Genesis Noah: Words above the Waters

By Rabbi Arthur Green

rabbi arthur greenParashat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)

The story of Noah’s flood remains one of the best-known and most powerful tales of our biblical heritage. Even in our secular age, there is hardly a child who has not heard the story told, seen it recreated in animation, or played with toys based on the animals in Noah’s ark. What is it about this story that seems to have such great enduring power? Is it just that it fits so well with children’s seemingly natural desire to care for animals? Or are there deeper truths that we sense are present within it, perhaps made more palatable to us because they appear in the guise of this childlike and dreamy narrative?

The largest and most challenging frame into which the tale forces us is the ultimate question of whether we, or our human society, deserve to exist. God is here our voice of self-judgment, thunderously asking, in the language of Gen. 6:13, “Are we too so filled with ḥamas – violence or malice – that we ought to be destroyed?” Would a Creator God, looking down upon our world, also conclude that “the inclination of the human heart is just evil, from their youth (8:21),” and that we are therefore irredeemable?

There is much in the headlines these days to support such a terrible read. We shudder to think that we might be judged by the leaders we choose. Our treatment of the vulnerable – women, minorities, immigrants – and our refusal to hear their voices – could go a long way toward condemning us. Our society’s willful disregard for the survival of the created world itself, requiring purity of air, water, and other basic resources of life, puts us on the course toward a naturalistic interpretation of the Noah story, one in which our actions bring us into a future where survival is possible only for a chosen few, the subject of endless dystopian films and computer games that themselves seem to pollute the cultural air we are forced to breathe.

Whence the redemption that has to accompany the Noah story, if it is to be deemed fit to be told to younger audiences, and thus passed down through the generations? How do we get beyond its utter gloom? The Hasidic authors, deeply seated in the tradition of Midrash, do it by a close reading of the story’s language. The term for “ark” used in the biblical tale is teyvah. The exact same term, in later Hebrew, has the meaning of “word.” It is the word, spoken with integrity, that saves us, sailing above the waters of destruction. Language, in the rabbinic imagination, is that which makes us human, distinguishing us from the animal kingdom. It is proper use of that great divine gift that renders meaning to our lives, offering us the possibility of transcendence, of reaching toward the sublime. In the very verbal cultural tradition of Judaism, it is the word, truly spoken (in contrast to the Hindu’s mantra or the Buddhist’s silence), that leads us on that path.

The Ba‘al Shem Tov, the first Hasidic master, began with a quip.   God said to Noah: “You, enter the ark with your entire household (7:1).” When you speak, he admonished, bring your whole self into the word. Do not leave part of yourself outside it, questioning, doubting. You will never attain wholeness if you do. Others added: “Make a window for the ark (6:17)” – Let light shine in to your word. “Let there be lower, second, and third levels (ibid.)” – Discover ever higher levels of meaning within the word you speak, which has the potential to be the word of God.

A later master, the rabbi of Radomsk, added “The ark rested in the seventh month (8:4).” The seventh month, in the biblical calendar, is Tishrey, the month of the Days of Awe, which we have just concluded. It is there, in that time when integrity is most demanded, that the word finds rest. Ḥat’anu, “we have sinned,” is a word that is spoken with the whole self. So too is salaḥti, “I have forgiven.”

Integrity of language is terribly under threat in the world in which we live. False testimony seems to be taken for granted, even from those who seek to represent highest justice. “Facts” seem to disappear all too readily, whether due to the “spin” of politicians or the labyrinthine interpretations of post-modern historians and critics. Faith in the possibility of repairing our world might just have to begin with a renewed faith in our own ability to speak the truth.

Rabbi Arthur Green is Rector of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.

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