Parashat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32): Heroes in waiting

The best parts of the Noah story are not found in the Torah verses, but in the stories we weave between them. Classical midrashim and the movie “Evan Almighty” help us answer such questions as: How did all those animals get along on the ark, and who cleaned up after them? How did Noah build such a humongous vessel all by himself? What was Noah’s wife’s name, and where was she during all this? The answers aren’t found in the verses, and yet they seem so necessary to fulfill our quest for meaning in this grand narrative.

We should even be surprised when the great 11th century Torah commentator Shlomo ben Yitzhak, Rashi, took time to ask a profound question of the beginning of the Torah: “Why does the Torah begin with the origins of the universe and not the first laws commanded to the newly freed Israelite nation?” But he doesn’t bother to ask: “What is this flood story doing in the Torah anyway?” Instead, he dwells on Noah’s appellation, “the righteous man of his generation.”

So, let us ask the question. Why do we need this flood story? Is it a matter of historical record? We could easily skip from Adam to Abraham and not lose any of the narrative power. Do we need yet another example of God’s awesome presence and will to control the universe? 

This is a story that teaches us how to distinguish between nature and nurture. It is in the book of Genesis that this tension unfolds through epic figures like Adam, Noah and Abraham. The generations of Adam represent our nature. As difficult as it is to accept, there are simply parts of our humanity that crave the apples of knowledge and succumb to sibling jealousy. By contrast, the generations of Abraham represent the nurtured parts of our humanity. We can shatter the illusions of idolatry and narrow thinking to embrace the entirety of God and God’s Oneness. 

The generations of Noah represent that transition between these two phases of our growth as human beings. Noah’s experience teaches us to accept our natural gifts and limitations, and to embrace our capacity to change and grow, to become and to transform. He was righteous in his generation, meaning he was that link between what is and what can be. He is characterized, in the words of Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, a hero in waiting. 

We all possess natural gifts and nurtured abilities. The challenge is recognizing the difference between them. There are parts in us that no amount of manipulating will change our condition. For me, I have come to accept that I will never play professional basketball. Ever. There are also all those times when we think our nature was limited and we discover we can do more than we imagine. I have come to discover that I possess a well-tested and infinite source of patience for my child’s incessant need for things. Now, that’s called growth. 

There are moments in life that are considered so monumental, so radically life altering, that past experiences will have no bearing on present and future realities. It isn’t a mistake that we call those times watershed moments. Floods always have to come for real growth. They come when we experience a crisis or a loss, or even the positive result of successful practice and preparation. 

We do not need the Noah story as a historical relic. It isn’t just a convenient tale of the development of human community either. It is conveying an essential message that each of us needs in order to grow. It takes a gigantic ark to survive these watershed moments and Noah’s courage to navigate the turbulent waters of change. And when God promises never to flood the Earth again, it is a promise never to overwhelm our capacity to grow. It is a promise that our nature doesn’t define the totality of our being. 

So, it is quite all right that I will never play professional basketball because that is my nature. But I can be a hero like Noah, ready to heed the call to save the world. And, as this parasha comes to teach us, you can, too. 

Exile the So-So Seder

Some people like their Passover seders just as they remember
them: the same lines recited by the same relatives with the same emphasis, the
same songs, jokes and foods, the same delicate glassware that picks up the
light in a certain way, reflecting past and present.

David Arnow treasures his memories, too. But for him, the
seder is also about creating new memories, doing things differently each year
so that each person present indeed can taste the feeling of having left Egypt.
Although it’s possible to use a different haggadah every year given the large
number of editions now available, Arnow believes that it’s not about the
haggadah, but how it’s used. He suggests that people follow the traditional
narrative and add texts for discussion, stories, participatory activities and
much that goes beyond reading what’s printed on the page.

His new book “Creating Lively Passover Seders: A Sourcebook
of Engaging Tales, Texts & Activities” is an outstanding resource for
enhancing seders. It’s not a haggadah but a companion volume that’s best read
before the seder, with certain passages shared at the table. One of Arnow’s
strengths is drawing on the haggadah text, midrashim and traditional
commentaries, and juxtaposing them with contemporary and historical issues. He sees
this telling of the story in a creative, interactive way as very much in
keeping with the Mishnah’s approach.

Arnow, a 53-year old psychologist by training and a communal
activist and writer, explains in an interview that he has been amending his
family’s seders with meaningful readings and discussion questions since 1988.
In 1994, he expanded those readings into a seder booklet for the New Israel
Fund, an organization he had served as president. For eight years, Arnow, who
also served as vice-president of UJA-Federation and as a Wexner Heritage
Leadership Fellow, produced the widely praised booklets, highlighting a
different passage each year, and thought to develop his ideas further into a

At his family seder, which this year will be held in his Scarsdale,
N.Y., home, the intergenerational group first gathers in the living room, for
about an hour’s worth of discussion before moving into the dining room. Once
they begin the formal part of the seder at the table, they follow the haggadah
text, pausing for questions and dialogue. He admits that these gatherings,
although great, are far from perfect. Even at his table, people ruffle through
the pages looking for the cue to serve dinner.

“One of the things I realize,” he said, “is that what
happens at the seder recapitulates what happens at the Exodus. We’re supposed
to be celebrating freedom and soon we start complaining and grumbling about
wanting to eat. The seder leader gets a bit of the experience of Moses, trying
to lead an unruly group that takes freedom for granted very quickly.”

Arnow’s family sings the Passover songs with great spirit.
He noted that when most people recall seders of their childhood, they remember
the singing with particular fondness. The first song mentioned in the Bible is
after the crossing of the Red Sea; he explains that after having such an
overwhelming experience, it was as though the Israelites took a huge breath and
out came a song to God. He quotes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “We sing to Him
before we are able to understand Him.”

The author acknowledges that there’s much too much
information in this book for any one seder, and suggests that people might
focus on a different chapter each year, selecting from the supplementary

Even those readers who can’t imagine their guests marching
around the house, led by children singing “Let my people go” en route to the
table, will find possibilities of interest here — from discussions that tie
together Passover, spring and the environment to bibliodrama to a chapter on
the women of the Exodus who are missing from the traditional text. He includes
a quartet of 20th century voices on redemption, with quotes from Rabbi Mordecai
Kaplan, Martin Buber, Heschel and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, along with
questions leading to dialogue.

Many of Arnow’s discussion topics touch on politics and
peacemaking, but he is not preaching a particular point of view.

“I am saying that one of the lessons to remember is that we
were strangers in the land of Egypt and, therefore, we have the responsibility
to treat strangers among us fairly.”

Arnow and his wife, the parents of two sons, are members of
Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations in Westchester, N.Y. He has no
formal training in Jewish studies and spent a year and a half doing research,
studying on his own and with others, and says that he loved the process. In
talking with the author about the book and the upcoming holiday, he continues
to generate new ideas, new topics and approaches, beyond what’s in the book.

For more information about the book, visit

New Haggadahs

“The Holistic Haggadah: How Will You Be Different This
Passover Night?” with commentary by Michael Kagan, (Urim) is a guide to the
inner journey of Passover, with contemporary spiritual commentary, geared to
individuals of all denominations. Throughout, Kagan reflects on the meaning of
freedom and its relation to serving God. This volume makes for meaningful
pre-Pesach preparatory reading; the traditional haggadah text is translated by
Kagan, with new translations of the Hallel and other sections by Reb Zalman
Schachter-Shalomi. Kagan, who leads experimental workshops and lectures on
holistic Judaism around the world, lives in Jerusalem and describes himself as
“an Ortho-practicing, but unorthodox Jew.”

“The Pesach Haggadah: Through the Prism of Experience and
History” by Rabbi Berel Wein (Artscroll) features classic commentary and
stories, along with background and history of the holiday. Wein is the author of
several well-received books on history and Jewish texts.

“The Gurs Haggadah: Passover in Perdition” edited by Bella
Gutterman and Naomi Morgenstern (Devora Publishing, in cooperation with Yad
Vashem) has its origins in a detention camp in southwestern France where, in
1941, the Jewish inmates held a seder, declaring their own freedom from
oppression. This volume is a significant addition to holiday literature.
Included is a facsimile edition of the actual hand-written haggadah used,
photographs and other materials from the Yad Vashem archives and several moving
essays commenting on the haggadah and on the ordeals of life at Gurs, with a
piece by the son of Aryeh Zuckerman who wrote the haggadah by hand from memory.
After the seder, one inmate wrote, “Passover was but a brief respite from the
fleeing and wandering, yet closer than previous Passovers to the ancient-new
prayer: ‘Next year in Jerusalem.'”

Of Passover Interest:

“Make Your Own Passover Seder: A New Approach to Creating a
Personal Family Celebration” by Rabbi Alan Kay and Jo Kay (Jossey-Bass) is a
guide that covers every aspect of making a seder and is useful for someone
making one or participating for the first time, as well as for those who are
veterans and want to enhance their efforts. Included is information on
selecting a haggadah, tips for including children and guests from different
backgrounds, personal stories, guidance on rituals and more. Rabbi Kay serves
as spiritual leader of Temple Beth Emet in Mount Sinai, N.Y., and Jo Kay is director
of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
in New York.

“Had Gadya: The Only Kid” edited by Arnold Band (Getty
Publications) is a facsimile edition of Russian avant-garde artist El
Lissitzky’s 1919 edition of lithographs. His colorful, bold prints interpret
the traditional Passover song; the illustrations are crowned with architectural
frames with the verses printed in stylish letters, in Yiddish, with some
Aramaic text at the bottom of the page. Only 75 copies were published in the
lifetime of the artist — this work was part of his engagement with Judaica
before turning to abstract painting. In this volume, a separate section
includes a translation of each verse and notes on the images. Band is professor
emeritus of Hebrew and comparative literature at UCLA. In her introduction,
Nancy Perloff, collections curator at the Getty Research Institute, notes that
Lissitzky chose to publish these artworks in their own publication rather than
as part of a haggadah, indicating that he “viewed the song both as a message of
Jewish liberation based on the Exodus story and as an allegorical expression of
freedom for the Russian people.”

For Children:

“Matzah Meals: A Passover Cookbook for Kids” by Judy Tabs
and Barbara Steinberg, illustrated by Bill Hauser, (Kar-Ben) includes
easy-to-follow recipes for banana pancakes, gefilte fish kabobs, matzah pizza,
meringue kisses and more.

“It’s Seder Time!” by Latifa Berry Kropf, photographs by Tod
Cohen, (Kar-Ben) documents a class of young children learning about and
participating in Passover rituals — collecting chametz for a food bank, making
matzah, singing, dancing, posing as frogs. The full color photographs are full
of smiles.