October 23, 2020
This week’s Torah portion, Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32,) provokes many questions. Was EVERYTHING on the Earth that “corrupt” that it needed to be eradicated? By a flood, no less? As the Midrash tells us, even the slime on the rocks and the moss on the trees had to go! The fish in the sea also suffered, because it is said that the sea boiled and smelled of sulfur! (Talmud Sanhedrin 108b)
And think of the people and the animals aboard the Ark. True, God made a miracle and caused a “cease fire” amongst animals that normally would eat each other. God also suspended “P’ru v’urvu” – be fruitful and multiply – so the animals would not proliferate in the crowded Ark. Still, imagine the noise, the stink, and the screams every time the ark would take a bad wave or a heavy wind. I think we all know that everyone on the Ark survived. But there are huge questions. Amongst many things that provoke the Sages’ questions happened when the Ark finally settled down on Mount Ararat and it was time to leave the Ark. The Torah records God telling everyone it was safe to get out, saying to Noah, “Every living thing that is with you…have them go out with you.” (8:17). But, as usual, we have to look at this in Hebrew to understand the Sages’ concern.
Remember that the Torah has no vowels or punctuation. Sometimes, the Masoretic text differs in the writing of a word versus the actual pronunciation of the word, and both are seen as correct. This word for “go out” is one of those occasions. Rashi solves the problem: when we read the word, we are supposed to pronounce it “Ha’y’tzei“. Rashi tells us that in this form, the word means “Okay. You can leave now, whenever you’re ready.” However, if we use the Masoretic version, it’s pronounced “Hotza,” which basically means “Get out of here!” One is an invitation, and the other is an order.
Now, you’d think that, once the doors of the arkopened, animals being animals, they would have fallen all over each other to get out through the door! But Rashi is implying that they had to be persuaded and finally ORDERED out of the Ark. What is going on here? Well, for one, the rabbinic commentator known as the Gur Aryeh feels that Noah wasn’t totally convinced that this was the end of the flood and another one might be coming along any minute. Probably, the animals thought so too after living through what just went on. Rashi, on verse 20, takes what I consider a pretty good shot as to why. I’ve already mentioned that God made a miracle by keeping the animals quiet and temporarily suspended the food chain for 40 days. Even animals can sense and acknowledge a miracle, and a feeling of “kedusha” – holiness – had settled on the population of the Ark, making the Ark a holy place, tended by the Divine Presence (Shechina). Peace, all their needs met, safety, the Presence of the Shechina – why would they want to leave? This is why they had to be ordered out!
Another rabbinic commentator, the Meshech Chochma, questions the need for this whole business altogether, with an Ark and a flood, and so forth, in order to rescue Noah, his family, and the “clean” animals. Could God not have just designated a piece of land that would not be affected by the flood, where God could put the family and the animals? The Meshech Chochma states that the Ark was a sort of school. The animals would learn submission, and Noah and his family would learn “chesed – kindness” by caring for this small zoo. With this mutual caring going on, it would almost be natural for animals to want to stay in their “school”. But doing so would mean giving up on the World, which was not God’s purpose for this 40-day “exercise.” So Noah was commanded to command them to leave the Ark. And as they left, the first Commandment given in the Torah was reinstated: Be fruitful and multiply. And so they did.
One has to reflect on the lessons of humans and animals, both vicious and gentle, all confined together in close proximity for 40 days. Sadly, those lessons didn’t last long. In this very portion we later find Noah, perhaps the first documented case of PTSD, growing grapes, making wine, and drinking himself into oblivion! And we read of the shenanigans at the Tower of Babel, where bricks were more highly valued than human lives. Wow – if I did not know any better, we are still feeling the aftermath of the flood – of course we ask – what’s next?! I think the sign of the rainbow reminds us – keep our hope strong and we can overcome anything!