Thursday, September 06, 2007

Biblical Parallels: Noah and Lot

Noah and Lot are extremely similar characters. They are both survivors, their situation such that it is only they and their families who remain alive. One survives water, the other fire and brimstone, but it is they who must flee and who seem to be in a position to repopulate the world.

Noah and Lot are both people who separate themselves from others. The midrash states that Noah set himself apart from his sinful generation, preferring to seclude himself and live in an isolated manner, desiring to have nothing to do with his fellow man. Similarly, in Genesis 13, Lot separates from Abraham, preferring to live in Sodom. Fascinatingly, if you read the verse in a particular way, he reminds you of Noah!

י וַיִּשָּׂא-לוֹט אֶת-עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא אֶת-כָּל-כִּכַּר הַיַּרְדֵּן, כִּי כֻלָּהּ, מַשְׁקֶה--לִפְנֵי שַׁחֵת יְהוָה, אֶת-סְדֹם וְאֶת-עֲמֹרָה, כְּגַן-יְהוָה כְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בֹּאֲכָה צֹעַר.

10 And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of the Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, as thou goest unto Zoar.

Sodom and Gomorrah reminded Lot of "the garden of the Lord." This is an extremely telling phrase, as it instantly brings to mind images of Paradise and the Garden of Eden. It also reminds one of the idea of Pardes, the garden which Elisha ben Avuyah and his fellows entered. Now, in that case, Pardes does not necessarily mean a literal garden but deep secrets of the Torah. Here too, then, it could seem as though Lot were choosing this place because it was a garden of the Lord, that is, he felt that he was serving God by going to Sodom! This is certainly not the classic portrayal of Lot, but it is significant nonetheless.

Interestingly, again according to the midrash, both Noah and Lot need to be rescued. Noah needs to be rescued from the men who want to attack and stone him for prophesying doom. The Hebrew words b'etzem hayom hazeh connote this; Noah entered the Ark in broad daylight, defying the men who stood poised with rocks and who had stated that they would stop him. God prevents them from harming him in any way. Lot, too, must be rescued, once by Abraham (in terms of natural warfare) and once by the angels/ God.

In the most obvious parallel, neither Noah nor Lot are worthy of being saved (or rather, they are not so worthy that they can look upon the dead.) My father and I learned a Torah Temimah (I'm forgetting which verse it was on) which suggested that the reason there was no window in the Ark, but merely a gem in order to give light, was because Noah was not so righteous that he was permitted to look upon the dead bodies floating upon the water. This is obviously the same by Lot; he too did not deserve to be saved in his own merit and therefore was not permitted to look upon the destruction of others.

But amazingly, there is yet another parallel; one that I completely missed! I was in the Stern Beit Midrash today and picked up a book (which is fascinating) and read about the entire parallel and thought it was incredibly interesting. The book is entitled New Interpretations on the Parsha and is by Rabbi Yehuda Henkin. He has a really beautiful insight into the meaning behind the parallels.
    "Noach awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him." One interpretation in the talmud is that there had been a homosexual act. There is a very similar story in Berishit chapter 19. After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his two daughters found themselves alone in the mountains. "The eldest daughter said to the younger, "Let us make our father drink wine and we will lie with him, and bear children from our father." That night they made their father drink wine, and the elder daughter came and lay with her father. He did not know of her lying down or of her getting up" (19: 31-33).

    Noach was drunk, but afterwards when sober he knew what had taken place between him and his son. How did he know? He wanted to know. A righteous person- the Noah-type- sins, but he gets up the next morning and tells G-d, "I'm not perfect. I've done what I shouldn't have and I haven't done what I should." He is aware of his own failings.

    Lot was also drunk. Lot, too, sinned in his drunkenness, but "he did not know of her lying down or of her getting up." The pseudo-righteous person, the Lot-type, does not recognize his sins. He cannot face his failings. Self-awareness is a threat to him. And, since he denies he sinned, he sins again. Lot's elder daughter lay with him the first night- is it any wonder his younger daughter lay with him the next? (19: 35).

    Imagine a confrontation between Noach and Lot. Lot would say, "You, Noach, are hardly a tzaddik. Look at what you did when you were drunk. And what kind of son have you raised?" What could Noach answer? That Lot, too, slept with his daughters? Lot denies everything! After all, he lived over ten years with his illustrious uncle and must have learned much from him. Didn't God send angels to save him alone from the destruction of Sodom? Certainly, such a person has cause to think he is special- perhaps not quite on the level of Avraham, but head and shoulders above everyone else!

    Rather, the greatness of Noach lies in that he knew what he did. This is why the Torah could say, in spite of his drunkenness, "Noach was a righteous person; he was wholesome in his generations" (6:9).

    (pages 7-8)

I am not such a fan of the imagined confrontation between Noach and Avraham, nor do I think it necessary to explain a phrase that appears in Chapter 6 in light of actions that take place in Chapter 9. But I do think the parallel behind the drunkenness and the child committing some kind of sexual act is brilliant!

It's really fascinating to compare their different responses. Noah curses his child (or the grandchild), "Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren." He is angry; he seems vehemently against the indignity practiced upon him, and oddly, unlike what Rabbi Henken seems to suggest, he doesn't blame himself so much as the child. We hear nothing from Lot. Lot is silent.

Perhaps Lot's silence speaks louder than Noah's angry accusations. But then again, he "knew not" so perhaps Rabbi Henken's point remains, and one can understand someone choosing to know or not to know.

This puts me in mind of the Pharaoh who "didn't know" Joseph. I think the "not knowing" in that situation is similar to Lot's "not knowing" about his daughters, in light of the fact that a similar thing happened to Noah, and in that case, Noah did know.

I really like this idea. We have the choice to know or not to know, to know ourselves and our own flaws and what we have done or what has been done to us. And the admirable person is the one who chooses to know. So let us know our flaws, and deal with them, and then move forward.

It's a beautiful idea.

2 comments:

Daniel said...

Very interesting post. One small point:

I am not such a fan of the imagined confrontation between Noach and Avraham, nor do I think it necessary to explain a phrase that appears in Chapter 6 in light of actions that take place in Chapter 9.

If you mean the question of how righteous Noach was, I think the idea behind that debate is less to interpret the phrase, but to answer the question, "if Noach, unlike the patriarchs, is described as "righteous," why was he not worthy to be the founder of the Jewish people? What was lacking in him that was present in Avraham?" Answering this necessarily requires a comparison.

Duby said...

excellent, as usual

a-hem :))