Noah 5777 - 2016
Post date: Nov 3, 2016 7:29:02 PM
In this week’s Torah passage, Noah, God brings about a flood that destroys almost all living beings on the earth. We all have heard this story for much of our lives – Noah, the ark, the animals, the flood. Many a song, children’s toy, poem, and metaphor have come from this part of the narrative in Bereishit.
What I think many of these songs and stories miss, however, is the wrath and premeditated destruction by God. In several p’sukim in this parsha, it is said that God va’yi’nach et-kol ha’y’kum – God will blot out all that has arisen. The word I found most interesting here is va’yi’nach – translated as “and he will blot out.” The root of this word is mem-chet-hey, and has meanings such as: erase, efface, cancel, obliterate, and exterminate. It has a secondary meaning of strike, crush, and oppress. Generally speaking, I think it is fair to call this a violent word for destruction of what was once alive or in existence.
Interestingly, biblical reference books cite another meaning for this root. Along with erasing and obliterating, the word can mean “to wipe,” often in the context of “to wipe out” of existence. However, in some specific contexts, this root can be “to wipe,” as in “to wipe away tears.” I was almost in disbelief when reading this meaning. Perhaps the places in the Tanach where it has this meaning relate to wiping away tears of sadness? That may connect such a context to the ideas of destruction and exterminating that the root clearly takes its meaning from.
So, I looked up one of the places cited as the root mem-chet-hey, but meaning “wiping away tears.” The passuk is in the book of Isaiah (chapter 25, verse 8), and reads: “He [God] will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the reproach of God’s people will God take away from off all the earth; for the LORD has spoken it.” (emphasis added) How strange! Wiping away tears – this to me conveys a sense of sadness – perhaps that deep, hollow emptiness that comes from letting yourself cry without restraint. This root word, in this context, appears to convey such a sense of sadness, yet in all other contexts, the very same root relates only to the polar opposite – destruction, oppression, and violent ends.
In some ways, I don’t know what to make of this bizarre root, and it’s extraordinarily discrepant meanings. In another way, I think it can give us a deep insight into the story of Noah.
Before the flood, God is furious with humanity, and actively plans the demise of these recent creations – humans, animals, plants, bugs, and creepy crawling things will all be obliterated – blotted out – from the face of the earth. It seems, at first glance, that the only hints of remorse or sadness on God’s part come after the flood. After witnessing what was lost, God then tells Noah, in the first covenant in the Bible, the Covenant of the Rainbow (Brit HaKeshet), that he will never do it again.
However, I think the use of the word va’yi’nach before the start of the flood gives us a clue that there is sadness mixed in with God’s anger and wrath, even before God has felt sadness mixed with regret.
This is true for us, I believe, as well. In our angriest, most wrathful times, there are hints of sadness and despair. Often, the core reason for our anger is a deep sadness with a situation over which we feel we have no control, or in the case of Noah, where God assesses God’s own work of creation to be largely flawed.
While we may not always be able to access those emotions in our times of anger, the underlying elements of sadness that are present, are what may eventually lead us to those feelings of remorse or regret.
Perhaps recognizing that sadness in a moment of anger may stop us from destroying that which we have created.