The Noah Principle

Mankind remembers Noah, and the lessons of this week’s parsha still resonate in men’s hearts, 4,116 years after the Flood. So it’s relevant to ask: Why?

Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Hirsch

Judaism Aryeh Hirsch
Aryeh Hirsch

In 1973, the US Congress passed the Endangered Species Act. As later explained by Mann and Plummer in their 1995 book "Noah’s Choice", the act’s underlying reasoning was the Noah Principle: all species are fundamentally equal, and can and should be saved.

Yet by 2008, the world economic downturn forced even the Wildlife Conservation Society to recognize the need for triage; man cannot save everything. Still, “the exhortation to save all species remains a worthy goal, and even while knowing that we cannot save them all, societies should still aspire to the Noah Principle- and stuff the ark to the brim”(Scientific American, August, 2012; pages 76-79).

Mankind remembers Noah, and the lessons of this week’s parsha still resonate in men’s hearts, 4,116 years after the Flood. So it’s relevant to ask: Why? If man sinned, why did the Almighty wipe out every living creature (except fish, the Noah family and the giant Og)?

Would some quickie viral epidemic, such as smallpox or SARS, to wipe out humankind not have sufficed- or perhaps some miraculous plague such as occurred to the firstborn in Egypt? What was G-d thinking when He destroyed the animals?

Even Judaism-site writers for Arutz7 are not privy to the notes of the Heavenly Court, but our Sages were. The answer comes in two competing lines of thought, one the ancient, divinely- inspired Onkelos translation of the Bible into Aramaic, and the other the Midrash quoted by Rashi. “For all flesh on this Earth had perverted its way” (Breishit 6;12 ), is rendered by Onkelos: “ for all human-flesh had perverted”. Ramban favors this understanding as the literal meaning (pshat)of the verse; it means that Man had sinned, but not the animals. This, of course, leads to our question of why animals were destroyed in the Flood.

Rashi’s Midrash on this verse provides a simplistic answer to our problem: the animals also sinned, and were thus deserving of destruction. The Aramaic translator Yonatan ben Uziel follows the Midrash’s line, rendering “flesh(basar)” in our verse as meaning that the animal’s too had become sexual perverts, crossing species lines and thus becoming deserving of punishment. Still, what can we make of the opposing Onkelos/Ramban line of thought, that man sinned, but not the animals?

Rav Matis Weinberg provides the key. In a sweeping overview of the two Parshiot Breishit (last week’s Creation narrative) and Noach, Rav Weinberg sees two very different worlds. Adam became the Almighty’s partner in the creation of a world of holiness (kedusha). We see this in Genesis 2; 19-20: “And all that Adam named among the creatures, that is its name (for all time). And Adam called names (koreh-shem) to all domestic animals, birds of the sky, and wild animals of the fields”.

This activity, koreh-shem, is a primary activity in the Temple services of sacrifices (kodashim). In Temple times, a Jew repeated this koreh-shem activity of Adam, designating thereby an animal as kodashim, a sacrifice belonging to the holy world of the Temple. This animal could now not be eaten as everyday meat (chulin, which not coincidentally is a Talmudic volume in the order Kodashim) , paralleling the fact that Adam could not eat animals in his holy world, but only use them for sacrifice.

This amazing correspondence of the holy world of Adam to the Temple environs ( which our Sages say sits on the place where Adam was created) reaches its peak in the Halachot(laws) of Kodashim: if a major mistake is made in this koreh-shem activity, the animal is destroyed. For example, if one were to sacrifice an animal as a guilt-offering( asham), but it had been already designated as a sin-offering( chatas) , the animal becomes invalid( pasul) and must be destroyed, since its naming (kriat-shem) had been violated.

This parallels the world that had been perverted by the ten generations from Adam to Noach. Man created his world, and when he distorted it, his world of holiness(kodashim) became invalid and had to be entirely removed, including man, animal, wild beast and bird. This Earth of Adam before sin, is the world that those who aspire to the rebuilding of the holy Temple, hoping to establish once again an Eden-world of kodashim .

Deep down, we are all bnei-Avraham, sons of Abraham; one has only to look at the fact that recently, on Yom Kippur, traffic came to a halt in every major city in Israel.
The world of Noah after the Flood is entirely different. “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord”(Genesis 6;8) epitomizes G-d’s relationship with Noah: he’s an OK guy, a nice guy, nothing too special( in other times may not have even been considered particularly righteous, say many of our Sages; Rashi,Genesis 6;9). After the flood, this progenitor of the Ben- Noah (average non-Jew )brings a sacrifice, and G-d finds its aroma pleasing (Genesis 8;21)- so much so, that He promises that He will never again destroy the world.

Rav Weinberg sees this as setting the tone for a post-Flood world vastly different from the world of Adam, that of Kedusha (holiness). The Torah (Genesis 9;20) says that “ Noach started out( vayechel, from the word “chulin”,=secular and non-kodashim, as Rashi points out), planted a vineyard” and got drunk. The Talmud ( Eiruvin 65b;see explanation of Torah Temima) says that Noah is clearly 'one of the boys', easy to get along with- and the Lord reciprocates: you get along with the Earth and all those in it, I’ll get along with you, suffering your ordinariness, warts and all. As long as a Ben-Noah behaves morally and cares for his “vineyard” (land,fellow man, wildlife) G-d tolerates Man.

However, there is nothing special (the translation of “kodesh”) in this new relationship. Holiness ( kedusha) has to wait for ten more generations, until Man (Bnei-Noah) messes up again with his Tower of Babel. Then a towering giant of a man appears on the scene: Abraham. He reestablishes the original Adam-kedushah covenant of Man and G-d, and becomes the first Jew.

Rav Weinberg points out that to this day, we are troubled by the dichotomy between the world of kedushah-Adam, and that of Noah-Chulin. Lack of integration of lover of the Earth with lover of Torah, has led to tremendous friction in Jewish society, both in Israel and in the Diaspora. Until we realize that “without Chulin-Noah there is no Kodashim, and without Kodashim-Adam-Avraham there is no Chulin(again, see the placement of Tractate-Chulin in Seder-Kodashim)” we will remain a fractious people.

Deep down, we are all bnei-Avraham, sons of Abraham; one has only to look at the fact that recently, on Yom Kippur, traffic came to a halt in every major city in Israel, as Jews complied spontaneously with the requirements of Halakha, religious law. This shows that without “kfiya-datit”, without coercion, this nation is ready for a true spiritual relationship with our Lord, and with each other.

We need only build on our commonality as human beings (bnei-Noah) and as Jews ( bnei-Avraham). This Noah-Avraham Principle can save a nation lost for 2,000 years, “confronting the alternative of loss on a huge scale” (Scientific American,ibid). .