God observes that the earth has become corrupt. This parashah contains another type of creation story, one in which God destroys all life on earth in a flood, except for Noah, his family, and the pairs of animals who survive with Noah on the ark that he builds.The fourth aliyah describes the emergence from the ark at the end of the flood. This is Noah's first action on dry land:
Noah then built an altar in honor of the Eternal; taking some pure beasts and some pure birds, he offered up whole burnt-offerings on the altar. (8:20)
How easy it would have been to succumb to despair, to find the idea of rebuilding human civilization daunting. Instead Noah does more than survive a near-death experience; he perseveres and begins again. Now that the ark has landed on dry land Noah offers up a sacrifice of thanks. Noah, the first tzaddik (righteous human being), immediately acknowledges his dependence on God and his mortality, and thereby sets a new tone and a new standard for the human enterprise.
Rather than destroy life entirely, God preserves a righteous remnant and re-creates the world. This second creation emerges out of the first one. New life springs from a refined, ethically worthy creation. Following Noah's sacrifice, God blesses Noah and his sons and commands them to reproduce, a near duplicate of the blessing God gave to Adam. The Zohar reinforces this idea, teaching that the sacrifice that Noah offers is on the same altar as the one Adam built (1:70). There is destruction concomitant with rebirth and revolution accompanied by continuity. This marvelous juxtaposition of opposites is a recurring theme throughout Torah. God expects that Noah will carry on, literally and figuratively, from the catastrophe he has witnessed. Noah must pick up the pieces of life on earth and begin again. God learned from failure, providing a holy model worthy of our imitation.
Noah's new beginning is not simply a repeat of the first creation. Noah's story begins with worship and thanks; it is morally centered. According to Sarna, Noah's sacrifice is a way of cleansing the earth and starting anew (JPS Commentary, 59). God destroyed people and animals because of pervasive corruption. Noah's sacrifice wipes away the desecration and renews the connection between God and humankind. Cataclysm seems to bring out the best and the worst in human nature. Ironically, we are writing this commentary in the wake of a series of natural disasters that make these thoughts all too real. We have witnessed those remarkable people who are motivated to demonstrate their intimations of divinity, qualities of heroism, selflessness and compassion. Psychologist Robert Coles struggles with the idea that adverse conditions can bring out the best in people,
"Disease and death are, in a sense…the big and threatening presence that prompts one to take heed, and figure out how to conduct oneself." (The Moral Life of Children, 131)
In crisis, we have a choice, and the consequences are often polar opposites.
"Death is near you but it can be far from you, appears to be far from you but is near you." (Kohelet Rabbah 8)
When our survival is threatened, we have a choice to be reduced to our most primal instincts or to rise to our most sublime aspirations. It is equally true that when we feel invincible, it serves us to remember that we are vulnerable. In the Jewish year, we have completed the cycle of repentance and rebirth, moving from fasting on Yom Kippur to feasting on Sukkot, and ultimately to joyous renewal of learning on Simchat Torah, when we re-create the first story of Creation. The traditional dress worn on one's wedding day is the kittel, the white jacket worn on Yom Kippur and at burial. Death and birth, blessing and curse, fasting and feasting, corruption and righteousness, love and hate, destruction and creation are more profoundly connected than we may like to believe.
To Talk About
- How can tragedy and destruction renew our sense of purpose and determination in life?
- Is it always appropriate to rebuild in the face of destruction? When might we leave a scene of destruction and for what purpose?
- In your opinion, how are morality and mortality related?
Birkat HaGomeil is the blessing customarily said by someone who has recovered from a serious illness, returned safely from a long journey, or by someone who has survived any type of danger (Siddur Sim Shalom, 402). The blessing says, in translation, "Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who graciously bestows favor upon the undeserving, even as God has bestowed favor upon me." These seem to be moments when we are moved to pray to God and directly express our thanks. Why might you want a fixed prayer to recite at such a time? How is this prayer different from one you might spontaneously compose yourself having survived a dangerous experience?