Commentary on Parashat Noach, Genesis 6:9 - 11:32
An interesting element in the story of Noah and the flood is the amount of time spent by Noah preparing for the big event. All the steps of the building of the ark, the collecting of the animals, and then bringing them into the ark are described in some detail. According to a Rabbinic tradition, Noah spent 120 years building the ark and getting everything ready for the crucial moment.
Unwilling To Repent
The Midrash has an explanation for this protracted period of preparation: Noah used this time to warn his fellows, and to try and convince them to repent of their evil behavior, and thereby turn away the wrath of God and avert the flood. Sadly, he failed, and, in spite of 120 years of his best efforts, they all refused to listen, and to change, and were ultimately destroyed.
In one of the verses dealing with this period of preparation, there is an interesting statement that God makes to Noah. After dictating to him the measurements of the ark, and its structural features, God tells him: “And I shall establish my covenant (‘brit’) with you, and you shall enter into the ark, you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you.” In this entire section, God has been very clear and precise about the instructions he gives to Noah, in terms of the ark and the saving of the animals. The precise nature of this covenant, however, is unclear. If God is giving Noah all the technical information needed in order to save himself, his family, and the animal species, what is the need for this covenant, the first ever mentioned in the Bible? What is its nature, its content?
Some of the commentaries (Chizkuni, Radak) understand the covenant as simply being a promise, a guarantee, as if to say, I promise you that you and your children will live through the deluge, that you will survive it.
Rashi feels that this is superfluous; after all, he’s got the boat, built according to God’s specifications, he’s been warned, what does he need a covenant for? Rashi’s answer is this: OK, the ark will float, Noah will not be drowned, but what will he eat for the many months in the ark? Any food he brings with him now will rot over all that time, and he’s got to feed his family AND all the animals! Rashi’s answer is this: The covenant was needed to guarantee that the food would not go moldy, and Noah and his passengers would not starve. Rashi, reminding us of another problem we forgot about, tells us that the covenant was also needed to prevent the evil people of Noah’s generation (everybody!) from losing patience with Noah the nudnik (120 years of ‘God is going to kill you all, you better be good, repent, a flood is coming’) and simply killing him.
It would seem that, for Rashi, covenant denotes something supernatural, some divine intervention designed to prevent natural processes (rot, people getting angry at someone who annoys them, and then leaves them to drown) from occurring. For the other commentaries, covenant simply means a guarantee, a promise, and does not necessarily imply any special divine intervention in the natural order of things.
Why does Rashi feel compelled to see covenant as being something that implies a divine, supernatural intervention in the way of the world? Or, if we look at it from the other direction, and recognize that Rashi has raised a couple of good technical problems which the Biblical narrative does not, and which Noah must deal with, why is a covenant the necessary vehicle for dealing with the rot and the nasty neighbors? Why do these problems need the apparently miraculous solution of covenant?
The Ultimate Commitment
Perhaps the answer is to be found in the nature of a covenant. Covenant is of course a very big word for the Jewish people. Often, we are described as a covenantal people, defined by our intimate, ongoing relationship with God, and the signs of his covenant with us; the Torah, Shabbat, the Land of Israel, the mitzvot (commandments). This being the case, it would seem to be worth our while to think a moment here about what a covenant is; what does it mean for two beings to enter into a binding, reciprocal, long-term (if not eternal) relationship, and what is so special about it?
The very idea of a covenant, a deep, lasting connection and partnership, an ultimate commitment between two individuals, can itself be seen as an abrogation of the way of the world, and is therefore itself a kind of miracle. In nature, each individual is ultimately alone, faced with the need to guarantee his own physical and emotional survival and integrity, trapped in his own way of seeing and experiencing the world. We are all, ultimately, on our own. Only fleetingly, and often problematically, nervously, is one connected to others, and then often only out of necessity, or self-interest. This is true when the partners to the relationship are both people, and their covenant is ‘only’ an abrogation of the natural selfishness and self-interest that human beings are heir to. It is all the more true when only one of the two partners is human, and the other is divine.
The image we have of Noah is that of a lonely, solitary man. In the 120 years given him by God to turn the hearts of his friends and neighbors, he failed to make one real connection, to have one real friend, whom he could convince to see things as he did. Imagine, not one human being on the entire planet who shared his world view, his way of understanding things! Noah, during this 120 year period, and, later, in the ark, while, outside, his entire world was being destroyed, and finally, after the deluge, when he leaves the ark to find every single person he had known now gone, vanished, is a model of man alone, separate, unconnected to others. (I am purposely discounting his family here; they are consistently presented as simply appendages to Noah, not individuals with whom he is truly in relationship or dialogue. In fact, after the flood, his relationship with his children seems very problematic, viz. the story of his drunkenness and the behavior of his son Ham.)
Protection From Lonliness
The covenant, the real miracle that God was offering Noah, was simply this: If a flood is coming, there are practical, simple steps to be taken, and you must take them. But, there are also other, deeper, trickier issues to be faced, and for those, we must make a covenant together. Because your biggest problem is that you are alone, and you do not have to be. Sure, you can build an ark and load it with supplies, but there is something inherently wrong, barren, rotten, with such a solitary existence. I also will need to protect you, Noah, from your angry neighbors, which clearly indicates how truly alone you are, and how dysfunctional that is. The purpose of our covenant is to defeat this aloneness, and give you the miracle of relationship. Now, if we can accomplish that miracle, the miracle of dialogue, of brit, which is, ultimately, the biggest miracle of all, as you have so tragically learned over the last 120 years, then there will be nothing rotten about your being holed up alone, just you and your immediate family, with your provisions, inside the ark, with all the world outside. And the wet, angry mob outside, banging on the door of the ark as the flood waters rise, will not be such a problem, for I will be there, inside, with you.
By offering Noah a covenant, a relationship, after 120 years of loneliness and frustration, God was showing him the most basic and crucial miracle of all, the miracle which transforms the natural human condition of being alone into one of connection, of relationship. This is the true meaning of covenant, and this is our role as a covenantal people; to connect, only connect.
Reprinted with permission from The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.
Pronounced: ark, Origin: English, the place in the synagogue where the Torah scrolls are stored, also known as the aron kodesh, or holy cabinet.
Pronounced: MIDD-rash, Origin: Hebrew, the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah.