Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
A series of slight textual variations appear in the flow of the Noach story.
The Torah describes the entry of Noach’s family into the ark by stating, “Noach and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark, because of the waters of the flood.”
When God commands Noach to exit the ark after the flood has ended He states, “Go out from the ark: you and your wife and your sons and your sons’ wives with you.”
Finally, when Noach actually leaves the ark, the text reads as follows: “And Noach went out and his sons and his wife, and his sons’ wives with him.”
Why is the Torah inconsistent in its description of the order of entry into and exit from the ark? Why is it that when Noach enters the ark, husbands and wives are listed separately; when God commands the departure from the ark, husbands and wives are listed together; and, finally, when the actual departure from the ark takes place, husbands and wives are again listed separately?
These seemingly unimportant variations serve as a reminder that, when it comes to the Torah, nothing should be taken for granted. Each subtle nuance of the text carries significant lessons and ideas which are too easily missed in a less than careful reading.
Commenting on the separation of the men and women as Noach’s family enters the ark, Rashi immediately states, “The men separately, and the women separately: marital relations were prohibited during a time when the world was engulfed in sorrow and tragedy.”
It would have been totally inappropriate, the Torah hints, for Noach and his family to carry on life as normal, complete with the pleasures of intimate relations, at a time when destruction literally rained down upon the world. In spite of the inevitability of the flood, and in spite of the unimaginable evil that caused it, Noach and his family members are forbidden to ignore the pain and suffering outside the ark. The Torah indeed often indicates (as it does here through nuance) that it is immoral for man to live in a vacuum. We are forbidden to ignore the pain and suffering of others.
We can now also understand why God switches the familial order when He instructs Noach’s family to exit the ark at the end of the flood: “You and your wife, and your sons and their wives,” God commands Noach, “men and women together.” The flood is over. Rebuilding civilization and repopulating the world have become the order of the day. The resumption of family relations is not only a right, God states, but an obligation.
At this point, however, the logical pattern seems to break down.
The Torah indicates that as Noach’s family departs the ark, men and women remain separate, in apparent defiance of God’s wishes. Why is this gender separation consciously maintained by Noach’s family even now that the flood has ended?
This apparent problem actually provides a key to the final phases of Noach’s story. We must, however, read the story in human terms.
Imagine the scene of total devastation that greets the members of Noach’s family as they begin to exit the ark. How deep their despair must have been and how overwhelming their sense of aloneness. In the face of such tragedy and destruction how can one possibly trust in the future? How can one even contemplate the thought of rebuilding, of beginning again?
Noach and his children are paralyzed by the scene before them. They trust neither God nor themselves. They do not believe that they can be successful in building a new world; and they are unable to imagine the benevolent protection of a God Who could visit such destruction upon mankind.
Men and women leave the ark separately, because they simply cannot contemplate the future.
A careful reading of the continuing text shows that God feels compelled to respond in a number of ways:
He promises that He will never again curse the earth because of man’s actions.
He blesses Noach and his sons and commands them, not once but twice, to be fruitful and to multiply.
He constructs and commands a series of laws, establishing a basic morality for mankind. Hopefully, these laws will ensure that the kind of evil that characterized the generation of the flood will never again mark civilization.
He establishes a visible covenant with mankind, symbolized by the rainbow, and promises that He will remember that covenant and never again destroy the world through flood.
God directly responds to the paralysis Noach and his family are experiencing. He urges, encourages and cajoles them to move beyond the moment, to realize that the future can and must be built.
Everything hinges upon how Noach and his family respond at this juncture. The world that God intends to create will depend on this last human remnant’s ability to move forward.
The results are mixed. On the one hand, civilization continues. Noach’s children have children, and the world is populated in the aftermath of the flood.
On the other hand, on a personal level, Noach never moves past the tragedy of the world’s destruction. The text chronicles his spiritual descent as he plants a vineyard, drinks from its wine and falls into a drunken stupor. Unable to face what the world has become, Noach apparently escapes in the only way that he can.
The man who has saved the world at God’s command is transformed into a tragic figure right before our eyes.
Points to Ponder
Noach’s struggle and failure in the aftermath of the flood should move us to consider the spiritual heroism of a generation of our own time.
In the aftermath of World War ii, survivors of the Shoah emerged, one by one, from ghettos, concentration camps, forests and other places of hiding, to face a world similar to Noach’s after the flood. These survivors had witnessed unspeakable cruelty and horror. Their world had been totally destroyed, their families murdered.
Who could have blamed these survivors had they given up on the world? Who would have called them to task had they said, “We have lost faith: lost faith in the world, in our God, even in ourselves.”
How understandable it would have been had they been paralyzed, like Noach, unable to continue.
Almost to a one, however, that was not their response. With unimaginable strength and indomitable spirit, these survivors rebuilt their worlds. They married, had children and grandchildren, and successfully created professions and careers. They refused to succumb to hatred and bitterness, all the while courageously living decent, moral lives.
The contributions made by this generation to the Jewish community at large, and to the State of Israel, in particular, are immeasurable; and the families that they built, in the aftermath of their own indescribable personal tragedies, will continue to shape the story of our people for generations to come.
Where Noach failed, they succeeded.