Why the Jews?

Noah By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Oct 21, 2007 / 5768 | Torah Commentary

This week’s portion, named for the second male progenitor of the human species, comes to answer a question of fundamental importance to the Torah, and no less crucial to us. We might phrase it, somewhat anachronistically, this way: Why the Jews? Why did the Creator of all humanity decide upon the surprising step of establishing a special relationship with one small segment of humanity? Parashat B’reishit concludes with God’s perception that creation as a whole is not living up to the intentions for which it had been created. Parashat Lekh L’kha begins with the command to Abraham to take his family in a new direction that results in a new path for the world as a whole. In between, we have Parashat Noah. It seeks to explain that fateful move from Adam to Abraham, humanity to the Jews, and a great deal else besides.

One convenient way to get a handle on the Torah’s purposes here is to take careful note of a key passage in the text that consists of precise repetition of a previous verse along with significant departure from it. In Genesis chapter 1, verses 28-29, God blesses humanity with the words (in the JPS translation): “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” God then announces that plants and fruit “shall be yours for food.” Animals, too, shall be plant-eaters. The picture is one of perfect harmony. God recognizes that the creation is “very good.” Not so the second time around (9:1). “God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Be fertile and increase, and fill the earth.’” The repetition to this point is complete. But look at what follows. “The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky—everything with which the earth is astir—and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand.” Killing is now built into the very order of existence. God, having ordained the eating of flesh, now forbids eating its lifeblood. And killing brings more killing in its train. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”

The new order is characterized not by unity and harmony but by essential discord and built-in oppositions (8:22): seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night—and the most important one of all, perhaps, unmentioned here but implicit in the blessing and prohibitions that we have noted: good and evil. The generations from Adam to Noah have been marked by degenerations. Humanity has proven itself possessed of potential for good as well as of imaginings for evil. Yet God’s intentions remain in place after the Flood. God’s desire for life, including human life, is still keen. “Be fertile, then, and increase; abound on the earth and increase on it.” God wants goodness to flourish among God’s creation.

What then can God do to make this happen? The Torah, as it were, places us inside the divine dilemma. God can alter the nature of the human material, depriving humanity of the freedom, initiative, and powers of mind that are essential to our creation in God’s image. This step would deprive God of our partnership in carrying on creation. Or God can leave human beings as they are—but then, arriving sooner or later at the same disappointing outcomes that led to the Flood; God would have to blot out the corruption and start all over again with a third set of progenitors, and so on ad infinitum. Neither of these two plans is acceptable.

God promised with the sign of the rainbow not to do the latter: There will be no more total destruction. The sins Noah’s descendants make make it clear that God has not done the former. Human nature remains as is. God chooses a third alternative: education. God will select a particular human family, endow it with liberal exposure to God’s presence, provide it with the laws best suited to construction of an ideal social order and a land in which to institute those laws and enjoy God’s presence; God will even free this people in this land of two handicaps often used by humanity as excuses for achieving less than the goodness of which we are capable: scarcity (the Land of Israel will flow with milk and honey) and enemies (God will assist in Israel’s protection). This people will prove an exemplar to humanity, the purveyors of the sort of education that is not learned from books, exhortations, or even divine revelations, but rather through the more powerful medium of experience.

Deuteronomy captures God’s intention precisely (Genesis 4:5-8). It is in fact the source of my reading of Parashat Noah. The nations will observe the justice of Israelite society as well as the nation’s overall good fortune. These blessings will “be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, ‘Surely, that is a great nation of wise and discerning people.’ ” They will want wise teachings and the presence of God. Thus humanity will be transformed, once the founder of the new way leaves behind all that is familiar and follows God “to the land that I will show you.”

Creation continues, in a word, through covenant. The challenge, both to God and to us, is of course that the Israelite/Jewish material God elects to work with has the same makeup as the human material that caused God to decide upon Israel’s election in the first place. Moses’s life and the Book of Deuteronomy both close with dire warnings about Israelite defection from the divine intention. Much of the next third of the Bible, which follows immediately afterward, consists of the unceasing struggle between prophets and kings in which we find enacted the larger struggle, built into God’s covenant with humanity, between that which is and that which should be, between business and politics as usual and business and politics as God wants them to be.  “So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease”—yet moral action, the Torah seeks to convince us, can gain the upper hand.

This world—our world—is far from idyllic. But there is ample room in it for ideals, more than enough space for enactment of the covenant using all the gifts that humanity has at its disposal, especially the mind and heart, capable of great good, which can be applied to the teaching and living of Torah. The Jews have many partners in this endeavor. We are not alone in benefiting from God’s covenant with Noah and its assurance that God will not cause a second destruction. The responsibility that we do not cause one either is immense and newly urgent. Parashat Noah points the way.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.