"I am establishing My covenant with you; never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood; never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth" (Genesis 9:11).
Parashat Noach is a portion of contrasts. Noah, the best of the worst generation, is told to build an ark to survive a flood that will destroy every living creature except his family. He is also told to take into the ark two of every bird and animal and creeping thing. Noah's first act upon leaving the ark is to sacrifice a great many of the animals and birds that he had so intentionally saved. But the greatest contrast in this portion may be God's transformation from an angry destroyer to a loving protector and redeemer. After the flood, God expresses remorse and is penitent. How might we read this tale, which many interpret as an Israelite adaptation of a popular Mesopotamian story? (See Jon Levenson, in The Jewish Study Bible , ed. Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Michael Fishbane [London: Oxford University Press, 2004], p. 21.)
The Destruction of Creation
Much happens in the first six chapters of the Torah. God creates the universe and populates the world with both human beings and animals. However, precisely because humans are created in the image of the Divine, Adam and Eve's appetites lead them out of the Garden of Eden. God regrets creating these curious, troublesome beings: "As for Me, I am going to bring the flood-waters upon the earth to destroy all that lives under the heavens" (Genesis 6:17).
Tragically, we have witnessed too many deaths by drowning in our own time, both domestically and abroad. Some of us read this text with firsthand knowledge of the power of a raging flood, for we have seen the devastation of rushing waters that flatten homes, uproot trees, and wash away years of community building. Like our biblical ancestors, we have counted the days as waters rise and fall, numbering the days between the time of terror and the tentative first attempts to reach dry, safe ground.
Parashat Noach focuses on those who ride out the torrential rains in the astonishingly durable ark. As readers of the biblical text, we do not hear the cries of either the humans or the hapless beasts as they are swept into the floodwaters. We do not see children ripped from their parents' embrace, or the aged who lack the strength to resist the waves that quickly overwhelm them. In this telling, we do not listen to the desperate cacophony of animals, small and large, as they gasp for final breaths of air. The biblical author spares us the roar of the angry sea as well as the seductive lapping of the waves against the side of the gopher-wood vessel that carries its heterogeneous load of passengers to safety. Does God hear what we do not? We must fill in the gaps of the Torah text and imagine both the terror of the victims and the trauma of the survivors. But the Holy One knows the dreams, both waking and sleeping, of the humans and the animals who spent months and months on the fragile ark. When did the Holy One regret the decision to wipe away all but a remnant of Creation? Was the thunder that shook the earth an echo of God's sobs? How many of the torrents, then and now, are God's tears?
After the Flood: God's Senses and Compassion Are Awakened Anew
All survivors know that it takes many, many days to trust that they can once again walk on dry land. While the flood ends "on the first day of the first month" (Genesis 8:13), it is nearly sixty days later when God invites the exhausted travelers to disembark from the ark. Noah builds an altar and sacrifices some of the animals who have been saved. This intentional destruction of some of the pairs of "pure beasts and pure clean birds" (Genesis 8:20) seems to thwart the plan to repopulate the world by replacing every species. There is ambiguity about the numbers that were actually "saved" on the ark—one pair (Genesis 6:19) or seven (Genesis 7:2) or at least two of each species, according to Rashi—and whether or not every kind of animal was indeed preserved from extinction. This opens the way to considering the nature and population of a post-Flood world: Might a new society demand a more expansive understanding of and tolerance for inclusion of both species and family configurations? When the flood is over, God acknowledges that while human beings are complex and often unpredictable creatures, we are nevertheless God's primary covenant partners. Perhaps based on observations of Noah's own compassion toward both his family and the animals in his care on the ark, God promises: "Never again will I bring doom upon the world on account of what people do, though the human mind inclines to evil from youth onward; never again will I destroy all living beings, as I have [just] done . . ." (Genesis 8:21). (See Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995], pp. 62–63.)
The aroma of the sacrificed animals is so intoxicating that the Holy One invites human beings to join in feasting upon the beasts of the field, ending the vegetarian regimen that had been established in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1:29–30) and underscoring the privileged relationship between humankind and the Holy One. God also promises that the seasons will follow one another in an orderly pattern. While not restoring Eden, God establishes a cycle that enables human beings to plan, plant, and cultivate gardens that will nourish families and livestock. Moved by our frailty, and perhaps by our tenacity, God concludes: "I am establishing My covenant with you; never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood; never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth" (Genesis 9:11).
The High Holy Days have concluded, and we, like the generation after Noah, have begun to construct a new reality. In Parashat Noach , God models behavior of hurtful action, remorse, and repentance. As we begin this new year, each of us has made promises and declared new covenants with those with whom we share our lives. May we, like God, be among those who hear the cries of those who call out and among those who share the tears of those who suffer. And acknowledging human frailty and human strength, may we follow God's example of love, forgiveness, and acceptance, essential tools for beginning anew.
At the time of this writing in 2007, Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell , Ph.D., served as the director of the URJ Pennsylvania Council and the Federation of Reform Synagogues of Greater Philadelphia.