The story of Noah is, as with the story of creation we studied last week, not a scientific story, but an important story nonetheless.
When we left off at the end of last week’s Parshah, God had decided that people were fundamentally evil and contemplated destroying. Then God became aware of Noah (in Hebrew, Noach – the name of this week’s Parshah). The story of Noah is, as with the story of creation we studied last week, not a scientific story, but an important story nonetheless.
Noah, the Torah tells us was “righteous in his time” and “walked with God”. That “in his time” qualifier is an interesting one, and we’re not sure what it means. What do you think?
– Was Noah a good person as we might define “good” today — or just better than all the evil people around him?
– How do you like to be judged: in comparison to everyone else, or against some kind of absolute standard (in other words, do you want your deeds and behavior to be assessed for what they are, or “graded on a curve”)?
– What do you think “walking with God” means?
God speaks to Noah, and tells him to make an ark — that’s a boat — with lots of compartments, and to make sure it’s waterproof. God says that a flood is coming, to destroy everything on the face of the earth, and tells Noah to bring his family and a male and female of every living creature into the ark, and food for them all to eat. Noah did what God commanded. The conversation between Noah and God is one-sided: Noah doesn’t speak or respond, he just does what he’s told to do (unlike later figures in the Torah such as Abraham and Moses).
– What’s your reaction to Noah’s silence? If you had been Noah, would you have been silent, too? If you had spoken to God, what would you have said?
– Should Noah have objected to God’s plan?
So the flood takes place. It rains, and rains, and rains, for forty days and forty nights, and every person and animal not in the ark die in the flood. And then Noah and his family and that big boat full of animals have to wait months until the land dries and God tells them it’s safe to leave the ark. Noah sends various birds out to see if the land is dry: One just circles the ark, one returns with a branch in its mouth, and one finally doesn’t return, a signal that the land is inhabitable again. All together, it’s been about a year since they all boarded the ark.
– Not long ago, we were all stuck someplace without being able to go out and do what we’d like? How did that fee to you? Is there anything about it you miss?
– If you had been on the ark, how would you have occupied your time?
– What would have been the worst part of being on the ark for a year? And might there have been anything you could have liked or enjoyed?
God makes a promise: That God will never again flood the earth and destroy everything. And while the 10 Commandments and all the mitzvot don’t come until much later in the Torah, God does set out a few basic rules, including not to murder. God says that, when it rains, there will be a rainbow in the clouds, and that the rainbow will cause God to remember not to flood the earth again.
– What do you think when you see a rainbow?
– Think about ancient times, before science, before we understood and could forecast the weather: What would be the value of this story about God promising never to kill everything in a flood? Why might this have been comforting?
Noah, having been a master boat captain and zookeeper, now becomes a “master of the soil” and plants a vineyard. He grows grapes, and makes wine, and is embarrassed when he gets drunk. And over time, after many generations, there are lots of people again. And then we have one more story: The people — who all lived in one place and spoke one language — decide to build a great city for themselves, with a tower that goes all the way up to heaven. God decides to stop this self-serving activity by creating many languages, all of a sudden, so the people could not cooperate, and they scatter to different places on the earth.
– Again, thinking about before we had science, and knew about time and evolution, what might have been the point of this story? What was it trying to explain to ancient people?
– Do you ever have trouble communicating with your family or teachers or friends — even though you speak the same language? Why is it sometimes hard to communicate?
– What can you and the people around you do to understand and hear one another? What can you do, and what can they do?
So we have stories in Parshat Noach that explain things that ancient people did not understand, just as the creation story did. But they also give us things to think about:
– When do we follow orders, like Noah did, and when do we respond and question?
– How do we cope with situations when we feel restricted and can’t do what we’d like to?
– And how do we communicate better — with people who don’t speak the same language, or people to whom we have trouble listening or who have trouble listening to us?
The Parshah concludes with all the generations of people who descended from Noah — including one person named Abram, who had a wife named Sarai, who settled in a land called Charan. But there’s a lot more to that story…starting next week!