Noahs ark seems like a childrens story but its deeper than that


Genesis 6:9-11:32

Isaiah 54:1-55:5

I have often wondered why this week’s parshah is seen as a children’s story. I love animals as much as anyone, but I do hesitate to tell my daughter the story of the flood that killed all of them. I was part of this, as a child — I sang “Rise and Shine,” learned how the unicorns were off playing and thus missed the boat, played with small wooden arks and animals, thought about how Noah and his family had enough food of all the right sorts for all those different animals for so long, and pondered the question of the carnivores hanging out with their prey in close quarters.

But this is a heart-breaking story, not a fun romp with a bunch of beasts. What does it mean that living things had corrupted the earth? Are we an experiment that can sprout mold or bacteria, thus calling for a quick dose of Clorox to the petri dish in question?

Note that at the beginning of the parshah, all living beings are mentioned as corrupting and violent, but at the end, God specifically talks about the possibility of the human contribution, when God says, “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.”

We are faced with the possibility of human responsibility for the earth. This, of course, we recall from last week: the gift of power over all living things given to the first humans. So perhaps there is a shared responsibility here, that both the people and the animals are connected in creating this mess that can only be cleaned up with a vast amount of water.

Note that this is followed by the first real sacrifice: Noah’s altar is what prompts the statement above. Cain and Abel brought offerings, but this one is somehow different. Is it because Noah burns it? There is a new parallel — God has destroyed the world, and now people are offering up lives to God.

It’s the death of those now scarce and precious animals in a designated holy space that rouses the Divine to renew the promises of creation, albeit with a now slightly more realistic outlook on the nature of humankind.

Yes, there were seven pairs of all the acceptable animals for sacrifice, and it does mention that the animals left in families, presumably more numerous than when they were collected — but even then, we worry about extinction when a population of creatures gets under the 1,000 mark. I can’t imagine how 14 sheep could multiply rapidly enough whilst on the ark to bring any kind of feeling of security about there being more sheep in the future, even with God’s as-yet-unspoken promise.

And speaking of speaking, Noah is silent almost all the way through this parshah, certainly through the flood and exit from the ark. One would imagine he might resist, give an order, dedicate his sacrifice, something. But unlike Abraham who will argue with God, he is more docile in his acquiescence to the Divine command.

Is his walking with God that of a friend, a follower, an admirer, a servant? We never really know. And while God is explicit in directions to Noah, we never hear any words of command that cause the flood, nor the wind that follows it. So there is a sense in which God and Noah are complicit — as if it is almost an inevitable, tragic thing that life must be destroyed, and that the new beginning will be small and delicate.

Let us return to the altar. It is that dedication, the creation of something for God, the gift, that opens the mouth of the Divine in blessing once again. And with that blessing, a new world, a new order is started. A more realistic world, but as full of possibility as the old, and with some memory of what could be to guide what is to become.

I pray that our children’s children will live in the world where there is always a double rainbow: the promise of peace from above, and the blessing of peace between all of God’s creations.

Rabbi Elisheva Salamo is the spiritual leader of Keddem Congregation in Palo Alto.