Bereishit & Noach: All Flesh

October 27, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Noach | Leave a comment

Light and dark, good and bad, heaven and earth, spirit and matter—the narratives as well as the religious laws in the Torah often speak in terms of contrasts.  In this universe of contrasting pairs, humans are a unique combination of the heavenly and the earthly.  This concept of humankind begins in the second chapter of Genesis:

And God formed the adam out of dirt from the adamah, and blew into its nostrils the soul of life, and the adam became a living being.  (Genesis/Bereishit 2:7)

adam = human, humankind

adamah = ground, soil

Humans are a combination of dirt and God’s breath—a vivid way of saying we are a combination of body and soul (in the English idiom), or basar (flesh) and ruach (spirit) in the biblical Hebrew idiom.

basar = flesh; muscle; all the soft tissue of a human or other animal, the part that can decay, be eaten, or be burned up; all mortal creatures

ruach = wind; spirit; temperament; divine movement or impulse

The word ruach appears right at the beginning of the Torah, at the beginning of the first creation story:

…and darkness was over the face of the deep, and the ruach of God was hovering over the face of the waters.  (Genesis/Bereishit 1:2)

The word basar (flesh) first appears when God divides the primordial human into two sides, and refashions them into two independent creatures:

Then God cast the human into a supernal sleep, and took one of its side, and closed the flesh.  And God built the side that It took from the human into a woman, and It brought her to the human.  And the human said:  This time, it is bone from my bone, and flesh from my flesh; this one will be called woman, because this one was taken from man. (Genesis/Bereishit 2:21-23)

Eleven generations and about a thousand years later, God observes that the human combination of flesh and spirit has led to a lot of bad thoughts and actions.

And God saw that the badness of the human on the earth was great, and all the tendencies of its inner considerings were only bad, every day.  (Genesis 6:5)

How were they so bad?  The next Torah portion, Noach (a resting place, serenity; as a proper name, “Noah”) gives us only a hint.

God looked at the earth, and hey! it had become spoiled, because all flesh had spoiled its ways upon the earth.  So God said to Noah:  An end of all flesh is coming, because they have filled the earth with outrage; so here I am, about to spoil the earth.  (Genesis 6:12-6:13)

shicheit = spoil, corrupt, damage, ruin, bring down

When God warns Noah about the flood, God predicts the end of  “all flesh”.  But when God proceeds to flood the earth, the Torah describes the end of the ruach  of humans and the other land animals.

Everything that had the soul of the ruach of life from God’s nostrils, out of all that was on dry land, died.  …and God wiped them away from the earth, and kept safe only Noah and those with him in the ark.  (Genesis 7:22-23)

Apparently the “badness”, or evil, does not lie exclusively in either the flesh (“dirt” or inanimate matter that God brought to life) or the spirit (ruach, wind, God’s own movement within our inner selves).  The badness may be in a spoiled relationship between flesh and spirit.

Medieval Jewish commentators said the problem was sexual immorality (one of their favorite topics).  The 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained that a righteous person refrains from sexual immorality by subordinating the physical, sensual drives of the flesh to the divine will of God’s spirit.  If, on the other hand, the spirit is subordinate to the flesh, then a person’s thoughts and actions will tend toward immorality, and be “spoiled”.

Jews have little or no monastic tradition, and even medieval rabbis carefully distinguished between morally desirable sex and immoral sex.  Today some of us might draw the line in a different place, but we still draw a line, and expect a decent human being to have enough self-control to refrain from immoral sexual acts.

And sex is not the only area in life where humans experience a conflict between the flesh and the spirit.  For example, sometimes we crave food or drugs that we know will have bad results for ourselves and other humans who depend upon us; if our flesh is not subordinate to our spirit, we act on our cravings.  Sometimes we have trouble giving up a material comfort our “flesh” is attached to, for the sake of a higher good.

It’s easy to condemn other people for not trying hard enough, when their spirit loses the struggle with an undesirable desire of the flesh.  But when I look deeper, I see people who find dieting manageable condemning those who try to diet without success; people who already have sexual self-control condemning those who succumb to temptation; people who can afford to buy hybrid electric cars condemning those who drive old gas-guzzlers.

In the Torah, God condemns and wipes out the whole human race except for Noah and his immediate family, and throws in millions of animals for good measure.  After the flood subsides, Noah sacrifices the excess animals that God included in the ark at the last minute, in Chapter 7.  By building an altar and completely burning up their flesh, Noah demonstrates that he values God more than animals, spirit more than flesh.

And God smelled the soothing fragrance, and God said to Its heart:  I will not again denigrate the ground (adamah) on account of the human (adam), for the tendencies of the inner human are bad from its youth; so I will not again strike down everything that lives, as I have done.  (Genesis, 8:21)

So God decides to continue the experiment, continue with these strange combinations of physical flesh and divine spirit that we call adam, humankind.  God pulls back from condemnation because of the mere scent of a better relationship between flesh and spirit.

If God can do it in the Torah, maybe we can do it here on earth.  We humans all have bad tendencies, because we are all hybrid creatures of flesh and spirit.  My most troublesome bad tendency may be different from yours.  But I pray that I will notice what is good in you, and in myself ; that I will refrain from the impulse to condemn; and that I will become a humane human.

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