For merchandising value, the best part of Torah is here: adorable images of animals traipsing into a big wooden ark, led by Noah and capped by a vivid rainbow. We can buy this cuteness packaged into wallpaper, quilts and toys.
But read the actual words of Noach - it's a shock. It's a violent, ugly story. And yet through the ugliness we can hear a challenging message, G-d directing our energies to save our world and ourselves.
The story of Noach is anything but cute. Mankind has descended from Adam and Eve to a vicious state. The world is full of "chamas" - corruption, robbery, lawlessness. The earth itself has become "nish-chatah," has suffered. It is "shacheit" - corrupted.
The evil in Noach's time was directed both against other people and against the earth itself. The rabbis tell us that rich men carefully sheltered marble statues from the freezing rain, ignoring shivering human beings in agonized need of the same protection. Midrash suggests that a person might come to the market carrying a full basket of beans and find it soon empty, as each passerby stole just one. Universal petty thievery - reflecting the loss of basic respect and lawfulness. Selfishness rules.
In the midst of this, we are told, "Noach ish tzaddik tamid haia b'dorotav" - Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations. Is this praise or not? Noach was perfect in his generations -- which, we have just learned, are notable for exceptional wickedness! And, as the story progresses, Noach does behave himself ignobly.
It took 120 years for Noach to construct the ark. We may imagine him, lonely and isolated, mocked by his community. I see him as ploddingly obedient to G-d, perhaps not very imaginative. Consider Noach's failure to argue with G-d about the impending devastation. Not one word is uttered to challenge G-d's intention. Later, both Abraham and Moses will be successful in persuading God to avert destruction on behalf of a few virtuous people.
In fact, the haftarah refers to the flood as "the waters of Noach" - how was he responsible? The essence of Noach's failing was that he merely followed G-d's explicit instructions. He did not emulate the chamas, the evil, of his neighbors, but still he did not actively improve his world or fight for the good in it. Noach clung to his own family and protected them, and only them, through his obedience to G-d. Perhaps our own day echoes this, with its sometimes smug focus on the well-being of our own, while ignoring the crying needs of those who may not look, or speak, or believe as we do.
And then -- the flood. As the earth has become shacheit - corrupted, destroyed - so G-d uses the same verb to describe what will happen - "l'shacheit kol-basher asher bo ruach chaim mitachat hashamayim"... to destroy all flesh which has a breath of life under the heavens." The corruption of the earth has been so terrible that there is no remedy. It can only be swept away along with all other life.
Noach and his family cared for the animals in the ark for one year and ten days. They must have felt thoroughly abandoned. Midrash tells us that there was never adequate sleep for the eight people on the Ark. It was a year of pure devotion to thousands of creatures - four men and four unnamed women feeding, cleaning, smelling, hearing animals of every description. Of all of G-d's attributes, the one we can most readily emulate, and which brings us closest to G-d, is unstinting kindness and giving. Indeed, some of the rabbis claim that this single redeeming merit of kindness to the animals led G-d to remember Noach's family and the animals, and to cause the flood to ebb.
G-d's symbol of the new covenant which is now sealed with humanity is the rainbow. We are told by the rabbis that the rainbow had always existed, since Creation; only now G-d gives it new significance, teaches Noach and his descendents to see it as a symbol of this relationship. Perhaps the meaning here is that we must renew our appreciation of the irreplaceable beauty of Creation. God's covenant need not be sealed by a new symbol - as Proust reminds us, the real journey of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing the extraordinary ones we already have with new eyes. Nature's magnificence should be evidence enough of G-d's covenant, if we can only see it.
The balance of nature comes back into focus after the flood's destruction, but it has changed. There is a new mutual understanding between G-d and man, an acceptance that humans have an innate capacity for chamas, for evil, but that it must be controlled and managed. G-d's bargain is that Noach and his descendants shall "be fertile and multiply" and shall rule humanely over the animal kingdom, but only on condition that a rule of law and value for human life shall also prevail. It is this condition that Noach is about to violate.
His behavior on returning to everyday life was ugly. He still had no concept of the innate value, the potential for redemption, in every human life. His first act was profane: he planted a vineyard and made himself drunk. He "uncovered himself" in his tent, and his son Ham "saw his father's nakedness" and told his brothers. The two other sons managed to cover their father's nakedness without viewing his humiliation directly and Noach responds with a curse upon Ham's son Canaan, raging that he shall be "a slave of slaves" to his brothers.
We are left, in our final glimpse of Noach, with a sad portrait of a man who was obedient, whose righteousness saved G-d's creation, and who was able to give care to animals, when locked in a floating zoo with them; but he never did understand the value of a human being. He did not argue with G-d when told that all humanity was about to die; and he closed his life with an ugly act of drunken folly and savage revenge on an innocent grandchild.
Noach came to maturity in a time of terrible evil and lawlessness. He was mocked and jeered by his society, and then subjected to an unimaginable experience of storm, destruction, death, and a year of imprisonment in a floating world of animals. In Noach, we see that those who are brutalized and traumatized may well brutalize and traumatize in their turn, and that we - like Noach's sons Shem and Yapheth, who covered their father without witnessing his nakedness - must shelter our fellow creatures from the humiliation of their own frailties.
The message of this parasha comes to its full conclusion in its final section - one which may seem incongruent at first.
We might hope that Noach's descendents would have learned from Noach's abuse of the earth and its fruits, his drunkenness and its ugly aftermath, would live their lives in the balance of nature which G-d restored after the flood. Instead, they build a tower of Babel, an edifice of worship of technology and civilization. G-d's covenant, symbolized by the rainbow, is forgotten; mankind now seeks to compete with G-d, to build a tower reaching past the rainbow and into the heavens.
What is particularly important about this is G-d's response. In response to mankind's pillage of the earth and violence inflicted upon each other, G-d destroys humanity. But when men challenge G-d, building their tower into the heavens, G-d merely interferes with the building project by confusing their languages, splintering them into seventy nations. I infer from this that G-d is enraged by our disregard for each other and for nature - so enraged (to use a human emotion to characterize G-d) as to invoke that same violence, that chamas, to destroy the offenders. But if mankind merely threatens G-d, we may almost say that G-d "can take it," merely gestures perhaps more in sorrow than in anger and fractures mankind's communications and civilization to prevent such an intrusion where humans do not belong. G-d's own sanctity is not threatened by humanity's chutzpah.
In the haftarah, Isaiah quotes G-d speaking to Israel in Babylonian exile, "In slight anger, for a moment, I hid my face from you, but with kindness everlasting, I will take you back in love, as I swore that the waters of Noach nevermore would flood the earth." On reading Noach, let us take away that single profound thought: humanity's redemption will be in God's "kindness everlasting," if we can find that kindness in ourselves for our fellow creatures.
This is such a powerful statement as we reflect on our responsibilities to our world. We must focus our energies, our resources, on mankind's relationship with all of humanity and all of nature. Our paramount responsibility is to repair, to nurture our world. To genuinely see our rainbows, to understand their significance. To learn unstinting kindness, to give of ourselves to those who are like us, and perhaps even more to those who are not - to seek out and find, and to champion the righteous among us. To generously understand that those who are brutalized victims may tend to brutalize in their turn, and must be generously aided.
G-d can handle challenges to G-d's authority, and let us leave that task to G-d.
G-d cannot protect the fragile creation of Bereishit unless we participate vigorously in its defense.
Let us close with the blessing we are taught to utter upon seeing a rainbow, "Baruch atah adonai, elohenu melech ha-olam, zocher ha'vrit v'ne-eman bi-vitro vkayom b'ma'amaro." Blessed is our G-d who remembers the covenant and faithfully keeps G-d's promise.
May we keep ours as well.