21st Century P’shat: 1-2 minute divrai Torah for each aliyah

Noach

  1. Hashem’s policy of ‘encouraging through forgiveness’ ends in Parshat Bereshit. We have now entered another stage – ‘encouragement through threat.’ The story of the flood is the baseline of this threat – like a paddle hanging on the wall of an old-fashioned school house. Recording the measurements and capturing the dates of this event serve to make it seem more realistic and frightening.
  2. Noach builds the ark and he ‘makes come the animals’ as Hashem commanded him. But Noach doesn’t close the ark. Hashem does. Noach does the act of saving; his command and covenant are to be a life preserver. But the act of closing out the world condemns it. If Noach did it, it would ruin whatever part of Noach Hashem sees as worth preserving. Perhaps this is why the Ark has no side-facing windows – Noach can’t witness mass death.
    1. There are five dates mentioned in this story. Although all appear to be relative to Noach’s age, the next time a precise date is mentioned is in the taking of the Pesach lamb. Why are dates so important? This story takes only one year and ten days in the life of a man who lives to be 950 years old. Perhaps it is a reminder that our reaction to the day-to-day realities of brief crises can define us forever.
  3. We know not everything was killed in the flood. There are scientific reasons for this (no massive cross-species genetic narrowing, animals aren’t common across the world etc…) and Torah reasons. For example, earlier in Bereshit we call Yaval and his brothers the fathers of three different lifestyles – why not just call them the first if they’ll all be mingled with Noach? We do know there was a massive flood – the stories are global. So what happened? There are three verses of actual destruction – 7:21-23. The first verse uses gavah for death – but it is a precursor of death – Avraham gavah and then died. Jacob gavah and then was gathered etc…. It might mean physically give out. The second verse uses mait for death – but only for those creatures which have nishmat ruach chaim; a living soul gifted by G-d. The last verse uses the root macha for blotting out all established things. It is something that happens after death and refers to ‘erasing the legacy’. For example, it is used for a wife who must marry her husband’s brother so he isn’t macha. Perhaps the flood describes totally crushing hardship, the death of those with G-dly souls and the erasure of all legacies.
    1. Hashem zachors Noach. Zachor is used as a verb by Hashem in cases where there is a covenant that won’t be kept unless Hashem zachors. It has nothing to do with the zachoree’s own merit. Hashem has a brit with Noach to preserve the animals. If he doesn’t zachor him and get him off the ark, it will be necessary to start eating animals and the covenant won’t stand. The same pattern exists with Yishmael and, on multiple occasions, the Jewish people. Perhaps this sort of desperation underpins why we read the story of Yishmael on Rosh Hashana and (as Rabbi Fischer of Portland Oregon points out) use Noach as the first Zachor used in the Yom Kippur davening.
  4. Why were non-human creatures hit in the first place? Here it says ‘your fear and your dread shall be upon all the beasts…’ But in Bereshit (1:26) it says ‘you will rule over the fish….’ We sometimes read that as a prophecy or command – but what if it was a fact? What if we commanded the animals directly; which is why Noach could be commanded to make them come. If so, it explains how we corrupted them. After the flood, we do not have control. We only cause fear and dread. The animals’ are no longer culpable for our acts.
    1. Noah’s offering triggers a second covenant from Hashem. It says that the earth will not be cursed because of man and Hashem won’t hit every living thing – but it implies that wrath can be reserved for man. The only protection is that seed time and harvest will not cease. That is very limited protection indeed.
    2. Why would a burnt offering trigger this covenant? Perhaps the smoke carries with it the soul (nefesh, not nishmat) of the animal and makes clear the animal is not responsible for the corruption. This might be why this covenant is with Hashem himself and does not include Noach.
    3. Cain was protected, but now murder must be responded to and the job is outsourced to man. Having the responsibility for law raises man.
  5. The third covenant of this parsha promises that there will be no more earth-destroying floods. But the promise is very limited. It only promises that water won’t be used for this, not that the destruction of man can’t occur through another path. This is like a father saying to a child “I was really mad and I took away that toy. I’ll never take that toy away again.”  This promise continues the theme of ‘encouragement through threat.’
  6. This reading mentions, before the tower of Bavel, that people were dispersed and their languages split. This seems to be a natural process that breaks down by family and nation – not a G-d-imposed process of confusion. What is going on here? They key is the word used for language – lashon.
  7. The tower story never uses the word lashon. Instead, the word translated as language is safah. Safah  indicates a border, edge or distinction. It more naturally refers to social lines than linguistic. And the first sentence could have combined things and distinctions as a qualifier of all the land – only some people were involved. Perhaps the p’shat story of Bavel actually reads: “All of the earth that shared a common distinction and had united things settled in a valley and decided to undertake a massive project out of human-made products to keep their society unified and declare their importance. Hashem sees and he realizes they will build a G-dless society that will achieve whatever it wants and become dominant. So he confuses the differences within the group so that one man will not listen to the next and scatters them worldwide, confusing group distinctions everywhere and ensuring such a movement won’t happen again.”
    1. Hashem doesn’t kill the people of the tower. Why? Because it isn’t necessary. The people don’t have a relationship with G-d but that can be fixed easily by weakening their relationships with their all-powerful society.