Naming Noah

Noah's father saw in him the possibility for greatness.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.

I would like to take a look at the end of Genesis, where the action takes place years after the better-known stories of the Creation and the Garden of Eden.

By the time we get to the end of the parashah, we are meant to be well and truly depressed. Adam and Eve have been thrown out of Eden, and along with the snake and the very earth itself, have been cursed. Cain has killed Abel. God's decision to destroy the world He created, with the flood, is just around the corner. At the birth of Noah (“Noach,” in Hebrew), there is a sense of failure, of something having gone horribly wrong with the world. His father, Lemekh, names him, saying (chapter 5, verse 29) “this one will comfort us for our actions and the sorrow of our hands, from the earth, which the Lord has cursed.” The Hebrew word for 'comfort' is 'yeNACHamainu,' hence the name “Noach.” Apparently, Lemekh felt his age to be a distressed one, in need of comfort and assistance, and he looked to his newborn son for these things.

Prophecy or Prayer?

The medieval commentaries supply a number of possibilities for the kinds of comfort that Lemekh thought his son Noah might give to his troubled time. There are, generally speaking, two approaches that they take. The one, expressed by Rashi, the Radak, and others commentaries, sees Lemekh as a prophet, foreseeing a special role for his new-born son. According to them, the prophecy contained in the naming of Noah was that he will become the inventor of ploughs and other farming implements, ameliorating the post-Edenic curse on the earth ('thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you'), and easing mankind's burden of labor, which Lemekh calls 'the sorrow of our hands'). The ibn Ezra says that Lemekh's prophecy refers to the fact that the sinful world will soon be destroyed by the flood, and that it is his newborn son Noah who will be its salvation.

The other exegetical approach is unwilling to turn Lemekh into a prophet. It sees his words at the birth of his son as a prayer, not a prophecy. The S'forno says: "[Lemekh] prayed that he would bring comfort [to the world] from its [evil] actions." The Rashbam, and others, point out that Noah was the first child born after the death of Adam; Lemekh prayed that this new life, coming after the death of he who was exiled from Eden and cursed, would somehow augur the end of the sorry situation in which an accursed humanity found itself.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.