Monday, October 19, 2009

Parashat No'ach: Intercessory Prayer


Although there are several peculiar scribal oddities found in this week's Torah portion (according to Yemenite tradition, Sefer Taggin, the Machzor Vitri and various other sources and opinions), they generally have not been written into Sifrei Torah for some time now - a few hundred years. So instead I'd like to say a word about the origins of intercessory prayer in Judaism. I'll write about these ancient, disappearing "visual midrash" later, when I've done more research.

The first human intercessor according to Torah was No'ach ben Lemekh (לֶמֶך), known to the English speaking world as Noah, who built the ark. No'ach's name is generally spelled נֹחַ, but spelled with a letter Vav (ו) in Modern Hebrew, no'ach נוֹחַ means comfortable; taking it easy. נָח, nach, means to rest or relax. In Hebrew grammar it also indicates a mute letter; it doesn't say anything.

As with all people of the Bible, Noa'ch's father Lemekh's name is in fact a role. If we translate his name, לֶמֶךְ, into colloquial Modern Hebrew, it can mean a fool, schlemiel, or a clumsy person. The root letters Mem-Khaf (מך) mean "impoverished" in Biblical Hebrew. So his name, No'ach ben Lemekh, could be interpreted to mean Comfort son of the Foolish Pauper.

Maybe because he was taught to make do, and accept even bad situations, No'ach never became an activist. He didn't develop the sensitivity required to notice when something wrong is happening and to do something about it. He never disturbed the status quo. He was always comforable. He didn't say anything.

We find No'ach's story recorded in the Torah in Sefer Be-reyshit/Genesis 6:9-9:29 Parashat No'ach. We learn that everyone on the planet has just gone too far, they are irredeemable, that they have filled the world with violence (the word Scripture uses for "violence" is חמס, Hamas). We also learn this from chapter 6 verse 9:

אֵלֶּה, תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ--נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה, בְּדֹרֹתָיו: אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, הִתְהַלֶּךְ-נֹחַ.
These are the generations of No'ach. No'ach was a just man and perfect/whole-hearted in his generations; No'ach walked with G@d.

No'ach ish tzedeq tamim hayah be-dorotav. He was a sincerely righteous man in his generation. And that is the key. He was righteous only compared to all the degenerates around him. He was not empirically righteous, only relatively righteous. No'ach didn't even know that there was a problem until G@d came to him to say He was going to destroy all flesh because it had corrupted itself.

And what was No'ach's reaction to this news? Did he act surprised? The Torah doesn't say. Did he argue with G@d to try to intercede like Avraham would? The Torah doesn't say. All we are told is that Noach obeyed G@d's command to build the תֵּבָה teyvah (ark). So he did exactly what he was told, and nothing more.

But that's all G@d needed to save the world...

No'ach doesn't intercede until Be-reyshit/Genesis 8:20-22, when he builds the altar and makes the sacrifice. Only then is G@d appeased.

כ וַיִּבֶן נֹחַ מִזְבֵּחַ, לַיהוָה; וַיִּקַּח מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהֹרָה, וּמִכֹּל הָעוֹף הַטָּהוֹר, וַיַּעַל עֹלֹת, בַּמִּזְבֵּחַ. 20
And No'ach built an altar to Ad@nai and took from every ritually pure beast, and of every ritually pure bird, and offered burnt/rising offerings on the altar.

כא וַיָּרַח יְהוָה, אֶת-רֵיחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ, וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-לִבּוֹ לֹא-אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם, כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו; וְלֹא-אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת-כָּל-חַי, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי. 21
And Ad@nai smelled the fragrant scent and Ad@nai said in His heart: 'I won't curse the earth again for humanity's sake; because the instinctive tendency of humanity's heart is broken from youth; and never again will I strike down every living thing, as I've done.

כב עֹד, כָּל-יְמֵי הָאָרֶץ: זֶרַע וְקָצִיר וְקֹר וָחֹם וְקַיִץ וָחֹרֶף, וְיוֹם וָלַיְלָה--לֹא יִשְׁבֹּתוּ. 22
For eternity, all the days of the Earth, sowing and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night will never end.'

Noah's Sacrifice and G@d's Response: What worked?
The word used to describe a burnt offering type of sacrifice is עוֹלָה, olah, "that which rises or ascends". The root עלה means to rise, ascend or go up, to increase, advance, to mount or get up onto, and to immigrate to Israel (because it is the highest point of the world, spiritually).

This very first sacrifice recorded in the Torah, which became the basis of our Temple worship in Jerusalem which, except for the hide, must be consumed entirely by fire on the altar. No part of them may be eaten by the worshipper, whereas both priest and worshipper partake of the sacrifices known as זְבַּחים zevachim (see Devarim/Deuteronomy 12:27). This olah goes up to G@d while the zevach stays with the priest and worshipper. This teaches us that we must ascend to G@d to intercede.

No'ach builds an altar and brings rising, intercessory burnt offerings on his own initiative. We don't know how he prepared or what he said, if anything, but he didn't stop attempting the intercession when G@d responds in the positive. The outcome of No'ach's intercession is G@d's promise to never wipe out virtually all life again using nature as a tool, provided that we accept His re-ordering of the new society (ie., when He gives permission to eat meat but puts a blood prohibition on it, and prohibits murder). For prosperity he puts a rainbow in the sky to seal the covenant. Now that the Earth has been purged of its evil, sacrifice symbolizes the restoration of harmony between G@d and humankind.

What can we learn from these stories about the qualities an intercessor needs?
Obedience to and acceptance of G@d. To be (comparatively) righteous/blameless. I say comparatively because Noach was only "righteous in his generation", so perhaps he was the best of what was left on earth, but not ideal - the only thing G@d had to work with, so He did His best with what He had.

You will note that he did not intercede on the Earth's behalf when G@d told him He would destroy everything. He waited until after the horror had been executed on all beings except those who had inhabited is teyvah to ask G@d to never do that again and thank Him for making an exception for him and his family. He may have cloistered himself and his family from the Earth's lawlessness, but he simply withdrew from the world and did not try to change it. Therefore, G@d had to intervene.

We can learn from this that we have a responsibility to be activists, ie., we cannot stand by the blood of our brother...G@d wants us to participate in struggling with our own tendencies and to bring about Tiqun Olam *with* Him...this is why I agree with Rebbe Yochanan's interpretation of No'ach's story rather than Reish Lakish's (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 108a). HAD Noach been better than average, he could have fought to corruption, but because he was a beynoni, a weak or easily influenced person, he could only cloister himself and remain in his integrity that way.

So what does it mean to "walk with G@d" (Be-reyshit/Genesis 5:24; 6:9)?
To shape the agency of your own salvation (ie., build your own ark rather than wait for G@d to save you through Divine intervention)...and what qualities can you find in yourself which No'ach used? Voluntary offering/negotiating. Occasional submission...

At the end of the day, we shouldn't be too hard on poor old No'ach. What more can we expect from the world's first intercessor? If nobody has yet acted as one, then Noach has only his own instincts to follow and no example...

Many thanks to Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan for inspiring this piece during our learning together in 2005.
R' Chaim Potok in JPS's Eytz Chayim: Torah & Commentary
Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 108a
The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes by Everett Fox

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