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The Story of Noah: A Modern Midrash

Barak Gale and Mark X. Jacobs, Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life

And God spoke to Noah, and to his children, saying: “Behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you, and with every living creature that is with you, of the birds, of the cattle, and of every wild animal of the earth with you” (Genesis 9:9).

A modern Midrash: Noah had all manner of living things aboard the ark and was ready for the great Mabul, the great flood. Well, almost all manner of living things. The lower decks were dark and damp and supported life from the many caves in the land, as well as the plants and creatures found in the world’s great rainforests. Noah recognized the medicinal importance of many of these lower forms of life.

The upper decks supported life from the grasslands, the wetlands, and the forests. Noah understood the importance of the grasses for his domestic animals as well as for the wildlife he enjoyed watching while on safari. And he knew the birds nourished themselves in the wetlands, and the importance of forests as shelter for many creatures. Noah greatly admired the ancient redwood trees and the gnarled oaks and olive trees, which evoked the timelessness and wisdom of their Creator.

Noah admired the ark, full of the diversity of God’s creations tenaciously clinging to its decks for their very existence. Trees full of the song of birds surrounded by soft meadow grasses. Alpine flowers, a palate of brilliant colors. Timid mammals hiding from the light amidst the thick greenery of the lower decks.

Noah thought he had done pretty well in gathering male and female birds, cattle, wild creatures, and the creeping things of the earth. Yet surely the Creator did not require every creeping thing of its kind to be saved.

Furthermore, the last part of God’s instructions – to take all food that is eaten by the creatures – could not mean taking all plant life after its kind aboard the ark. Surely this was a bit obsessive.

Noah was ready to plotz! The ark was already titanic; Noah was exhausted and exasperated. He turned to God and said, “Dai k’var! Enough already! My body aches, my hands are blistered, my knees are bloody – all from building this gigantic ark and then searching for all the creatures that reside in every damp corner and atop every high place on earth. And then schlepping it all back to ark. Please, God, can’t we leave the schmutz out the ark. We just don’t need every last one of your whims aboard the ark!”

And God, striving to remain patient with his dutiful servant, replied to Noah, “There is no schmutz in my creation, Noah. There is no chometz to be swept away. Sh’ma! Listen to the words of the holy Rav Kook, who far in the future will serve as a special people’s spiritual guide as they return after a long exile to the land that I will give them:

‘Everything is full of riches and greatness, everything aspires to ascend, to be purified and elevated. Everything recites a song, offers praise, magnifies, exalts; everything builds, serves, perfects, elevates, aspires to unite and to be integrated. When we contemplate the physical creation as a whole, we realize that it is all one organism, that the parts are linked in varying gradations to each other. We see this in every plant, in every living being,’ Rav Kook will teach.

Should you not preserve and protect each element of My creation in the ark, the wholeness Rav. Kook describes will be shattered. Rav Kook’s world will be forever broken, his inheritance impoverished.

Noah, listen b’chol levavecha, b’chol nafshecha, b’chol me-odecha – with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your might.”

Later that day, Noah went to his favorite spot alongside a creek, sheltered by giant cedars. He sat on a rock, closed his eyes, and listened to the bubbling water. Soon, a still, small voice invited him to look about.

He opened his eyes to gaze at the miraculous diversity of life around him, hearing each tree, each rock, each spider, each bird singing its song of praise to the Creator. The symphony of life overwhelmed Noah as he heard the words to be spoken by God to Job echo in his mind: “Ask the beasts, and they will teach you. The birds of the sky, they will tell you. Speak to the earth, and it will teach you. The fish of the sea, they will inform you.”

And then Noah got it. All the creatures, all of them, even those he considered schmutz, belonged with him in the ark, and he belonged to them. And he prayed the words of Isaiah, the prophet to be: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Eternal One, the whole world is full of the Eternal’s glory.”

As Noah stood up to leave the place of his revelation, the words of a distant descendant Jacob came to his heart: “The Eternal One was here in this place, in all these myriad creations, and I, I did not know.” I was too stuck in my own aches and pains, Noah thought, too focused on timetables and costs and expediency to understand the world around me.

On that day, Noah made a solemn promise. Muchrach li, he said, it is incumbent upon me to protect all of God’s creation. For there is no one else.

On that day, creation smiled.

Noah gathered all of the rest of the creatures, plants and animals alike, bugs and mosses and toads and mushrooms – all of the strands of the web of life he had previously thought of as schmutz – and placed them in the ark for safe passage to the other side of the rainbow covenant.

And after the rains had come and gone, God set the rainbow in the sky as a sign of the Eternal’s covenant with all creatures never again to flood the earth and jeopardize the existence of life: “Behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you, and with every living creature that is with you, of the birds, of the cattle, and of every wild animal of the earth with you...”

And after God finished announcing the covenant, God said, “And one last thing, Noah. You shall teach reverence for all of life and the human responsibility to fulfill My covenant with all of creation diligently to your children, and to your children’s children.”

So, here we are today, the children of the children of the children …

What is it that we can do to fulfill God’s teaching to Noah that we must have reverence for all of life?

Rabbi Levi said: For twelve months, Noah and his sons did not sleep, for they were compelled to feed the animals, beasts, and birds. Rabbi Akiva said: Even branches for elephants and glass shards for ostriches they brought aboard by hand in order to feed them. Some animals eat at two o’clock at night, while others eat at three. Thus, you may deduce that they never slept. Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Yosi the Galilean: One time, Noah was late in feeding the lion. Therefore, the lion mauled him, and he came away limping. [Midrash Tanhumah, approximately 9th century]

Another version: Abraham once asked Malkhizedek (thought to be Noah’s son, Shem), “How did you manage to leave the ark [what merit did you possess at that time of Divine judgment]?” Malkhizedek replied, “We performed charitable acts.” [Abraham] asked, “What charity could you give? Because only Noah and his family were there, upon whom could you bestow charity?” He replied, “We gave charity to the animals, beasts, and birds. We did not sleep at night, but served food to each creature. Once we were late, and my father came away injured.”
At this, Abraham declared, “Had they not performed charity to the animals, beasts, and birds, they would not have come forth from the ark – and because they were once a bit late, they were punished. Thus, how much more so should we act charitably toward human beings, who are created in the form of angels.” [Midrash Tehillim on Psalms 37:6]

Sun, April 21 2024 13 Nisan 5784