D’var Torah For Friday, October 28, 2022

This week we will be reading from parashat Noach. The story of Noah is perhaps one of the most well-known stories in the entire Torah, if not one of the least well understood. We often tell it to our children as it involves animals, a homemade ark, a flood, and a bow in the sky. All of these elements are found in the story of Noah, but at its core, the story is about so much more.

Truth be told, there are a myriad of flood narratives that come out of the world of the ancient near east. This is because the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were often overflowing their riverbanks, which brought both devastation and fertility to the land. For example, there are other flood narratives in the Epic of Gilgamesh and in and the Epic of Atrahasis. These are not even including flood stories that can also be found in Egyptian literature.

However, where the story of Noah deviates from these similar accounts is that the story of Noah involves the question of morality as well as emphasizing the importance of the relationship between humanity and God. The story of Noah, I suspect, was, like the story of creation, never intended to be taken as literal history. Instead, it raises the question of what happens in a society without rules and a sense of common purpose. Our tradition is arguing that without an agreed set of laws, societies will always slip into chaos.

This is why, after the 40 days and 40 nights, God establishes a covenant with Noah. According to the Tosefta, a second century collection of rabbinic writings, God established a set of commandments. These commandments are often referred to as the 7 Noahide laws that are binding upon all b’nei Noah, all the children of Noah, not just for us. They are:

1. Establish courts of justice and the rule of law
2. Don’t curse God (no blasphemy)
3. Do not practice idolatry.
4. Do not engage in illicit sexuality (i.e. forceable violent sexual acts like rape)
5. Do not participate in bloodshed.
6. Do not rob (steal)
7. Do not eat flesh from a living animal.

Only the story of Noah connects the ancient flood narratives to the sense of obligation humanity has towards bringing order to the world. Not just Jews, but every society has this mandate. This means, as is written by Jeffrey Spitzer , “Jews perceive non-Jews as bound by a set of laws–even if they are not bound by the full range of Torah law–is a significant statement. The expectation that non-Jews will set up their own system of justice became the basis for peaceful interactions between Jews and non-Jews. The Noahide laws separated humanity after the flood from the lawless violence which brought God to the point of destroying the world. The Noahide laws stand as a testament to the Jewish belief in the need for the rule of law to protect all peoples.”

The story of Noah may seem childlike at times, but its core message is clear for all of us. Yes we have an obligation to take care of the earth and all the creatures who dwell upon it. We also have an obligation to take care of all of humanity as well by setting up and maintaining systems of justice to protect all who dwell upon this planet as well.

Shabbat Shalom