Make an Ark of Gopher Wood
Once again, I base my textual Biblical ‘scholarship’ on Wikipedia. And, according to Wikipedia, no one is sure what gopher wood is. The Hebrew word is only used once in the Torah, and might be a typo, an approximate rendering or a mis-rendering of a foreign word. For example, the word gafer is similar to the Babylonian word for cedar, or to the Greek word for cyprus. But a dozen other suggestions have also been made, including ‘pitch’ (any particularly sappy or resinous) wood, or even a lost type of tree. It would be ironic if it was a type of tree that did not survive the flood. But it seems either that Hebrew didn’t have a name for this type of tree, or there was a transcription error.
Oddly, though the Hebrew has no clearly agreed-on referent, the Yiddish does not give גפר but pimsnholtz. When I look that up, naturally I get ‘gopherwood’. But where does the word pimsn come from then? The only other associated meaning is ‘pumice’. And when, for a lark, I throw ‘gopher wood’ into Google translate, it just translates the individual words “zismoyz holtz”. The gopher is a new world genus of animals. “What kind of wood would a woodchuck chuck?”
God, and Who Learned What From the Flood.
In last week’s parsha, Bereshit, God was glorious in creating the earth, and subpar in his dealings with humans. His first prohibition was managed badly. He placed the forbidden object right in the center of Adam and Eve’s dwelling, and accompanied it with his first lie, saying, “in dem tog vos du est fun im (the tree of knowledge) vestu zikher shtarbn” (in the day you eat of it you will surely die). And the first humans broke the first rule. Then, later, he showed favor to one brother over the other, apparently with no explanation.
But Noakh is God’s first deadly tantrum. What “corruption” could the world have possibly fallen into that would justify killing not only humanity, but the world’s animals too? Our reading group preferred the Hebrew word for corrupt, nishkhata, from shikhet- “to ruin”, “to pervert”. It shares a root with the word for grave, or pit. The Yiddish fardorbn, which means corrupt, but comes from a root that means thinning or wasting, doesn’t pack the same punch.
What were these sins of Noakh’s generation that were so appalling to God? The Torah is often terse, leaving commentators, both Talmudic and contemporary, to fill in the blanks. The suggestion closest to the text is that humans were having cross-species sex. Humans were mating with the Nephilim. “The sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them.”
There’s no question that Judaism is preoccupied with the idea of purity. The laws of kashrus, the mikvah, sexual prohibitions, the laws about mixing (grains, fibers), and above all, the laws regarding sacrifices are all about purity. From the very first, creation was as much or even more about separating and making clear distinctions than it was about creation by getting something from nothing, shaping, building and growing. Separating waters from waters, heaven from earth, water from land, day from night. Over and over the first parsha uses the words “according to their kinds”, to say how species were created, and how each plant bore forth its own type of seeds. The values of Torah are of differentiation, clarity, and purity, above hybridization, variability within species, mixing and matching. We can infer that the God of Bereshit would be suspicious of GMOs.
He decides to wipe out creation and start over. Here I think the Torah text actually improves in the translation from Hebrew to Yiddish, when God tells Noah to get in the ark. He says that he’s about to make it rain for forty days and forty nights, because he’s going to opmekn dem gantsn bashtand vos ikh hob gemakht. The English translations I have give “I will blot out all existence that I have created” (JPS) or, “every living substance that I have made will I blot out…” (Soncino). Other translations on the internet say “every living thing”.
The word באשטאנד (bashtand) comes from באשטיין (bashteyn). Bashtand is used as a translation for the Hebrew Ha’ykum, which the dictionary gives as meaning “existence”, or “essence”. Bashteyn, the verb, means ‘to exist’, with secondary meanings of ‘to last, or persist’ but also ‘to consent’ or ‘to allow’. The connotative implication, then, is that existence itself depends on God’s consent, on his allowing it to last.
A secondary meaning my dictionary gives for Bashtand is even better. Bashtand means “contents” or “substance” but can also mean “a mess”. So God tells Noah, “I’m going to blot out this whole mess that I have made.” I know this is not the primary meaning that Yehoash intended, but it captures the feeling of revulsion God feels for his own creation. He will destroy “every body”, and “all flesh” And he does.
And what was learned from the flood, and by whom? After the waters recede, Noah and his sons leave the ark, Noah builds an alter and burns a sacrifice. God smells the sacrifice and decides to himself (roughly paraphrased), I won’t mess with the natural cycles of the planet, or kill all living things again on account of people, like I just did,.. Varum die trakhtung fun dem mentshns hartsns iz shlekht fun zayn yugnt on.
The thinking of people’s hearts is bad from the beginning. People didn’t learn anything, because corruption is inherent in their corporeal nature as bodies, and so killing all of them except Noah and his seed didn’t solve the problem at all! [This judgment will be quickly confirmed by Ham’s behavior, and by the Tower of Babel] It’s God who learned. He learned how to let corrupt and sinful humans live.
These days, the flood is often used as a story about ecology. If there’s a lesson in here for human, as opposed to divine morality, it could be that trying to perfect the world is the quickest way to destroy it. The acceptance of our corporeal and corruptible nature as bodies, and of variation (see part two, on the Tower of Babel), is central to living in harmony with nature.
Within the day I have seen two news articles that seem to relate to the themes in this post. One said that Neanderthal DNA appears to have made it’s way into the human genome more recently than was previously supposed, and that the two species of hominids interbred during more than one epoch. A second article described how King Tut may have suffered from numerous medical problems due to a high level of inbreeding within the Egyptian royal family.
The natural world we are born into includes both sticking with what works (species differentiation and specialization) and combining different things (hybrids and crosses). It includes selection pressure for similarity and for variation. And, the same is true about the world of words and of ideas.