The story of Noah is the story of a new beginning – brought about by the crashing ending of the first beginning. Everything that God began – the entire world – is destroyed out of God’s disgust with its corruption. A new beginning starts with Noah emerging from the ark.
Much can be learned from comparing the two beginnings – their similarities and their differences. The definitive difference between them, the difference that makes all the difference, is that the new beginning is founded on the failure of the first beginning. The story of Adam and Eve begins in innocence. Their story emerges out of a paradise, albeit one that is then lost. But the story of Noah’s beginning is the story of the survival of innocence that emerges out evil and violence. Adam and Eve hide from God after they sin; Noah and his family must hide from human wickedness because they do not sin. The first beginning starts without a notion of history. The second beginning is defined by a sense of history.
The change in starting terms of the new beginning – with its consciousness of history, which is a consciousness of human failure, suffering and death – brings about a crucial additional change. The nature of God’s communication to people changes. Even before Noah God had spoken to Adam and Eve, and to Cain. But those rules, words of interrogation or caution, of punishment or encouragement, were directed to these human’s immediate needs and acts. Now, after Noah leaves the ark to begin a new life and a new world, God’s words are directed to all humanity, for all time. (Gen. 9:1-17) In other words, it is only after Noah leaves the ark that God begins communicating instruction – Torah – to human beings.
Thus, we come to see that, in one important sense, the Torah is made necessary by God’s need to save humans from themselves – so that this new beginning started by Noah will not also end in utter destruction. The Torah is meant to be like an ark, a vehicle of salvation. (Many teachers have taken note that the word for “ark – teivah” is a term that can mean “a word” – a word of Torah.)
The first words of Torah, in this sense, are only a beginning, but they already contain crucial elements that define Torah forever. They insist on strict respect for life, and especially for human life. (Gen. 9:4-6) They invest human dignity with the Divine Image. (v. 6) They are words of blessing. (vv. 1, 7) And they are words of covenant. (vv. 8-17) These elements are the basic elements of our survival kit to this day.
Rabbi David Greenstein
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Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein