> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish

Cleansing Waters

Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Many of us first heard the narrative sections of the Torah when we were children. “Bible stories” are so deeply embedded in our early learning that they are a part of our collective memory and consciousness, and this familiarity is surely an advantage. On the other hand, because we learned these stories as children, often we are familiar only with a sanitized version of the text; the age-appropriate version we were taught as children is often all we can recall as adults, and elements of the story that are too harsh for children’s ears are lost.

One such text is the story of the flood. The version that every child hears turns the story into something closely resembling a Dr. Doolittle tale: All the cute, cuddly animals came onto the ark two by two, where they were looked after by the hero of the tale, Noah/Doolittle, who was uniquely capable of caring for them. This idyllic picture is a far cry from the sordid tale of sin and destruction that the Torah presents, to say nothing of the redemption and cleansing with which the story ends.

The introduction to the story of the flood, found at the end of last week’s parasha, paints a backdrop of sin and corruption, of violence, of sexual liberties taken by men of power, perhaps members of the more illustrious families or even genealogies, who took advantage of the “daughters of man” – women of the lower, weaker classes.

These powerful men are called “sons of Elohim,” a word which in this context most likely means “judges” (as it does in several other places in scripture). Thus, the most privileged members of society, those with the most education, those of whom we would expect the greatest affinity for justice, were the very people who misused their position of power. These powerful men of the ruling classes exploited those less powerful, victimizing the weakest and most vulnerable and subjecting them to the worst type of abuse: sexual violence.

The judges themselves, the Elohim, took no action to stem this fetid tide of immorality; at the very least, they were impotent in the face of the corruption of the next generation, the sons of the Elohim – which calls to mind an unexpected parallel: Generations later, as a new chapter in history begins to unfold and the next of the Five Books of the Torah begins, there is another ark. This time, a young child, victim of the racist policies instituted in Egypt, is placed in an ark, a flimsy vessel that is the only chance a male child born to an Israelite family has of survival. This child is saved; he is given the name Moshe, and is raised in the palace.

Some time later, Moshe, the son of the powerful daughter of the Pharaoh, wanders out to see the “real world” and the fate of his brethren, and what he sees is abuse: An Egyptian taskmaster beating a defenseless Israelite slave. Rabbinic tradition supplies us a more detailed account of the altercation: The Egyptian master had set his sights on the wife of this particular Israelite slave. Taking advantage of his position of power, the Egyptian had the slave summoned from his home in the middle of the night. In the darkness and confusion, the taskmaster climbed into the warm bed of the wife of the slave, and had his way with her. When the slave returned and discovered the outrage perpetrated upon his wife, he confronted his master, only to be ridiculed and beaten nearly to death.

Moshe witnesses this scene; he sees and understands what has transpired, and he stands up for justice. He is a son of the most powerful people in the land, yet his biological roots are with the weak, defenseless slaves. Moshe stands up to the powerful taskmaster, and metes out justice.

It is, therefore, no mere coincidence or quirk that Moshe is found in an ark: As was the case in the generation of Noah, the ark was created because an entire culture had become based upon violence. It had become defiled. The waters of the flood, like a giant “mikveh,” cleansed and purified a corrupt world; generations later, when the world once again became corrupt, Moshe arrived in his ark. True to his promise never again to destroy the world with water, God revisits the flood at the Red Sea, but this time only the perpetrators are punished. Moshe leads the Jews to Mount Sinai, where a new cleansing element is introduced: The Torah, often described as the “water of life,” will both cleanse and educate man as it teaches us to care for the weak, to protect the vulnerable, and never to fulfill our own base desires at the expense of others.

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