Who is a hero?

A hero is one who channels his creative impulses.

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
THE TRADITIONAL repository of mishnaic rabbinic wisdom, the “Ethics of the Fathers,” states that a hero is one who is in control of or can harness his “creative powers” – my translation of the Hebrew word yetzer.
God displays his controlling creative power in the first Torah portion, Bereishit, even if at its close, he is dissatisfied with the results. “I regret that I have made them,” God opines, regarding the wickedness of man.
Yet, in the third portion, Lekh Lekha, Abraham emerges – the first human who can both grapple with his desires and use his creative powers to alter his life and the lives of his family, working within the covenant and requirements of the creator of the universe.
Our portion, Noah, acts as a bridge between a world where creative powers are divine alone, and that of Abraham where humans are in a covenantal relationship. What is it about this portion that enables us to traverse this vast expanse? What is it that occurs that makes this enormous leap possible? How Noah uses words.
Before and during the flood, Noah is silent in the face of God’s decision to obliterate the world with water. Many commentators deduce from his silence and inaction that Noah shows a lack of empathy for those who are about to perish in the flood. Why does he not protest God’s decree? I suggest that it was only after the flood that language could be used to make change in the world.
Our portion does not record that Noah proclaimed his wonder and pleasure at being saved and seeing dry land again. He does not reply to God’s instructions, nor thank him. He does not comfort his family, nor encourage them to rebuild after this destruction.
His first words are uttered only after his nakedness was seen by his son Ham. He uses them then to curse Ham, and bless his other sons Shem and Japhet, who covered him.
Blessing and cursing is an appropriation of the divine creative use of language. It aims to change and define the future. Only after the catastrophe of total destruction is a human being endowed with the capacity to use language as God does, to change and destabilize and create anew, to curse and bless.
Commentaries on the verse, “and he will dwell in the tents of Shem,” said by Noah as he blesses Japhet, maintain that this refers to the option of moving the Bible into a new dwelling place, a new language.
Language is the vehicle through which the creative powers, the yetzer come to fruition.
Before the flood, it is this yetzer that is a source of harm.
God proclaims that “every creative energy [yetzer] of the thoughts of the human heart is continually evil.” After the flood nothing and everything has changed.
Regarding yetzer, God says, “I will not continue to curse the ground because of humanity for every creative impulse [yetzer] of the human heart is evil from youth, nor will I strike all living beings as I have done.” Humans have not changed. What has changed is their use of language, and how God will relate to them, with their flaws unchanged.
The theme of language is further explored in our portion in the story of the Tower of Babel, where a single-language world is overturned by divine intervention. From then on, the peoples of the earth have to find their creative expression in different words, their holy texts translated and transformed, yet anchored by revelation and experience.
By moving the Bible into a new language, by interpreting its words in new ways, we are employing our creative impulses in a channeled or restrained manner – channeled and restrained by the words of the biblical text. For scholars, it is the harnessing and use of knowledge and energy that drives an engagement with, and interest in, that text. As the editor of a recently published anthology, “Reading Genesis,” I have asked academics in different fields to take that yetzer, their creative energy, and use it to illuminate the first of the Five Books of Moses.
So, to end where we started, “who is a hero? The one who channels his creative impulses.” Noah does not quite learn to harness his language appropriately; he curses as well as blesses.
It is my hope that with the addition of yet more insights into the biblical texts, made in the heroic spirit of controlled creativity, we can be helped to use our own creative energy and inquiry for good. 
Beth Kissilef is the editor of the anthology ‘Reading Genesis’ (Continuum, 2016) and the author of a forthcoming novel ‘Questioning Return’