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October 29, 2011 / 1 Heshvan, 5772

Haftarat Noah/Rosh Chodesh Heshvan

The parashah of Noah begins with universal degradation and destruction: our yetzer hara, our inclination to indulge our appetites regardless of context or consequence, was untempered. Our ways, corrupted. God responded by hosing down the whole lot of us and wiping the slate clean except for Noah and his family.

This week's haftarah, since Shabbat falls on Rosh Hodesh, ends with a vision of universal worship in Jerusalem. It's uncomfortably universal for some--God takes some gentiles and appoints them as levitical priests (Is. 66:21, but see Michael Fishbane's Haftarah commentary for other possible readings)!

As far apart as the beginning of our parashah and the ending of our haftarah are, they actually meet in the middle. Our Torah portion ends in Babylonia with the introduction of Terach and his family, including his son, Abram. And our haftarah begins in Babylonia, where Isaiah is encouraging the exiled Judeans to take the Persian king, Cyrus, up on his offer to allow the Judeans back to the Land of Israel, or Yehud. The vast majority of Judeans ignored Isaiah, just like we ignored Leo Pinsker, Theodore Herzl, and David Ben-Gurion. They may all have preferred that the exile was negated, but that's not the way the story unfolded.

We took Jeremiah's advice and instead prayed for the welfare of our government (29:7). We took his advice, too, about marrying off our children -- he didn't feel the need to specify that we should be marrying our children off to other Jews (29:6). That seemed obvious to him. No longer.

My brother, many years ago, married a woman who converted. They raised two Jewish girls, the older of whom got married two weeks ago to a gentile. Perhaps, like Noah, my nieces's husband is a righteous man in his generation. (I hope so for her sake.) Perhaps, he will be among those gentiles selected to be a levitical priest when all nations worship in Jerusalem, may it come speedily and in our day!

The Hebrew word for Noah's flood is mabul. Interestingly, the etymology of the word has no connection to either water or inundation. Mabul has the same root as Bavel, Babylonia, babble. Everything got jumbled and mixed up in the flood. The Hebrew words for confusion and assimilation have the same roots (bilbul and hitbol'lut, respectively) as mabul!

If we are trying to get from Babylonia to Jerusalem, as Isaiah envisions, one obvious way is to just go there! But until/And after we visit Israel/make aliyah, we neo-Babylonian Jews can do a few things to prevent confusion and assimilation.

Be like Noah, a righteous man in his generation. He had three kids - none of this 2.4 children something. Get to work! And if you're past the age but you can help out the next generation, we could use the help. If you've got gentiles in the family, take them as levitical priests and have them support Jewish worship. (And don't think driving carpool to Hebrew School isn't a help -- let alone contributing to tuition!) And when they do help, honor them for it. If Moshe Rabenu(!) could learn and borrow from his father-in-law, Jethro, a high priest of Midian, why can't we?

I thought you'd never ask--I'll tell you why we can't borrow from the gentiles: they're gentiles! What kind of a question is that?!

Ah, and that brings us to the last thing we can do to both be like Moshe Rabenu and to prevent confusion and assimilation--educate ourselves and our children. The more we know about Judaism and the beliefs and practices of other religions, the less we need to be concerned about borrowing from others. We'll know what's kosher and what's treyf. Maimonides said we must accept truth regardless of its source. We're blessed to be living in this incredible age where we have what to teach gentiles and vice-versa. Zil g'mor - go and learn.

Having all nations worship in Jerusalem is the climax of this week's haftarah. But an earlier Isaiah, from last week's haftarah, offers a different model --we are to be a light unto the nations (Is. 42:6). We are the heirs, thank God, to both traditions.

This week's Haftarah commentary was written by
Rabbi Shai Cherry, Ph.D., who serves as the madrikh (guide) of Shaar Hamayim, A Jewish Learning Center (www.shaarhamayim.com).
He is the author of Torah through Time:  Understanding Bible Commentary from the Rabbinic Period to Modern Times and the feautured lecturer for The Teaching Company's Introduction to Judaism course.

The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.

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