This week's Torah Reading:
- Genesis 6:9 - 11:32
of the year contains the famous story of Noah and the flood. Having seen that the earth has become filled with lawlessness (it is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for lawlessness is "
"), God says to Noah, "I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for all earth is filled with lawlessness...make yourself an ark of gopher wood..." (Ex 6:13 - 14). Noah is to take two of all that lives upon the ark, so that life can begin again once the flood subsides, and God's covenant is to be established with Noah and all who descend from him.
It rained for forty days, and only after an additional 150 days do the waters begin to recede. Finally, Noah sends out birds to see if the land is now dry. One of them, a dove, first returns without finding a place to rest. Then it goes out again seven days later and returns with a leaf from an olive tree. Seven days after that it goes out once again and does not return, indicating that the ground was dry enough to support life once more.
The entire Noah narrative is fascinating. Like the previous
, it is not intended to teach us history, but rather to lay out for us the kind of values and norms that the Torah sees as important. Indeed, if we were to regard it as history, it leads to many questions that my teachers would have called
, that is questions that either don't have answers or don't really make sense (like, if most of the animals died in the flood, what about the fish?). Rather in looking at the text as narrative and not history, we can discover many deep ideas it wishes to teach us.
One of these ideas involves human belief. There is a recognition in the text, and especially in the way the rabbis interpret it, that belief in God is something that is important but never certain. That is first seen in the amount of time between the command to build the ark and the flood. According to the rabbis, this was done on purpose so that the people watching Noah would wonder what he was doing, and once they knew would be given one last chance to repent and forestall the flood. People though did not believe that their evil actions could possibly cause God to destroy the earth, so they ignored the warnings. They simply didn't believe in the possibility of being good people nor in the consequences of their acts.
There is another aspect to belief that the rabbis found in Noah. The text tells us, "Noah, with his sons, his wife and his sons' wives went into the ark because of the waters of the flood." (Gen. 7:9) The famous biblical commentator Rashi teaches us that the text wants to emphasize that Noah did not enter the ark because God told him to, he entered it only once the flood had begun and he saw the waters rising. That is, God's command to Noah to enter the ark was not enough; he needed to wait until he saw that the flood was actually occurring before he entered the ark. Once he saw the waters, he finally entered the ark "because of the waters of the flood".
The rabbis, following the direction of our text, wanted to teach us that even a
(righteous person) such as Noah could question his belief. It wasn't that he didn't believe, it was that his belief was uncertain. Noah listened to God and built the ark, but he wasn't so sure he was doing the right thing until the flood waters began to rise.That is exactly how the
puts it: Noah believed and he didn't believe. (There is an old joke that says, "If I talk to God, that's prayer; if God talks to me, I'm crazy.") By teaching us this the rabbis are also letting us know that if Noah had questions about his belief, if is certainly reasonable for us to also question our own belief. Indeed an uncritical belief in God can be problematic and even dangerous. Rather, we should be like Noah, who both listened to God and still questioned whether he was doing the right thing. When we do the same, we are following in a good and righteous tradition.