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Parashat Noah

October 7, 2010

In this week’s Torah portion, God, having concluded that Humanity 1.0 has not worked out at all, decides to start over again. God chooses the most righteous man, Noah. Our rabbis disagree on whether Noah was not particularly righteous, just more so than everyone else at the time, or whether Noah would have been considered righteous no matter what his generation. Either way, Noah and his family are chosen to be the humans that will repopulate the world. God causes there to be a great flood that covers the whole world, killing every human and animal that lives on land, so that only Noah, his family, and the animals on the ark with them survive.

Upon emerging from the ark, Noah builds an altar and makes an offering to God.  God “inhale[s] the soothing fragrance” (Gen. 8:21, translation from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary) and is moved to decide not to ever again “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,” (ibid.). It seems that pleasure in Noah’s sacrifice is the reason for God’s decision not to destroy the world anymore, but it’s not clear what leads God to say that the human mind inclines to evil. By saving Noah to start humanity over again, it seems that God believed before the Flood that humanity did not inherently incline toward evil. Here God seems to have changed God’s mind about that, but there has not yet been any sin post-Flood that might lead God to that conclusion.

Perhaps the scent of Noach’s sacrifice reminds God of another sacrifice. The only other sacrifices in the Torah so far are those brought by Cain and Abel. That pair of sacrifices led to the first murder. Maybe in thinking about that incident, God realizes that the inclination to evil is part of human make-up that God must accept if humanity is to continue at all. Rather than try to find a human in whom the inclination is absent, God instead begins to give laws to help humans control the evil inclination. The first commandment God gives Noah and his sons is a repetition of the first commandment given to Adam: p’ru ur’vu, be fruitful and multiply. Very shortly thereafter God emphasizes that humans are made in God’s image and they are not to kill each other. This is again reminiscent of the Cain and Abel story, and an acknowledgement that there is the evil inclination inside humans that leads them to kill each other, and that must be controlled.

The rabbis of the Talmud go a step further. They say that the evil inclination is not only present in humans, but that it is necessary. In the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis tell a story of God allowing humans to capture and imprison the evil inclination. When they do, however, all procreation stops (this is signified by an inability to find any eggs-all the hens have stopped laying), because the impulse to procreate stems from the evil inclination (BT Yoma 69b).

This is the tension with which we live. We have an impulse to behave in ways that are self-destructive and destructive to society and the natural world, and it’s up to us to control it and channel it in useful ways instead. We sometimes succeed. Other times we fail, which brings us to the promise implicit in God’s decision not to destroy humanity again in spite of our inclination to evil. That implied promise is the promise of redemption. We can do teshuvah after we sin; we can return to God and try to do better.

This promise is made explicit in our haftarah for this week, from the book of Isaiah. It reads in part, “Fear not, you shall not be shamed; Do not cringe, you shall not be disgraced. For you shall forget the reproach of your youth, And remember no more the shame of your widowhood,” (Isaiah 54:4, New JPS translation). Further on, the haftarah continues, “In slight anger, for a moment, I hid My face from you; But with kindness everlasting I will take you back in love-said the Lord your Redeemer. For this to me is like the waters of Noah: As I swore that the waters of Noah nevermore would flood the earth, so I swear that I will not be angry with you or rebuke you,” (Isaiah 54:8-9, New JPS translation).

That is our hope, and it is the beauty of our relationship with God. God has promised not to destroy the world again, and not to abandon us. Our part is to do what we can to be our best selves and harness our evil inclinations for good. We do not need to live in fear that when we fail we have no recourse. We can repent, we can atone, we can do teshuvah, and God will take us back.

May we all be heartened and reassured that we have God’s love and support as we work daily to make the world a better place, and to make ourselves better people.

Heidi Hoover is a rabbinical student at The Academy for Jewish Religion.