Some thoughts on Parashat Noah

Rabbi Bradley Artson
Rosh Hodesh
Rabbi Bradley Artson
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Vice President, American Jewish University

Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson ( has long been a passionate advocate for social justice, human dignity, diversity and inclusion. He wrote a book on Jewish teachings on war, peace and nuclear annihilation in the late 80s, became a leading voice advocating for GLBT marriage and ordination in the 90s, and has published and spoken widely on environmental ethics, special needs inclusion, racial and economic justice, cultural and religious dialogue and cooperation, and working for a just and secure peace for Israel and the Middle East. He is particularly interested in theology, ethics, and the integration of science and religion. He supervises the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program and mentors Camp Ramah in California in Ojai and Ramah of Northern California in the Bay Area. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining Conservative rabbis for Europe. A frequent contributor for the Huffington Post and for the Times of Israel, and a public figure Facebook page with over 60,000 likes, he is the author of 12 books and over 250 articles, most recently Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit. Married to Elana Artson, they are the proud parents of twins, Jacob and Shira.  Learn more infomation about Rabbi Artson.

posted on February 16, 2018
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

I've struggled to write this Dvar Torah. When times are tough, I find no comfort in complaint, and am instead silenced. Raised by British immigrants to the United States, who were themselves raised by Polish and Lithuanian immigrants to England, I was taught to "keep calm and carry on."

One of my favorite books is Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. This masterpiece deals with events of the French Revolution of 1789. Here is an excerpt from the famous first paragraph:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness... it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair... in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

Sound familiar? We too live in confusing times, and I hear many people saying that they don't remember a worse time. In a nation of remarkable prosperity and opportunity, we are experiencing natural disasters and horrific interpersonal behavior. We are at war at home with words, and abroad with weapons. What can one person do?

This weeks' parashah sees two terribly traumatic events occur to humankind: the flood and the dispersion. Seeing the wickedness of humankind, God regrets the decision to create people in the first place, and decides to destroy life on earth. Luckily for all of us, Noah finds favor in God's eyes, and so he and his family are spared from the destruction of the flood. And just a couple of chapters after the no doubt shocked and stunned Noah must be urged out of the ark, his descendants gather together and decide to "make a name" for themselves by building a big tower "with its top in the sky" (Gen. 11:3-4). They are able to cooperate in this project because they all speak the same language and agree on a plan. But as a result, they become the Generation of the Dispersion, when God confounds their speech so that they no longer understand each other, and scatters them over the face of the earth.

To go back to Dickens, one can imagine members of the Generation of the Dispersion saying to each other: Wow, things haven't been this bad since the time of the Generation of the Flood! And, if they were lucky enough to say this to someone who still spoke the same language, the other was likely to agree that things were as bad as they could be.

Commentators ask the question: Why did God destroy almost all life on Earth during the flood, yet spare the generation that built the tower? Was their wickedness any less?

In his commentary on Genesis 11:9, Rashi (who lived in the Middle Ages and knew the threat of Crusades) teaches us that in the generation of the flood, people behaved wickedly with each other. They robbed each other and quarreled, and for these reasons they were destroyed. In contrast, although the generation of the tower tried to war against God, there was love and friendship between people. This teaches us, says Rashi, that conflict is hateful and peace is great. Even though people rebelled against God, they were spared because they were kind to each other.

There is a lesson for us in Rashi's commentary, and something to be learned from considering our current situation in light of our parashah and human and Jewish history. Like Rashi, we know what we need to do to ensure better times. Like every generation from the creation of humankind, we know how hard it is.

May God bless us and keep us, and help us to increase kindness and cooperation in God's world. Shabbat Shalom.