Tuesday, October 25, 2011



Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi


PARASHAT NO’ACH 5772/2011 


Noah, the farmer, planted a vineyard. And he drank the wine, and became drunk; and he was naked within his tent. And Cham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers who were [standing] outside. And Shem and Yefet took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went in backwards and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, and they saw not their father's nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his youngest son had done to him. And he said: cursed be Canaan; he shall be a servant of servants unto his brothers. And he said: Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be their servant. God enlarge, Yefet and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem.(Genesis 9:20–27).

The conclusion of the Noah narrative is tragic. Having been described as being righteous and unblemished in his generation, and having alone been spared with his family from death in the deluge on account of his great piety and rectitude, Noah’s first act following the flood was to plant a vine and to succumb to drunkenness.

More tragic still is the rabbinic interpretation of the reaction of Noah to his son Ham’s attitude to the nakedness of his father during his drunken stupor. Noah curses his youngest son viciously for his disrespectful behavior. Clearly, the sages believed that Noah’s extreme reaction to Ham's behavior reflected something far more heinous than merely looking at his naked body. Such an act of disrespect may well have provoked indignation. But it could hardly, in itself, have justified the terrible curse that Noah uttered against Ham. It is for this reason that the sages suggest that Ham was guilty of an unspeakable act.

Rashi, citing the sages, suggests that Ham did more than simply gaze upon the nakedness of the hapless Noah. According to one view, he castrated him (sirso). According to another, he had homosexual intercourse with him.(riv’o).

The rabbinic imagination appears to have run wild in elaborating on the Noah narratives. It is, however, a truism that the more fantastic a midrash, the more profound the truth it conceals. I should like to suggest that the midrashim cited by Rashi convey a very profound truth. They represent the rabbinic view of human responses to holocaust.

The flood had caused destruction of almost indescribable magnitude. Apart from one human family and the animals that had been herded onto the ark, no human or animal life survived.  Everything was destroyed.  We can well imagine the horrified reaction of that single human family to the utter devastation they witnessed after the flood.  Nothing familiar remained.  Their friends were dead.  Their civilization was washed away.  Countless dreams had been dashed; countless projects were to be forever unfulfilled.  Whatever humankind had built on earth was utterly destroyed.  Cosmos had become chaos.

We can best understand the rabbinic musings about the sin of Ham against the background of this destruction, desolation and despair.  According to both views cited by Rashi, Ham’s behavior was a response to his personal experience of holocaust. 

According to the view that Ham’s sin was castrating of his father (sirso), Ham’s reaction to holocaust was his conviction that it would be grievously wrong to bring children into a world that was vulnerable to death, desolation and destruction. 

This kind of thinking was fairly common among survivors of Hitler’s holocaust.  Decent men and women, who had witnessed the murder of beloved husbands, wives, parents and innocent children, determined that there was no place for another generation of potential victims in a world that could tolerate a Hitler, and a world in which little children could be mercilessly exterminated.  Better, they thought, that there should be no new life at all than life devalued, dehumanized and cruelly snuffed out.

The second rabbinic elaboration on Ham’s sin was that he had been guilty not only of a forbidden homosexual relationship, but also of incest with his father.  It was as if all taboos had been rejected, as if it no longer made sense to exercise restraints of any kind, as if there were no legitimate limits to indulging the pleasures of the flesh, as if instant gratification were all that made sense in an insane existence.

This, too, is a common response to holocaust.  In the face of death and destruction, surrounded with inescapable evidence of the meaningless of life, it makes no sense to many people to restrict their enjoyment of life’s fleeting pleasures.  Understood in this light, this rabbinic interpretation of Ham’s behavior is simply a recasting of the classical adage: “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.”

In a sense, the two interpretations of Ham’s response to holocaust are not much different.  Each denies that life has meaning.  Each is life negating. 

Happily, there is a third response to holocaust—that of Ham’s brothers.  They refused to let go of principle in the face of hopelessness.  They adhere to standards of decent social conduct in the face of death and destruction.  In a word, they affirm life even in the deepest depths of the valley of the shadow of death.

To be sure, each of the brothers affirmed life in his own way.  Yefet, the father of aesthetics, insisted that beauty and harmony can exist even in a world that is defined by destruction and death.  Shem, the progenitor of the Jewish people, asserted that we affirm life by insisting on decency, justice, and civilized moral standards.  Even though human kind is vulnerable, and the future is always uncertain, the present moment must be invested with meaning.  In this, Shem predates Viktor Frankl, who taught that man’s search for meaning alone enables survival in even the most dehumanizing situations.

Human response to holocaust, insecurity and vulnerability, can be to deny life and human value.  But it can also be to affirm those things, to insist that there is value bringing children into the world and to find transcendent meaning in our allotted time.  This is the Jewish response.  It is the lesson that the sages teach in what, at first blush, appears to be a fantastic and far-fetched selection of midrashim.



Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi




         The conclusion of the first chapter of Genesis and most of the second chapter center on the origins of human life and human destiny. In their message to the Sanhedrin in capital cases, our sages focus on one aspect of this story.  They remind the judges to exercise great care in ensuring that no innocent person be sentenced to death:

         Adam was created alone to teach you that whoever destroys a single life in Israel is considered by scripture to have destroyed an entire universe; and whoever saves a single Jewish life is considered by scripture to have saved an entire universe. (Sanhedrin 4:4).

         The primary implication of this rabbinic adage is the imperative of pikuach nefesh—the imperative of saving life, that supersedes the observance of Shabbat and even of Yom Kippur.  The ransoming of captives is also subsumed under the imperative of pikuach nefesh:

         The ransoming of captives takes precedence over sustaining the poor and clothing them.  There is no mitzvah greater than pidyon shivuyim—the ransoming of captives.  Behold, the captive is included among the hungry, thirsty, and naked, and his life is in danger.  One who shuts one’s eyes to the imperative of ransoming captives transgresses the [following] prohibitions: “Do not harden your heart nor close your hand” and “do not stand idly by your brother’s blood.”  One who does not ransom the captive has not fulfilled the positive mitzvoth: “Open your hand wide unto him,” and “and your brother shall live with you,” and “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Rambam Hilchot Matnot Aniyim 8:10).

         Rambam’s uncharacteristically passionate articulation of the imperative of ransoming captives would seem to provide ample justification for the ransoming of Gilad Shalit.  After all, he was held underground, deprived of sunlight for more than five years, and subjected to cruelty beyond description.  Those who held him adhered to a culture of death.  Hassan Nasralla, the spiritual head of Hezbollah, unashamedly declared: “We are going to win, because they love life, and we love death.”  Accordingly, Gilad Shalit was living in the Shadow for five years, deprived of all rights of prisoners under the Geneva Convention.  Undoubtedly, it would seem that his situation is a primary instance of the mitzvah of pidyon shivuyim.

         But this mitzvah is not absolute.  The Talmud legislates that the cost of ransom should not outweigh the benefits:

         One should not redeem captives if the ransom demand is clearly exorbitant.  This is for the common good [tikkun olam].  What is the common good?  It is both on account of pressure on the community [duchka de-tzibura],  and also lest payment of the price w encourage that taking of more hostages. (Gittin 45a).

         The attitude of Rabbi Meir of Rotenberg is perhaps the most striking instance of this caveat.  Rabbi Meir was the outstanding leader and decisor of his day and was held captive by the king himself in hope of extorting a huge ransom from the Jewish community.  The Jews of Europe were prepared to raise even the most absurd sum of money but were prevented from doing so by the rabbi, lest kidnapping for ransom become the order of the day. 

Rambam himself paraphrased the term duchka de-tzibura in the following words: lest the enemies pursue them to take them captive (Rambam Hilchot Matnot Aniyim 8:12).

         The notion of duchka de-tzibura clearly clouds the issue of Gilad Shalit’s ransom.  In this case it is an instance of the cruel arithmetic of death.  The future cost in loss of human life is a terrible part of the equation.  A third of the released terrorists were serving life sentences and had blood on their hands.  Among them were those who had been released in 2003 and 2004.  Following their release, they had again planned or executed terror attacks, claiming some 80 Jewish lives and inflicting injuries that were both physically and psychologically permanently disabling.  Their release implied that life sentences were not to be taken seriously.  They had already threatened to take more hostages and to kill more civilians.

         The process of deciding whether or not to pay the huge price for Shalit’s release could not have been more agonizing.  The two or three dissenters in the cabinet implied that the majority were either delusional or terminally ignorant.  However, in the end, the overwhelming majority voted to pay the price and to accept the risks.

         Why did they do so?  Although the cost-benefit ratio was negative, the affirmation of the infinite value of human life prevailed.  Democratic societies are always vulnerable to barbarism.  Evil always triumphs initially, but human values will triumph only because life is valued more than death. 

         But in the case of Gilad Shalit’s rescue another consideration was in play.  The late Chief Rabbi Goren, who had been chief chaplain of the Israel Defense Force, ruled that the rescue of soldiers represents a unique situation.  The Israel Defense Force is a citizens’ army.  Every family has either a soldier or a close relative of a soldier in its midst.  Every soldier is everybody’s son.  The doctrine of leaving no soldier behind is vital to the morale of an entire nation.  The ransoming of a captured soldier is, therefore, pikuach nefesh of the entire nation.  [Hilchot Milchamah, p. 424].

         Why did I title this devar Torah: Gilad Shalit and the Two State Solution?  What is the connection?  The Arab League and its fellow travelers in the United Nations are clamoring for the two state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.  This mantra is shamefully hypocritical, since many who call for a two state solution do not even recognize the current State of Israel, and those who do so do not recognize its right to exist as a Jewish state.  For them, the two state solution is, as Alan Dershowitz has pointed out, the final solution of the problem of the Jewish state, in that there will be no Jewish state.  After all Abbas himself has declared that millions of Palestinian refugees will flood what will be the temporary Jewish state, but not called the Jewish state. 

         The release of 2,027 terrorists has finally sidelined Abbas.  It has been interpreted as a Hamas triumph.  Hamas has never wavered from its refusal to recognize Jewish claims to a single inch of what is now Israel, has hurled rockets at its citizens and dispatched suicide bombers into its cities.  The so-called Hamas triumph is the final nail in the fantasy of “the two state solution”. 

         The future is uncertain and unsettling.  But Golda Meir was right.  Peace will come only when our enemies love their children more than they hate us.