Creation and Dissolution: A Study in Contrasts?
In many ways, Parashat Noach can be understood as the antithesis of Parashat Bereishit. The former opens portentously, laden with doom. The latter began optimistically, full of pristine promise. Parashat Noach revolves for the most part around an individual who is an exemplar of both morality as well as attentiveness to the divine word. Parashat Bereishit describes individuals who fall far from achieving the grand potential invested in their creation, and in fact seem to suffer endemically from an inability to carry out God's command. At the same time there are many parallels between the two sections. Both explore the relationship between God and humanity, as well as between human beings. A careful reading of the events of Parashat Noach yields a pattern which, when compared and contrasted to Parashat Bereishit, assists us in formulating some fundamental principles that underlie the foundations of the Torah.
The Parasha begins by introducing us to the main protagonist. Noach is a "righteous man, perfect in his generations, who walks with God." He is the first person in the Torah to receive the appellation 'righteous' and it is a trait which is to stand him in good stead, for he is surrounded by "corruption and violence." God, having watched with growing disappointment as the downward spiral of Adam, Cain, Enosh and their descendants continued, finally decides to bring a Flood, to wash away the "violence which fills the earth." Noach is bidden to build an ark of very specific dimensions and features in order to save himself, his immediate family, as well as a representative pair of all of the extant species of animals and birds. This he dutifully does, and after a no doubt tension-filled period of waiting, the rains begin to fall. The ark is borne by the rising waters and its denizens are preserved, in order to eventually re-emerge into a destroyed world that beckons them to rebuild it.
It will be recalled that Parashat Bereishit began with the story of the creation. The primeval state of chaos, emptiness, darkness, and the ubiquitous deep waters ('tehom') is bereft of any discernable features, save the spirit ('ruach') of Elohim that hovers expectantly over the expanse. In an explosive flash, the Divine utterance brings the first light into being; over a span of seven 'days' the cosmos are fashioned, culminating in the creation of humanity. Adam and Eve, God's most precious creatures, are blessed with authority and charged with a mission to "be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and rule over it. Have dominion over the fish of the seas, the birds of the sky, and all of the living things which walk upon the earth." Humanity is thus the apogee of creation and the rest of the life forms on the planet are seemingly placed at its disposal.
God, having planted a luxuriant and desirable garden, places within it the first humans in order to "work it and take care of it." Thus, the role of the human is here delineated not as one of exploiting the world around him, but rather as one of cultivation and caring for it. This defining aspect of their role is reinforced by what immediately follows: a command. "And Hashem God commanded ('Va-yetzav') the human saying: Although you may eat from all of the fruits of the garden, you may not eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge..." (Bereishit 2:16). It is thus a commandment that defines the relationship between God and humanity, and between humanity and the world. Without addressing the specific meaning of this command, it should be clear that a command of any sort imposes a limitation on the autonomy of the human being and in so doing invites the human being to recognize the existence of a Higher Authority. Being subject to a Higher Authority of course implies that far from being our oyster, the world is our responsibility.
The progression and process nature of the events is clear. Chaos is resolved into organization, the inanimate yields to the 'living soul' of the human, the cosmic order is finally completed by the creation of the only creature that possesses a moral will. And that human in turn, bound by a divine decree, is therefore mandated to care for the very creatures and things that are subject to his rule.
Examining closely Parashat Noach, we notice that a similar process is at work, only in reverse. Here Noach is selected for preservation precisely because he possesses the moral and ethical will that is demanded. The injunction to build a vessel of very specific dimensions is not only a means of producing the most sea-worthy ship, but more importantly is the opportunity for Noach to fulfill God's command precisely and to submit to His authority. This Noach does admirably, and he is informed that the ark that is the subject of his labors will be the vehicle for the saving of all of the species that inhabit the earth and sky. In other words, just as Adam and Eve are designated as the stewards of the world which is entrusted to their care, so too Noach's ark will be the means of preserving and caring for the planet's creatures. In contrast to Adam and Eve, however, who soon abrogate God's command and thus initiate a chain of events which will ultimately lead to the Flood, Noach's fulfillment of God's command represents the possibility of being saved from its effects. Not without a note of irony is it twice recorded that Noach did "according to all that God had commanded him."
In a scene reminiscent of the male and female animal 'parade' arranged by God to allow Adam to name each creature, a similar scene unfolds here as each species, male and female, reports for boarding prior to the onset of the deluge. With all preparations completed, all creatures safely stowed, all provisions stored up and ready, Noach and his family on board, a strange silence seems to fall on the setting.
"Noach and his sons, his wife and their wives entered the ark anticipating the flood. The tahor (fit for sacrifice) animals as well as the non-tahor ones, the birds, and all of the creatures that creep upon the earth came to Noach in pairs of male and female. They entered the ark, just as God had commanded Noach." (Bereishit 7:7-9)
Rather than start immediately however, as one might have expected, the torrential rains are nowhere to be seen. "And it came to pass after seven days that the flood waters began to be upon the earth." What is the meaning of this curious seven-day wait that is interjected here? The Midrash associates the seven-day wait with the traditional seven days of mourning observed on the occasion of the death of a loved one. 'Methuselah the Righteous,' a very long-lived nanocentenarian-plus (969 year old), expires on the eve of the Flood and in deference to his mourning rites, the flood is delayed! Perhaps the theme here is the great sadness that anticipates the destruction of the world.
More plausibly, I believe, the seven-day wait is actually a reversed reference to the seven days of creation. Just as the world was brought into existence over a period of seven 'days,' so too the chaotic floodwaters, the primeval deep that existed prior to creation, is unleashed anew as the world unravels at the conclusion of these seven days. "In the six hundredth year of Noach's life, on the 17th day of the 2nd month, all of the springs of the great deep ('tehom rabba') burst open and the heavens poured down rains."
Let us organize these parallels in list form:
1) a primeval state of chaos and deep waters ('Tehom') over all;
2) a seven day period of creation culminating in humanity;
3) an emphatic statement outlining humanity's dominion over the world, and a corresponding expectation of humanity to care for the garden and its contents;
4) God's command ('Va-yetzav') not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge;
5) the naming of the all of the species by the 'Adam;'
6) the abrogation of God's command, fratricide and moral degradation;
6) a world full of corruption and violence;
4) God's command ('Tziva') to build the ark;
5) the gathering of two members of each species to be preserved;
3) a statement by God outlining Noach's righteousness and reaffirming his role in saving all of the other species by bringing them onto the ark;
2) A seven day period before the flood;
1) The unleashing of the deep waters ('Tehom rabba') as the world reverts back to chaos.
Thus, Parashat Bereishit and Parashat Noach are really two complementary sections that at their core convey a central message. The unique status afforded humanity in the scheme of things is dependent on one thing and one thing only: the willingness of humanity to acknowledge and fulfill a higher law established by God. The rest of creation in turn only survives as a function of humanity's devotion to this endeavor.
That the world survives only as a result of the recognition of God's guiding power and His higher law is actually emphasized by a striking feature of the ark. Significantly, the Hebrew word which invariably describes this craft is 'teiva.' This is an unusual word to describe a sea-going vessel which is often called in biblical Hebrew an 'oniya' (see Bereishit 49:13, Devarim 28:68, Yona 1:3, etc.), or rarely a 'sephina' (Yona 1:5), but never, barring our context and one other, a 'teiva.' The only other usage of the term 'teiva' at all is in describing the ark that the mother of Moshe fashions for her infant son. No longer able to shield him from Pharaoh's cruel decree to cast all male children into the Nile, Yocheved prepares a 'teiva' for Moshe and reluctantly releases it down the river.
What is the structural difference between a 'teiva' and the vessels described by these other terms? R. Avraham Ibn Ezra (Spain, 11th century) remarks that here the Torah uses the noun "teiva rather than sephina, because this craft does not have the form of an oniya, and has no oars or rudder" (6:14). How unusual that the Divine Engineer offers such very specific directions to Noach about the construction of the ark ("Make an ark of 'gofer' wood, divide it into cells, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you shall fashion it: three hundred cubits in length, fifty in width, thirty in height shall it be. Make for it a skylight, slope its roof to the measure of a cubit, place the doorway on its side, and make it of three levels...") but neglects to mention the provision of oars or a rudder, or for that matter sails!
The significance of this glaring omission is quite obvious. The lack of oars or a rudder for the ark effectively renders it incapable of being steered. The rising floodwaters will bear the craft but Noach will have no say in what direction the craft will go or where it will land. In this sense he is no more the captain of the ark than are the other creatures. Like them, he is a part (albeit the most important part) of the microcosm that the ark represents. Only God's merciful providence will ensure that the ark successfully weathers the torrential floodwaters and lands intact on safe shores. God is the guiding power who drives the ark through the churning deep and steers it clear of mishap.
In a similar vein, when Yocheved places her infant son into his teiva and releases him to the unknown she is not simply attempting to save his life by aiding his escape down river. Her seemingly hopeless gesture, after all other possibilities of concealing Moshe have been exhausted, actually represents an act of great faith. By constructing this craft for him and allowing it to pathetically float away from her maternal embrace she is actually entrusting the life of her child to the Merciful God. It is He who will care for Moshe and lovingly guide him downstream into the unexpectedly tender arms of Pharaoh's own daughter! Here again, the teiva represents God's role in shaping human destiny, and by entering the realm of the teiva we entrust our survival to a Transcendent Being who cares, commands, expects and hopes that we live up to our Divinely fashioned human potential.
Thus, Parashat Bereishit which begins with the greatest of possibilities but concludes so tragically, and Parashat Noach which opens with doom but concludes with the hope of a new beginning, are really complementary sections that pivot quite cohesively around the same central point. Humanity is the crown of creation and the rest of the world only exists for our sake. Therefore, it is our duty to behave towards God, each other and the world with moral responsibility. In fact, our survival depends upon it.