the Europe from which their families came. Rainbows symbolize a better place.
According to an old Irish legend, there is a pot of gold buried at the end of the rainbow. The pot of gold is guarded by leprechauns. In the classic Broadway musical Finian’s Rainbow, an Irish immigrant comes to the American south after stealing that pot of gold from a leprechaun. The lyrics to the show were written by the same Yip Harburg, and contains such classic songs as “How are things in Glocca Mora” and “That Old Devil Moon.” But one of the most beautiful songs is “Look to the Rainbow” – “Look, look, look to the rainbow, follow the fellow who follows a dream.”
In this week’s portion, the rainbow is a powerful symbol. God makes a covenant with Noah that he will never again bring a flood upon the earth. The rainbow is the symbol of that covenant. It is a reminder of God’s promise to humanity. Jewish tradition says that when we see a rainbow, we should recite a blessing. “Praised are You Lord our God King of the Universe, Who remembers the covenant, is faithful to the covenant, and keeps His word.” Rainbows touch our hearts in a unique way. We will run outside to look at a rainbow whenever it appears in the sky.
We humans are drawn to rainbows. In 1971, Jesse Jackson founded the Rainbow Push Coalition to seek racial justice. More recently, the rainbow has become the symbol of LGBTQ+ rights. A rainbow flag has become a powerful emblem of pride for those seeking equal rights for all people, regardless of sexual orientation. It was first created by Gilbert Baker in 1978 to fly in San Francisco’s gay pride parade.
Why has a rainbow become such a powerful symbol? It is more than the beauty of seven colors spread out in an arch. (In reality there are six colors, indigo is a kind of purple, but in the Middle Ages the number 7 had mystical significance.) A rainbow is multi-colored, but at its root is white light. Acting as a prism, the raindrops cause the light to separate into beautiful colors. A rainbow symbolizes difference, but at its root is a unity. We may all look different, have different nationalities and religions and sexual orientations. But beneath it all is an underlying unity.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 4:5) says this explicitly. A human being creates a stamp to make coins, and every coin is the same as every other one. God made humans beings from a single stamp (Adam and Eve), and yet each one of us is different and unique. We may differ but beneath it all, there exists a fundamental unity. Deep down, we are one.
Let us celebrate the beauty of a rainbow. It symbolizes the dream of a better place. It leads us to pot of gold. It is a sign of God’s promise to humanity. But at its heart, the rainbow is proof that beneath our diversity is a fundamental unity. We are One. After all, we were created by the One God.

“These are the lines of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah; sons were born to them after the flood.” (Genesis 10:1)
Noah and his wife had three sons, and according to the Biblical tradition, all humanity descended from these three. Nonetheless, the Bible treats each of the three differently, leading to some of the divisions among people which remain until our own time.
Shem is the first born, and the progenitor of the most important line, at least according to the Biblical account. Abraham was his direct descendent after ten generations, and so he began the spiritual tradition which would lead to the great Abrahamic religious traditions of the West. Jewish tradition teaches that together with his great grandson Eber, Shem founded the first yeshiva (a center for spiritual learning.) According to the Midrash, after the binding of Isaac, Isaac did not return home with his father but rather sent to study at the Yeshiva of Shem and Eber.
The word Semite comes from the name Shem, as does the unfortunate phrase anti-Semite. Shem is clearly viewed as the father of the spiritual traditions of humanity. Noah would bless his oldest son with the words, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem” (Genesis 9:26). The second son, or according to one verse the youngest son, Ham was not so lucky. He (or at least his son Canaan) is cursed by his Noah.
After leaving the ark, Noah plants a vineyard, makes wine, becomes drunk, and falls into a drunken stupor in his tent with his private parts uncovered. The Torah says in a euphemistic way that Ham sees the nakedness of his father. The other two sons Shem and Japheth walk in backwards and cover up their father. When Noah wakes up, he realizes what Ham has done and curses both Ham and Ham’s son Canaan. “Cursed be Canaan, the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers” (Genesis 9:25).
We do not know the precise nature of Ham’s sin, or why Noah curses his grandson Canaan. We do know that one of the other sons of Ham is named Kush, a word that means Ethiopian. Kush refers to people with black skin. Later, Moses’ sister Miriam would attack Moses for having a black wife (Kushite, Numbers 12:1.) As I explained in my Yom Kippur sermon on racism, these passages became the basis of those who would defend enslaving people based on the color of their skin. Shakespeare put it best in his play The Merchant of Venice, “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.”
As a professor of philosophy, I find the son Japheth to be the most fascinating. Jewish tradition considers him the first philosopher. He was the father of Yavan, the Biblical name for Greece. The word Japheth comes from a Hebrew term meaning beauty, and the Greeks were known for their worship of beauty. Japheth receives a blessing from Noah, “May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27). One can interpret this to mean that the spiritual values of Shem can be enhanced by the philosophical values of Japheth.
Jewish tradition has longed embraced philosophy as a means of enhancing the religious tradition. Philosophers as varied as Philo, Saadia, Maimonides, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Joseph Ber Soloveitchik have combined Greek philosophy with Jewish religious teachings. The Talmud itself contains a fascinating passage. In general, the rabbis looked askance at translations of the Torah into foreign languages. The only exception is the translation into Greek. In support of writing Torah scrolls in Greek, the Talmud quotes this passage regarding Japheth (Megillah 9b).
Noah’s three sons become the progenitors of three types of peoples. Shem’s descendants become the spiritual leaders including the Jewish people. Ham’s descendants become the servants, and some would defend slavery because of Ham. Japheth’s descendants would become the Greeks and introduce the philosophical tradition to the world. Here we have a story of three brothers, each with a different spiritual destiny.

“Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat, as with the green grasses I give you these.” (Genesis 9:3)
I have many friends who are vegetarian, avoiding meat, chicken, and fish. I give them credit for their self-discipline. I have other friends who keep a stricter vegan diet, avoiding eggs, milk, and all animal products. (I still have not received a clear answer whether vegans will eat honey on Rosh Hashana.) Those who follow these diets are healthier than those of us who, to quote the Torah, “lust after flesh” (Deuteronomy 12:20). And yet I will admit that I love a piece of baked salmon, fried chicken, or now and again when my wife allows it, a good steak.
This raises an important ethical question. Should we be allowed to eat meat? In the Garden of Eden we were vegetarians, eating only fruits and vegetables. According to the prophet Isaiah, when the messiah comes even animals will be vegetarians. “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid” (Isaiah 11:6). Nonetheless, in this week’s portion after Noah leaves the ark, God permits him and his family to eat meat. He is only warned not to eat the blood. (This is the basis of the Jewish practice of removing as much blood as possible by soaking and salting or by broiling.) Orthodox Jews have told me, if God gives you permission to do something, is it not arrogant to refuse to do it? On the other hand, the first chief rabbi of the Jewish settlement in Israel, Abraham Isaac Kook, advocated a vegetarian diet. He taught that God only allowed the eating of meat because of the low moral level of the generation of Noah.
Is it ethical to eat meat? Many modern ethicists say no. One prominent philosopher is Peter Singer, who taught that to favor humans over animals is speciesism, no different from racism. He was a utilitarian who taught that ethics is about minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure. The pleasure of eating meat cannot justify the pain to animals. Philosopher Tom Regan takes a different approach, based on the teaching of Immanuel Kant. Kant taught that people should be treated as subjects and not objects. So too, animals are subjects of their own lives and not objects for human pleasure.
These are powerful arguments. But in philosophy, there are always arguments on both sides. Benjamin Franklin, when asked about eating fish, famously said “I will stop eating fish when they stop eating each other.” Perhaps Franklin was implying that eating flesh is built into nature, including the nature of human beings. After all, God did give us four incisor teeth and the ability to digest meat. But because we can eat meat does not necessarily mean we should eat meat.
There is a fascinating argument for eating meat brought by some philosophers that hearkens back to Noah and the ark. The important point for humans is the survival of species, not individual animals. Philosopher Ronald Dworkin has observed, “We tend to treat distinct animal species (though not individual animals) as sacred. We think it very important, and worth a considerable economic expense, to protect endangered species from destruction.” Michael Pollan, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) uses this approach. He describes how he read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation while eating a steak dinner. Out of the cognitive dissonance of that moment, he thought about a defense for eating meat. He quoted something written by Leslie Stephen in the 1800’s, “The pig has a stronger interest than anyone in the demand for bacon. If all the world were Jewish, there would be no pigs at all.” Animal species flourish because we eat them. But Pollan makes another important point; we must find ways to limit the factory farming and other suffering we inflict on the animals we eat. Reforms of the way we raise animals for meat is something that meat eaters and vegetarians can agree on.
The Jewish dietary laws are meant to limit the eating of animals and also limit the suffering of those animals we do eat. For those who choose to eat meat, these laws can give some powerful guidance.


“Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat, as with the green grasses, I give you all of these.  You shall not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.”  (Genesis 9:3 – 4)

Is it ethical to eat the flesh of animals, or should we become vegetarian?  And if we should not eat animals, is it ethical to eat the products of animals like milk and eggs, or should we become vegan?  Is it proper for a Jew to put on tefillin each morning made of leather straps, a clear product of animal flesh?  I am not referring to whether a vegan diet is healthy – it obviously is.  I am referring to whether eating animals is unethical.  There is a passionate debate over this issue going on in our culture.

In the Garden of Eden, we humans were expected to be vegetarians.  There was no permission to eat flesh.  In the Messianic times even animals will become vegetarian.  The lion will lie down with the lamb.  Nonetheless, after Noah and his family leave the ark, God gives them clear permission to eat animals.  It is a divine compromise.  Later the Torah will speak about how we humans lust after flesh, and therefore we are allowed to eat flesh.  The Jewish dietary laws put a clear limitation on what animals can be eaten and how they are to be killed for food.  Still, much of the Torah deals with worshipping God through animal sacrifice.

There is a long argument in the Western philosophical tradition about eating animals.  Immanuel Kant believed that since animals cannot reason, they have a lower status than humans.  Therefore, we are permitted to eat them.  On the other hand, the utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham taught that although animals cannot reason, they can suffer.  Therefore, anything that causes pain to animals is wrong.  The Australian born philosopher Peter Singer built a strong utilitarian case against eating or even using animals to meet human needs.  In his 1975 book Animal Liberation, he coined the term “speciesism.”  To favor our species above another is as bad as favoring our race or gender above another.  Speciesism is comparable to racism or sexism.

On the other hand, many traditional Jews argue that if God gave us permission to eat meat, it is the height of arrogance to refuse.  God said yes, so who are we to say no?  Secular thinkers have also given arguments for the permissibility of eating meat.  Benjamin Franklin famously said that he would stop eating fish when they stop eating each other.  It is the way of nature for animals to eat other animals.  As Lord Alfred Tennyson famously wrote, “nature red in tooth and claw.”  We too are part of nature and should be permitted to eat animals.

There is one fascinating argument that grows out of the Noah story.  Noah’s job was to save each species, not each individual animal.  It is in the interest of each animal species to flourish, and when humans raise species of animals for food, those are the species that flourish.  Philosopher Ronald Dworkin observed, “We tend to treat distinct animal species (though not individual animals) as sacred.”   Michael Pollan, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) uses this argument in his book.  He actually quotes an earlier writer who said, “The pig has a stronger interest than anyone in the demand for bacon.  If all the world were Jewish, there would be no pigs at all.”  (This was written at a time when Jews were strict about not eating pork.)

There is one more teaching that comes out of the Noah story.  Eating animals is permitted but cruelty to animals is forbidden.  One of the seven laws God gave Noah is to never eat the flesh of a living animal, because it is cruel.  In our day, among those of us who do eat meat, how can we make the raising of animals for consumption less painful.  There are too many stories about animals being raised for food under cruel conditions.  Even non-vegetarians must search for ways to make the eating of animals less cruel.

“All the fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the sky broke open.” (Genesis 7:11)
Shortly my newest book Three Creation Stories will be published by Wipf and Stock, publishers out of Eugene, OR. The book gives three very different interpretations of the creation story in Genesis, leading to three very different understandings of reality. The middle of the three interpretations is a materialist understanding of the universe. Everything is matter. But that matter is moving from chaos to order.
In truth, I believe this is the most accurate translation of the first chapter of Genesis. In the beginning are the untamed waters, which signify chaos. (Think about the horrible tsunami which struck Indonesia last week.) God’s spirit hovers over those chaotic waters. Then slowly, day by day, chaos turns into order. In fact, I translated the words “there was evening and there was morning” into “there was chaos and there was order.” The Hebrew word for evening – erev – comes from a root meaning “mixed up;” the Hebrew word for morning – boker – comes from a root meaning “made distinct.” God took the chaotic waters, representing all matter, and brought them under control. There are numerous other places throughout the Bible that speak of God bringing the chaotic waters under control.
What I like about this explanation is that it seems to match the scientific understanding of reality. Originally after the Big Bang, there was a plasma, a confused mix of quarks and leptons. Eventually hydrogen atoms were formed, which clumped into stars, creating fusion and becoming helium atoms. As the stars burnt out and exploded, more and more complex atoms were formed. Eventually, at least on one planet, these atoms formed long chains of molecules that evolved into life. It is a story of going from the disordered to the orderly, from chaos to order. God is the force that leads the matter of the universe from chaos to order.
Then we come to the story of Noah. Evil has spread the world. God regrets the world that God made. In creation God separated the upper from the lower waters, the beginning of a series of separation. In the Noah story God reverses the separation. He opens up the lower waters of the deep and the upper waters of the sky, causing the waters to co-mingle and chaos to reign once more. Evil brings the return to chaos in the world. Only this time it is the behavior of human beings who are the ultimate cause of that chaos.
What a powerful image this provides for our own times. God is working to turn chaos into order while we humans are taking God’s orderly world and turning it back into chaos. We are the cause of destruction. After World War I with its huge death toll in the trenches, several poets tried to put into words this horrible return to chaos. My favorite such poem, which I often quote, is W.B. Yeats “The Second Coming.” You can feel the chaos descending through Yeats powerful words. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
Another longer and perhaps more famous poem is T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” He calls a section of the poem “Death by Water.” To quote a short passage of Eliot, “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, and the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief. And the dry stone no sound of water. … I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” These poets saw the brutality of World War I, but they probably could not even imagine what would happen in World War II. Unfortunately, as we entered the twenty-first century, anarchy is still loosed on the world.
God brings order out of chaos. Too often humans create chaos out of order. As we read about Noah and the flood, we need to remember that we are God’s partners in bringing order out of chaos.

“In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.” (Genesis 7:11)
Today I want to share an insight which I heard from one of my students in my weekly Bible class, who heard it from one of her family members. I like to give proper credit, but I do not know who came up with this idea. Whoever you are, thank you. Modern science teaches that the world is made of tiny particles called atoms which combine into molecules. But the ancient Greeks going back to Aristotle taught that the world was made of four fundamental elements – earth, water, air, and fire. Other ancient peoples in Egypt, India, and China came up with similar ideas.
According to ancient teachings, these elements combine in various combinations to create everything that exists. For example, Aristotle taught that hot things are a combination of fire and air. Cold things are a combination of water and earth. Dry things are a combination of fire and earth. Wet things are a combination of air and water. Aristotle taught that there was a fifth more spiritual substance called aether or quintessence. Obviously, this falls far short of modern science, but this mythical picture can give us insights about reality.
To make a universe, God had to gain control of each of these four fundamental elements. Without God’s intervention, each of the elements would turn chaotic and go out of control. In truth, this image of God controlling chaos is probably closer to the Biblical meaning of Genesis than God’s creation from nothing. Most explicit is the image of God bringing the waters under control. The Bible speaks of God hovering over the water, and then separating the upper from the lower waters. In the book of Job, God speaks to the oceans of the world with these words, “Thus far shall you come, but no further; and here shall your proud waves be stayed” (Job 38:11). God tames the waters, bringing the wildness of water under control.
Now comes the insight. In recent days, chaos has reigned for each of these four elements. Earth became chaotic; ask the people of Mexico City. Water became chaotic: ask the people of Houston. Air in the form of wind became chaotic: ask the people of Puerto Rico. And of course this past week, fire became chaotic; ask the people of beautiful Santa Rosa, California. It is almost like God stepped back and let chaos reign. This is precisely what the Bible says happened in the days of Noah. God did not cause the great flood. God stopped holding the waters back and let the waters above co-mingle once again with the waters below. The forces of chaos are natural forces in the world. In fact, we have a name for them – entropy. Entropy teaches, to quote the great poet William Butler Yeats in The Second Coming, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
God’s job is to overcome forces of chaos. Sometimes it seems that God steps back and let’s chaos reign once again. In Noah’s time humanity was not worthy and so the flood waters came. Our job as human beings is to become God’s partners in overcoming chaos. We must react to the horrible earthquakes and tsunamis, hurricanes and fires, with a question, what can we do to overcome the chaos? How can we bring order into the world? We can do it with our technology, finding better ways for buildings to withstand natural forces and learning to predict such chaotic events. We can do it with compassion, helping each other face these inevitable chaotic events. And as I said on Rosh Hashana, we can do it by realizing that the world is imperfect, and our job is to perfect it as a kingdom of God.
The story of Noah is the story of an imperfect humanity, acting with cruelty towards one another. It is also a story of arrogance, building a tower to make a name for ourselves and challenge God. Today, our story must be one of becoming God’s partners, fighting the forces of chaos to bring order and tranquility to the world.

“All the fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the sky broke open.” (Genesis 7:11)
This week we read the story of Noah, and the great flood that wiped out life on the earth. Only Noah, his family, and the animals in the ark survived the flood. Many traditions have a similar tradition of a great flood inundating the earth, including the classic Akkadian myth of Gilgamesh. This flood was not merely a heavy rainstorm, but something far more. To understand what it was, we ought to go back to the creation story we read last week.
On the second day of creation, God made a separation between the waters. Some of the waters were gathered down below; the Hebrew word mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath, means such a gathering of the water. Some of the waters were gathered above, with an expanse called a rakia holding them in place. According to Jewish tradition, this separation of the waters was marked by a sense of sadness; that is the reason that on the second day the Torah does not say, “God saw that it was good.” In fact, according to the Midrash, the upper waters and the lower waters cried out for one another. (Genesis Rabbah 13:13) But God had the power to keep the waters under control, separated from one another.
To explore this further, let us look at the first day of creation. Before God created light, before God created anything, the Torah says that God’s spirit hovered over the waters. Where did this water come from? There seems to be some sort of primordial water, present from the beginning but extremely chaotic. Most scholars believe that the real message of Genesis is not God creating something out of nothing, but rather God creating order out of chaos. The waters represent utter chaos, and God’s act of creation represents God bringing these chaotic waters under control.
This idea is represented elsewhere in the Bible. For example, in the book of Job God speaks to the oceans of the world with these words, “Thus far shall you come, but no further; and here shall your proud waves be stayed.” (Job 38:11) God tames the waters. This idea also appears in the book of Psalms. “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves arise, you still them.” (Psalms 89:10) When a person is righteous God protects him or her from the waves, “The flood of great waters shall not come near him.” (Psalms 32:6) On the other hand, when God becomes angry at Jonah he causes a great storm that almost overturns the ship carrying Jonah. “But the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship seemed likely to break up.” (Jonah 1:4) The waters represent chaos and the Biblical view is that God can control that chaos, but only when we humans are worthy.
What happens in this week’s story of Noah? Evil besets humanity. God in His frustration at human behavior will no longer control the waters. The firmament, meant to hold the upper waters in their place, burst apart. “The skies opened up” literally. Because of the evil of humanity, chaos was let loose on the world. It is as if, when people are not worthy, God allows the water to go forth and do its damage.
What does this Biblical image have to do with our own times? My favorite poem is William Butler Yeats wonderful The Second Coming, written in reaction to World War I. Yeats wrote, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” It is a clear image of the chaos of this war to end all wars. Yeats did not compare it to water, but I found an interesting book of literary criticism called Quantum Poetics by Daniel Albright. One chapter in the book is “Yeat’s Figures as Reflections in Water.”
When humans behave appropriately anarchy is kept aside, God holds the chaos at bay. When humans behave inappropriately, chaos is unleashed on the world. That is the symbolism of the flood. It is something we humans ought to think about as we consider what global warming may do to our coastlines, and worry whether our behavior will bring forth a new flood in our own time.

“God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.” (Genesis 6:12)
MEMO: From The Holy One; To The Heavenly Hosts; Re. Humanity.
It is now over four millennia since I saw the corruption of humanity and chose to bring a great flood on the earth. I chose one man and his family – Noah – to survive and start all over. I hoped that by starting all over, humanity would become good and moral, decent and humane. I keep waiting, but nothing seems to change.
These past months I have looked out at humanity once again. Corruption, violence, and immorality are almost as frequent as they were in the days before Noah. I look at America, which I always thought was a place where decency would flourish. All I see is non-stop gun violence, with hundreds killed each year. It seems that every few months someone brings a gun onto a college campus, a movie theater, or a house of worship, and kills innocents. There must be something that can be done about the gun violence, but nothing changes. I look at the Holy Land, the place I chose to put my name, and I see human beings randomly stabbing other human beings. Throughout the rest of the world I see bombings, violence and terror.
When I look out at the world, I am sorely tempted to bring another flood. But long ago I promised Noah that I would never destroy the earth with a flood again. Whenever I see a rainbow in the sky, a phenomenon of great natural beauty, I remember that promise I made to Noah. But still I know that floods do threaten low lying cities inhabited by humans. Unfortunately, humans seem to have brought it on themselves by allowing the earth to heat up. Sadly, politicians still argue whether scientists are right or wrong when they speak of the earth heating up.
One of my hopes when I created humanity is that people would learn to be good and kind, help each other and work to make this a better world. So my question to you, O Heavenly Hosts, is what we can do to make human beings good? How do we teach goodness to people who seem to have a tendency to evil? How can we bring out the good in humanity?
Humans themselves have dealt with the question – how do we make people good? For example, there was a philosopher in England named Thomas Hobbes. He taught that human beings, given their nature, are evil all their days. He wrote that life for humans is “solitary, poor, nasty brutish, and short.” Only a very strong government who can punish people will tame these evil impulses. In fact Hobbes called that big, strong government Leviathan, which in my Bible is a giant sea creature. The United States seems to be following Hobbes, filling up their prisons with young people, more so than any Western nation. Yet all those prisons are not making the people of the United States good.
I often hope that religion would be a way to make people good. Certainly much good has been done in the name of religion. I think of the hospitals, orphanages, charity work, and other good deeds done in the name of faith in me. But I also see much hatred and violence performed in the name of religion. Long ago one of my great prophets, Isaiah spoke about people who were pious about their religion but unethical in their personal lives. In fact, Jews around the world chanted his words on their holiest day, Yom Kippur, as the haftarah: “Is not this rather the fast that I have chosen? to loose the chains of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring the poor, who are cast out, to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you hide not yourself from your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:6 – 7) I do not want my people to fast unless their fasting leads to goodness.
So how do we make humanity good? How do we teach them to be kind and feed the hungry, to clothe the naked and find housing for the poor, to speak kindness and love the stranger? How do we develop habits of goodness? That is the most important question we can ask. As God, I present this question to the heavenly hosts. In fact, let me present it to all humanity? I do not wish to bring another flood. But what can we do to teach humanity to shun evil and be good?

“Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent.” (Genesis 9:20 – 21)
The cycle of fall holidays are now over, and life has returned to normal. I am pleased with how everything went. In fact, the biggest complaint I received was about the evening of Simchat Torah. There was no alcohol being served. (There was plenty during the morning of Simchat Torah.) We made a decision a number of years ago that on the evening of Simchat Torah, when the synagogue is filled with hundreds of children and teenagers, we would lock the liquor away. Similarly on the evening of Purim, we conduct services without alcohol. (It is out in the morning.) And Purim is the holiday where it is a mitzvah to drink ad lo yada, “until you do not know the difference” between blessed be Mordecai and cursed be Haman.
For those looking to overindulge on alcohol, there are alternatives. On Simchat Torah evening, the liquor was flowing at the local Chabad synagogues. Similarly on College Campuses, the Hillel will have Shabbat and festival dinners, but the serving of alcohol is strictly controlled. But at the Chabad House on campus, there is plenty of alcohol. Guess which one attracts more students. We are a people who love to drink, and often we love to overdrink.
I will admit that I am not much of a drinker. I have too many memories of getting sick after the first two cups of wine on Passover. I have since learned that I cannot drink red wine; I drink the required four cups of white wine. I will have one mixed drink at a party; at my daughter’s wedding I actually had two drinks. But if the liquor industry depended on me, they would be out of business. But I know plenty of other people who love their alcohol. Liquor stores will never hurt for customers.
How should we view drinking? In this week’s portion alcohol enters the world. Noah gets out of the ark and immediately plants a vineyard. He makes wine, gets drunk, and falls into a drunken stupor, lying uncovered in his tent. Throughout the Torah, whenever the phrase “uncovered his nakedness” appears, it refers to some kind of improper sexual relationship. Something does happen between father and his son Ham, although the Torah is very vague about the details. In the end, Noah curses his son Ham and his grandson Canaan.
Allow me to give another interpretation of the phrase that Noah uncovered himself with his tent. In the Torah, before we ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, we humans were “naked and not ashamed.” Animals, or perhaps young children, run around naked and not ashamed. We were animal-like, until we ate from the Tree and became human. We had the knowledge of how to behave. Perhaps the Torah is hinting that when we start getting drunk, the knowledge falls away. We become animal-like again. Alcohol has the power to take away our humanity. Anybody who has watched people get drunk in a bar or at a party, or seen someone pulled over for drunk driving, knows the truth of this statement.
This does not mean that alcohol is always bad. Judaism has never been a teetotaler religion. Jews did not support Prohibition. The Bible itself says that “Wine gladdens the heart of man.” (Psalms 114:15) We welcome Shabbat and the festival days over a full cup of wine. We use wine for a bris and a wedding ceremony. Many synagogues with a daily morning service end that service with a schnaps, a lechaim over a shot of whiskey. Here we do not do it every day, but I know that we have our Kiddush Club when people disappear during part of the Saturday morning service to raid the liquor cabinet. Alcohol is part of Jewish life.
Perhaps the concern is the potential alcohol has or many people to lose control and become animal-like. This week’s portion is a warning – alcohol in moderation can be good but without self-discipline can be destructive. I know many people who, with the help of organizations like AA, are able to give up alcohol all together. But the temptation is there daily. It is easy to recall the humorous lyrics from Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, “The Lord above made liquor for temptation, to see if man can turn away from sin. But with a little bit of luck, when temptation comes you’ll give right in.”
What makes us human beings rather than animals is that we can fight temptation.

“The Lord said to Himself, Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devising of man’s mind are evil from his youth, nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21)
Each year we come back to the Biblical story of Noah and the ark, the animals and the great flood that destroyed most living things and most of humanity. And each year this portion raises the question – was humanity as evil as the Bible portrays them? Are people, left to their own devices, naturally good or naturally evil?
This fundamental question about the nature of humanity divided Enlightenment thinkers. And it continues to divide people even today. On one hand is the opinion that humans are fundamentally good. This view was most passionately advocated by the Romantic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He famously wrote, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” People are fundamentally good; it is society and culture that corrupts them. Many of the classical tales of humans raised in the wild, from The Jungle Book to Tarzan novels, would have resonated with Rousseau. He advocated an educational program for children based on going back to nature. For after all, children left to their own devices are naturally good. Rousseau disliked the institutions of government, and called for a return to a pure democracy based on the “general will” of the people.
I meet parents following Rousseau all the time. I speak to parents about sending their child to religious school and they answer, “My child prefers not to go. We believe in respecting the choices our children make. After all, children have a natural sense of what is right and what is wrong, what is good for them and what is not. When our children get older, if they choose to pursue a religious education, that is their choice.” Children, and eventually adults, are naturally good when left to their own devices.
The other extreme was the Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes. He believed that people are naturally evil. In a state of nature, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Only society can overcome this state of nature and keep humans under control. In fact, Hobbes was willing to defend the most despotic form of government if it could keep the peace. Hobbes view reminds me of going to synagogue in the former Soviet Union, and saying a prayer for the government. The Talmud teaches something similar, “Rabbi Hanina the chief of the Priests said, Pray for the welfare of the ruling power, for without them people would swallow each other alive.” (Avot 3:2)
I meet parents on this extreme also. They are extremely strict with their children. “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” “Children should be seen and not heard.” They rarely listen to their children, but rather rule with an iron hand. There is usually peace in these homes until at some point, usually the late teen years, when the child totally rebels.
What does the Bible say? Are people naturally good or naturally bad? Was Rousseau or Hobbes correct? This week’s portion leans towards Hobbes. As quoted above, “since the devising of man’s mind are evil from his youth.” After the flood, God realizes the humans created have a deep evil inclination. Aware of human nature, God will not destroy the earth with another flood.
But what is important is that the Bible does not stop there. God then speaks to Noah about how to be good. God outlaws bloodshed and cruelty. Later Judaism would teach that God gives Noah seven fundamental ethical laws, known as the “seven laws of the children of Noah.” People can be taught to be good.
My tradition teaches that humans are born with both an evil and a good inclination. The evil inclination is there from birth. The good inclination is also there, but only as a potential. The role of religion, and for that matter, the role of society, is to teach people to control the evil inclination and to use the good inclination. It is similar to old Native American legend of a man with two wolves on his shoulders, an evil one and a good one. Each argues for its point of view. Which one will the man follow? The one who is fed more often.

“And they said, Come, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach to heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
(Genesis 11:4)
People love to brag about the success of their children and their grandchildren. I hear it all the time. “Rabbi, all three of my children are successful doctors.” “Rabbi, my daughter has a seven figure income in New York.” “Rabbi, my grandson just was accepted to an Ivy League school.” “Rabbi, my daughter is on an accelerated program to earn a Masters in just one extra year.”
I hear these comments and always say, “Congratulations, I am happy for you.” It is wonderful when people have naches from their children and grandchildren. But now and again when I am in a more snarky mood, I want to say. “But tell me, is your child or grandchild a good person?” It is one thing to be successful. It is quite another to be good. I recall the question that radio commentator and lecturer Dennis Prager likes to ask. “Parents, would you rather have a child who is successful? Or would you rather have a child who is good?” Prager fears, and I agree, that too many parents are more concerned with their children’s success than with their children’s goodness. That is why I asked the question in one of my High Holiday sermons, “Would you encourage your child to cheat on a high school chemistry final if it will help him get into a better college?”
The first several chapters of Genesis go through the generations from Adam and Eve to Noah, and eventually to Abraham. These chapters speak about the success of humanity in the area of education and technology. But they also speak about the downfall of humanity when it comes to morality. As we read through Genesis, we see all sorts of creative activity from the invention of musical instruments to the smiting of metal to the building of a giant tower. Certainly the world is filled with successful human beings. But because people are successful does not mean they are good. God looks at these successful people and says, “the inclinations of man’s heart are evil from his youth.” (Genesis 6:5) As technology advanced, morality declined.
The height of human hubris comes towards the end of this week’s portion, when humanity decides to build a giant skyscraper in order to make a name for themselves and challenge God. I imagine some loving grandmother bragging in that time. “Guess what. You know my son, the architect with the big firm in Babel. He has a wonderful project. He is in charge of building the highest tower the world has ever known. It will literally reach to the heavens. No longer will we have to pray to God to find out what is in heaven. We can climb up my grandson’s tower.”
The Midrash explained the evils of the Tower of Babel. If a brick fell off from the upper stories people would become upset; it took so long to get each brick up there. But if a person fell off they did not care; there were plenty of other people around to do the work. The Tower of Babel was technology without morality. And God punished the people, scattering them and confounding their languages.
To be an educated person or a successful professional does not make a person good. To quote the favorite saying of Dr. Shlomo Bardin, the founder of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in California (which I attended as a college student), “a person can be a PhD and an S.O.B.” Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum physics, worked with Hitler on the atomic bomb. Martin Heidegger, one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, never apologized for his support of the Nazis. British academics voted to forbid any Israeli academics to present papers in England, even if the Israelis were supportive of the peace process. Being smart and being successful does not make someone good.
Now and again I have had a grandmother say to me. “Rabbi, my grandson is not real successful. He is struggling in life. But he has such a good heart.” When I hear that I can only smile. Here is a grandmother who recognizes that ultimately goodness is a person’s most important quality.


“Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent.” (Genesis 9:20 – 21)

Like many people I had something to drink on Simchat Torah. One shot of whiskey and one shot of vodka was a fairly high percentage of my total alcohol consumption for the year. I do know people who went to other synagogues and became totally inebriated. Too much alcohol has not been my problem. In fact, I remember the days when the Rabbinical Assembly would have their conventions in the Catskills at the Concord Hotel (May its memory be for a blessing.) The bartenders complained how bad business was at rabbis’ conventions. Too much drinking was not the problem of most rabbis. Too much eating on the other hand …
Most people have some area in their lives where they lack self-control. Most people struggle with the yetzer hara, “the evil inclination” in some area. Most people must face some challenge to overcome their appetite. In this week’s portion, Noah is righteous man in his generation. But he could not control his taste for alcohol. Noah’s first act upon coming out of the ark is to plant a vineyard, make wine, get drunk, and fall into a drunken stupor in his tent. Some kind of improper encounter takes place between Noah and his son Ham (this is the part of the Bible we do not learn in Sunday School.) Noah was unable to control his taste for alcohol.
I love the fact that the Bible is brutally honest about its characters. Whatever the area where the evil inclination might hold sway, someone in the Bible cannot control their appetite. I mentioned the appetite for food (gluttony.) Esau comes home from the hunt and sees his brother making a pot of lentil soup. He is famished. So Esau trades his birthright for a bowl of soup. Here is a perfect example of someone who lusts after food and does not see the long term consequences of fulfilling his appetite.
There are people in the Bible who cannot control their greed – their lust for money. Perhaps the most well-known is Laban, Jacob’s uncle and father-in-law. Laban keeps changing Jacob’s wages. When Jacob finally flees with his wives, Laban’s daughters, Laban is most concerned about the household idols that were stolen. The Midrash teaches that when Laban first meets Jacob, hugging him and kissing him, he was really feeling for jewelry hidden in his pockets and in his teeth. In Laban we have the perfect example of a man blinded by wealth.
Some people cannot control their pride. That is why the Bible teaches, “Pride comes before the fall.” (Proverbs 16:18) Pharaoh was given chance after chance to change his ways, put an end to the Israelite slavery, and let the people go. But Pharaoh was a proud man. His inability to admit when he was wrong led to the destruction of Egypt.
Of course Moses, Pharaoh’s main adversary, had his own problems with self-control. Moses could not control his anger. God tells Moses to speak to the rock and bring forth water to care for a thirsty people. Instead Moses hits the rock twice. He castigates the people, “Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10) As a result of his anger, Moses is not permitted to enter the Promised Land.
The area where many people have the hardest time with self-control is their sexual appetite. Numerous Biblical personalities lose control of their sexual drive. Perhaps the most famous is King David. According to the Midrash, God even warned David that he would be put to the test regarding his sexual appetite. But when David sees Batsheva bathing on a rooftop, he loses control. He has his way with her, gets her pregnant, arranges to have her husband killed, and eventually marries her. In one of the Bible’s most wonderful images of speaking truth to power, the Prophet Nathan confronts David for his transgressions.
Judaism teaches that we each must struggle with our evil inclination. Whether it is alcohol, food, money, pride, anger, or sex, we all have a challenge in some area. As a wise rabbi once taught, “Who is strong? Whoever can control their inclination.”



“For My part, I am about to bring the Flood – waters upon the earth – to destroy all flesh under the sky in which there is breath of life; everything on earth shall perish.”
(Genesis 6:17)

Did the great flood in the time of Noah destroy the dinosaurs? I read a fascinating ultra-Orthodox perspective on that question. But when some of the young people in our religious school asked me the same question, I knew that I must provide an answer. I love the picture of Noah and his family, together with the animals, sitting on the ark while the tyrannosaurus rex and the brontosaurus drown in the waters.
Of course, if this image is true, Noah should have brought two of each kind of dinosaur onto the ark. (Was there room? Would it be safe?) One comment I read is that the dinosaurs were not brought on the ark because they were not natural God-made creatures; they were hybrids that appeared on the earth unnaturally when even the animals sinned. I suppose there is an answer for everything.
The question of the dinosaurs and the flood confuses two kinds of truth. There is scientific truth; what we know through the best theories of scientific research. And there is religious truth; what we know through the wisdom of our sacred texts as interpreted by learned rabbis throughout the generations. Our sacred texts are filled with wisdom, but they are not scientific textbooks.
Scientifically, the dinosaurs were destroyed eons before human beings evolved on this earth. Most scientists believe that a giant asteroid struck the earth, probably in the Yucatan Peninsula, changing the climate patterns and destroying the dinosaurs. In fact, it was the destruction of giant reptiles that left a niche for mammals to evolve and develop. Over the course of millions of years, human beings eventually emerged. We know most of these facts by the carbon dating of ancient fossils.
However, if the Bible is taken literally and the earth is only 5770 years old, this whole scenario falls apart. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians teach a young earth philosophy, with God placing fossils and other signs to test our faith. Such an image of God as divine trickster reminds me of Renee Descartes’ (of “I think therefore I am” fame) claim that we cannot trust our senses, because everything we see may have been placed there by a demon seeking to fool us. I do not think God plays tricks on us; I trust the carbon dating. The earth is billions of years old.
So what is the religious truth of the flood story? It is a religious myth that teaches profound insights about reality. Out of destruction and chaos came rebirth and regeneration. Out of a horrible deluge came new opportunities to grow on the earth. The flood was an act of destruction but also an act of regeneration. The flood story reminds me of the famous Jewish midrash, “R. Abbahu said, This proves that the Holy One, blessed be He, went on creating worlds and destroying them until He created this one and declared, this one pleases Me, those did not please me.” (Genesis Rabbah 3:7)
Last week I wrote that the universe did not come into being by one stroke of intelligent design. Rather it grew organically over many eons. This organic growth included great spurts of creativity. But it also included periods of destruction. Entire species went extinct so other species could develop and flourish. Dinosaurs had to disappear so mammals could appear. And mammals had to change and grow so human beings could appear.

To grow organically means periods of destruction as well as creativity. In fact, there can be no creativity without acts of destruction. Ask any author who has erased pages of a book manuscript trying to get it right. The flood teaches a deep religious truth; out of destruction comes opportunities for new growth.
I suppose one could say that the dinosaurs were destroyed so higher forms of life could grow and flourish. The Jurassic Park movies not withstanding, dinosaurs and humans could not live side by side. There had to be an act of destruction. In that sense, one could say that the dinosaurs were destroyed in the flood.


“And of all that lives, of all flesh, you shall take two of each into the ark to keep alive with you; they shall be male and female.” (Genesis 6:19)

I recently finished reading an intriguing book by Alan Weisman entitled The World Without Us. What would happen to the earth if humanity was no longer present? Obviously the book has an ecological message, but it is also a fascinating study of humanity’s effect upon the earth. One chapter speaks of the disappearance of large mammals in the Americas, including giant mammoths. Scientists have noted that the last fossil record these large fauna coincides with the time humans began to appear in the Americas. There seems to be a link between us humans and the disappearance of other large animals.
The book teaches that “as humans arrived on each new continent they encountered animals that had no reason to suspect that this runty biped was particularly threatening. Too late, they learned otherwise.” (p. 58) He continues, it was “humans who perpetuated the extinctions that killed off three-fourths of Americas late Pleitocene megafauna, a menagerie far richer than Africa’s today.” If we killed off so many large animals in America, why did we not kill off the animals of Africa? Why do elephants and gorillas still survive? The book answers, “Because here (meaning Africa), humans and megafauna evolved together. Unlike the unsuspecting American, Australian, Polynesian, and Caribbean herbivores who had no inkling of how dangerous we were when we unexpectedly arrived, African animals had the change to adjust as our presence increased. Animals growing up with predators learn to be wary of them, and they evolve ways to elude them.” (p. 69)
It is a fascinating theory that I have heard from various scholars. Today we know that even in Africa humans continue to be a major threat to many large species of animals. We are no longer evolving together. Our relationship to the animal kingdom is one of danger, and many species may go the way of the passenger pigeon and the Madagascan Pygmy hippo. The animal kingdom has not necessarily learned to live with us, which is the cause of the threat.
How different is the image in this week’s Torah portion? Noah, who represents everyman, saves all the species of animal. Two by two, male and female so they can reproduce, they walk onto the ark. Certainly the Torah will allow humans to offer certain animals as sacrifices and eat certain animals for food. Noah is allowed to take seven pairs of the clean animals (various domesticated animals that humans have traditionally used for food, i.e. cows, sheep, and goats.) Later after the flood, for the first time in the Torah, God explicitly permits the eating of meat. But cruelty to animals is forbidden. Among the seven laws which Jewish tradition teaches that God gave Noah was the law forbidding the eating of flesh from a living animal. The ideal is humans protecting the animal kingdom and ensuring their survival.
Perhaps it is important to remember this Biblical vision of humanity today. What is to be our relationship as human beings to the animal world? In one sense we are animals; we share most of our genetic material with the animal kingdom. But in another sense we have evolved beyond the animal kingdom. We have the ability to make moral choices about our behavior. But with this moral choice comes a series of obligations to our animal cousins.
The story of Noah is the story about human responsibility towards the animal world. First we must do everything in our power to ensure that species of animals will not disappear. If we knew in the early Paleolithic period what we know today, woolen mammoths would still be running around. We have to make sure that our great-great grandchildren will still have elephants running around. Species do disappear naturally over time, but as humans we should not be responsible for the disappearance of species.
We can also use animals within limits for our own needs, including food. (I heard an interview recently with a woman committed to eating only food she grows herself, who was questioned about growing and killing a turkey for dinner. She responded that turkeys are not a species who look forward to being great grandmothers.) But even if we choose to eat animals, we must avoid to the maximum amount possible any kind of cruelty to those animals. The Torah encourages a new kind of human being, who is willing to take responsibility to care for the animal kingdom and to appreciate all of God’s creation.



“And they said, Come let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”
(Genesis 11:4)

The underlying theme of the beginning of the book of Genesis is – what does it mean to be a human being? Part of humanity is the ability to create tools and use those tools to transform nature. This technological prowess is a gift from God. But this technology prowess can also be a source of hubris and a danger to the earth. How far should we humans go in transforming God’s creation?
Let us explore a couple of stories about using technology to transform nature. When I was young I grew up listening to heroic tales of the founding of the state of Israel. Pioneers came into the land “to build it and be rebuilt by it.” One of the great stories of my youth was the draining of the Hula Valley, north of the Sea of Galilee, turning a swamp into farmland. Jewish pioneers used the best technology of the day to drain the mosquito-infested lake and recover land for settlements. It was one of the most publicized early projects of the Jewish National Fund in reclaiming the land of Israel.
Today Israeli environmentalists are questioning the wisdom of this entire enterprise. The swampland turned out to be far less fertile than originally imagined. Chemicals are draining into the Sea of Galilee and affecting Israel’s drinking water. Wetlands that attracted migrating birds are gone. Today there are efforts to recreate the lake in the Hula Valley and return nature to its original state. History will decide whether the draining of the Hula Valley was a wise use of human technology or an environmental disaster. But the lesson is that with technology must come great care and wisdom not to wantonly destroy God’s creation.
Closer to home, on the public radio show Speaking of Faith I heard an interview with Dr. Mehmet Oz, a cardiovascular surgeon and the inventor of new technology to save damaged hearts. He tells the story of an active young man who suffered a massive heart attack and was wheeled into the operating room unconscious. Dr. Oz used the best of his technology to save the man’s life. He admits that he was feeling quite proud of himself when he visited the man in recovery. And he discovered to his dismay that the man was furious with him. The patient saw himself as active, he knew he had heart troubles, and he did not want to live his life as a cripple. It took a great deal of counseling for the man’s anger to subside and for him to find a sense of purpose in life once again.
Dr. Oz recalls this as one the moments when he realized that healing is not just about the newest technology, the best surgery, or the fanciest equipment. Humans are not simply physical machines that can be repaired as a mechanic might repair a broken automobile. Humans are spiritual beings and doctors must recognize the spiritual side of healing. Technology to transform God’s creation must be combined with a cognition of the spiritual side of that creation.
There are numerous similar stories. They do not say that technology is bad. I have heard of people today who reject all technology, trying to live only on what they grow from the ground or what they can forage from nature. They live without an automobile or electricity. As someone who needs my cell phone and computer, enjoys my ipod, and loves my car, I cannot imagine such a life. Technology is a wonderful gift. But technology must be combined with ethical and spiritual insights and a sense of limitation.
The Tower of Babel story is a story of technological hubris. It shows what can happen when technology is out of control, when humans use their technological prowess to play God. God pays us back by confusing our languages, removing our ability to speak with one another. The lesson of the Tower of Babel is not to stop building skyscrapers. Rather, it is a lesson in approaching all technological quests with humility, ethical insight, and recognition of the spiritual dimension of God’s.



“And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off; so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.”
(Bereishit 8:11)

There is a beautiful scene in this week’s portion. The great flood had stopped and the water was beginning to subside. Noah opened the window of the ark and sent forth a raven, which flew to and fro. He then sent forth a dove, which could find nowhere to rest and so flew back. He waited a week and then sent forth a dove once again, who returned with an olive branch in her mouth. He waited another week, sent out a dove once again, who did not return. Noah knew the waters were subsiding and life was beginning to flourish on the earth once again.
The olive branch in the mouth of the dove has come symbolize peace on earth. But in truth, its symbolic value could be much broader. It could symbolize life sprouting forth once again following a disaster. It could symbolize hope and new beginnings. It is a message we need to hear this week.
Hurricane Wilma passed over us more than a week ago. In our synagogue the lights are finally coming back on, allowing us to fully assess the damage. We are working on becoming fully operational once again. Street lights are still out and schools are still closed in our community. Although nobody’s home was destroyed from our congregation, many of our neighbors, particularly in older, poorer neighborhoods, are now homeless. There is much work to be done.
As I drove around after the hurricane, a memory came back to me. I grew up in Los Angeles. We certainly had devastating earthquakes. However, my childhood memories are of terrible fires in the mountains and hills of our community. Thousands of acres were destroyed, often taking buildings and homes, and occasionally human lives. Afterwards, with no vegetation to hold the earth in place, rains would cause terrible mudslides. I grew up with disasters, although not of the hurricane variety.
When I looked at the devastation following such fires, the sadness was overwhelming. Beautiful hillsides lay in ruins. But a few weeks later there were bits of green sprouting on the same hillsides. Soon there was vegetation, then eventually trees. A few years later, you would never know that a fire had destroyed the hillside. Like the olive branch in our portion, life springs forth once again. And as so many of us have heard from our parents and others, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.”
There is a force at work in the universe known as life. Biologists are surprised how quickly life seems to have sprung forth after space dust formed the earth. Evolutionists are trying to understand such phenomena as the Cambrian Explosion of life forms on the earth over a very short period of time. There is a reason why in Judaism we identify God with life in our liturgy. We humans see God manifested as the life force of the universe.
If life emerges after a natural disaster, then in a parallel manner, life emerges after a human disaster. Our local newspaper has been running a series about Jewish communities around the world. This week they wrote and showed pictures of Judaism alive and growing in Berlin, Germany. It is amazing that our faith could once again flourish in what was the heart of Nazi Germany sixty years after the holocaust. The message seems to be that, in the long run, the forces of life always overcome the forces of death. When all seems hopeless and forlorn, life seems always to flourish in the end.
In my years in the rabbinate, I have watched people struggling to rebuild their lives after being knocked down by both natural and human forces. I have seen it after hurricanes and earthquakes, illness and tragedy. I have seen it among holocaust survivors and people who lost loved ones to terrorism. Those who are most successful are those who can attach themselves to that life force at work in the universe. The Torah teaches, “Therefore choose life.” We all sometimes look out at a world devastated by flood waters. Suddenly a dove appears with an olive branch. There is a moment of rebuilding, when we can say with confidence, the force of life is at work in the universe. And we are part of it.



“I have set by bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” (Genesis 9:13)

God promised there would never be another flood like the terrible flood in the time of Noah. And as a symbol of that promise, God placed a rainbow in the sky. The rainbow is the symbol of the covenant God made with all humanity. God would never bring total destruction to the earth again. According to Rabbinic tradition, humanity in return would follow fundamental ethical laws.
Upon seeing a rainbow in the sky, it is traditional to say the blessing, “Praised are You Lord our God King of the Universe, Who remembers His covenant and is faithful to His covenant, keeping His promise.” Few natural events are as beautiful, nor as powerfully symbolic as the rainbow. After a bad rainstorm, people will often stop their cars and get out to look at a beautiful rainbow.
Today the rainbow continues to carry on symbolic meaning. Some see it as a sign of interracial unity. (Think Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition.) Some see it as a sign of peace between nations. I have see ecology activists using the rainbow as a sign of peace between humanity and the earth. Why a rainbow? What is the power of this obviously natural phenomenon?
What is a rainbow? Light shines through water droplets in the sky, which act as a prism, bending various frequencies of light at various angles. The light is separated accorded to colors. We see the various colors and think of them as separate and distinct. But behind them, hidden from view, is the original light, unified and one.
To those who study kabbala, this image is a powerful metaphor for how the world really works. We look at a world that is filled with separation and distinction. We are separate from the material objects of the world. And we are certainly separated from one another. We each have our own personhood, separate from every other person. We are male, female, Jew, Christian, Muslim, black, white, Hispanic, old, young; there are thousands of traits which make us distinct. Yet, underneath it all, there is a unity. This unity may be hidden from our view. But if we can only reach beyond ourselves, we can touch that fundamental unity.
Kabbala is built on the notion that there is a reality beyond this world. The separations we see are an illusion, like a rainbow. Look beyond the rainbow and we can see the fundamental unity of humans one with another, and the fundamental unity of humans with the universe. (That is why a song about Somewhere Over the Rainbow has such power on our emotions. The beautiful song from The Wizard of Oz points to a fundamental truth about our universe. If we could only reach beyond our separateness, we can find that “land that we heard of once in a lullaby.”)
There was a time when most rational people felt that kabbala and other mystical teachings were nonsense, the stuff of over active imaginations. Today, science is finding there is a fundamental truth to the notion that there is a unity underlying the diversity of our universe. Scientists speak of symmetry, aspects of the universe that remain unchanged through transformations. They are searching for a super symmetry, a fundamental unity in the universe between various particles and forces when the universe began.
Scientists also speak of symmetry breaking, how the unity was broken up just as light is broken up by a rainbow. A mathematician named Emmy Noether who lived at the beginning of the twentieth century (when there were few women mathematicians) proved a remarkable theorem. Whenever symmetry is broken, a conservation law in nature is established. To put it in more poetic terms, for every division in nature, a conservation or unity persists.
The rainbow symbolizes the universe, seemingly divided but at its core united. Noah was told by God to build an ark, save his family and one of each species of animals, before God destroyed the world. Noah did what God told him. But perhaps Noah should have argued back with God. Perhaps he should have cried out, “God, if you destroy the world you are destroying part of me. For underneath it all, we are united.” That is the symbol of the rainbow.



“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”
(Genesis 9:6)

I shared a question with the high school students in my synagogue. Suppose there was an island where human sacrifice was the norm. It was the accepted practice by everybody, even the victims. Suppose you were to take over that island, and you had the ability to put a stop to such sacrifices. Should you do so?
The young people were unanimous in their response. “If that is the way they practice their religion, I would have no right to stop them. I may not like it, but who I am to judge. I would not want them to judge my religion.” All agreed that we have no right to stop people from killing innocent people if that is their religion, whether we agree or not.
All my arguments could not shake these young people from their position. They have learned moral relativism from the youngest age. “I have no right to say that anything is right or wrong. It may be wrong for me in my particular culture. But in another culture it may be right. Who am I to judge?” Our young people have grown up with the notion that the only absolute value is to be non-judgmental. Someday they will go to the university. There they will listen to professors tell them that all values are relative to particular cultures and our simply social constructs. There are no absolutes.
Moral relativism is popular among our young people. But it is also a dangerous idea. I have heard people say, “From our point of view Bin Laden was wrong. But in his society and culture he was right.” “From our point of view Hitler was wrong. But in his culture he was right.” “I may think murder is wrong, stealing is wrong, adultery is wrong. But others may think it is right. Who am I to judge.”
This week’s Torah portion teaches that the deliberate murder of innocents is wrong in every culture, wherever human beings dwell. Noah is considered the father of all humanity. In Jewish tradition, the terms ben Noach son of Noah or bat Noach daughter of Noah is used to refer to a generic human being. The laws that Noah must keep are laws for all humanity, regardless of culture or ethnicity.
When Noah stepped out of the ark, God made a covenant with him. This is a covenant with all humanity. The symbol of the covenant is the rainbow, a natural phenomenon where many colors join together as one. This shows that the covenant joins people of all races. God gave Noah a series of laws, the most basic being the prohibition of bloodshed. Whoever deliberate kills their fellow human deserves to be put to death. For every human, of every race, ethnicity, and culture, has been created in the image of God.
Murder of innocents is wrong. It does not matter if that murder is being carried out by people in our Western culture, Arab terrorists, Muslim fundamentalists, or people on an island carrying out human sacrifice. The deliberate taking of a human life is immoral, and those who have the power to stop it must do so. If a nation conquers a nation where the practice of human sacrifice is the norm (such as when the Spanish conquered the ancient Aztecs), they have a responsibility to stop it. If a nation conquers a nation where a widow was expected to throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre (as when the British conquered India), they have a responsibility to stop it. And if we have the ability to put an end to the taking of innocent life, that is our obligation.
Moral relativism can bring us into dangerous waters where nothing is right and nothing is wrong, all depends on culture. In this violent age in which we live, it is appropriate to stand up and say, “Murder is wrong whatever the culture.” It is a message all humanity needs to hear.



“Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth.” (Genesis 8:21)

Last week I ended my spiritual message with a question: Are terrorists created in the image of God? I received a number of thoughtful responses. Some said that in our minds the terrorists were doing evil, but in their minds they were simply doing God’s will as they understand it. This is similar to the answer I often receive from teenagers, “We think Hitler was wrong, but he thought he was right.” It is called moral relativism, and it is an absolutely immoral point of view. Either an action is good or it is evil, we cannot say that to one person it is good but to another it is evil.
Most people replied that the terrorists were created in the image of God, but have misused the very gifts that God gave them for evil purposes. I believe that this is the correct response. In our Torah reading God regretted the creation of humanity because of their evil behavior. God brought a great flood to destroy the humans He had made, allowing only Noah and his family to survive. It is like the parent who is so distraught by the behavior of a child that he or she regrets ever having that child, and wishes the child was no longer there.
After the flood, God realized that destroying humanity was not the answer. Humans were created in God’s image, with the ability to make moral choices. Now God must live with the result of His creation. When God’s children are evil, God sheds tears of sadness and disappointment. But ultimately, what parent can control the behavior of his or her own child? Even when a human is evil, he or she is still a child of God, created in the image of God.
There is a key word at the end of last week’s portion when the Torah introduces the corruption of humanity – mahsavot. It is best translated as thoughts or calculations. (The modern Hebrew word for computer comes from the same root.) “All the devisings of the thoughts of his heart were wicked all the day.” (Genesis 6:5) We humans have the ability to think through our decisions and then make choices. We can choose good or we can choose evil.
Jewish tradition recognizes two kinds of evil. There is evil beteiavon, evil where somebody cannot help themselves because they have lost control of their appetite. We can picture the person who abuses their spouse because they cannot control their temper, or the person who misuses drugs and cannot become clean. Certainly there is no excuse for such behavior, and people need to learn to control their appetites. As I have often written, the evil inclination is our appetites out of control. One can feel a certain sympathy for people who lack self control.
Then there is a second kind of evil known as evil lehachees – deliberate well thought out evil. This evil is far more sinister and far more dangerous. The terrorists who struck on September 11 were not simply following their animal appetites. They were using every part of their human ingenuity to plan, coordinate, communicate with one another, and think out their evil plot. They are the direct descendants of the Nazis who used not only human ingenuity but technological acumen to carry out the holocaust. They are all humans who used their God given gifts to choose evil.
The terrorists who attacked on September 11 were created in the image of God . God must have been weeping on that day.



“Noah was righteous and whole-hearted in his generation.”
(Genesis 6:9)

I will confess that I have never really liked Noah. I realize that he was a righteous man in his generation. But even Rashi in his Torah commentary admits that, had Noah lived in the time of Abraham he would have been a nobody.
What bothers me about Noah? It is not simply that when God said, “Build an ark, I will destroy the world,” Noah passively complied. Perhaps Noah should have argued with God? “If I find fifty righteous people in the whole world, will you save humanity for their sake?” It took an Abraham to argue back with God.
What bothers me about Noah? It is not simply that his first act after leaving the ark was to plant a vineyard, make wine, get drunk, and fall asleep in a drunken stupor in his tent with his privates uncovered. This was followed by some kind of homosexual-incestuous encounter with his son. Like so many of us, Noah had an alcohol problem.
What truly bothers me about Noah is more subtle. It has to do with his relationship with his wife and how he viewed family. When Noah went into the ark, the Torah teaches that “On that day Noah and Shem and Ham and Japhet Noah’s sons, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of is sons entered the ark.” (Genesis 7:13) Notice that the men and the women entered separately. Men and women lived separately in the ark while the flood waters raged. Somehow it seemed inappropriate to enjoy marital bliss while the world is being destroyed.
However, when the flood ended, God said to Noah, “Go forth from the ark, you and your wife, your sons and their wives.” (Genesis 8:16) God continued with the command to be fruitful and multiply on the earth. The first obligation after the flood was to rebuild family life, marriage and children. The family was to be the fundamental building block of society.
How did Noah leave the ark? “Noah went forth from the ark and his sons, and Noah’s wife and his sons’ wives.” (Genesis 8:18) The men left the women behind, and they had to leave separately.
This complaint about Noah may seem trivial. But somehow I sense it touches the essence of where society goes wrong. The Torah teaches that a man should leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife. Of course, this implies that a woman should leave her mother and father and cleave unto her husband. Society is built when men and women direct their energy and attention towards one another. A new generation goes on the right path when they share in imparting their values and their guidance. In fact, I came across a beautiful definition of love from an unknown author. “Love is when someone else’s needs become more important to you than your own.”
I suppose what bothers me about Noah is that his energy was not directed towards his wife and family. He went out of the ark with his sons, went on his own to plant a vineyard, and never had more children. The generations that followed Noah continued on a path of moral decline leading to the Tower of Babel.
There is a hidden lesson in the Noah story. Men, direct your energy towards meeting the needs of your wife. Women, direct your energy towards meeting the needs of your husband. After the flood hit the world, our first job is to rebuild healthy families.



“All the inclinations of man’s heart are evil from his youth.”
(Genesis 8:21)

The Talmud speaks of a great argument between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel that continued for two and a half years. Is it a good thing that humanity was created or would it be better if humanity was never created? By a majority vote, the rabbis decided it would have been better if humans had not been created. However, since we humans are here, we ought to carefully scrutinize our future actions.
In this portion God regretted having created humanity. He brought a great flood to destroy humankind and decided to start all over. God then realized that the humans he created have an inclination for evil. God made His peace with the reality of what humans are really like.
Fortunately, mankind is not only evil. According to a brilliant rabbinic insight, we humans have two yetzers, two inner drives or inclinations, that struggle with one another. These two inner drives define our behavior throughout our lives. The rabbis called these the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, and the yetzer hatov, the good inclination.
The yetzer hara consists of those primitive drives within us which seek immediate gratification. They are what Freud defined as the id. The yetzer hara is the sexual drive, the drive for violence, the drive for acquisition, the emotion of anger, all out of control. The evil inclination is that part of each one of us which says, “I want what I want and I want it now!” They are our primitive appetites, necessary for survival but in desperate need of control.
The yetzer hatov or good inclination is the drive to be altruistic. It is the part of us willing to delay gratification, practice self-control, share with others, sacrifice for a greater good, and do the right thing. Some would identify it with Freud’s superego. For humans, life is a constant struggle between these two inclinations, between “I want what I want and I want it now” and “do the right thing.”
Like God in our story, there are parents who regret ever having children. They have created a being over which they have no control, a being whose inclination often goes towards evil. Opinions polls have shown that many parents regret ever having children. As parents we finally understand what God went through creating humanity.
Like God, we parents are to be teachers for our children. Parents must teach children to control the evil inclination and develop the good inclination. Children need to be carefully nurtured in the art of self-control. They must learn that they cannot have what they want immediately when they want it. They must manage their appetite for food, for money, for things, and once they become teens, they must manage their appetite for sexual satisfaction. Not material goods but values are the greatest gift parents give their children.

aterial goods but values are the greatest gift parents give their children.