Parashat Noach - Dealing with death

Parashat Noach - Dealing with death

This week, we encounter Parashat Noach, the second portion in our Torah. In it, we find the story of Noah and the flood as well as the account of the Tower of Babel. While these two stories seem unrelated, they actually have a great deal to teach us about one of the most important issues we face daily but hardly acknowledge, that of our own mortality.

I just finished reading Ernest Becker’s extraordinary book, The Denial of Death, which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. Becker’s book is profound because it acknowledges that underlying each of our actions is the daily dread that our lives will someday end. In our minds, we are Gods. We think, dream, vision, and philosophize which separates us from the animal world around us. Yet, we also have bodies. Each time we use our bodies, for better or worse, we are reminded that these vessels are frail. Every meal, every intimate encounter, every run to the bathroom affirms that our lives will someday end.

Faced with the prospect that we will someday die, Becker explains that each of us must repress these fears of mortality. Yet, sometimes we cannot and the ever-present reminders of our human vulnerability become too much. Parashat Noach, at it’s core, is an examination of what happens when we let the knowledge of our death overwhelm us.

In the middle of the book, Becker explains that when we let our mortality overwhelm us, we can end up with one of two responses: we can shut down or we can manically search for paths to immortality. Noah, as a character is the perfect example of former category.

Noah may have survived the flood that wiped out all of humanity by building an ark for his family and all the world’s animal pairs. However, he did not come out of the ordeal unscathed. Our Rabbis imagine that Noah was notoriously disturbed by scenes of death around him. The project of his life, up until the flood was to repress any notion that he was going to die. The Rabbis imagine Noah’s early life as miraculous for two reason:

First, he was born circumcised (Midash Tanchuma, Noach, 5). Second, before his birth, the waters of the world used to flood graves, causing bodies to float in the street. Due to his merit, Noah’s presence in the world ended this display (Genesis Rabbah 25:2). Both of these images help us understand how foreign death must have seemed to Noah. Noah is so removed from the reality of the body, that the primal mortal experience, the blood right of our ancient Rabbis, was already completed before birth. Leaving aside the fact that Noah wasn’t Jewish and was exempt from this ritual, the symbolism is telling. Noah is beyond the body, and therefore, does not need to confront death like all of us.

This is further bolstered by this second teaching about the return of the corpses to their graves. By not confronting the reality of these bodies, Noah was ill prepared for the bloodshed that was to come later in his life. Thus, when God did flood the earth and wipe out humanity, Noah had not built up the protective shield we work to cultivate to ensure that we don’t break down when we acknowledge our end.

The shock of seeing the world destroyed was too much for Noah. Seeing so many lost, reminded him that he was flesh and blood. He fell apart, turning to wine to numb his pain:

Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. (Genesis 9:20-21)

In an instant, Noah moves from a person who is so beyond the body that he was born circumcised to someone completely of the body, lying, passed out and naked in his tent. Seeing the world crumble before him, caused him to crumble. Noah would live out his remaining days, broken by the knowledge that he would die.

Yet, as tragic as Noah’s response to death was, the account of the tower of Babel might be moreso. While Noah lived with the painful reality of mortality, the inhabitants of Babel fled from it. Our Rabbis give many reason why these people would decide to build a tower up to heaven. Though we can’t enumerate all of them here, one such answer has always spoken to me:

The people said: Once every 1,656 years, the sky totters, as it did in the time of the Flood. Come and let us make supports for it. (Midrash Tanchuma, Buber Noach 24).

Here, the main purpose of the tower was not to conquer God as we might have been taught when we were children but to save themselves from death. The people believe a myth that the only way to ensure survival is to build. Becker calls these people artists, and as such they think that their path to immortality is through the work of their hands. Yet, their project becomes a God to them. We all know this person. They are so hopeful that their next album or painting or book will outlast them, that they throw their whole being into its creation, hoping it might support the sky from one day falling on them too. If only they can produce something great, a part of them will never die.

As Becker explains:
[The artist] wants to know how to earn immortality as a result of his own unique gifts. His creative work is at the same time the expression of his heroism and the justification of it. It is his “private religion” - as Rank put it. Its uniqueness gives him personal immortality; it is his own “beyond” and not that of others (171).

Yet, by making the project of the tower into a saving grace from death, the people of Babel ignore the reality of the world around them. Even when confronted with death they are so blinded by their mission that they cannot see it. As our Rabbisexplain in a particularly telling Midrash: when a person fell off the tower and died during construction no one would think anything of it, but when a stone would break everyone would sit and cry (Pirke de-Rebbe Eliezer 24).

Left with no other choice, God confounds the people’s speech to stop the project. Their behavior is as destructive to society as Noah’s was to the self. Neither destitution nor hysteria are healthy reactions to the problem of human mortality.

Yet, despite these two extremes, there is healthy way to confront our impending death. In the space between first introducing the character of Abraham at the end of this week’s Torah portion and the beginning of his story in next week’s portion, our Rabbis imagine a story.

(King Nimrod) said to Abraham: Let us worship the fire! (Abraham) said to him: Should we not then worship water, which extinguishes fire! (Nimrod) said to him: Then, let us worship the water! (Abraham) said to him: Should we not then worship the clouds, which carry the water? (Nimrod) said to him: Then, let us worship the cloud! (Abraham) said to him: If so, Should we not then worship the wind, which scatters the clouds? (Nimrod) said to him: Then, let us worship the wind! (Abraham) said to him: Should we not then worship the human, who withstands the wind? (Nimrod) said to him:You are merely piling words; we should bow to none other than the fire. I shall therefore cast you in it, and let your God to whom you bow come and save you from it! (Genesis Rabbah 38:11)

Here, Abraham knows that ridiculing Nimrod will mean death for him. Nimrod was the King and no one says no to the king. However, Abraham stares down the prospect of death and holds firm. He enters into the furnace and comes out unscathed. He neither cracks up like Noah nor hides behind a “mission” like the citizens of Babel.

Abraham teaches us that acceptance is only one way to confront death. We are all mortal. It is the price of being human. If we acknowledge this truth and then let go of the fear and uncertainty we can blossom in this world. If we despair like Noah or suppress it like those of Babel we are doomed. Abraham provides a model for each of us. When our urges push us elsewhere, we can honor the fear and push on.