Sunday, November 3, 2019

Parashat Noah: Separation & Unity

Separation & Unity
Thoughts on Parashat Noah 2019
Click here to view as PDF
The Torah described Noah’s actions upon descending from the ark:
And Noah built an altar to God and he took from every clean cattle and every clean fowl and offered burnt offerings on the altar. (Bereshit 8:20)
And God’s response:
And God smelled the fragrant odor (re’ah ha-nihoah) and God said in His heart: “I will not again damn the soil on humankinds score…And I will not again strike down all living things as I did. (8:21)
God’s determination appears to be inspired by Noah’s korbanot. His decision to spare the future of humankind and all living things wasn’t decided by the sheer devastation of the flood, but by Noah’s sacrifices. What was the significance of those korbanot?

“Creation is the making of separated things,” stated the political philosopher Leo Strauss, upon counting five explicit and ten implicit mentions of havdalah – “separation” – in the first chapter of Bereshit.[1] Indeed, Ramban interpreted the Torah’s first pasuk, “At the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” as a reference to God’s initial creation of a single entity of formless matter.[2] God’s subsequent actions during the six days of creation, then, gave form to that matter through a series of deliberate acts of separation.

Consider God’s initial actions in Creation: Light was separated from darkness (1:3-4), the “upper and lower waters” were separated from one another (6-7), land and water were separated (9-10), and the heavenly bodies were purposed to separate between day and night (14-18). Leon Kass thus summarized: “Creation is the bringing of order out of chaos largely through acts of separation, division, distinction.”[3]

Why did God bring forth all of these separations? To create a habitable space for humankind. After all, a world of absolute darkness and water leaves no place for man. It is through the space that was created “in between” – the rays of light, air space and land – that we find our place in this world.

But what is the role of humankind in this “separated space”? I believe, perhaps paradoxically, that it is to seek a reunification.  Consider the fact that our very creation began in a state of unity between “upper” and “lower” realms of existence – crafted from “the dust of the earth,” God breathed into Adam the “breath of life” (2:7).[4] The Hakhamim similarly suggested that the “mist” which “ascended from the earth” (2:6) immediately prior to his creation was from the clouds and was purposed to “saturate the soil” from which he was created.[5] It was the water of the “upper worlds,” then, that mixed with the “lower world” soil to create a human being.[6]

Indeed, immediately after Hava’s separation from Adam – “And God built the rib He had taken from Adam into a woman” (2:22), she was led to a natural unity with him – “Therefore does man leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife and they become one flesh” (2:24). The Hakhamim furthermore pointed to humankind’s task to seek unity in existence in their explanation of a rather cryptic pasuk, “For God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to work the soil.” Rashi explained:
And what is the reason that “He had not sent rain?” Because “there was no man to work the soil”…When Adam came and realized that they are a necessity for the world, he prayed for them and they came down, and the trees and types of vegetation sprouted.[7]
God withheld the downpouring of the “upper world” rains until the creation of a human being. It was the human’s destiny to establish a unity between his “lower” world and that of above.

But the flood of Parashat Noah effectively “turned back the clock” of creation, rendering the world uninhabitable by collapsing the natural separation onto itself. The “upper” and “lower” waters crashed again into one another – “The springs of the great deep were split open and the storehouses of the heavens opened up” (6:11), and the waters covered the mountains (7:19), as an effective “un-creation” took place in a world of “chaotic unity.”[8] Noah’s subsequent emergence from the ark into a “recreated” world of separation, then, renewed humanity’s mission of unity.

And Noah built an altar to God and he took from every clean cattle and every clean fowl and offered burnt offerings on the altar. (8:20)

R. Ezra Bick commented, in a different context: “If sacrificing an animal is characterized as turning the flesh into smoke, the inner meaning of this action is turning the physical into the spiritual…the korban creates an actual metaphysical link by bridging the gap, by turning the physical into the spiritual.”[9] Noah’s decision to bring forth a korban at that time touched on the very core of his existential mission. The divinely “fragrant odor” produced by his sacrifice represented the necessary bridge between the material flesh of this world with the spiritual essence of the world above. It was his immediate step in the appropriate direction of unity – his ultimate destiny – that inspired God’s will to secure the future of humankind and all living beings.

The call to unify cries out to us on a constant basis in our own lives of compartmentalization. And it is only realized when we successfully overlap the ideals of the various realms of our lives. We are commanded, for example, to extend the time of kedushah at the synagogue to our everyday activities. The commitment to truth and honesty in our households must likewise be matched in our dealings at the workplace. And a strict adherence to halakhah may not be reserved for specific times or places, but rather exist as a part of our very identity. Unity is found when we infuse the seemingly disparate domains of our lives with the common essence of sanctity and truth.

[1] Leo Strauss, On the Interpretation of Genesis, L’Homme 1981 (21:1), pg. 9.
[2] Commentary of Ramban to Bereshit 1:1 (s.v. bereshit).
[3] Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago, IL, 2006), pg. 32.
[4] See Bereshit Rabah 12.8. See, as well, R. Hayim of Volozhin’s Nefesh HaHayim 1.5 (s.v. hagah).
[5] Commentary of Rashi ad. loc., s.v. ve-ed.
[6] As noted by R. Moshe Shapira, Afikei Mayim: Sukkot ed. R. Reuven M. Shmeltzer (Jerusalem, IS, 2012), pg. 243.
[7] Commentary of Rashi to Bereshit 2:5 s.v. ki.
[8] The Hakhamim likewise deduced that over the course of the flood there was no distinction between day and night (Commentary of Rashi to Bereshit 8:22, s.v. ve-yom).  
[9] R. Ezra Bick, “The Significance of Haktarah,” Torah MiEtzion: VaYikra (New Milford, CT, 2014), pg. 32-33.