Noah and the End of Endings

Noah's Sacrifice

The following post is not only for those of Jewish faith, or even the religious in general; the Biblical verses on Noah and the flood transcend particular belief.

As I prepare to read three aliyot of Noah* this coming Shabbat, I am moved by the divine shift in these verses. Genesis 6:13 reads,

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים לְנֹחַ, קֵץ כָּל-בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי–כִּי-מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס, מִפְּנֵיהֶם; וְהִנְנִי מַשְׁחִיתָם, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ.

And God said unto Noah: ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.

God doesn’t destroy them all, though; He saves Noah, his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives. They must survive and bear the kind of loss that makes a whole life reel. The survival must be its own good.

I think of “Still, Citizen Sparrow” by Richard Wilbur, who died on Saturday at the age of 96. I quote just the last two stanzas (starting with the first full sentence):

…. Forget that he could bear
To see the towns like coral under the keel,
And the fields so dismal deep. Try rather to feel
How high and weary it was, on the waters where
He rocked his only world, and everyone’s.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew; he rode that tide
To Ararat; all men are Noah’s sons.

“Forgive the hero”: The one who goes through all this cannot possibly be pleasant. People do not want to see what he saw. Because his whole manner reflects what he saw, they find him “unnatural.” But Wilbur hints at something beyond the suffering. Through seeing “the towns like coral under the keel,” through riding that tide where it was so “high and weary,” Noah changes the world.

I have many thoughts on the poem, but I’ll return to Genesis now. Here there’s no hint of Noah’s thoughts, no mention of his suffering. We only get to picture the destruction along with him: the waters rising fifteen cubits high, all flesh dying, all life being blotted out, except the life in the ark.

But when the earth dries, Noah, after stepping out of the ark at God’s command, builds an altar (without being so commanded) and makes burnt offerings. God smells the sweet savor and says (Genesis 8:21-22),

וַיָּרַח יְהוָה, אֶת-רֵיחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ, וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-לִבּוֹ לֹא-אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם, כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו; וְלֹא-אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת-כָּל-חַי, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי.

עֹד, כָּל-יְמֵי הָאָרֶץ: זֶרַע וְקָצִיר וְקֹר וָחֹם וְקַיִץ וָחֹרֶף, וְיוֹם וָלַיְלָה–לֹא יִשְׁבֹּתוּ.

And the LORD smelled the sweet savour; and the LORD said in His heart: ‘I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.

While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.’

There is extensive commentary on each word of this; I will focus here on the reversal of “the end of all flesh.” It was really “the end of all flesh with a few worthy exceptions”–but even such an end, according to these verses, will never happen again. The end has ended.

These verses show a permanent shift in the divine. What happened with Noah could happen only once; maybe that is God’s atonement for the toll it took, but in any case, a changed God emerges, one who will never again smite every living being.

But the reason is strange: “for the imagination [purpose, plan] of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” One would think that human goodness, not evil, would dissuade God from acting in this way again. Rashi comments,

from his youth: This is written מִנְּעֻרָיו [i.e., without a “vav,” implying that] from the time that he [the embryo] shakes himself [נִנְעָר] to emerge from his mother’s womb, the evil inclination is placed in him. — [from Gen. Rabbah 34:10]

So one can understand these verses as follows: I, who created humans, must bear responsibility for who they are. Their evil is not just their own doing; it has been with them since their birth. Although I may punish them (and allow them to harm each other), I will never destroy them altogether, because their condition comes not only from them, but from me.

But there’s more happening here. God says  this after smelling the “sweet savour” of Noah’s sacrifice–and it was unprecedented among sacrifices, sweeter, maybe, than any that came before, because Noah performed it after horrific survival–survival at the cost of peace of mind. Noah’s sacrifice, his suffering, has already been enough by any standard, but he adds the formal sacrifice, which moves God to speak “in His heart [or mind, or seat of intention]” (אֶל-לִבּוֹ). So there could be a meaning like this:

Just as I answered evil, so I now answer good; evil will always abound, but good can change even the heart of God. I am changed by Noah’s obedience and piety, and not only by his character and actions, but by his life, this cherished life, this life that was everything all along. Accepting this sacrifice, smelling its sweetness, I cannot be the same God as before; I cannot put an end to all life, even with a few exceptions, ever again.

Whatever one’s religious, agnostic, atheistic or other views of life, one can imagine these verses, and within them, a God profoundly shaken by the goodness of a man.

What does this mean here and now? It doesn’t mean that we should stop worrying about destruction; the threat of destruction is real. Nor does it mean that the good people are rescued and the bad ones destroyed. It means, maybe, that any of us can sit with goodness, take it in, and, as a result, change forever how we deal with others.

So difficult it is to take in goodness; goodness itself is difficult. It isn’t always recognized; sometimes it’s mistaken for something else. Even when recognized, it isn’t easy to accept or fathom. Receiving another person’s goodness, one also receives the loneliness, the singularity. I don’t know exactly what it does, this “sweet savour,” but I think it leaves a person slightly gentler than before.

*In synagogue services, when Torah is read, the portion is divided into aliyot (honors with blessings). A member of the congregation, or sometimes a guest, is called up for an aliya; this person recites the blessings before and after the reading. In the past, the person receiving the honor would also read the Torah verses; today there is usually a separate reader. The reader chants the text according to cantillation principles. I will be reading at both the children’s service and the main service; hence the span of verses.  (This is my last Shabbat at B’nai Jeshurun before I leave for the ALSCW Conference and then for Hungary.)

The English translations of the Biblical verses are from the JPS 1917 edition (courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website). In two places I added alternate translations in brackets.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

Image: James Jacques Joseph Tissot, Noah’s Sacrifice, Gouache on board, c. 1896-. The Jewish Museum (New York City).

Turning Our Attention Toward Interesting Things

This blog has been slow lately for two reasons: first, I have been unusually busy with school; second, I am in the midst of my happiest teaching year yet. Why is it going so well, and what does this say about the possibilities in the teaching profession?

First, I teach at a wonderful school–but this kind of thing can happen at many schools, under the right conditions. These include curriculum, which I’ll bring up later.

Aside from that, perhaps the most important factor is that I have time to think—and lots to do with the thinking. I teach part-time; thus, there are days in the week when I am planning lessons and correcting student work but not running around. Last year, I also taught part-time but had an enormous challenge: 270 students and three new philosophy courses that I had designed. It took all I could do just to keep up with the grading, and I was generally exhausted. This year, other teachers took over the ninth-grade philosophy course. I provide them with the materials, but they teach the classes. I teach the tenth-grade ethics course and the eleventh-grade political philosophy course. Reading the students’ work is a delight (as it was last year).

These great conditions come at a cost: the half-time salary. If I were teaching full-time, I would have more classes, more assigned duties, and less room for the intellectual and creative work. I would also be better off financially. Weighing the two options, I would rather have less money and more intellectual space—but it’s sad that I have to choose. Teaching should be treated as a thinking field. Teachers’ schedules should not be crammed and hectic, nor should every moment of the day be programmed.

That leads to another point: about collaboration. I have written on many occasions about our misconception of the term. In many districts around the country, there is something of a group work mandate for students and teachers alike. It is presumed that students and teachers should spend a great deal of time in small groups, working with others on a task. In reality, the best collaboration involves substantial independent work and thought. For example, when an editor and author work together, rarely do they sit down together at a table and revise a piece. Rather, the editor provides some suggestions, and the author thinks about them, determines which ones to accept, finds alternatives for the others, and revises the work. When scientists work together on a project, it often happens that each one works alone on a substantial branch of it. They come together for the intersections of their work.

This year, I have great collaboration without the group work. I attend very few meetings, since they do not fall within my official schedule. However, I am frequently in touch with colleagues and am alert to their work We have discussed many ways to join efforts. Also, I am the faculty adviser for the school’s new philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE—and have the honor of working with two outstanding editors-in-chief (both juniors) and a large and dedicated editorial board (sophomores, juniors, and seniors). This, too, involves a great deal of independent work and just a few meetings. The meetings are all the more fruitful because there’s so much  to bring to them.

This suggests to me that “collaboration” should be reconceived. It is essential to education and most fields, but it should involve and not drive out solitary thought. The practice of thinking alone should have honor, not stigma. (That’s the subject of my book, Republic of Noise.) I would go even farther: a certain kind of solitary thought inspires collaboration, and vice versa. If you strike the right relation between the two, you allow for an abundance of ideas and accomplishments.

The other difference from last year is that I am doing more things of my own outside of school. I don’t have enough time for substantial writing (I would need to take some time off again from teaching in order to write my next book). Nor do I have enough time for books that I choose to read; I already have so much to read for my teaching. On the other hand, I have been giving talks, participating in projects, and taking some classes. All of this feeds my teaching but is distinct from it; it is not “professional development,” but rather the development of something internal.

The moral of this, if such there be, is that teachers need room for their own lives and interests, even if they devote most of their time to school. Schools and policymakers should recognize that those outside pursuits enrich lives and translate into better teaching. Studying a language out of interest is much more important than attending some professional development workshop on how to scaffold a complex text. In truth, if you are studying a language, you are probably developing insights on “scaffolding” that no workshop could give you.

That leads to the final point. Teachers and students thrive in relation to substantial, beautiful, meaningful subject matter. Last night, we had a Philosophy Roundtable (for parents, students, faculty/staff, and guests) about the nature of wisdom; we discussed passages from the Book of Job and Plato’s Apology and concluded with Richard Wilbur’s poem “Still, Citizen Sparrow.” As we were grappling with the nature of wisdom, students brought up physics, calculus, art, music, and literature; the evening was like a kaleidoscope of the school’s curriculum. I have long been an advocate of a strong curriculum, but last night I saw the splendor of what my students were learning across the subjects—and saw it all converge in a philosophical question.

So, schools should be at liberty to teach subjects in their full glory. This means not being bogged down with skills and strategies. The skills and strategies will come with the subjects themselves. But what is a subject? Even the most specific topic is an infinity. You can approach it methodically or intuitively; you can look at its structure, its form, its meaning; you can explore its implications, flipside, pitfalls—and if you are to teach or study it well, you will probably do all of this. My main worry about the Common Core is that it can (and in many cases will) inhibit such flexibility. Students may well learn how to write argumentative essays that meet certain criteria—but who cares, unless there’s something worth arguing? To have something worth arguing, you need an insight—and to gain insight, you need to study the matter in an intense, disciplined, but also adventurous and idiosyncratic way.

I recognize that what makes me thrive is not what will make every teacher thrive. Yet most teachers would agree, I think, that the work should be less frazzling, with a focus on the intellect, imagination, and spirit. In addition, most would agree that a teacher’s intellectual and spiritual life affects that of the students. Lifting the quality of life for teachers–“life” in the rich sense of the word–serves not only the teachers themselves, but the students, the school, and the endeavor.

Clearly it would be expensive to do some of the things I recommend here. But some of it could be done at no extra cost—by turning our attention toward interesting things and defending them against encroachments. It is not that simple, and yet it is.