“Rebuilding the World Through the Children of Noah”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Although this week’s parasha, parashat Noah, focuses primarily on the Flood, it also traces the history of humankind following the Flood. After the passing of Noah, the Torah lists the names of the children of Noah and describes the repopulation of the world.

The Bible, in Genesis 10:1 states, וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת בְּנֵי נֹחַ, שֵׁם חָם וָיָפֶת, וַיִּוָּלְדוּ לָהֶם בָּנִים אַחַר הַמַּבּוּל . These are the descendants of the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth; sons were born to them after the Flood.

Although there is a rabbinic dispute regarding which of Noah’s three sons was the oldest, certainly the most significant child is Shem, from whom the Semitic nations and the Jews are descended. The three sons of Noah, eventually, were also the progenitors of the seventy nations who inhabited the world in those days.Abraham was a tenth generation descendent of Noah, through his son Shem.

A particularly notable descendent of Shem was his fifth generation great-grandson, עֵבֶר -Eber, who, according to rabbinic sources, played a key role in resurrecting the world after its near destruction in the time of Noah. According to the Midrash, Eber was one of the few righteous men in those times, who along with his great, great, great-grandfather Shem, established a yeshiva. Since the Torah had not yet been given, speculation is that Shem and Eber, like Abraham, had rationally come to the conclusion of the existence of many of the ethical and moral laws that eventually would be revealed in the Torah.

At their house of study, Shem and Eber spent time studying and propagating these principles, trying to inspire the world to follow, at least, the basic laws of humanity. Maimonides, in the Laws of Idolatry 1:1, regards Eber as one of the few individuals along with Enoch, Methuselah, Noah, and Shem, who came to the conclusion that there was one Creator, despite the fact that all of humanity at that time was worshiping idols.

The name Eber, in Hebrew, means “to come across.” The Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 3, explains that Eber and his family came across from the other side of the Euphrates River. Consequently, all of Eber’s descendants were known as עִבְרִי -Ivri (crossers). Thus, Abraham’s descendants became known as עִבְרִים -Ivrim, Hebrews, because he too had crossed the river. According to Rashi, they were named Ivrim because they were descended from Eber.

The commentary to Rashi, Mizrachi Genesis 39:14, maintains that only someone who was both a descendant of Eber and had crossed the river, is known as Ivri. Thus, only Isaac, and not Ishmael, is known as an Ivri.

The impact of Shem and Eber on humankind was profound and, according to the Talmud, Megilla 17a, Jacob spent 14 years studying Torah at the Yeshiva of Shem and Eber before joining Laban and his family in Haran.

Two key descendants of Eber were his son פֶלֶג -Peleg and his son יָקְטָן -Jokton. The word “peleg,” which means to split, confound or confuse, refers to the great purging of the nations that took place in Peleg’s days (Genesis 11:7-9), during the period of the Tower of Babel. Some attribute the scheme of building the tower to Peleg himself, which is why the generation is named after him, דּוֹר הַפְלָגָה , the generation of confounding, confusion and splitting.

Peleg’s son, Jokton, also played a central role in the development of humankind. The Radak explains that Peleg named his son Jokton, from the Hebrew word קָטָן , meaning small, because from the time of Peleg’s birth, human longevity began to diminish. Because he was born physically smaller than those who preceded him, Jokton’s father, Eber, concluded that his son’s years would be fewer than previous generations.

Rashi, based on the Midrash, claims that Jokton merited to establish many families because he was humble and frequently belittled himself. The Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 6:6, cited by Rashi, claims that Jokton merited to establish thirteen large families. Jokton, despite being small of stature and who diminished himself, serves as a paradigm of humility to those who are large and imposing.

It could very well be that the name Jokton is the first allusion in the Bible to the ideas of humility and modesty–characteristics that are of enormous importance in Jewish and human values. Noah, as well as Joseph’s son Ephraim, and Moses are all considered to have been extraordinarily modest people who profoundly influenced Jewish posterity.

When Abraham, Genesis 23, comes to the children of Het to purchase a grave for his wife, he bows down before the people of the land who call him, Genesis 23:6, נְשִׂיא אֱ־לֹקִים , Prince of G-d. Despite being so exalted, Abraham in his great modesty, continues to bow. The Midrash HaGadol (an anonymous 14th century compilation of aggadic midrashim on the Pentateuch), states that because of the two times that Abraham humbled himself before the children of Het, nations of the world would later humble themselves before his descendants, the People of Israel.

The special qualities derived from the descendants of Noah–crossing the river and swimming against the tide, as well as their modesty and humility, have served the Jewish people well over the millennia. The continued practice of these qualities by the Jewish people will undoubtedly serve the people well in the future.

May you be blessed.