Noah and the Flood
The Torah portions in Genesis feature many narratives. Most people have a memory of this portion, unlike some of the more technical passages later in the Bible.
A refresher video in case you’re new to the story:
BimBam also offers a source sheet, midrash (a parable that expands on the text in the Torah), and a lesson guide.
So much Jewish wisdom traces back to this portion, at a deeper level than the simple story of the flood. Before we get there, a reminder: I don’t read the Hebrew Bible as history. The events described did not need to take place for me to describe the Bible as holy and worthy of my attention. As Dr. Martin Sweeney points out, at least three other well-documented flood myths arose in Mesopotamia. I imagine a catastrophic flood wiped out many communities and myths were created to make sense of the situation. This correlates with the Black Sea deluge hypothesis. Regardless of why this story exists, how can it help us live lives of deeper meaning?
An ark to save us
Noah builds an ark, teivah תֵּבָה, in Hebrew. This ark provides physical safety for Noah’s family and all of the animals who survived the flood.
The Ba’al Shem Tov, a central figure in the popularization of Jewish spirituality, reminds us that the Hebrew word for ark also means word. His meditation on this portion brings forward the worlds contained within each word we read, we speak, and we think. In the larger tradition of Torah portion commentary associated with the Ba’al Shem Tov, an entire separate book is built into the Noah section. Here is a taste of how he connects the ark with spiritual salvation:
Enter the ark! The Hebrew word for ark–teivah–also means a word. If we are beset with a flood of mundane concerns, we must enter the sacred words, so that when we pray, we enter within and attach ourselves to the very letters of our prayers. When we study, we must enter within and attach ourselves to the sacred letters of the Torah.Portions of Light: Teachings from the holy Baal Shem Tov on Torah and Festivals, translated by Chayenu, p4.
From here, we could go into the breadth of Pillar of Prayer: Guidance in Contemplative Prayer, Sacred Study, and the Spiritual Life, from the Baal Shem Tov and his Circle.
Righteousness Throughout the World
Judaism often gets a bad rap for the particularism of our prayers. Traditionally, Jewish wisdom centered on the unique place of Jews in the meaning of the world. Let’s remember history — it was quite difficult to be Jewish. From the Romans destroying our homeland and renaming it Palestine, to Christian mobs murdering us en masse during their Crusades, to our legal second-class status throughout Christian Europe and Islamic caliphates, our leaders needed to assure us that despite the difficulty of remaining Jewish, it was extremely important to remain within the tribe.
Simultaneous with our wholehearted belief in the relationship between the Jewish people and the Divine, we have also recognized righteousness among other peoples. Early in rabbinic Judaism, we understood righteous gentiles. By observing the “Seven Noahide Commandments,” a non-Jewish person obtains righteousness and a place in the world-to-come.
The Talmud expands on the words in the Torah portion Noah.
The descendants of Noah, i.e., all of humanity, were commanded to observe seven mitzvot:
- The commandment to establish courts of judgment;
- Prohibition against blessing, i.e., cursing, the name of God;
- The prohibition of idol worship;
- Prohibition against forbidden sexual relations;
- The prohibition of bloodshed;
- Prohibition of robbery;
- The prohibition against eating a limb from a living animal.
Sanhedrin 56a:24 from Kevin Wolf’s Noahide Lawes Sefaria Source Sheet
Please remember: Judaism sees a unique need for Jews in the world. And we recognize and lift up the righteousness of non-Jews. This is why the Noahide commandments became short-hand for describing righteous gentiles.
Choosing an ark of words
What words should we cling to? Personally, I am working towards separating myself from my social media addiction. I choose to live into deep thinking. My goal: allowing space for reading books rather than posts.
Additionally, I recognize that my words can form an ark of salvation or a battering ram of destruction.
My tone of voice matters.
Will my sharp wit respond to factually inaccurate beliefs?
Shall I approach situations wholeheartedly?