The episode of Noah and his ark is one of the stories in the Torah that has the greatest recognition in the culture at large. Forget monotheists who accept the Five Books of Moses as divine. Even those who are not religious at all tend to have some vague sense of what happens in this week’s Torah reading. Not just that, but the Wikipedia page on “Flood Myths” lists over 50 versions of a story where God, g-d, or gods, tells a person or people about an impending flood. Then the protagonist(s) build a boat to be saved from the flood, following which those people repopulate the Earth. This story is so ingrained in the mind of humankind that it resonates in people on every continent and on the Pacific islands. But why? (1) Who cares?
I suspect that in ancient cultures the flood narrative exists as a warning. Be good or you will get punished! Bwahahahaha! (That’s my evil laugh.) Or it may just be a warning – life is short because the gods are capricious! Get yours while you can!
But I don’t think either of those are reasons enough that Hashem would have included this episode in the Torah. The latter explanation is obviously not what we believe. But even the former explanation is insufficient. The story of Noah is not the story of the Jewish people. It doesn’t tell of our special relationship with Hashem, it doesn’t tell us about mitzvos specific to us, and there are so many other sections of the Torah that specifically address reward and punishment to the Jewish people for doing our particular mitzvos that is seems like that can’t be the message.
The first Rashi in the Torah asks why Hashem chose to start the Torah with the creation story. If the purpose of the Torah is to teach the Jewish people what to do and to describe out relationship with Hashem, why do we need to know about those 6 days, and why start with it? I would like to borrow that question. If that’s the purpose of the Torah, why do we need the story of Noah at all?
If I would ask any 5 year old to draw me a picture of Parshas Noach I know for sure that it will have a 3 tiered ark, animals, and a rainbow. Now don’t get me wrong, I think rainbows are pretty, but aren’t they kind of useless? What’s the rainbow for?
The rainbow exists of a sign of G-d’s promise to the world is one of the parts of this story that exists beyond scripture. It exists in the Zeitgeist. And I think this promise is the key to understanding the importance of the story of Noach. Rabbi David Forman at www.alephbeta.com points out that in a way the story of the flood is not a destruction story, it’s really a creation story; a second creation. Just like at the beginning there was water above and water below and the spirit of G-d hovered over the face of the water, so too with Noach there was water that came from above and water that came from below and the whole of the world was created anew. Meaning the first creation ended, G-d pulled the plug, waited ten seconds, plugged the world back in, and powered it up. When Hashem promised not to destroy the world again he was promising not to reboot creation anymore.
That means that Hashem’s promise was, the symbol of the rainbow is, a guarantee that world will never again be allowed to go so far off the rails that it can’t reach its purpose. The world was created for a reason. It had reached a point from which it could no longer get there; the hardware froze. There was no choice but to reboot. The promise is that it will never get that bad again. The Creator promises, only forward from now on.
The Talmud says that during the lifetime of certain great and particularly holy sages, no rainbow was seen. The typical understanding of that excerpt is that these sages were so holy that their lives made up for any sins mankind had committed. As such, G-d never thought to destroy the world and thus never needed “to be reminded” of His promise by showing the rainbow. But one of the commentaries on the parsha, the Kli Yakar, (Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz 1550-1619) is unsatisfied with that. He finds it hard to believe that the forces of nature that create the rainbow would have somehow been suspended during certain points in the Talmudic era. Because that seems so hard to believe he suggests an alternative reading. It’s not that a rainbow wasn’t made, it’s that the rainbow wasn’t SEEN. Meaning people didn’t need to look to the rainbow for reassurance that everything was going to be ok, that the Creator was still in charge and history continued forward. They know these great sages and their holy and selfless deeds, and that was all the assurances the needed. They didn’t have to look for signs in the sky.
To me, this is a deeply important message for us right now when there are so many unknowns. In my professional work I’ve gotten fond of quoting Donald Rumsfeld who famously said there are known unknowns and there are unknown unknowns. We don’t know who will win the election (known unknown) we don’t know how the loser will deal with the loss (known unknown) and we don’t know what the long term impacts of the pandemic will be on the economy or our Zoomified children (known unknown). And worse than all of that is that it is so clear to us now that much of our lives will be impacted by things we can’t even conceive of right now. The almost tangible perception that there are so many unknown unknowns just lurking below the surface, glaring up at us, has produced an existential anxiety in the culture.
It turns out that rainbows aren’t useless after all. Parshas Noach is there to tell us, the rainbow is there to tell us, all of us, not just the Jewish people, that it’s going to be ok. History keeps moving forward towards the days of sword sourced plows and lambs lollygagging with lions. When the justice will flow like a mighty river and righteousness flood the Earth.
(1) Obviously, I’m not an anthropologist. But I wonder about the fact that this story is so wide spread. It seems to me that there are 3 possibilities. 1. Representatives of every ancient culture from around the world gathered together for a some great hitherto undiscovered assembly where they all agreed to include this story in their ancient myths. 2. There is something innate in the psychology of humankind that prompts us to “discover” this story, just as multiple (though not all) civilizations eventually discovered the wheel. 3. There actually was a great flood at some time, before people disbursed all throughout the world and that actual event left scarring on the psyche of the Flood protagonist for generations. Enough that after people moved around the story stuck, remained relevant enough to pass on, even if many details evolved as theologies evolved. I’m going to stick with #3 until someone shows me a fossilized ticket stub to that great assembly.