Parshat Noach (Genesis 6:9 – 11:32)
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
Parshat Noach, the second parsha in the Torah, relates the history of the human race using some of the most important and fundamental stories ever told. If we were to narrate these stories in modern terms, we would probably say that the concept had failed, and that the utopian dream of a beautiful and perfect world had shattered. God summons a flood to decimate the world He had built. The world is almost utterly destroyed.
Let’s rewind back to the previous parsha, Parshat Bereishit. God creates an almost perfect world, teeming with animal and plant life. He establishes man at the center of this new world, and gives him the power to control all of Creation. At the very beginning, Adam disobeys God’s commandments through a relatively minor act, when he eats of the Tree of Knowledge, which was forbidden to him.
Later, Adam deteriorates even further, and his eldest son, Kayin, kills his younger brother, Hevel. In both of these incidents, God punishes the men for their misdeeds. And then, at the end of the parsha, mankind takes another downturn:
And the Lord saw that the evil of man was great in the Earth, and every imagination of his heart was only evil all the time. (Bereishit / Genesis 6:5)
This wasn’t a renegade rebelling against his Creator, but rather the entire human race, with their evil thoughts and deeds, doing the opposite of God’s will. No specific punishment would have any effect at this juncture – something more drastic was in order, and indeed, just a short while later, a decision is reached:
I will blot out man, whom I created, from upon the face of the earth… (Bereishit / Genesis 6:7)
Only one man finds favor in His eyes – Noach, as stated in the text:
“But Noach found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” (Bereishit / Genesis 6:8)
This is how the previous parsha concludes. As Parshat Noach begins, we continue to follow these events. What will God do with a world that is utterly sinful, where only one man does good? The proposed solution is to save that man by constructing an ark. The man will enter the ark, and the rest of the world will be destroyed during the flood. At the end of the story, after Noach leaves the ark, he offers up a sacrifice, after which God declares that He will no longer seek to destroy His world on account of the sins of man:
…for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth… (Bereishit / Genesis 8:21)
After reading this, a burning question presents itself: Didn’t God know this in advance? Doesn’t the text already state, before the flood, that “every imagination of his heart is only evil all the time”? What had changed since then?
By focusing our attention on the words “for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth”, we find some guidance. This is but an inclination that man succumbs to as a youth, but it can be corrected and redirected. It is certainly not some fatalistic, unchangeable decree hovering over the human race. Besides, this concerns the power to both produce terrible evils as well as advance the world to wonderful achievement. What had supposedly occurred in the way that God perceived the situation?
It seems as though Noach’s sacrifice is what prompted this transformation. The parsha may be teaching us how powerful a plain and simple individual can be. At the beginning of the story, we are introduced to an honest and upright man, but who had no influence over the rest of the world. He continues down the path of righteousness, while the rest of the world descends down the path of wickedness, since the entire world was full of corruption, violence and immorality.
However, once Noach made his sacrifice – which expressed man’s belief in his God and his persistent faith in His moral standards in spite of man’s materialistic and physical surroundings – God recognizes that even though man has abilities that could be directed towards undesirable ends, he also has the power to do good.
Man need not succumb to the evil side of human nature. This type of humanity could be reborn, and it could have a future, and if so, God wouldn’t need to destroy the world. Wherever people, however small in number, accept responsibility for their lives, the lives of others, and their environment, the world can persevere.
One well-known agadah (rabbinic legend) recounts the story of thirty-six concealed righteous men in whose merit the world is able to exist. This agadah seems to be expressing society’s need to be founded upon individuals who place the wellbeing of the world above their own interests. The true test of man is in his ability to regularly confront the challenges around him and exclaim that he stands true to his beliefs, and is prepared to fight for them. In this way, he can redeem the entire world.