Thoughts on Parashat Noach
(Genesis 6:9 - 11:32)

By Rabbi Shlomo Nachman © 09.30.2013 (latest update: 10.04.13)

The story of Noach's Ark is much more than a popular children's story. This portion lays the foundation for how the people of Earth are to approach and harmonize with the Creator and each other. It establishes the Seven Laws (or Sheva Mitzvot B'nei Noach) governing all of humanity. This portion records how humanity almost went out but how, due to the emunah (active faith) of a single ordinary person HaShem mercifully granted continued life to us all. Because of his emunah we did not go silently into that dark night. What could be more important? Please read the entire parsha at Genesis 6:9-11:32.

Was Noah something special? Did he accomplish something you and I would have been unable to achieve? Torah does say that Noah was "righteous in his generation" at Genesis 6:9. Some interpret this to mean that he was especially righteous among humans, that he accomplished something others could never have done due to his extreme holiness. But that's not what the text says. For a person living in his fallen generation, it tells us, Noah was very righteous. Likewise in our fallen generation you may be righteous and yet your righteousness may not be comparable to that of someone living during a purer time period. Today righteousness is in short supply! This is important. Like Reb Zusya our concern should be that HaShem will judge our righteousness according to the realities of our lives, not by the merits achieved by others. Are you doing what you can under your present circumstances to live as a righteous person? That's the question for you. The word "in his generation" (be-dorotav) can be seen as suggesting this according to Rambam, Rebbe Nachman and other authorities.

Consider that when HaShem determined to destroy the cities of the plain, Avraham debated and convinced the Holy One to spare the cities if only a handful of righteous people could be found (Genesis 18:32). He struggled with God ["yisrael"] to save the people from God's righteous wrath. Again, when HaShem threatened to destroy Klal Israel (People Israel) for the worship of the Gold Calf, Moshe didn't head for the hills to save his family. Rather he 'struggled' with God and said: "And now, lift their sin [i.e. forgive them], and if not, then please erase me from Your book that You wrote" [i.e. from Torah] (Exodus 32:32).

Noach prepared an ark to escape the coming wrath of God with his family. He 'went it alone' rather 'struggling' with God to save his fellows . He was righteous for a person of his generation, however he arguably could have done more had he struggled with Elohim for their safety.

The previous section of Torah, Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8), reveals the creation of life on earth. In it we discover how humanity chose to use its free will for Derech Yetzer Ha-Ra (the path of negative inclination and rebellion). One by one the human family turned its back on Elohim (the One God) and gradually embraced hedonism of various sorts.

In time only one person remained on earth who "was upright in his generation," who walked in the ways of God. This was Noach. Because of his emunah or active faith the One God decided to give humanity another chance. Baruch HaShem!

The emunah of one single person - the faith you personally manifest - can make all the difference in someone's life or even in the life of this beleaguered little planet! This is a critical truth revealed in this parsha: YOU matter.

Through hitbodedut (personal seclusion with HaShem) one in a sense enters into a personal ark of meditation and prayer. One drifts along the waters of HaShem's Presence seeking His guidence and knowledge. In hitbodedut we 'struggle' with HaShem. We seek His Will for our lives. We even question His rulings when we don't understand them. We constantly struggle for deeper insights into His Ways. We wrestle with what we do not understand. This struggling with God [yisrael] is a hallmark of the Jewish people. In the end we [hopefully] 'submit' to His Will. And we beg Him to be merciful to all of fallen humanity, to both our friends and foes. Justice is always done; we crave His mercy! Who knows what may be revealed to one who seeks HaShem with a sincere and humble heart! There is a lot of information in this parsha about drawing closer to God.

In this parsha Elohim (the One God) instructs Noach to build a large wooden teivah or "ark" - more literally a big wooden "box" (Genesis 6:14). Into this box he was told to bring representatives of all animal species as well as his immediate family members so that they would survive the coming deluge merited by humanity's poor choices. In this way HaShem would spare life on the planet.

For mating purposes the animals came into the ark by twos, male and female (Genesis 6:19) so Noach could inspect them (even as they had passed before Adam for naming: Genesis 2:19). From the clean animals (i.e. those fit for food and sacrifice) they came by pairs of sevens and of the unclean by pairs of twos, males and females they came to the ark at HaShem's bidding.

Why the sevens? At this time both humanity and the animals were still vegetarian (some say vegan) according to Genesis 1:29 and 30 and as affirmed at Genesis 9:3 (when this diet was changed as we will see below). It is certainly possible that members of fallen humanity had already begun eating the flesh of their fellow creatures in opposition to HaShem's direction, however Tzadik Noach (the Righteous Noach) would certainly have abided by the dietary restrictions of HaShem and refrained from such behavior.

HaShem ("the Name") is not bound by time or space. While the proper pronunciation of the Sacred Name of Four Letters is not known, His title Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh ('I Was/Am/Will be') affirms that as a Mighty Wind the Eternal is the Omnipresent Sole Being of Past, Present and Future ("I will be what I will be" is another possible translation). By His Wisdom the ark, its collection of animals and all that would be required for this odyssey was prepared.

As we will see shortly the numbering of these animal pairs was symbolic. In seven days HaShem creates the heavens and the earth. Through seven laws HaShem structured post deluge humanity. Through the first Seven Sephirot humanity ascends to the Throne of Mercy. The number seven is quite significant in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible).

Once the passengers were boarded, the door to the ark was shut:

Genesis 7:10 And it came to pass after the seven days, that the flood waters were upon the earth.
7:11 In the six hundredth year of Noach's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on this day, all the springs of the great deep were split, and the windows of the heavens opened up.
7:12 And the rain was upon the earth for forty days and forty nights.

Note that "...all the springs of the great deep were split [open], and the windows of the heavens opened up." The onset of the rains may have been gradual, as Rashi suggests, however soon massive bodies of water plummeted from the skies onto the planet as though from a bottomless sea! Those outside of the ark would not have died from gradual torturous drowning; they would have been instantly crushed by the waters of the deluge. Even in their death HaShem then was merciful. Only those inside the ark survived according to the Torah.

Some sages debate whether this was actually a global flood or only a regional event. We know that cultures throughout the ancient world speak of this event and that for most of them the flood was seen as global. The biblical presentation is that the entire planet was inundated above the peaks of the mountains when understood literally. I see no reason to doubt this personally.

Rashi tells us:

... when He brought them [the rains] down, He brought them down with mercy, so that if they would repent, they would be rains of blessing. When they did not repent, they became a flood. — [Midrash Hane'elam, Zohar Chadash 28a]
Having been warned by Noach, these people had full opportunity to repent and seek admission to the ark's safety. The refused this invitation however and suffered the consequences. HaShem promised never again to destroy the planet with a flood.

Finally the rains stopped after 40 days and nights. Then, for the next 150 days the waters covering the earth churned and tossed the ark but gradually they calmed. Finally the ark settled on Mount Ararat and Noach began sending out a series of doves to see whether the earth had dried sufficiently for them to leave the ark. The family and the animals were in the ark for one solar year (365 days).

Once they left the ark Noach immediately made a sacrifice of thanksgiving and teshuvah to HaShem, committing himself and his descendents to Elohim. HaShem accepted his sacrifice and established the Sheva Mitzvot B'nei Noach Covenant (also called the Rainbow Covenant due to the rainbow signifying it) with Noach and his descendents (i.e. with everyone on earth for all time).

From this we learn that HaShem is not only the God of People Israel. He is the One God of the whole earth. For this reason one does not need to convert to Judaism to serve Him or to be accepted by Him. One who is born a Gentile is encouraged to find shelter in the Noahide Covenant and to work with People Israel for the blessing of the planet and the healing of its wounds (tikun olam).

As we will see in later parashiyot, HaShem chose the righteous Avraham from among the descendents of Noach. Through Avraham's offspring with Sarah, eventually came our teacher Moshe -- the giver of the Torah.

Genesis 8:20 And Noach built an altar to the Lord, and he took of all the clean animals and of all the clean fowl and brought up burnt offerings on the altar.
8:21 And the Lord smelled the pleasant aroma, and the Lord said to Himself, "I will no longer curse the earth because of man, for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth, and I will no longer smite all living things as I have done.
8:22 So long as the earth exists, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease."
Next HaShem revealed the Rainbow Covenant (the Seven Universal Laws). As has been noted by various detractors, the text does not delineate the Seven Laws directly. This is correct. But it also does not do this with the 613 mitzvot of People Israel. Both sets of Law were revealed by our teacher Moshe. The rabbis of antiquity studied the Torah and drew these enumerations from the texts to help the people understand what HaShem requires of us. What matters is that these are the commands revealed by Moshe from HaShem for the two groups. Both the 7 and the 613 contain many more mitzvot when studied in detail and not all Jews (nor Noahidim) use these reckonings; many see more than 7 and/or 613.

As part of the Noahide Covenant humanity was now permitted to eat the flesh of some animals. Many animals likewise became carnivorous at this point (Genesis 1:29, 30 tells us that both animals and humans shared a common plant based diet until this point). HaShem placed a natural fear of humans into the consciousness of the animals (Genesis 9:1-4). Prior to this no such fear existed (which explains how Noach's family lived safely with lions and other now fierce animals in the ark). From this point on humanity has been permitted by HaShem to eat many of our fellow creatures under certain conditions (as specified in the Noahide (for everyone) and Mosaic (for Jews only) Laws.

The Sheva Mitzvot B'nei Noach ("the Seven Laws of the Children of Noach") are as follows:

Sheva Mitzvot B'nei Noach
At some point after this experience Noach and his family were celebrating. From a literal reading of the text we learn that Noach became drunk and passed out nude in his tent. Two of his sons, Shem and Japheth, covered him with a blanket while the third son, Ham, did something unacceptable to his father. The nature of Noach's 'drunkenness', the symbolism of his 'nudity', the act of 'covering' him, precisely what Ham did (and why) etc. are the subjects of many fascinating studies that reside outside our current consideration of this parsha.

Following this event Noach delineated the future of his three sons:

The descendents of the eldest son, Shem (the Shemites/Semites), were given his primary blessing. This blessing was passed to Avraham, Isaac, Jacob and the twelve Houses of Israel. In time ten of the twelve houses (i.e. the Northern Kingdom of Israel) were divorced/disowned by HaShem (II Kings 17:18). The houses of Judah and Benjamin (together as the Southern Kingdom of Judah) passed through 70 years of slavery in Babylon for their failures. While the House of Ephraim (AKA the combined Ten Houses) remain divorced and lost, in time HaShem lead Judah (and Benjamin with them) back into Eretz Israel. These people are the Jews we know today. The Blessing of Noach, Shem, Avraham and Moshe remains perpetually upon them (Malachi 3:6: For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed). This is discussed later in the Tanakh.

The sons of Noach and their children lived together as one people under the leadership of the family of Shem and the protection of the family of Japheth for many years (Genesis 9:27). Eventually a 'mighty hunter arose in opposition to the People of HaShem' (Genesis 10:8,9) and the monotheistic worship of the One True God was largely lost. As a result came the nefarious events at the Tower of Babel.

At Babel most of the people had embraced the Babylonian worship of Oannes (Dagon) and Atargatis through the leadership of Nimrod (son of Cush, son of Ham, son of Noach: Genesis 10:6,8,9). The various non-Torah religions of "greater Babylon" began here. As a result of this spiritual harlotry HaShem separated the peoples of the earth into seventy nations, confused their languages and scattered them across the globe. As always, one must decide how literally to take such accounts. This is what Torah says happened, and there is a lot of evidence supporting it. Many of the pre-Tower stories and traditions lived on (in edited forms) through the memories of the diverse ancient peoples (consider for instance the flood that Manu and his sons survived as recorded in the Indian Vedas).

HaShem is gracious however and in time His Torah was rekindled through the emunah (active faith) of our father Avraham, the first convert to the religion of HaShem. Later the Written and Oral Torah were revealed to Moshe and so on. These are matters for future discussions.

This parsha ends with the counting of the ten generations between Noach and Avraham. For more information on the ten generations, the ten utterances etc. see Pirkei Avot 5:2. For more on the Noahide Covenant see my Sheva Mitzvot B'nei Noach study. If you wish to contact me I invite you to do so.

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