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Parashat Noah

October 20, 2015

The Age Of Destruction


In last week’s Torah reading, Genesis/Bereishit, we saw not one but two very wonderful versions of God’s creative energy. The act of creating the world is told in two very different stories, first in chapter 1:1-2:4 (“and there was evening, and there was morning, day one”) and again in chapter 2:5-2:24 (“…but for Adam, no fitting help-partner was found.”). In this week’s parashah, Noah, we see the first of several examples of God as destroyer. Disgusted with the behavior of humankind, with the violence that has corrupted creation, God decides to wipe out animal life on the planet and start over. He instructs Noah to create a closed bio-system, a way of preserving the ‘starter kit’ for the new world. In stunning language, the bible describes the effects of the flood:

And all flesh that stirred upon the earth perished; birds, cattle, beasts, every swarming thing that swarmed upon the earth, and all humankind. All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land died. All existence on earth was erased–man, cattle, creeping things, birds of the sky–all were erased off the face of the earth; only Noah was left, and those who were with him on the ark. (Gen. 7:21-23)

The language of this section (6:9-7:24) abounds with words of destruction. The root shin-het-tav, which literally means ‘to destroy,’ occurs 5 times and the word for ‘perish’ occurs twice. The waters of the flood are said likhrot – ‘to cut off’ the lives of all creatures, and perhaps the most chilling word–at least in my ear–is the word “makh” which means to erase or obliterate. God not only brings death by means of the flood, but the negation of life. But we are not left with a blank slate, because the ark holds the biome, the seed-stock of all animal life. The world will be re-populated. Creation out of destruction.

There’s one word in the entire parashah that always stops me in my tracks: “va-yizkor Elohim et Noah/Then God remembered Noah.” On the one hand I’m dismayed at the thought that God could have forgotten Noah and the occupants of the ark. Even given that this is an ancient, anthropomorphized view of God, it pulls at the heart that God might be capable of forgetting. I picture this wooden vessel, three hundred cubits long by fifty cubits wide, by thirty cubits high, bobbing along in the rain with no trees, no mountains, and no end in sight. Rashi comments that what God “remembered” was the goodness that was embodied in the ark. That the animals–including the people–restrained themselves and did not engage in sexual relations while on the ark, so that the very first command given to all of them when they finally set foot again on land-human and animal alike–is p’ru ur’vu, be fruitful and multiply. Is ‘forgetting’ a human attribute? If so, perhaps remembering is a divine attribute. Twice in this parashah the Torah expresses God’s brit, the covenant, with both humans and animals. Never again will God bring about a flood to destroy the earth and its creatures.

Amidst all the language of destruction, there’s a special expression of kindness and mercy that foreshadows God’s care and promise of a covenant with Noah and all the inhabitants of the ark. In chapter 7:16:

So those who entered were male and female of all flesh on earth as God had commanded him; and Adonai shut them in.

God closes the hatch on the ark. By God’s own hand they are sealed into the lifeboat, the vault of all that was and all that will be. Like a parent, who tucks a child in for the night, God carefully protects the ark-dwellers from the impending storm.

Many years ago I was wandering through Pike Place Market in Seattle when I came upon a quartet singing this Negro spiritual.

Noah, heist the window,
Noah, heist the window.
Noah, heist the window.
Heist the window, let the dove fly in. (Traditional spiritual)

The harmonies were wonderful, the voices were wonderful, the rhythm was catchy. And it was pretty close to a children’s song I knew about Noah’s ark. But the last verse was different:

God gave Noah the rainbow sign.
Heist the window, let the dove fly in.
Won’t be water, be fire next time.
Heist the window, let the dove fly in.

Perhaps there are limits to even God’s forbearance. Our planet has weathered floods. But perhaps global warming is putting us all on notice. Won’t be water, be fire next time!


Cantor Marcia Lane is the Director of Education and Engagement at the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, Darien, and New Canaan.