November 1st: No’ach
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
The story of a Great Flood is found in many ancient cultures, and there are all kinds of theories for this common theme. Could there have been an actual great flood like the Bible describes? Could this tale be referencing a pre-historic flood that filled in the Black Sea or the Mediterranean Sea? Or, could this be a psychologically fear-driven story, based on flash flooding in the dry river beds many ancients inhabited?
Whatever the common concern or memory, the difference between the Jewish version—in Genesis 6-9—and the other ancient versions is the moral component. Whereas the Babylonian story of Ut’napish’tim (in the Gilgamesh Epic) presents the “problem” as humanity’s noise, the Bible speaks of God’s consternation at human immorality. “The Lord saw how great was human wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by their minds was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted the creation of humans on earth, and God’s heart was saddened. The Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the humans whom I created—humans together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.’ But Noah found favor with the Lord.” (Genesis 6.5-8)
Why Noah? The Torah gives a nuanced answer. “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6.9) “Righteous” and “walked with God,” sound like good character traits, but the middle phrase, “blameless in his age,” provides two interesting evaluative possibilities. On the one hand, it suggests that Noah might not have been that good. His comparative righteousness was only better than the truly terrible morality of that evil generation. On the other hand, it might be a sign of great moral strength. Given that his peer group was horrible, it must have taken incredible moral resolve to be righteous in such a cauldron of wickedness.
In any event, Noah is good enough for God to save, and Noah becomes the ancestor of humanity’s second chance. The next question revolves around God’s intentions in regard to this second chance—and whether there is a possibility for a third or fourth chance, too.
After Noah and his family and all the animals come off the Ark, God speaks the following: “I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living thing that is with you—birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well—all that have come out of the Ark, every living thing on earth. I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
In all the years of reading this passage, my only reaction was relief: God was/is reassuring humanity that such a flood will never come again. I never wondered why God made this promise until Bat Mitzvah student Ellie Kaufman asked about God’s motivation. I asked her what she thought, and her answer is quite astounding. She compares the situation to an artist who works very hard on a painting but who makes a mistake at the end and destroys the painting. Afterwards, the artist reconsiders and regrets destroying his/her work—and wonders if there might have been a way to fix the mistake.
As Ellie understands it, God makes the Rainbow Covenant with Noah and the future of humanity because God has figured out a different and better way to deal with human misbehavior. From now on, God will develop a system of repentance and atonement—of Teshuvah—and thus work for human improvement.
As evidence, Ellie brings up the example from our Yom Kippur Haftarah of the story of Jonah. God loves the people of Nineveh even though they are wicked and is willing to accept their repentance. Jonah is disappointed because he wants to see a bloodbath, but God explains: “Should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?!” (Jonah 4.11)
And so, I thank Ellie for seeing God’s promise in a different way and for teaching us all about how God—and we!—can learn and improve.
In these early years of the Creation, God learns that human goodness is not automatic. It must be learned and often re-learned. But, even with our inadequacies, God loves us and wants desperately for us to improve. Thus does the rainbow serve as a double reminder—reminding God not to send another flood, and reminding us that we can do better.
.בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶך הָעוֹלָם, זוֹכֵר הַבְּרִת
Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melech ha’olam, zocher hab’rit.
We praise You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the world, who remembers the Covenant