“The evolution of obedience” Noach 5778

It might be my upbringing as an engineer, but I am acutely sensitive to chronological inconsistencies in the Torah. There is a long-running disagreement between Rashi and the Ramban as to whether the Torah is or isn’t chronologically consistent, but their disagreement concerns entire episodes[1]. I’m referring to minor inconsistencies within a single episode. For instance, when Hashem commands Am Yisrael to build a Mishkan, he first tells them that they must donate gold, silver, and other sundry building-related material. Only afterwards does He tell them what it is meant to be used for[2] [Shemot 25:8]: “You shall make for me a Mishkan”. It would have seemed far more logical had Hashem first told them that they needed to build a huge shul and that therefore they would need to donate large amounts of building materials to build said shul.

This week’s chronological inconsistency lies in Hashem’s first words to Noach. The Torah lays out the background: Man is evil and so Hashem has decided to destroy him. Noach and his family have been chosen as the only survivors. Hashem tells Noach [Bereishit 6:13] “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth has become full of robbery because of them, and behold I am destroying them from the earth”. Then Hashem tells Noach to build an ark. Explicit requirement specifications[3] are given in order that the ark should be able to survive a massive flood: it should be flat and covered with tar. It should have a low centre of gravity. It should have an angled roof that enables high volumes of rainwater to slide off. It should have a minimum of windows. Finally, Hashem tells Noach [Bereishit 6:17] “And as for me, behold I am bringing the flood, water upon the earth, to destroy all flesh”. I’ll bet you’re wondering why I’m asking you to build this huge lifeboat. Well, I’ll tell you – there’s going to be a flood! There are many ways in which Hashem could have destroyed mankind: fire, water, sickness, or perhaps by making everyone suddenly disappear. Noach had no way of knowing what method Hashem would choose. It would have made better sense had Hashem told Noach: [1] There’s going to be a flood. [2] You personally are not going to die. Therefore [3] you must build an ark. Why does the Torah not take this logical path?

Before we address this question, it turns out that there is another chronological inconsistency found later on in the Parasha. The flood has ended and the water has receded. The only human beings left in the world are Noach and his three sons and their wives. Hashem tells them that the time has come to reboot mankind [Bereishit 7:16-17]: “Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons, and your sons’ wives with you. Every living thing that is with you of all flesh, of fowl, and of animals and of all the creeping things that creep on the earth, bring out with you, and they shall swarm upon the earth, and they shall be fruitful and multiply upon the earth.” A few verses later Hashem releases some key information [Bereishit 9:9-11]: “And as for me, behold… I will establish My covenant with you, and never again will all flesh be cut off by the flood waters, and there will never again be a flood to destroy the earth.” Imagine Noach’s mindset as he leaves the ark. He has just witnessed devastation of inconceivable proportions. All of his friends and neighbours are dead. For some reason he has been chosen to survive. While the 2014 movie “Noah” is a very forgettable film, Russel Crowe’s poignant portrayal of how the flood psychologically killed Noach is unforgettable. After Noach left the ark he was a dead man walking. Yet Hashem commands him to leave the ark and to start over without informing him that mankind will never again be destroyed. Why even bother, thinks Noach. Why doesn’t Hashem first tell him that He will establish an eternal covenant with mankind and only afterwards tell him to come out of the ark?

If we take a closer look at Hashem’s gradual release of information to Noach, a picture begins to form. When Hashem commands Noach to build the ark, Noach is given a commandment with incomplete information: Hashem is going to destroy the world, therefore you must build an ark. Afterwards Hashem provides the missing information: there is going to be a flood. Only after Hashem provides this information do we learn that [Bereishit 6:22] “Noach did; according to all that Hashem had commanded him, so he did”. I suggest that the juxtaposition of the phrase “all that Hashem commanded him” between “Noach did” and “so he did” teaches that Noach implemented Hashem’s commandment only after he had heard all that Hashem had commanded him, only after he fully understood that the ark was going to be used as a safe haven to protect him and his family from the flood.

Fast forward to when Hashem commands Noach to leave the ark and to restart mankind. First Hashem commands Noach and his family to leave the ark. Immediately afterwards we are told that [Bereishit 8:18] “Noach went out, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him”. The Torah does not tell us that Noach does “all that Hashem had commanded him” because Noach does not do all that Hashem says –  he does exactly as Hashem says and he does it immediately. He does not wait for Hashem to tell him that He will never again destroy mankind. If Hashem says that I must go out and start again, then that’s what I must do. After Noach reaches base-camp[4], Hashem shows him the rainbow and tells him that this new world will never be destroyed. Noach has evolved from “Commandment – explanation – obedience” to “Commandment – obedience – explanation”.

There is one more step in the evolution of obedience[5]. Noach does not take this step but his descendant, Avraham, does. The Torah tells us very little of Avraham’s early life. Most of the stories we learnt as children – Avraham breaking the idols, Avraham being thrown into the furnace – are found only in the Midrash. The first time Hashem speaks to Avraham in the Torah is when He commands him to uproot himself and his family and to come on aliya [Bereishit 12:1]: “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” Noach before the flood would have asked “Whatever for? Why me?” He would have waited for an answer but after he got one he would have gone on the internet and bought the family tickets for a flight to Israel. Noach after the flood would have gotten on the next plane and only then asked Hashem why he was chosen. Avraham raises the bar even further: He is commanded and he reacts [Bereishit 12:4]: “[Avraham] went, as Hashem had spoken to him”. Avraham does more than just react – he is a driven man [Bereishit 12:5]: “They went to go to the land of Canaan and they came to the land of Canaan”. The journey must have taken weeks and yet we hear nothing about it, because the journey was unimportant – only the destination was. And when Avraham finally arrives in the Land of Canaan, what does Hashem tell him? For which reason was he uprooted and sent to the Levant? Hashem says absolutely nothing. He gives absolutely no explanation and Avraham asks for none. Avraham obeys simply because he was commanded.

Writing a weekly parasha blog means taking on large amounts of responsibility.  Recently I wrote something that was misconstrued by a reader. He understood that I had written that if you can’t internalize a certain mitzvah, then you’re not bound by it. So let me make myself perfectly clear: Noach before the flood required before acting. Noach after the flood required explanation after acting. Avraham did not explanation require explanation of any kind. As Avraham’s descendants, neither do we. We are willy-nilly part of the Abrahamic covenant. We abide by rules and regulations that no other nation abides by, as Avraham promised Hashem. In return, after waiting for two thousand years Hashem has returned us to our land, as He promised Avraham. Hashem guides us through history whether or not we understand what’s going on. All that’s required from us is that we observe the “No Smoking Sign”.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Freida.

[1]Ein (yesh) mukdam um’uchar ba’Torah

[2] We discussed this in our shiur for Parashat Teruma 5768.

[3] See our shiur for Parashat Noach 5768 for more on this topic.

[4] A closer look at the verses seems to indicate that Hashem decided that He would not destroy the new world only after Noach exited the ark and offered a sacrifice. This is a topic for another shiur.

[5] Thanks to my son, Elyasaf, for bringing this to my attention.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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