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Parashat Noah 5781

October 23, 2020
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A D’var Torah for Parashat Noah
By Rabbi Enid Lader (’10)

Our Torah opens with an organized story of creation – a place for everything and everything in its place. Each step of the way, the natural world is tov – good. And when it is filled with living creatures and human beings, it is tov me’od – very good. As we end chapter one and begin the second chapter of Bereishit, all seems right with the world. But “very good” or even “good” does not sustain us.

We have inquiring minds, and left to our own devices, we will seek out our own answers, rather than follow specific directions. Yet, unless there is some kind of structure in place, something that helps guide us in making good (or even very good) decisions, where will our own answers lead us – and to what ends?

As our portion begins, we are introduced to Noah and find that “… The land was filled with violence…” (Gen. 6:11) The Hebrew word used for violence is hamas; this can be understood to be both a physical and an ethical violence. It has gotten so bad, that the Eternal announces to Noah that all flesh will be destroyed… “Go build an ark and start collecting two of each species… and bring your family with you…”

So where did we go wrong? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his essay “Noah: Beyond Nature,”* points to two differences between the Creation story of Genesis 1-2 and the story of Noah in Genesis 8-9. First, in Genesis 1 the word “good” is repeated seven times… and in Genesis 9 the word “covenant” is repeated seven times. And second, each account presents a different way of understanding what it means to be made betzelem Elohim – in the image of God. In Genesis 1:27 we read, “God created humankind in God’s own image; in the image of God, God created them, male and female God created them.” In Genesis 9:6 we read that “Whoever sheds the blood of a human being, by a human shall their blood be shed, for in the image of God has God made [the] human being.”

Rabbi Sacks points out that “…Genesis 1 tells me that ‘I’ am in the image of God. Genesis 9 tells me that ‘you,’ my potential victim, are made in the image of God. Genesis 1 tells us about human power. We are able, says Torah, to ‘rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air’ (Gen. 1:28). Genesis 9 tells us about the moral limits of power. We can kill, but we may not. We have the power, but not the permission.”

God had high hopes for us, but being made in the image of God, we are not a perfect copy. We make mistakes; we do have a sense of compassion and a yetzer hatov – an inclination to do good, but we also have a yetzer harah – an inclination that has the power to send us in the wrong direction.

Noah’s world had come to such an intense level of physical and ethical violence that the orderliness of Genesis 1 was upended and turned back to chaos. And that was not good.

By banning murder and instituting a system of justice, God set a sense of morality in place. Not just among the Jewish people. Noah’s story precedes Abraham; Noah’s story precedes standing at Sinai. This story is for all humanity. All of us are made in the image of God. All of us are worthy of life and living in peace and prosperity, not fear and poverty.

When God sets the bow – the rainbow – in the clouds, it will be a “sign of the everlasting covenant made between God and all living creatures, never again to bring waters over the earth to destroy all flesh.” (Gen. 9:15)

This is a universal covenant, made with all creatures. All creatures – the web of life that is our biosphere. Establishing a sense of what is morally and ethically right and wrong, God has given us a second chance – and helped us pivot from chaos back to an orderly world. Of course, now the responsibility is totally in our hands; not just in the hands of the few, but in the hands of all of us… and continues to this day.

* Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Noah: Beyond Nature” in Essays on Ethics: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible (New Milford, CT and Jerusalem, Israel. Maggid Books, 2016), 11.
Rabbi Enid C. Lader received ordination from AJR in 2010 and is the rabbi at Beth Israel – The West Temple in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the past-president of ARC (The Association of Rabbis and Cantors – the only joint rabbinical and cantorial professional organization in America), and is the treasurer of the Greater Cleveland Board of Rabbis.