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Parashat Noah

November 5, 2014

Parashat Noah: Balancing Two Promises
Rabbi Jill Hammer

In Parashat Noah, God commands Noah to build an ark so that his descendants may survive the flood that God is bringing upon the earth. Noah’s role, according to the biblical text, is as a partner in covenant with God: “I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark…” Some midrashim emphasize a second aspect of Noah’s role: as a caretaker of animal diversity. In Genesis Rabbah 19:5, Noah runs from animal to animal to provide each one with the food it needs, to the extent that Noah does not sleep the entire time he is on the ark. The phoenix is so distressed at Noah’s hard work that it does not ask for anything to eat (and is rewarded with eternal life for its empathy).

Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, the rabbi and author, adds beautifully to this midrashic thread. In her book Noah’s Wife: The Story of Naamah, Sasso envisions Naamah (in rabbinic midrash, Naamah is the name of Noah’s wife) as the one who saves all the plant life of Earth from the Flood. Naamah walks all over the earth collecting seeds from each plant so that the trees, grasses, and bushes can survive. In Sasso’s vision, it is Naamah who provides food for the animals and also re-seeds the surface of the planet once the flood recedes. In these expanded narratives, Noah and Naamah together make the new earth possible, by acting as good stewards of the world’s resources and by obeying the Source of Life. They are exemplars of the idea that humans are stewards of all life — an idea that is prevalent throughout Torah and Jewish tradition. The Holy One puts Adam in the Garden of Eden le’ovdah ule’shomrah, to work it and to keep it. Noah and Naamah, faced with a world-destroying cataclysm, work and tend the ark, walking in the footsteps of Adam and Eve.

The tale of Noah, Naamah, and the Ark may speak to our ancient heritage: it is easy to wonder whether human memory of a flood in the distant past inspired the story of the Flood. Yet the narrative of the Flood also speaks to our future. The parallels between the ark of Noah and the needs of today’s earth are striking. Islands and cities are faced with flooding as the sea level rises. As many species become extinct or tread dangerously close to extinction, scientists are attempting to preserve in captivity vulnerable species, like the polar bear and the elephant, that may die out in the wild. Their efforts seem very much like Noah rushing to feed the many animals on the Ark. And, as plant life becomes less diverse, places like the Svalbard Seed Vault are gathering seeds of plants that face extinction in an attempt to preserve species that might be able to repopulate farms and wild lands in the future. The characters of Noah and Naamah seem very much present with us today, in modern Noahs and Naamahs who, acting as earth’s stewards, work tirelessly to till and tend this earth.

How can we too follow this example? When Noah leaves the Ark, he receives two promises. The first promise is that nature will proceed in orderly rhythms that make it possible for human life to exist. “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.” (Genesis 9:22) Noah also receives the promise of human dominion over the earth: “Be fertile and increase, and fill the earth. The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the sky, on everything that crawls on earth and on the fish of the sea. They are given into your hand.” Perhaps in our day, we need to re-read these two promises. If we continue to use life on earth as if we are its masters, if we continue to fill the earth without letup, we may well find that the seasons are off kilter and “seedtime and harvest, cold and heat” do not proceed as they should. If we re-read b’yedchem nitnu — they are given into your hand — as a reminder of our task as descendants of Noah and Naamah, the stewards of the earth, perhaps we too have a chance at a spot on the Ark. Kein yehi ratzon; so may it be.


Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion.