This week we will be reading from Parashat Noah. Most of the Torah portion is focused on Noah and the flood, but near the end, there is also the story of the Tower of Babel. At tomorrow’s Bat Mitzvah we’ll be learning some of the potential implications and lessons from this very brief story in our Torah.
When reading the stories of creation, Noah, Babel and the like, we are often quick to dismiss them as fairytales. However, our ancient ancestors never intended for us to read or hear these stories as literal history. They are part of our sacred mythology intended to help us understand the human condition. For example the first story of creation is to emphasize the centrality of Shabbat in the Jewish experience. The Tower of Babel helps explain the multiplicity of languages expressed by humanity. And the story of Noah teaches lessons about evil, morality and ecology, just to name a few.
One of the most important themes underlying all of these stories is the significance of the partnership between God and humanity.
This is expressed at the very end of Noah where we are introduced to the descendants of Shem, one of Noah’s three sons. The last person introduced was Abram, son of Terah. It is Avram who will receive God’s call in next week’s portion Lech Lecha. Avram’s partnership with God is the foundational moment for our journey as Jews with God that has been guiding us ever since.
With this in mind, I encourage you not to think of the story of Noah as silly little tale we tell to our children. Instead it is a much more complex narrative that helps to explain the how’s and why’s of what we do as Jews. We wrestle with questions of morality, theodicy (the existence of evil), ethics, environmentalism, and simply trying to figure out what God wants from us as individuals and as a people.
These are all big questions being asked by a big story. We may all be in the same boat (pun intended), but ultimately we need to help steer it in the correct direction.