Sacred inheritance for humankind

Rabbi Dale Schreiber, rabbinic chaplain at Barnes Jewish


We are hardly through the wonder of creation when the biblical narrative tells us that creation had failed to live up to its potential.  The fundamental nature of human life remained at a bestial level.  It was a failed experiment requiring a new paradigm.  Ten generations after Adam and Eve woke to a life of wandering about in the wildness of a newly birthed earth, Noah and his family are designated as the prototype for a renewed creation.  The world is thoroughly washed clean as the heavens and the earth burst apart.

The Jewish narrative of a massive, cataclysmic, typhoon-like flood is one of many global flood myths on record that share various story elements with the biblical account.  Thirty-two of them have vessels allowing for survival. Twenty-four spare the animals.  All of them indicate human survivors.

Noah is identified as the first tzaddik, or righteous person in Torah.  He is also referenced as a tamim just as Abraham is in the next weekly installment.  The reference to this word tamim implies a potential in human behavior to meet standards of excellence in relationship with God, the earth, and each other.  

Earlier commentators go to some length to discount Noah’s righteousness in comparing him to Abraham who argued against the destruction of an immoral city lest the good be swept away with the evil.  There are, however, many rabbinic voices who invite us to look closely at what Noah represents in the world.  

The Slonimer Rebbe (R. Shalom Noach Barzovsky) who lived during the upheavals of the 20th century taught — sometimes it may already be too late for rebuking and criticizing others to be effective. When the polarizing energies of hate, fear, violence, and arrogance contaminate the entire world, the only remedy left may be the way of the tzaddik.   There is a favorable tradition that says, if Noah was righteous in his own time which was filled with chaos and corrupted values, how much more righteous could he have achieved in a more orderly and civilized era?  

The text says that Noah found favor in God’s eyes.  Reversing the two letters of Noah’s name in Hebrew yields the word chein — meaning kindness.  The favor Noah finds in God’s eyes is interpreted as his potential to manifest goodness through the world as a tzaddik.  Because of this favorable view from the top, Noah and his offspring merit a covenant of limits, a contract which draws humankind into partnership with creation.  The numerology (gemmatria) of Noah’s name is 58 which is also the numerology for the Hebrew word ‘balance’.  Noah was able to maintain a spiritual anchor during a totally incomprehensible time.  

What universal attributes for humankind does Noah represent for twenty-first century readers?   What is the way of the tzaddik necessary to reverse the many crises gripping our time?  A Jewish response might be following the mitzvot as the way of the tzaddik.  But Noah wasn’t Jewish.  He represents universal aspects of all creation and is a sacred inheritance for all of us who live on the planet.

Is there a path of enlightenment that all can aspire to?  The Talmud references the Noahide Covenant or Noahide Laws as the basis of a universal form of righteousness.  For the rabbis the seven rules of human conduct allowed a resident alien or a foreigner to cohabitate in a new community as a good partner.  In the aftermath of the great flood, Noah and his line are resident aliens in a new world, which is repopulated, diversified, and again exhibits the excessively destructive nature in humankind.  Noah was a human being who walked with God.  The behavior that allows anyone to be on that path is spelled out in various sources.  They are minimums to maintain a coherent social society; don’t murder; don’t steal people, things, ideas, time, or honor; do not succumb to the temptations of false gods; seek the source of unity in your belief systems that allows for diversity and honor The Name; resist the bestial, immoral impulses and do not rape, emasculate, mutilate, practice incest or infidelity; establish honest, fair, and effective courts; and finally, don’t eat an animal that is still living.

Each and every human being, community, and nation has the potential to meet the minimum expectations on the path to perfecting our world.  In the words of my teacher Rabbi Moshe Aharon Ladizhner:

May we all be Noah in the most challenging times.

May we maintain balance through appropriate praise and self-criticism

May our spiritual beauty be an infusion for maintaining our world

May we transform ourselves into vessels of refuge that can weather any storm.  Amen