Parshas Noach is one of the most troubling portions in all of Torah. The idea that God wiped out all humanity, save one family, is terrifying. Ironically, this is the Bible story that is taught to children with cute smiling cartoon animals. But if God had the power to wipe out all of humanity, why did He make Noah live in the ark for a year during this process? God can do anything. Why didn’t He just zap all the bad people with lightening bolts and have the entire thing over in seconds? Then on top of that, why did the animals have to die?
The State of the World
Noah and his family were the only people not corrupt in the entire world. For that, God decides to start humanity over with Noah’s children.
And God saw the earth, and behold it had become corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth. (Bereishis 6:12)
As I’ve said before, the only beings that have free will are humans. Why were the vast majority of the animals exterminated along with humanity? The Torah uses the phrase כָּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר, all flesh, to describe the corruption, opposed to just humanity. In what way could all the animals have become corrupt? To understand that, you have to understand mankind’s relationship with the world.
It is a deep Kabbalisitc perspective that humanity affects the world around it. According to the Zohar, “…because man is the essence of the world, his corruption infects all of Creation.” Judaism believes that the world and everything in it is a tool for humanity to wield. We can either elevate those tools, or we can degrade them. Think of it like your car. If you treasure your car, keeping it clear, keep up with the maintenance, drive it places it’s meant to be driven, chances are you’re going to have that car for a while. But if you like to peel out, never wash it, are hard on the brakes, not only is it not going to last as long, your appreciation for the vehicle is going to be less as well. “My old clunker, pos…,” opposed to, “I used to have this great car …”
Judaism believes that’s the effect we have on everything in the world. The generation of Noah had brought the world down to such a low level, all the animals would have to go along with them.
Death and Rebirth
And the Lord said to Noah, “Come into the ark, you and all your household, for it is you that I have seen as a righteous man before Me in this generation…For in another seven days, I will make it rain upon the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will blot out all beings that I have made, off the face of the earth.” (Bereishis 7:1-4)
God commands Noah to come into the ark 7 days before the floods start. Depending on interpretation, Noah actually doesn’t go into the ark at this time. In doing so, he missed out on something important. 7 is a very significant number is Judaism: 7 days of creation, 7 days of the week, and for 7 days we sit shiva for someone close to us that we have lost. It was at this point Noah was supposed to mourn for humanity.
Then the rain comes for 40 days and 40 nights. 40 is also a significant number in Judaism. When God teaches Moses for 40 days when he was up on Sinai. From that many rabbis say that to truly master something requires learning it 40 times. The Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years. And when one goes in to the mikveh, the water must contain 40 se’ahs (a measure of water) in order for the purification to be kosher. But the 40 that’s probably most appropriate is from the Talmud (Yevamot 69) where it says that life begins not after conception, but at 40 days. From these insight we learn that this was the process necessary for the world’s rebirth.
The ark was not a pleasant experience. It had three levels. Top for the humans, middle for the animals, and a bottom level for… well… the things animals leave behind. Also the ark only had one window. Needless to say, it probably didn’t smell very good in there. Furthermore, unlike the 2014 Darren Aronofsky film, Noah didn’t just put the animals to sleep. He had to tend to them. It was a full time job. For a whole year. Why would God make Noah go through all of this?
As I discussed in my blog post from last year, Noah didn’t plead with God for His mercy on the rest of the world. Noah was indeed a righteous person, but he kept to himself and he didn’t reach out to others. He took care of himself, but he didn’t take care of the world. It’s because of that that he would have to take care of his world – a small and isolated world.
It is from Noah that we should learn that it is crucial to reach out to the people around us. I to have a friend who is writing a movie about some of the most religious Jewish communities in New York. In his research he said to me that many of them are so isolated that the idea of reaching out to the non-religious people around them is the most foreign idea in the world. It’s puzzling to me that the most involved in Torah are missing this essential component of the religion. I’m not saying we should proselytize, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be an example, or help those in need, or even maybe discuss a little Torah. Not only will it open our world up, it just might start the process of elevating the world at large.