Let him who is convinced that his views are true and right express them . . . at every opportunity . . . without considering how much support or how much opposition he will encounter. Only falsehood is in need of many supporters in order to win the day; falsehood must have the authority of numbers to make up for what it lacks in justification. Truth, by contrast, will always prevail, even if it takes time. Noble, courageous and pure, expressed with all the fiery zeal and conviction and with all clarity of sure awareness, stated again and again at every opportunity, truth will ultimately gain respect and admiration even of those who do not accept it. The only truth that can be lost beyond recall is that truth whose adherents no longer have the courage to speak up candidly on its behalf. Truth has never gone down in defeat as the result of opposition, it has done so only when its friends are too weak to defend it. - R' S.R. Hirsch

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Higher Authority

Adapted from Parashat HaShavuah, by R' Michael Hattin 

 "And Hashem G-d commanded ('Va-yetzav') the human saying: Although you may eat from all of the fruits of the garden, you may not eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge..." (Bereishit 2:16).

It is a commandment that defines the relationship between G-d and humanity, and between humanity and the world. Without addressing the specific meaning of this command, it should be clear that a command of any sort imposes a limitation on the autonomy of the human being and in so doing invites the human being to recognize the existence of a Higher Authority. Being subject to a Higher Authority of course implies that the world is our responsibility.

The progression and process nature of the events is clear. Chaos is resolved into organization, the inanimate yields to the 'living soul' of the human, the cosmic order is finally completed by the creation of the only creature that possesses a moral will. And that human in turn, bound by a divine decree, is therefore mandated to care for the very creatures and things that are subject to his rule.

Examining closely Parashat Noach, we notice that a similar process is at work, only in reverse. Here Noach is selected for preservation precisely because he possesses the moral and ethical will that is demanded. The injunction to build a vessel of very specific dimensions is not only a means of producing the most sea-worthy ship, but more importantly is the opportunity for Noach to fulfill G-d's command precisely and to submit to His authority.

This Noach does admirably, and he is informed that the ark that is the subject of his labors will be the vehicle for the saving of all of the species that inhabit the earth and sky. In other words, just as Adam and Eve are designated as the stewards of the world which is entrusted to their care, so too Noach's ark will be the means of preserving and caring for the planet's creatures.

In contrast to Adam and Eve, however, who soon abrogate G-d's command, initiating a chain of events which will ultimately lead to the Flood, Noach's fulfillment of God's command represents the possibility of being saved from its effects. Not without a note of irony is it twice recorded that Noach did "according to all that G-d had commanded him."

Parashat Bereishit and Parashat Noach are really two complementary sections that at their core convey a central message. The unique status afforded humanity in the scheme of things is dependent on one thing and one thing only: the willingness of humanity to acknowledge and fulfill a higher law established by G-d. The rest of creation in turn only survives as a function of humanity's devotion to this endeavor.

That the world survives only as a result of the recognition of G-d's guiding power and His higher law is actually emphasized by a striking feature of the ark. Significantly, the Hebrew word which invariably describes this craft is teiva. This is an unusual word to describe a sea-going vessel which is often called in biblical Hebrew an oniya (see Bereishit 49:13, Devarim 28:68, Yona 1:3, etc.), or rarely a sephina (Yona 1:5), but never, barring our context and one other, a teiva. The only other usage of the term teiva at all is in describing the ark that the mother of Moshe fashions for her infant son.

No longer able to shield him from Pharaoh's cruel decree to cast all male children into the Nile, Yocheved prepares a teiva for Moshe and reluctantly releases it down the river.

What is the structural difference between a teiva and the vessels described by these other terms? R. Avraham Ibn Ezra (Spain, 11th century) remarks that here the Torah uses the noun teiva rather than sephina, because this craft does not have the form of an oniya, and has no oars or rudder" (6:14).

How unusual that the Divine Engineer offers such very specific directions to Noach about the construction of the ark ("Make an ark of 'gofer' wood, divide it into cells, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you shall fashion it: three hundred cubits in length, fifty in width, thirty in height shall it be. Make for it a skylight, slope its roof to the measure of a cubit, place the doorway on its side, and make it of three levels...") but neglects to mention the provision of oars or a rudder, or for that matter sails!

The significance of this glaring omission is quite obvious. The lack of oars or a rudder for the ark effectively renders it incapable of being steered. The rising floodwaters will bear the craft but Noach will have no say in what direction the craft will go or where it will land. In this sense he is no more the captain of the ark than are the other creatures. Like them, he is a part (albeit the most important part) of the microcosm that the ark represents. Only G-d's merciful providence will ensure that the ark successfully weathers the torrential floodwaters and lands intact on safe shores. G-d is the guiding power who drives the ark through the churning deep and steers it clear of mishap.

In a similar vein, when Yocheved places her infant son into his teiva and releases him to the unknown she is not simply attempting to save his life by aiding his escape down river. Her seemingly hopeless gesture, after all other possibilities of concealing Moshe have been exhausted, actually represents an act of great faith. By constructing this craft for him and allowing it to float away from her maternal embrace she is actually entrusting the life of her child to the Merciful G-d.

It is He who will care for Moshe and lovingly guide him downstream into the unexpectedly tender arms of Pharaoh's own daughter! Here again, the teiva represents G-d's role in shaping human destiny, and by entering the realm of the teiva we entrust our survival to a Transcendent Being who cares, commands, expects and hopes that we live up to our Divinely fashioned human potential.

Thus, Parashat Bereishit which begins with the greatest of possibilities but concludes so tragically, and Parashat Noach which opens with doom but concludes with the hope of a new beginning, are really complementary sections that pivot quite cohesively around the same central point. Humanity is the crown of creation and the rest of the world only exists for our sake. Therefore, it is our duty to behave towards G-d, each other and the world with moral responsibility. In fact, our survival depends upon it.


  1. This proverb came to mind while reading:

    Proverbs 16:9New King James Version (NKJV)

    A man’s heart plans his way,
    But the Lord directs his steps.

  2. Also "there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is death..."