I find it amusing how companies that produce baby toys use the theme of Noah’s Ark so much. You know, an old guy in a big wooden boat and two of every animal. It makes one wonder if the folks who use that imagery have ever actually read the story of Noah’s Ark. It does not paint a pretty picture. And it is certainly not a baby story.
There is an important thread running through this morning’s Torah portion, Parshat Noach, that captures the essence of the human condition, as well as God’s most basic hope for humanity. It is a theme that is revealed in God’s decision to wipe out life on earth, in God’s promise to Noah never to do it again, and in the later story of the Tower of Babel. What does God want from us? What is our purpose in being here? Parshat Noach teaches that the primary obligation of humanity is to build a society that enables every one of its members to flourish. That is what we are here for.
Ten generations after creating the world, God looks at it and is filled with regret. Humanity has corrupted the earth and filled it with violence and lawlessness.
And so God decides to wipe out all life and start over.
What is different before and after? How can God be certain that the near universal corruption that characterizes Creation 1.0 will not reemerge in Creation 2.0?
As commentator Robert Saks describes it, Creation 1.0 is a “pre-legal world.” There are no laws, no external rules telling people how to distinguish between good and bad. God expects people to just kind of know for themselves. Perhaps the quality of having been created in the Divine Image was supposed to have enabled us to figure things out on our own. It finally reaches the point at which the entire world has become inundated by evil. God regrets having made humanity. God’s entire assumption about life on earth, that human beings would know, by some internal moral barometer, how to behave, is flawed. The Divine Image in which every person was created seems to have been repressed.
This is not a judgment and punishment of the world. There is no language of that. The text of the Torah does not dwell on human wickedness, and God does not send them any warnings. While we might be happier if people had been given a chance to mend their ways, that is not the purpose of this story. God is sad and regretful. So God decides to wipe away life on earth. As in, with an eraser. Think of it as reformatting the hard drive.
But there is a problem. There is one man who is righteous, the only one in the entire generation. It is not so much that God saved Noah. According to Saks, God sees Noah and “knows that [God] will have to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent.”*1* Indeed, this will become the major ethical question of the new world that is about to emerge.
So God instructs Noah to build an ark for himself, his family, and representatives of every species of animal on earth. What is an ark? Basically, it is a floating box with no rudder, sails, or helm.
Once Noah and the others enter the ark, God seals it from the outside, and promptly forgets about them. In the ark, they are in a different dimension than the rest of the world, so that when the waters of chaos rush in to erase the earth, those in the ark are not part of it.
Eventually, after the floods have risen to submerge the highest peaks, God remembers Noah, and causes the waters to gradually recede.
When Noah emerges from the ark, he immediately offers a sacrifice to God. God then pledges to never again doom the earth because of human beings. “So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.”*2* God is not going to erase creation again, even though human beings are imperfect. This is incredibly significant. In the new world order, God has given human beings a certain amount of security in knowing that the earth will be here for the long haul. God strikes a covenant with Noah. A covenant is a solemn promise that establishes a permanent relationship between two parties. That is what God is offering humanity – a permanent relationship.
But of course, there are some stipulations. Human beings will have some obligations in this new world order. Among them, we have to establish rules. The Torah states it in the most basic of terms: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in His image did God make man.”*3* This poetic verse is the basis of civilization. There is a fundamental equality between every human being, and we humans have an obligation to create societies with rules that we enforce to protect that fundamental equality.
That is God’s plan for humanity. That we should learn to live together in such a way that the part of us that is made in the Divine image can flourish.
We saw what happened when there were no external rules. That was the state of things before the flood. Humanity embarked on a destructive path that could not be sustained.
We are given the first clue that something is different as soon as the animals take their first steps on dry land. Instead of coming out as they had entered, l’minehu, as different species. when the animals emerge from the ark, they come out l’mishp’choteihem, as families.*4* Instead of highlighting the distinction, the separateness, between the different species, the Torah nows emphasizes family relationships. The new world order will depend on people coming together as families, as cultures, and as communities with their own traditions. This is highlighted in the story that comes at the end of the Parshah, the Tower of Babel. It is the origin myth of the diversity of human culture. After banding together to try to build a tower to the heavens and overthrow God, God confounds peoples’ speech and scatters them across the earth.
We might be tempted to see this as a punishment for rebellion. But the scattering of humanity has its positive side too. Because it results in the development of different languages, and different cultures. And families that pass on traditions. And human societies in different parts of the world that are unique and special.
Today, we are living in the same world: post-flood, post-diluvian, if you want the fancy word. Our society is struggling to find that formula of laws and traditions that will enable every human being to flourish, to bring out that aspect of each of us that is made in the Divine image.
This all goes back to the covenant that God made with Noah, which is really a covenant with humanity.
The viability of a covenant is dependent on memory. Every covenant needs a sign. The sign of this covenant, of course, is still with us. It is used in all of those baby toys I mentioned earlier. God placed a keshet in the sky, a rainbow. It is interesting that the purpose of the rainbow is not to remind humans about anything. God says that the rainbow will remind God of the promise not to wipe out the world again. For humans, then, seeing the rainbow is a reminder of God’s promise. It reassures us that the world will continue to follow the rules of nature, and that we are free to continue our efforts to flourish.
What is it about a rainbow that makes it such an appropriate sign for this covenant?
Think about how God created the world, and then wiped it away. We read at the beginning of Genesis that the world was filled with primordial waters of chaos. God pushes these waters out of the way in order to make space for the world, and for order. When God decideds to erase that world, God releases those waters of chaos that have been held at bay. The new promise is to never do it again.
So what is so special about a rainbow? Think about how a rainbow is formed: through the cooperation of sun and rain. Of light and water.
It evokes balance, with everything in its proper place.
As Jews, we have a particular way of fulfilling our part in God’s covenant with Noah. At the very end of this morning’s Parsahah, we meet Abraham, whose children eventually become the Jewish people and receive the Torah, entering in a special covenant with God at Mount Sinai. Through living by our Torah, we fulfill that vision that God shared with Noah after he walked out on dry land: that human beings could create societies in which they truly respected the holiness of everyone.
May sun cooperate with rain. May people love and respect differences. May the vision of a rainbow-infused world become a reality.
*1*A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Robert D. Saks, p. 53.