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Wednesday
Nov022016

NOACH AND MENACHEM: EASING AND COMFORTING

EVEN THE EARTH WAS UNFAITHFUL!

When the Torah describes the impending flood that will destroy the world, it describes the problem as follows:

“G-d said to Noach, ‘The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with robbery through them; and behold, I am going to destroy them from the earth.’”

Rashi supplies an alternate translation for the last words of this verse and renders it thus:

 “I am going to destroy them with the earth.”

Rashi then adds:

“Three handbreadths of earth, of the depth of the plow, were dissolved and washed away.”

Why did G-d have to destroy part of the earth? What did the earth do to deserve such a fate?

The Midrash, the source of Rashi’s comment, provides an enigmatic answer: Even the earth was corrupted and “unfaithful.” When its inhabitants planted wheat it would produce “zunin” [some translate this as darnel, a grain that is poisonous for humans but fit for some birds.] Thus, G-d punished the earth for its unfaithfulness.

Commentators ask how is it possible to punish the earth? The earth is inanimate, incapable of possessing an evil inclination. How can G-d punish something that has no free choice?

A second question has been raised: Why did G-d remove three handbreadths of earth, not more and not less?

THE MICRO AND MACRO

To answer these questions it is necessary to reflect on the definition of a human being. Our Sages tell us that a human being is a composite of all other aspects of creation. This is the meaning of the Midrashic statement that “A person is a miniature universe.” Whatever exists in the larger world exists in some form in the human being as well.

Now, although the human being is comprised of every aspect of creation, in more general terms it can be said that human beings are a composite of three major levels of existence: earth (inanimate or inorganic matter), vegetation and animals. The body itself is inanimate. The growth of the body is comparable to vegetation and the mobility of the human being signals the animal within us. However, the human being transcends all of these features because the human being has the capacity to speak as well.

On a deeper level, the three components of a human being can be divided in the following manner:

The physical body is the inanimate aspect of our being. Our emotions are like vegetation which grow and mature with the passage of time. Our ability to think and reason is the animal in us because the animal also has an intellect that it uses for its survival.

The human aspect of our being is our ability to rise above our nature and to recognize that there is a Divine Being above us to Whom we must pay homage.

When a human being becomes corrupted, he or she degrades the human layer of his or her personality. It also denigrates one’s entire gestalt; the animal, plant and inanimate layers of one’s personality.

THE WORLD IS IN OUR HEART

Moreover, King Solomon declared in Ecclesiastes (3:11): “He also put the world in their hearts.” This has been interpreted to mean that the entire world depends on what happens in our hearts. We have the power to affect the world outside of us with the world that is inside of us.

If we corrupt the animal within us it affects all of the animals in the world. Similarly, when we defile the vegetation within us it adversely affects all vegetation; the same is true for the inanimate part of the human being.

We can now understand how the earth could be corrupted and therefore “punished.” It is not a suggestion that the earth itself has the understanding necessary for it to become corrupt and deserve to be punished. Rather, it means that the physical earth is a projection of the internal earth within humanity. When humanity has corrupted every aspect of its being, from the human down to the inanimate, it has corrupted everything else, from the people, animals, plants and even the earth.

THREE HANDBREADTHS; THREE POTENTIALS

We can now begin to understand the significance of the three handbreadths of earth that was wiped away. The significance of the number three in this regard is that it parallels the three elements that the earth also possesses.

The earth is the source of vegetation, which directly and indirectly feeds all animals and humans. When the world functions in accordance with G-d’s will and the people are not debased, the earth element within humanity is elevated to the realm of vegetation, and from there to the animal kingdom, and finally into the human realm. The human being then elevates himself or herself to the level of the Divine. At this point not only is the human element elevated; his entire structure of inanimate, vegetable and animal are also incorporated within the Divine.

It can thus be said that the earth within man has the potential to be elevated and incorporated into three higher gradations: the vegetative, animal and human. When that potential is not realized and particularly when it is corrupted in the extreme it can be said that all three potential aspects of the earth have been destroyed.

What happens within the micro world of the human being is then reflected in the macro world. The earth is elevated into the Divine through the intervening states of vegetation, animal and human. However, when the people corrupted and degraded themselves, they caused the degradation of their internal three levels. This corruption then caused the degeneration of the external hierarchy of levels. Thus, even the physical earth, with its own three levels of potential, was debased and ultimately destroyed.

The reason the Midrash and Rashi connect this to the earth’s sprouting of the darnel plant instead of wheat is to illustrate that the inanimate earth was unable to produce suitable vegetation. The earth had no room to grow and rise upwards along the food chain; it was thus destined to be wiped away. When a creation loses its ability to be elevated, it loses it raison d’être.

THE DEPTH OF THE PLOW

However, we must still understand why the three handbreadths mentioned by the Midrash and Rashi are described as “the depth of the plow?”

Perhaps it is a hint to the words of our Sages in the Midrash, cited by Rashi, that the reason Noach was called Noach, which is related to the word for “easing,” is that Noach eased the plight of humanity by inventing the plow. Before Noach, people plowed the earth with their bare hands. By inventing the plow, Noach brought relief to the world and ameliorated G-d’s curse of Adam, “Accursed shall be the earth because of you, through suffering shall you eat of it all the days of your life… By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread…” As Rashi explains, before Noach, the earth was cursed to produce thorns and thistles instead of wheat.

This explains why the Midrash and Rashi refer to the earth’s producing darnel instead of wheat as a form of unfaithfulness. It was a reversal of the gains so recently attained by Noach. Noach, by inventing the plow, was able to remove the curse of the earth not producing suitable vegetation, but by the corrupt actions of the people, the earth reverted to its cursed state.

The removal of the curse was directly connected to Noach’s righteousness. To the extent that he elevated the earth within himself, he also elevated the physical earth, making it more receptive to the production of vegetation. Later when the world degenerated, the salutary effects of the plow were removed; the degeneration undid what Noach had accomplished.

NOACH AND MENACHEM – THE ULTIMATE PLOWMAN

The Torah connects the word Noach to the word yenachameinu. This word, Rashi states, means “he will bring us ease.” Rashi then cites an alternate translation as “he will comfort us.” However, Rashi says that if that was the correct meaning for Noach, he should have been called Menachem, which means “comforter.”

On a deeper level, Rashi seems to suggest that what Noach began remained incomplete and thus he could not be called Menachem-Comforter. That name was reserved for Moshiach, as the Talmud (Sanhedrim 98b) says, “Menachem is the name of Moshiach. “

Rashi links these two individuals to each other. There is something these two men have in common, but they are at opposite ends of the historical expanse. Noach was the first to refine the world and bring some rest and ease, but he was not successful in removing the curse of Adam entirely. That was the reason for the world’s relapse and its failure to benefit over the long term from his plow, both physically and spiritually.

Moshiach who lives at the end of our period of exile will finally bring Noach’s pioneering work to fruition and bring total comfort to the entire world.

The relationship Noach has with Moshiach is actually hinted in the word for plow itself, machreisha, which contains the word HaMoshiach, the Moshiach. In addition, the Midrash relates that as the Temple was destroyed, a farmer heard his cow moo while he was plowing a field. A certain “clairvoyant” Arab passed by and told him that he could tell from the cow’s sound that the Jewish Temple had just been destroyed. When the cow mooed again, the same Arab said the Moshiach of the Jewish people was born, and his name is Menachem.

However we are to understand that enigmatic passage (a subject of discussion for another essay or two) we can see the intersection between plowing and Moshiach, whose name is Menachem-the Comforter.

A verse in Amos (9:13) in its prediction of the future Messianic Era states: “Behold, the days come, said the L-rd, that the plowman shall overtake the reaper…” The Midrash comments that the “plowman” here refers to the Moshiach, the scion of David.

Moshiach is the one who will plow the earth. In spiritual terms this means he will uplift the entire world, including its lowliest levels, on both the macro and micro level. His efforts will truly bring complete comfort to the world. Instead of the not-quite-good-enough Noach, with his risk of relapsing, there will be the permanent version of Menachem—eternal comfort.

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