The Real & The Ideal
Thoughts on Noah 2016
Click here to view as PDF
God blessed Noah and his sons shortly after they emerged from the ark, instructing them to “Be fruitful and multiply” (9:1). The initial words of this blessing are eerily reminiscent of the identical statement issued by God to Adam and Hava immediately following their creation (1:28). The story of Noah similarly concludes with a “Table of Nations” (10:1-32), which is again reminiscent of the genealogical list that follows the creation story (5:1-32). The vision of a “new creation,” crafted in the image of an initially failed one, thus emerges at the end of Parashat Noah.
Carefully examining the subsequent words of God’s respective blessings in each of these instances, however, reveals that the two “creations” are not quite as similar as perhaps expected. Consider the blessing to Adam and Hava: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it, and hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and every beast that crawls upon the earth” (1:28), and that to Noah and his sons: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. And the dread and fear of you shall be upon all the beasts of the field and all the fowl of the heavens, in all that crawls on the ground and in all the fish of the sea. In your hand they are given” (9:1-2). Whereas the “initial creation” described man’s future conquest and dominion of the world and its creatures, the “second creation” envisioned his intimidation of them.
The blessing to Adam and Hava continued: “Look, I have given you every seed-bearing plant on the face of all the earth and every tree that has fruit bearing seed, yours they will be for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and to all the fowl of the heavens and to all that crawls on the earth, which has the breath of life within it, the green plants for food” (1:29-30). Consider, again, the contrast to Noah and his sons: “All stirring things that are alive, yours shall be for food, like the green plants, I have given all to you” (9:3). Whereas Adam and Hava joined the animal kingdom in their permitted consumption of the land for nutrition, Noah and his sons were permitted consumption of the animals for their sustenance.
Why did God change His blessing and mission to man from the “first” to “second” creation?
Noticing this shift from the vegetarianism of Adam in Gan Eden to the permitted consumption of animal meat of Noah after the flood, several medieval scholars developed the notion of vegetarianism as a moral ideal. Their conception of this ideal lay not in a concern of the welfare of animals, but in the potential development of negative character traits (such as meanness and cruelty) latent in their slaughter and consumption. R. Avraham Yitzhak Kook similarly viewed vegetarianism as an ideal, yet cautioned against the adoption of vegetarianism as a norm of human conduct prior to the coming of Mashiah. While the heightened moral awareness of the messianic era will effectively return mankind to its original state in Gan Eden and appropriately restore a vegetarian norm, Rav Kook argued against its standard implementation during any prior period.
We might thus distinguish between the Torah’s depiction of the ideal in the “initial creation,” and its recognition of and concession to reality in the “second creation.” In the related words of Leon R. Kass: “The new world order takes human beings as they are, not as they might be.” An ideal world commissions man with its peaceful conquest and dominion; a realistic one acknowledges and accepts his intimidating force over nature.
Let us now consider the final statements of God in His blessing to Noah: “And from humankind, from every man’s brother, I will require human life. He who sheds human blood by humans his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made humankind” (9:5-6). God herein suggested a system of retributive justice: one who causes another’s death shall be put to death. Why was this concept only introduced now? Why weren’t Adam and Hava similarly warned and instructed following their creation?
Commenting on the sixth command that “You shall not murder,” the Zohar noted the unique ta’amim (cantorial signs) of the Torah reading, and exegetically suggested that the word “lo – you shall not” be conceptually separated from the subsequent word, “tirsah – murder.” The Zohar thus comments, “Had the ta’am not separated (between the two words) there would have been no remedy for the world, for it would have been forbidden to put any soul to death – even one who transgressed the Torah…” Though the Torah in many instances explicitly sanctions penalty by death for various transgressions, this passage is perhaps hinting at an ideal existence wherein causing another’s death would not exist under any circumstances. It is an existence which must remain an abstract ideal, as the realistic existence of civility in this world is dependent upon man’s fear of punishment for his actions.
The death punishment for causing the death of another was thus inappropriate for the “ideal vision” of the initial creation. It was instead introduced after the creation and existence of the “real world” that followed the flood.
This difference between Adam and Noah is perhaps hinted at by Rashi in two separate midrashic statements that he mentioned in his commentary to the Torah. Defining the rationale for Noah’s name, Rashi (5:29) cited from the Midrash: “Until Noah appeared they did not have implements for plowing, and he devised such implements for them.” Noah’s practical invention of the plow stands in stark distinction to Adam’s method for growth of crops, as explained by Rashi: “When Adam came and realized that they [the rain] are a necessity for the world, he prayed for them and they came down and the trees and types of vegetation sprouted.” Whereas Adam’s “ideal existence” sprouted seeds by means of prayer to God, Noah’s “practical existence” necessitated the invention and usage of the plow.
The Torah’s depiction of an “ideal creation” which could not be sustained remains an aspiration. Similar to the prophets’ description of the days of Mashiah, the initial creation reminds us of “what it ought to be like,” and sets an appropriate goal for accomplishment. Steven Schwartzschild thus commented on yemot ha-Mashiah: “When men ask themselves how to behave or, indeed, what the standards are to be of their proper behavior, the Messianic end defines the means by which that end can and is to be attained.” His comments ring equally true regarding our apprehension of the initial creation era.
Though our existence in this world is dictated by the realistic norms created in the aftermath of the flood, we must nonetheless aspire for the realization of the ideals reflected in the history of Gan Eden and the future of yemot ha-mashiah.
See, e.g. Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York, 1966), pg. 56. This vision is further sharpened by the recent scholarly demonstration of a consistent parallelism between the flood narrative in Noah and that of creation in Bereshit. See R. Yitzchak Etshalom’s Between the Lines of the Bible vol. I (Jerusalem 2015), pg. 60-62, and R. David Forhman’s videos at: www.alephbeta.org/course/view/noah-the-flood-and-the-rainbow.