The portion of Noach, which is the fifth longest single reading of the Torah, relates the story of Noah and his descendants. God expresses His disappointment in humankind, but singles out Noah and his family for salvation from the destruction He is planning to send. He commands Noah to build an ark and carry with him two of each animal to repopulate the Earth after the waters recede.
Noah complies, and he and his family spend a year aboard this floating zoo. When it is finally safe to walk the land again, Noah offers sacrifices of gratitude and God sends a rainbow to promise He will never flood the entire world again.
Noah also plants a vineyard and becomes intoxicated. One son ridicules his father, while the other two protect him. Noah curses the one and blesses the others.
Also in this week’s portion is the story of the Tower of Babel, when the people of the Earth decided to build a tower to heaven. God mixes up the languages they speak and disperses them across the face of the Earth.
Additionally, we are treated to two genealogical lists of Noah’s descendants.
Last week’s portion reported that God was dismayed with the deterioration of mankind. He opts to wipe out His creation and start again, selecting the righteous Noah as progenitor. He commands Noah to build a three-story boat of gopher wood and fill it with animals — one male, one female of each, and seven pairs of each clean animal — as well as food for everyone. He tells Noah that He will make it rain for forty days and forty nights and flood the Earth, wiping out all life outside the ark.
The rain begins to fall in Noah’s six hundredth year of life. The waters fill the Earth, covering the mountaintops, and remain there for 150 days before beginning to recede. When Noah notices the water levels dropping, he sends first the raven, then the dove, to see if the land is habitable again. The raven returns from its fruitless search, but the dove brings back an olive branch, now a symbol of peace, from its first foray. On its second trip, it does not return, and Noah realizes it is safe to leave the ark. All told, the family spends one year and ten days aboard the ark.
Upon leaving the ark, Noah makes a thanksgiving offering, and God decides never to wipe out all life again.
The Sages teach that during the flood, the Land of Israel had a special status, which the Israel Bible details. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains that the purpose of the flood was to purify the land, but Israel is inherently pure, and does not need such purification. Although the waters rose over the mountaintops, covering Israel as well, it did not rain there, since the purity of the Land of Israel can never be contaminated. As such, the trees there survived the flood, allowing the dove to return with its olive branch. In addition to the dove being an image of peace, it represents the Jewish nation. Just as the dove found no rest on its first foray into the world, so, too, the Jewish people will never find rest in exile. Like the dove returning to the ark, the Jews will always come back to Israel.
Points to Ponder
We are told that Noah is “righteous and whole-hearted” in his generations. (Genesis 6:9) This has prompted rabbis throughout the centuries to argue over the significance of the qualification “in his generations”. What do you think this comment says about Noah’s righteousness?
After the Flood
Following the flood, God addresses Noah and his sons, telling them to be fruitful and multiply. He promises that the animals of the Earth will fear them and their descendants, and gives them the right to eat meat. He warns, however, against eating the animal with its blood. He also vows that He will exact justice on anyone, man or animal, who takes a human life. God then tells Noah of His commitment never to wipe out humanity in another flood, placing a rainbow in the sky as a sign.
Noah plants a vineyard, makes wine and becomes intoxicated and falls asleep, naked, in his tent. His youngest son, Ham, sees his father and calls to his older brothers to humiliate Noah. Shem and Japheth instead cover their father out of respect. When Noah awakens, he realizes what his youngest son has done, and curses him to be subservient to his brothers for all time. Meanwhile, he blesses Shem and Japheth.
The Israel Bible relates Rashi’s comments that Noah blessed the God of Shem because He will eventually give the Land of Israel to Shem’s descendants.
The Torah then goes on to list the descendants of Noah and his sons born after the flood. This genealogy gives rise to the seventy nations that traditionally people the Earth. Since the next story relates that the people of the time were reluctant to spread out upon the Earth, the Israel Bible distinguishes between the verb nifridu, used here, meaning natural growth and sprawl, and vayafetz, used there, to describe God’s forcible dispersion of the people. Likewise, the word for language used here, lashon (also Hebrew for tongue) differs in connotation from the word safa, meaning language, used there. Lashon implies a natural shift in dialect, while safa refers to actual different languages.
Points to Ponder
Until Noah, God had allowed man to eat plants (fruits and vegetables), but not meat, yet animal sacrifice is recorded in the Torah already. Why do you think God now permits man to eat meat?
Tower of Babel
The Torah now tells a tragic tale, set just ten generations after the flood. All the people of the Earth speak a common language, and opt to use this unity to build a tower to heaven. Their expressed concern: they do not wish to be dispersed across the Earth.
God observes the tower, and decries the abuse of such unity. He causes confusion among them by changing the languages they speak, thus ending communication. The people then are scattered and dispersed across the land.
The Israel Bible makes the connection between the word for language, safa, used in our portion, and the same word in the book of Zephaniah. There (Zephaniah 3:9), God promises he will one day change the languages of the world that everyone shall speak a safa b’rurah, a clear or pure language, which the Sages identify as Hebrew.
The portion ends by listing the ten generations which have passed between Noah and the next hero who will take center stage: Abraham.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think God was so opposed to the people of the Earth building their tower and staying together?