Parashat Noach

He Should Have Jumped out the Window

The portion about Noah and his famous Ark gives rise to some interesting questions.  For example, when God tells Noah that He is going to destroy the Earth with a flood, God says,

וַיֹּ֙אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ
קֵ֤ץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם
וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

“The end of all flesh has come before Me for the earth is filled with robbery through them.”

The problem is this: Nachmandies points out the God cited ‘robbery and fraud’ as the reason for the Flood.  What about all the other sins of morality that are the generally-accepted reasons for the Flood?  He cites the Talmud from Sanhedrin 108b which teaches us that the prohibition against theft and robbery is intuitive and logical.  Other moral issues are not always so intuitive and rational so, the Talmud teaches us, that when the people sinned by stealing, they really should have known better.  That was the ‘final straw’ that gave God the reason to Flood the earth.

When you think of it, the Sages were right.  People will go to all sorts of lengths to hide their monetary sins.  People steal, they cheat, they get too much change and don’t give it back, and they offer the ‘finders keepers losers weepers’ defense.  In fact, most people will only admit to monetary sins if they get caught or sued.  Bernie Madoff is a good example.

It is said that Rabbi Israel Salanter, one of the greats of the Mussar Movement was so careful in avoiding the sin of falling victim to stealing that once when he paid an unexpected visit to a former student who was now a banker, the student saw him coming, ran out of the room to get properly dressed and left his money  box open since he was in such a rush.  Rabbi Salanter saw the open box and remembering that our Sages taught “rubam b’gzal’– given the opportunity to steal, most people will – he jumped out the window and ran away!

Beyond the prevalence of monetary stealing, there is a wide variety of other types as well.  Plagiarism is what the Rabbis call ‘stealing of the mind.’  Without ascription to souces (b’shem omro – speaking in another’s name)  the plagiarist takes credit for someone else’s labor.  Entering a prize pumpkin from your neighbour’s farm hardly makes you a winner.  And then there is the stealing of trust, perhaps the most severe form of cheating.  This is the Lance Armstrong theft.

It is obvious to even the most stalwart of Armstrong’s defenders that he cheated and doped his way to so many cycling championships.  Even he has given up trying to defend himself.  The evidence is overwhelming.  That being said, those who trusted him have been duped by his dope.  His reputation as a liar is as solid as his reputation as a cancer survivor and supporter of cancer causes.  He stole wins from those who did not dope and who played by the rules.  He stole trust from those who put their own reputations on the line in their support of him.  He stole from all those who looked to him as an example of what a devoted and gifted athlete could do without drugs.  In truth, he was just another cheater and not so great, after all.

Our Sages said that anyone who goes chasing after glory can never really catch it.  Stealing is just another form of chasing after it.  Often the thief gets caught.  Sometimes they don’t.  But the truth is that often the thief loses all s/he has gotten because the ‘eye is not content with seeing.’

Lance Armstrong should have jumped out the window.  The sad irony is, should he have jumped, those who cheated with dope would have lost it all and he, dopeless, may very well have been declared the real winner of the races he may have lost.  Those who did not cheat did not win.  Yet, I have immense respect for their decision to play fair.  Those who cheated won by stealing and, in the end, lost it all.

Lance Armstrong will live the rest of his life with an asterisk by his name.  His theft has netted him exactly one grammatic mark and one noun: Thief.

Bereshit: In the Beginning

One of the most puzzling passages that has given rise to much confusion occurs in the very beginning of the Torah.  It says, And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  Not difficult to understand, of course, but then, on the beginning of the fourth day we have this passage,  And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so.

You see the problem.  If the light was created on the first day and the sun and the moon that provided light created on the fourth day, where did the first light come from?  The question was asked by the Rabbis and, in the Talmud (Chagigah 12a) they teach this: “Rabbi Eliezer said that the light of the first day and the fourth day were different lights.  The fourth day’s light was the light used to illuminate the physical world and the first day’s light was to illuminate the spiritual world.”

The Rabbis of the Talmud saw the creation of the world as a historical record of creation.  I don’t.  But that does not mean that the creation story and the Rabbis’ commentary is without merit.

Taking the concept of physical light and spiritual light as my guide, perhaps the modern mind can see a modern truth in the ancient words. The physical light is, indeed, the light that comes from the stars and the sun and the varied types of non-visible light.  These are the X-rays that come from distant galaxies, the infrared that comes from ancient stars and the electromagnetic signatures of magnetars, quasars, and pulsars and the microwaves at the baby moments of the universe which still sing to us.  This is the light we use to understand the physical creation of the world.  This is the light of science which allows us to see the world around us and its magnificence.  It is, in fact, the light that literally bounces off the world to illumine our minds.

But that first light, that spiritual light, is a light of a completely different kind.  It has no physical qualities.  It can’t be  quantified or studied in a laboratory.  Yet it is real.

Our Sages teach us that God is withholding that light until the End of Days.  There is truth in this.  For this first light is the light that filled the universe before there were any sentient creatures.  It is the light that was not corrupted by immorality and sin for there was no one around to be immoral or to sin.  But that light is now hidden not because God took it away from us, but rather because we shut our eyes to it.  Only when we open our eyes and allow the truths of science to shine light on the world, only when we grasp truth and use that truth to heal relationship and the world will be open our eyes to that light of morality and ethical behavior.

But, for now, though we glimpse it from time to time, that light remains hidden.

Eitz Yosef (R’ Chanoch Zundel ben Yosef who lived in Bialystok, Poland, where he devoted his life to writing commentaries on the Midrash among other works) suggests that there are righteous people who use this light appropriately although the light would not be used by everyone until a future time.  It is because of these relatively few people that God saw the creation of humanity as ‘good.’  In other words, the world stands on the goodness of these relative few.

This light of morality and ethical life is available to everyone.  God said that creating people was a ‘good’ thing because God saw that there were people who could grasp this light and bask in it.  But those people are too few.  The light is still here, though, and God is waiting for us to look at it.  If we do, then perhaps each of us can be a pillar that holds the world up and be accounted as one of those in whom God put His trust and continue the ‘good’ that began at the beginning.