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FLOODGATE

by Rabbi David J. Bogart    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Can you guess what a vintage Bill Cosby comedy cassette tape and the highly acclaimed Newberry Award winning author Madeleine L'Engle have in common? Or how these two are connected to what happened 4,100 Rosh Hashanahs ago? Have you ever wondered how familiar sounding many Hollywood story lines seem to be?

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Can you guess what a vintage Bill Cosby comedy cassette tape and the highly acclaimed Newberry Award winning author Madeleine L'Engle have in common? Or how these two are connected to what happened 4,100 Rosh Hashanahs ago? Have you ever wondered how familiar sounding many Hollywood story lines seem to be? Take for example "Krackatoa East of Java" or "The Poseidon Adventure" (am I showing my youthful age?). Our Holy Writings seem to be fertile ground for many a writer and producer.

By now you have guessed that in some way all of these are connected to flooding in general, and some of them, to the actual Mabul itself. The line which anchors these references together will be towed when we dock.

What's the Mabul you ask? The day-school student will answer that it was the Great Flood during Noah's lifetime which wiped out all air-breathing creatures. But for the seasoned reader of serious Jewish intellectual works, to understand from whence comes the word Mabul and therefore what its significance is and how this understanding guides us along "the bridge that links the past to the future" is really what matters.

Some say Mabul comes from the Hebrew root word naval, denoting death (as in nevalah); hence, a Mabul is a killing agent. Others maintain it comes from the roots balah (to wear out, grind down), balbal (to confuse, mix up), or yaval (to transport). It is also related to the root balal, to mix or stir (The Living Torah footnote on Genesis 6:17).

It is the word Mabul which defines Parshat Noach. This week's Torah portion begins with the Almighty's dissatisfaction with Mankind's immoral and self-destructive behavior, with Noah's boat building project over many years, and the subsequent stirring of the world's waters to destroy these confused creatures. The Torah portion concludes with Man's attack upon Heaven. The Heavenly response is to grind down and mix up the world's one language into the basic 70 languages. Both episodes illustrate for us a people gone astray, entire educational systems and religious communities teaching and practicing what they mistakenly thought to be proper and righteous. Can we protect ourselves from their erring ways?

One possibility may be derived from the bizarre occurrence of the revealing and covering of the nakedness of Noah, and Noah's curse of Cham and the blessings to Shem and Yafet which followed. If we understand that each of these three sons of Noah represent three distinct characteristics in each of us and in our society at large, we will have the tools to know if we are in fact leading our lives with integrity and uprightness.

The name Cham means hot, angered, and action. Yafet means beauty, the aesthetics, and the arts. Shem means Name - a code word for G-d, Hashem (the Jewish people are descendants of Shem), that which is holy and meaningful. Which of these three should lead and direct the other two? Which of these demands, lusts, and pushes? And which of these is concerned with memorializing, fame-seeking, and glorifying our surroundings? All three are necessary in the right amount and at the right moment.

Cham's curse, says Noah, is to be a slave's slave to his two brothers. Shem's blessing is his close relationship with that which is holy, i.e. G-d. Yafet's blessing is to dwell in the tent of Shem, to be exposed to righteousness and G-dliness.

The Mabul and its derivative roots show us that the people of Noah's time were led by the wrong characteristics. Either they were head-strong and lustful as with the case at the beginning of the Torah portion (too much of Cham's traits), or they were all consumed with "making a name" for themselves as they were at the end (too much of Yafet's traits).

Noah's words teach fundamental prioritizing: Yes, become angered at injustice, be passionate toward life and family; and raise institutions of Jewish learning and acknowledge the donors, memorialize those who have lived lives of kindness. But always, always let Shem light the way. Yafet must dwell in the house of learning with Shem the mentor; otherwise extraordinary amounts of energy, labor, and financial resources will be pumped into stadiums, museums, homes, and an array of all sorts of material goods and services, thus diverting the necessary means away from just causes. All of these things are good, only if they are done within the context of Shem. And Cham must only serve Shem and Yafet, allowing his desires to be directed into noble causes and not, G-d forbid, into unseemly ventures as we have seen in our very own communities. We can avoid the mistakes of Noah's generation by studying and delving into holy matters and wholesome texts of our inheritance. The Torah is the Book of Life for all those who will hold fast to it. Thus by acquiring a mentor, we will be able to protect ourselves and our children from the misguided of our generation. The Cham and Yafet in each of us will be tempered and molded by the Shem. Holiness will determine when to be thrust into action and where aesthetics are to be meaningful.

If you are still with me or maybe skipped ahead to quell your curiosity, the tie-ins are the following: Bill Cosby's routine with G-d speaking to Noah ("Right G-d"). Ms. L'Engle wrote a moral fiction based, albeit loosely, on the story of Noah called Many Waters. 4,100 Rosh Hashanahs ago was the day Noah opened the hatch but did not go out. The Poseidon Adventure and Krackatoa were tidal wave/hurricane flood movies.

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Rabbi David J. Bogart, a graduate of the Judaic Studies Department of Emory University, writes from Atlanta.

You are invited to read more Parshat Noach articles.

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