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Noah: A Case Study in Transformation

  • Noah: A Case Study in Transformation

    Noach, Genesis 6:9−11:32
D'var Torah By: 

At the beginning of Parashat Noach , it is apparent that the earth and everything living on it are in need of serious transformation. We read: "The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with violence" and ". . . all flesh was acting in a corrupt way upon the earth" (Genesis 6:11-12). Something had to be done.

The account of Noah and the ark is one example of how to bring about change in a system-throw everything out and start all over again. God washes away the world as it existed before the Flood and restarts it with the only person he finds to be righteous in that generation. Some might say that God is successful in bringing about change; yet it might not be the model we want to emulate in our own congregations. Still, there is much we can learn from this biblical text when we need to help our communities move from one "place" to another.

We see that each "character" in the story has a part to play in the change process:

The Visionary…………God
The Change Agent….. Noah
The Congregation…….Noah's Family, the Animals
The Ark…………………Supporting Infrastructure

The transformation process begins with God envisioning a better world-or at least a world without corruption-and then sharing that vision with Noah. Noah then commits himself to God's vision (as if he had a choice) and becomes the main agent for change. Noah turns immediately to building the ark-the infrastructure that will support the transformation.

Noah's so busy with the details of building the ark and collecting the animals that he doesn't take time to ask others to help him with this overwhelming project. Noah doesn't try to convince others to change their evil ways, in order to change God's mind about destroying the world. Noah certainly isn't like Abraham bargaining with God to save the innocent among the wicked in Sodom and Gomorrah. But Noah's out there building this huge ark; someone must have noticed and asked him about it. According to my favorite modern midrash on this text by Bill Cosby, everyone notices and laughs at crazy Noah, but the conversation Noah has with his neighbor exemplifies Noah's lack of interest in spreading the word:

Neighbor: . . . Listen, what is this thing for anyway?
Noah: I can't tell you. Ha, ha, ha!
Neighbor: Well, I mean, can't you give me a little hint?
Noah: You wanna a hint?
Neighbor: Yes, please.
Noah: How long can you tread water? Ha, ha, ha!

(Bill Cosby, Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow Right!, audio CD [Warner Bros., 1995])

Noah does nothing to bring others into this transformation process, to publicize God's vision, or to help others see the need for change. Finally, with or without a following, time has run out. The rain starts falling, and Noah jumps into the sea of change. He doesn't know where he and his family will end up; he only knows that he can't stay where he is.

Well, the world is definitely transformed by the Flood, but it is questionable as to whether anything really changes. Does the world that God envisioned come to be after the Flood? Does the process work? When we look around us, does the world we live in seem so much better than the pre-Flood world? While there is lots of good mixed in with the corruption in our world today, I wouldn't want to be asked for the percentages. So where does the transformation process fail? Let's look at the steps laid out in Genesis and see if we can find the problem:

  1. God envisions a different future.

  2. God convinces Noah to commit to that vision and to be an agent of change.

  3. Noah alone builds an infrastructure to support the process.

  4. Noah jumps into the ark and sets sail.

It seems that the breakdown occurs in step 3. God has already decided that no one was worth saving aside from the representative humans (Noah and his family) and animals. However, Noah as the change agent has the option of bringing others into the process. But he doesn't; he does everything himself. This transformation process was very top-down-there is no grassroots coalition building here.

So what do we learn about changing the world-or our piece of it? What do we need to remember when our congregations are faced with the opportunity to transform some part of communal life? Remember the lessons Torah teaches us through Noah and the ark:

  • A vision is needed-a picture of what could be.

  • A change agent is needed-someone who will orchestrate the details of the transformation.

  • Wholesale change may not work-incremental change may be longer lasting.

But the most important lesson we learn is that even when you have the most glorious vision for the future, the most industrious change agent, and the most meticulous plans, the community must be engaged in and part of bringing that change about in order for it to be successful. May this New Year bring you and your congregation a renewed sense of purpose, vision, and experimentation along with the commitment to building consensus and working together.

At the time of this writing in 2006, Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman was the director of the Department of Worship, Music & Religious Living at the Union for Reform Judaism.

The Strange Story of Noah and His Sons
Davar Acher By: 
Rosalind A. Gold

The last ten verses of Genesis 9 tell the strange story of Noah and his sons that takes place immediately after they leave the ark following the Flood. Noah's first acts after emerging onto dry land are to plant a vineyard, make the grapes into wine, and get drunk. His son Ham sees him passed out and naked in his tent and tells his brothers. Shem and Japheth manage to enter Noah's tent and cover him without actually seeing his naked body. Noah awakens from his drunken stupor and, discovering what has happened, curses Ham's son Canaan and blesses Shem and Japheth.

The story raises many questions for me: What does it say about Noah that his first act after the near destruction of the earth is to plant a vineyard and get drunk? The events take place over a long period of time ? long enough for the vines to yield mature grapes and the grapes to be made into wine. Yet why is the story written as though it all happens in a day? How does Noah learn about what Ham has done? Why does he curse Ham's son and not Ham himself? After all, don't we believe that individuals are responsible for their own sins? And why is this story in our holy scripture; what is it meant to teach us?

Both traditional and contemporary commentators have struggled with this story. The fact that the text defines Noah as a man "blameless in his age" (Genesis 6:9) and not simply blameless period, suggests that he might have significant faults (see Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin108a). He could have planted many other things to celebrate living through the Flood, yet he chooses to plant grapevines and get drunk on their fruit. Noah is not the only human being in history who celebrates his happiness by getting drunk, but the action certainly doesn't speak well of his character. Mark Borowitz, director of Outreach at Beit T'shuvah in Los Angeles, reminds us that Noah could have used the wine from his grapes for sanctification, an act of holiness, but he does not. Borowitz says that through the example of Noah, God teaches us that drinking to drunkenness leads us to do immoral and immodest things ( Learn Torah With . . . 5755 [Los Angeles: Alef Design Group, 1966], pp. 13 ? 14).

Genesis 9:22 tells us that Ham "saw his father's nakedness." But what does it mean to see a person's nakedness? "To see the nakedness" of someone is a phrase that recurs many times in the Torah (see, for instance, Leviticus 18:6 ?17 ) and seems to imply not only looking at an unclothed body, but rather some kind of sexual immorality. The Jewish Study Bible points out that "to uncover the nakedness of a man means to have sexual relations with his wife (e.g., Lev. 20:11). This makes Ham guilty of incest. In Lev. 20:17, the less common expression 'to see the nakedness' means to have sex. This would make Ham guilty of homosexual rape" (The Jewish Study Bible , ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999], p. 26). Either act is not nice, and to the traditional eye Ham certainly seems to deserve punishment. The cursing of Ham's son appears to be that punishment.

Many biblical scholars agree that the story is included in our scripture as a means to justify why the Canaanites are so despised in Jewish tradition. The twelfth-century commentator Abraham ibn Ezra suggests that it is actually Canaan, and not his father Ham, who sees Noah naked in his tent, which would explain why he is cursed instead of Ham (cited in The Anchor Bible, Genesis , trans. E. A. Speiser [New York: Doubleday, 1964], p. 62). Or perhaps this kind of disrespectful, immoral behavior is supposed to be typical of the Canaanites ( The Jewish Study Bible , pp. 26, 248) whose ways we are commanded to revile and reject in Leviticus 18:3.

My colleague Rabbi Robin Nafshi (sometimes my student, sometimes my teacher) sees this story as a morality tale for how family members should respond when it becomes clear that there is a problem. She sees a possible twist on the story, suggesting that Shem and Japheth were wrong not to look at Noah. She posits that when we see something is amiss, we must not turn away. Noah seems to have a drinking problem. Ham sees this and tells his brothers. They, however, prefer to deny, to "cover up" this reality. But when we love someone, we have a duty to face that person's problem and help our loved one face it too. Turning away does not solve the problem. So perhaps Ham actually does the loving thing by refusing to ignore what is clearly a problem in the family.

This episode is a strange little story that is usually ignored in religious school books and rabbis' sermons. It leaves many questions unanswered, while at the same time teaching us to examine our actions and search for meaning below the surface of our texts.

At the time of this writing in 2006, Rabbi Rosalind A. Gold, rabbi emerita of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston, Virginia, was serving as chair of the Committee on Ethics and Appeals of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Reference Materials: 

Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 57-91; Revised Edition, pp. 57-83; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 35-58