Parshat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)
Barely a week has gone by since we read about the creation of the world, though chronologically, the Torah has already covered a period of nearly 1,500 years. The story that unveils itself in the words of the Torah is intensely powerful. Hashem is fed up with His creations and is set on destroying them. The old world perishes in the waters of the flood, because all living things had corrupted their ways, and the world had become inundated with violence – i.e. murder – as well as incest, theft, and more. Only one person – Noah – finds favor in the eyes of Hashem.
The new world would be rebuilt by his family – and henceforth, all human beings descending from his family would be referred to as “Bnei Noah” – the sons of Noah. When Noah leaves the ark, just as the world is about to be recreated from scratch, Hashem commands Noah’s family to preserve the fundamental principles that would serve as the underpinnings of this new world.
At this point, we would expect the family to be commanded not to steal, murder, commit adultery, and so on. And indeed, they are commanded not to do these things, though only at a much later point in Hashem’s words. Hashem begins by giving Noah and his sons the blessing of “Pru U’Revu” – be fruitful and multiply – a phrase we have already come across, when Adam and Hava were blessed, in the previous world, the old world – the one that was destroyed.
Moments later we read some harsh statements concerning the prohibition of murder:
“Whoever sheds the blood of man through man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God He made man”. (Bereshit / Genesis 9:6)
A murderer deserves to be put to death, because through murder, he has extinguished the most precious element of creation – the human soul. This makes sense, so why doesn’t the text begin with this? Would it not have made more sense to emphasize this concept, and place it at the head of Hashem’s message to humankind, instead of the issue of allowing the consumption of meat?
The Torah seems to be conveying a fundamental message before going on to instruct us on the proper norms to be followed in this new world. In last week’s portion, we read of the incredible phenomenon of fratricide, committed soon after creation, over the most trifling of issues. Later, we learned that the entire world became inundated with criminal acts, such as theft and murder. The Torah understands that humans are engaged in a war of survival, in which every individual does anything in his or her power to survive.
In a utopia, perhaps, it would have been fitting for humans to consume only plants and minerals for sustenance, and leave the animals alone. In such a world, man’s existence would be based solely on plant life. However, in such a reality, man could subconsciously believe that there is no fundamental difference between humans and animals, and that even though we are disallowed from consuming meat, he could still kill animals for other purposes.
Man might be led to believe that humans could kill others if those “others” are getting in the way of his daily routine. In such a scenario, man could subdue and exploit them to his heart’s content. However, a clear hierarchical relationship between humans and animals must be created. If the prohibition on eating animal flesh would have been continued, we might believe that men and animals are on the same plane, and should be regarded as such.
However, the tool the Torah uses to clarify that the value of human life lies above all else is the determination that the flesh of animals may be consumed. Looking back at history, we know that hundreds of thousands of people in Nazi Germany were active in animal rights organizations. Many of those same individuals were also guilty of some of the most unspeakable crimes imaginable. When we fail to distinguish between humans and animals, we can end up with a world in which cruelty towards humans is condoned, while animals are treated mercifully.
When Israel evacuated Gush Katif in 2005, some pointed out that the animals left in the evacuated areas would suffer. I wonder if those same individuals felt the same compassion for thousands of people who needed to be uprooted from homes they had lived in for dozens of years, after which they would need to readjust to a new life. This does not mean that we should disregard the suffering of animals. The Torah also emphasizes that we may not eat the limb of living animals. However, we must not lose track of our priorities.
[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]