Our sacred canon serves as the touchstone for tradition. We derive countless laws and lessons, and look to it for moral guidance — to learn both what to do and what not to do. Starting with the very beginning — in the very beginning — the book of Genesis guides us with the depth of our ancestors, through the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs. We look to them and seek to glean lessons from their history.
The opening chapters of Genesis, though, shed light on more than just the protagonists of the unfolding generations. In our annual reading of the weekly parashiyot, we frequently skip the depth of the development of God’s character. By focusing only on the lessons of our ancestors, we can miss God’s place in the narrative, and what insight that can give us about Judaism.
God’s character is truly central to the Genesis narrative. In Parashat No·ah, we encounter a God who has watched as the generations unfold and turn further and further away from the paradise that was Gan Eden. God’s angst is almost tangible when Noah learns that God means to put an end to the life on earth. The line that began with Adam, Eve, and their progeny deteriorated rapidly, and God was beginning again.
The preceding generations were governed by an ability to act freely — Adam and Eve taught us that in the garden, but free will led to the lawlessness and corruption that perplexed God and forced God’s hand with the flood. The ensuing flood not only destroys life on earth (save Noah and his fellow travelers) but also dismisses free will. After the flood, God would again revel in the innocence of a pre–creation world, a world that was pure and untainted, a world not in need of redemption — the time when God filled the earth.
For generations, commentators have been puzzled by the choice of Noah. They look at him and wonder: Why did God pick Noah? What was it about him? Was Noah chosen because he was the benchmark of righteousness? Or is it something more nuanced? We are given a hint from the commentary of Rabbi Ovadia Seforno. He writes, “He was righteous in his actions and innocent in his ideas” (Seforno on Genesis 6:9). Noah had always done as he was supposed to, always acted in accordance to the will of God, and had no thoughts otherwise.
Noah’s résumé goes even further. We are told at the end of this same verse that Noah walked with God. Ramban comments on the juxtaposition of the descriptions, “After it says that he was a righteous man, it says that he walked with God, fearing God alone. And he walked in the path that God chose for him” (Ramban on Genesis 6:9).
So God re–set the scene. Take the one person who is passively observant, the guy who does it right all the time, the blameless and pure: Noah. Noah is, then, God’s obvious choice for another attempt at creation, exactly what God was looking for. His actions were faultless, his thoughts, wrought with naïveté. His feet fell in ordained footprints. He would not move, would not think, would not act, unless sanctioned by God. Noah had no need for free will. God had created the new genesis — a perfect character acting only by and for the will of God. Noah would be the new Adam.
This time, God got it right. Free will is removed. Without the inclination of humanity to do wrong, a new world could exist, one where God was the centerpiece, not humanity — a world where God’s dream of redemption and the reconciliation of heaven and earth happened naturally.
With the advent of the flood and the sequestering of No·ah and all of creation into the ark, God had returned the world to its pre–creation state, where God occupied the whole of the universe. God had returned the world to the state we read about at the beginning of Genesis: “unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water” (1:2).
The solution seems to be complete. Frustrated and saddened by the failure of creation, God has taken the passively observant, the new prototype human; stuck him for safe–keeping in a floating bucket; returned the world to its pre–creation state with God filling the universe; removed free will from the damaged cradle of humanity; and created a new world where everything remains in the hands of heaven.
Then, Noah does the unexpected. This character, who has up to now been passive, who has never exercised free will, simply devotion, develops depth and a desire for a substantive relationship with God. God said build Me an Ark; Noah obeyed. God said take all the animals; Noah obeyed. God said step aside, I’m destroying the world; Noah obeyed.
Now, from out of nowhere, Noah is active. He reaches from within the ark and engages the chaotic world of God. With bird in hand, he reaches out to God. In a world where God had all but overturned free will, a regenerated free will engages the world of the divine and waits for recognition.
Then Noah reaches out a second time to God and again waits for recognition. After departing from the ark onto dry land, No·ah exercises his previously latent free will. He steps from the ark, builds an altar and offers sacrifices to God. This time, God responds, “The Lord smelled the pleasing odor, and the Lord said to Himself: ‘Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done” (8:21).
Noah has reached out to God by sending the bird forth to search into the pre–creation abyss. He has offered an un–required sacrifice and, finally, God come to terms with the burgeoning free will of N·ah and is enchanted. Heschel writes that according to the bible, man is “a being in travail with God’s dreams, with God’s dream of a world redeemed, of reconciliation of heaven and earth” (Who is Man?, 119). It is with Noah that God makes this desire clear, and that humanity begins to fulfill it.
The growth of God’s character through the parashah teaches us far more than Noah ever could. At the beginning of our parashah, God looked at the evil of the world and decided to begin anew, returning to the pristine glory of pre–creation without free will in the equation. When No·ah reached out by his own volition, he produced a much sweeter passion than passive observance. Our electing to observe, our electing to do good, our electing to act produces a passion for life that God recognizes as outweighing the negatives of society and brings us closer to the reconciliation of heaven and earth. All we need to do is stick our hands outside the ark.
Rabbi Marc Wolf
The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary on Parashat No·ah are made possible by a generous gift from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.