Judaism: The World Without G-d
Ed. note: Each week in synagogue, a portion of the Torah is read, followed by a chapter from the books of the Prophets. There are seven weeks between the fast of the 9th of Av, mourning the Temples' destruction and the Jewish New Year. On each of those seven Sabbaths, a chapter with consoling prophetic content is read after the week's Torah portion. One of them is read twice during the year.
The Waters of Noah
This week’s Haftarah is taken from the Book of Yeshayahu, Isaiah, and is also read partly on the Third Week of Consolation (between the 9th of Av and Rosh Hashanah) and partly on the Fifth Week of Consolation. The prophet speaks of the eventual redemption and the comfort that will come to the people of Israel at such time as God will take them back to their Land. Yeshayahu promises that God has not forsaken His people forever and will definitely redeem them one day.
This theme is very much related to the Seven Weeks of Consolation. But what of the connection to this week’s Parshah, which tells of the flood that threatened to totally destroy the world during the time of Noah and his family?
The answer is contained in one verse in the Haftarah. “This is like the waters of Noach to Me, that I promised not to let the waters of Noah pass over the world once again, thus I swore not to be angry with you and not to rebuke you.”
As this verse mentions Noah’s name, it is deemed an appropriate passage for the Haftarah.
This verse comes after the clear statement that God has not, and will not, reject us, even though sometimes it may appear that He has. True, He punishes us, but this is only for a moment, not forever. “For a brief moment I left you, but I will gather you with great mercy. In an outburst of anger, I hid My face from you for a moment, but with eternal kindness I will have mercy on you.”
God hides, He turns away, but He does not leave us forever, He does not reject us for eternity. Just as He promised during the time of Noah that He would not destroy the world, so He will redeem us.
However, this verse that links the Haftarah and the Parshah is somewhat unusual. God is addressing the Jewish people through the prophet Yeshayahu. Despite their suffering, they must not lose hope; God will redeem them and once again turn His face to them. They are assured that this will happen, just as He promised never again to destroy the world through a repetition of the destructive flood.
The problem is that this promise was not to the Jewish people; rather, it was a general promise to all of humanity. Why does the prophet bring this event as a “proof” that God will eventually save us? The flood and subsequent oath never to repeat this event have nothing directly to do with the Jewish people. Why does Yeshayahu not bring one of the verses in which God promises not to destroy the Jewish people?
The History of the World
This week’s Parshah contains two incidents that include several common elements. The Parshah opens with the story of the descent of world morals that precipitated the flood. Noach was found worthy and thus he was chosen to collect the minimal number of animals and humans needed to repopulate the world after the flood.
The Parshah ends with the story of the Tower of Babel. The people who inhabited the earth at that time gathered together to construct a tower that would literally reach to the heavens. God Himself came down to destroy this tower that threatened to blur the boundaries between man and God, and He dispersed all the people to far regions around the globe.
The common element in both stories is that God interfered with the world to destroy it and to rebuke the inhabitants of the world. This of itself is not very significant; after all, God interacts with the world throughout the Tanach, performing miracles and directing the ways of the world. Yet the Midrash points out that God only descended to earth ten times, one of them being to destroy the Tower of Babel (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, Chapter 14).
The significance of these two events can be seen in light of the Gemara that speaks of the 6000 years of the world. “It was taught by the house of Eliyahu – the world will exist for 6000 years; 2000 years of chaos, 2000 years of Torah, and 2000 years of the Mashiach (Messiah) ” (Sanhedrin 97a).
During the second and third set of a thousand years, God has an intimate relationship with the world and its inhabitants. He gave us the Torah and continued this relationship through the development of both the Written and Oral Laws. God directs the world towards the final messianic era, all world events leading to the Mashiach. This explains the last four thousand years.
But what of the first two thousand years, what was God’s involvement with the workings of the world during this time? When the Gemara calls this period “chaos” it implies a state of lawlessness, a world devoid of any Divinity. If this is the case, can God really have abandoned the world to its own devices and had no direct contact?
The Netziv (Harchev Davar on BeReishit 11:5) records a parable that can help us understand both the Gemara and Yeshayahu’s promise to the Jewish people.
A man has a young son who is still in preschool and who has not yet learned any Torah. Even though the father is very concerned with his son’s welfare, he allows his son to behave as he wishes. After all, the son is still young and is ignorant of the Torah, he has no yardstick by which to measure what is right and what is wrong. The son dresses as he wants and wastes his time; he is a child.
When the child becomes older and embarks on the road to getting an education, the father is much more particular about the way his son acts. Now that the boy is learning Torah, he needs to act in a way that is appropriate. He needs to dress well and utilize his precious time to the best. The father has not suddenly become concerned with his son; he was always concerned about his son's welfare, but now he expresses it more and expects more from his son.
During the time that the boy is still small the father lets him act as he pleases and does not disturb him. But should the child pick up a stone and throw it at someone, or should he do anything destructive to himself or anyone else, the father would immediately intervene and stop the child from acting in this way. It is one thing to be a child and while away the hours, but it is a very different thing to harm oneself or others. Such destructive behavior cannot be tolerated and needs to be stopped.
Thus before the Torah was given, God made fewer demands on the correct behavior of man. He could not be held to same standards as man after the Torah. So during the first two thousand years man lived without direct Divine intervention in his world; this is the period called "chaos." However, on the occasions that man acted in a way that threatened the safety of the world, God had to come down to the world to stop such behavior.
God brought the flood to stop the people in the world acting in a way that would eventually destroy all people. God came down and stopped the work of the Tower of Babel for the same reason.
The Promise of Noah
If this is the case, then it gives us a great measure of faith in God and in His connection to the world. He does not leave the world to its own devices; rather there were times in history when God’s presence was felt strongly. At other times in our history, He hid His face. Yet at all times God watched over us and protected us. He was ready to intervene if and when the need arose.
This can explain the promise that Yeshayahu gave to the Jewish people. In the same way that, during the time of Noah, God came and saved the world, He will come and save us when the time will come. God may get angry with us, He may turn from us, but He does not reject us and has not left us. Even during out long exile He is with us and watches over us.
Like the waters of Noah, so too, during the exile, when He needs to He will come down to the world and intervene. Yeshayahu promises the people that there will be a long exile, but that God will not allow us to destroy ourselves. We will not get to a level that God will detach Himself from us. He is with us, He will redeem us.
This is the promise of the Haftarah, and this explains how these same words can be read both during the weeks of comfort and for the week of Parshat Noah. During the Seven Weeks of Comfort these words are read to give the people hope during the exile. This week, when the Torah portion is the story of Noah's ark, they are read as they relate to the events in this week’s Parshah.
God may turn from us, but He does not leave us, ever.