March 23, 2006

By Halina Rubinstein

The story of Noah is a second creation story, a second opportunity for both God and man to correct past mistakes. God sees the evil that men have done and regrets that he created man (Genesis 6:6) and determines to destroy all of life. This would presuppose the belief that God is not omniscient in that God could not predict this eventuality. Medieval philosophers grappled with this problem as do we moderns. What is of interest here is God’s covenant with Noah.

After emerging from the ark, God made a covenant with Noah and showed a rainbow as a sign that He would never again send a flood to destroy all living things. Traditionally and to this day, there is a blessing that may be recited when one sees a rainbow: Baruch atah adonai elohenu melech ha-olam, zocher habrit v’n-eeman b’vrito, v’kayam b’ma-amaro,

Blessed are you, God, Ruler of the universe, who remembers the covenant, is trustworthy in the covenant and fulfills God’s word. The rainbow is a sign of peace between the Creator and the creation, a sign that humanity need not fear for its existence. (God will not again destroy life, but left to his own devices, man has the potential to do what God promised not to do.)

Rabbinic literature suggests that a number of decrees were given at that time to all of humanity. First, the Noah story contains the first biblical text that allows man to eat the flesh of animals (Genesis 9:3). In the biblical account, Adam and Eve and their descendants were given as food only that which grows from the ground. Only after humanity’s violence and God’s decision to destroy it, are people are permitted to eat meat, suggesting a possible connection between violence committed by the generation of the flood and the permission to kill animals for food following the flood.

Furthermore, according to rabbinic interpretation, seven mitzvot are given to all peoples (known as the Noahide laws, or, in Hebrew, sheva mitzvot b’nei Noach). They include commandments prohibiting murder, stealing, idolatry,
sexual immorality, eating the flesh of a living animal, blasphemy, and the positive commandment to establish courts of justice.

While the Jewish people were to receive the Torah with its 613 commandments at Mt. Sinai, these seven Noahide laws were intended to govern all societies and are incumbent upon all nations.

Thus, the Torah tells us that, in addition to our own system of mitzvoth, we have a responsibility toward the rest of the world to establish these seven commandments as a basic moral code that is fundamental to the creation of civil and peaceful society.

Shabbat Shalom