By: Rabbi Michael Dolgin, Senior Rabbi of Temple Sinai Congregation, Toronto
“Torah around the world” should be the name of this week’s Parashah, rather than simply calling it Noah. The colour and creativity of the story of Noah often overshadows the later elements of the portion which describe the settlement of the world by the children of Noah in chapter 10 of the book of Genesis. In fact, in the Reader’s Digest Condensed Bible (a real work, published in 1982), the chapter is removed in its entirety. However, this chapter is of much more than genealogical importance. It reminds us that we are here to connect with and learn from each other.
In its 32 verses, we find the names of the 70 descendants of Noah, who become the 70 nations of the world. We are taught that each people developed its own language. In fact, the focus of the latter part of this week’s portion is about the power of speaking with and to one another.
The Jewish people are spread among all of the nations of the earth. Among the factors that unite us, the most powerful may be the Hebrew language. Facility in Hebrew allows us to communicate with all of the generations who have gone before us. The texts of our people and their central commentators are available in translation, but we remain at a discreet distance from them when we are not able to access them in our mother tongue. Even when we lack these abilities, the recent Yamim Nora’im remind us of the power of words spoken and chanted in a language that binds us together.
Texts are significant, but their power grows lesser when we cannot make our stories live for one another. We do this through telling, not writing. We are told that the Semites, the descendents of Noah’s son Shem from whom our people comes, were gathered closely together. This proximity allowed us to maintain our oral history. Many commentators quote the Guide of the Perplexed by Rabbi Moses Maimonides who points out that the great miraculous events of these stories were always within four generations of one another. That one, new generations had access to eye witnesses.
Today, we can easily believe that we live in a global village, where we are in contact with what takes place in all parts of the world. Jewish communities around the globe are in virtual contact with one another. This may be true, but virtual contact is not real contact. My computer brings me news from so many Jewish communities. To be more accurate, my computer brings me bad news from those communities. For mutual support, this connection has value. However, we need more. In order to maintain a more compelling link to other Jewish communities and the Progressive elements in them, we need to share the human, real, touching positive stories as well. The WUPJ conference, congregational twinning and Torah sharing programs give us an meaningful way to truly touch and be touched by each other. In the ancient world, they treasured their oral histories. We must find powerful ways to do the same.