Photo Credit: Jewish Press

The Torah begins the story of Noach with the words “Eleh toldos – these are the generations of Noach” (Bereishis 6:9), not “Ve’eleh toldos – and these…” This is because with Noach, a new world was created which had no connection to the previous world which was destroyed. The new world was to be very different from the old. Most significantly, there was now a divine guarantee that it would never be destroyed by flood again. In this new world, the human being would not live as long. His years would steadily decline from close to 1,000 to 70. His food would change from vegetables to meat. The only surviving connection to the old world was Noach and those living creatures that were saved with him.

Es Ha’elokim hishalech Noach – Noach walked with G-d.” The word Elokim denotes justice, whereas the word Hashem denotes mercy. Noach’s relationship with G-d was a contractual one. “I do what You say, and You give me what You promised.” That is the meaning of walking with G-d.


Avraham’s relationship with G-d was different. It was defined by the words “Hishalech lefonei veheyeh tamim – walk before me and be perfect” (17:1). Avraham walked ahead of G-d. He did G-d’s bidding even if reward was not immediately forthcoming. He understood that the word Hashem means Hayah, Hoveh Veyiheyeh – that G-d is timeless and eternal. He appreciated that unlike the name Elokim, which denotes reward and punishment in one’s own lifetime, there is no clock watching when it comes to reward from Hashem. Avraham gave G-d credit. He was prepared to invest in his belief in G-d and wait indefinitely for the returns on his investment.

Vatishaches ha’aretz lifnei Ha’elokim vatimalei ha’aretz chamas – and the earth was corrupt before G-d and filled with crime” (6:11). The word “Vatishaches” refers to idolatry and sexual immorality. The word “chamas” means theft and lawlessness. Although modern society does not consider idolatry and sexual immorality crimes when indulged in consensually, G-d foresees that they lead to crime. Stealing the heart of someone else’s wife is a short step from stealing property from, or even murdering anyone who gets in the way of one’s rampant desires.

Noach’s ark is compared to the Torah which protects its adherents from the wrath of the wicked who are compared to stormy waters, “Veharesha’im kayam nigrash – but the wicked are like the troubled sea” (Yeshayahu 57:20). But the Jews who are loyal to his Torah are compared to “chol hayam,” the sand of the sea (Bereishis 22:17) that fells the waves and protects the land from their invasion.

Vekafarta osa mibayis umibachutz bakofer – and cover the ark inside and out with pitch” (6:14). The word “kofer,” which means ill-smelling pitch, is not used when describing the pitch applied to the basket in which Moshe was placed. The word for pitch used there is “zefes.” Furthermore, as Rashi relates, Moshe’s basket had clay on the inside and pitch on the outside, so that he would not inhale the pungent odor of the pitch. Even though the same pitch was used for the ark as was used for the basket, the Torah uses the word “kofer” when describing the ark and “zefes” when describing Moshe’s basket, even though both words mean pitch. Why use different words for the same thing?

The word kofer has a second meaning derived from the word kaparah, which means atonement. As we have explained, Noach’s relationship with G-d was not ideal. It was not based on trust, but on the love of reward and the fear of punishment. That was not what G-d was looking for. Reward and punishment are the lowest form of belief. Love and trust are the highest. It is true that Noach found favor in G-d’s eyes, (the word Noach read backwards spells “chen”), and that he had the potential to rise to the level of Avraham after him. But at the time of the flood, he had not reached that level. That is why he procrastinated when G-d ordered him to enter the ark seven days before the flood (7:10 and 13) and only did so “mipnei mei ha’mabul,” when the waters forced him in, (Rashi to 7:7 ). For this lack of faith, as well as his reproachable conduct later in planting a vineyard (9:20), Noach required atonement. Atonement is achieved through suffering. So, Noach had to suffer the pungent odor of the pitch, which Moshe did not, and he had to suffer sleepless nights and incur injuries when feeding the animals (see Rashi to 7:23). That is the meaning of “Vayisha’er ach Noach – only Noach survived” (7:23.) The word “ach” demonstrates that Noach was physically diminished by his suffering.

In the end, it was not the ark on which Noach toiled for 120 days that saved him. The gushing waters rendered him powerless to close its doors. It took G-d’s direct intervention to achieve that: “Vayisgor Hashem Ba’ado – and G-d shut him in” (7:16). If G-d Himself was going to intervene anyway to save Noach, why did He task him with the huge undertaking of building the ark? The answer is that G-d intervenes with miracles only when one has done all that is humanly possible to save oneself. The prime example of this is again the story of Moshe in the basket. When the daughter of Pharaoh discovered Moshe hidden in the river, she stretched out her hand as far as she was physically able to retrieve him, but he was still out of her reach. The Talmud tells us (Sotah 12b) that at that point, G-d miraculously extended her arm further to enable her to draw him from the water.

On the first of the month of Sivan, after 365 days, during which it rained for 175 and the waters kept on rising for another 150 days (7:24), “Vayizkor Elokim es Noach – G-d remembered Noach,” and made the waters recede. What was it that G-d remembered? He remembered that the first of Sivan was to be a special day. That would be the day when the Jews would encamp at Sinai in total peace with one another ready to accept the Torah, which would be given six days later, on the sixth of Sivan (Shemos 19:1). After all, the world was created for the Torah. This vision of peace and acceptance in the future is what turned the tides of destruction.

Once the waters had receded low enough for the tops of the mountains to be visible, Noach sent out the dove to test the dry land. It came back the second time holding an olive branch in its beak which it had plucked off a tree, “Vehineh alei zayis taraf befihah” (Bereishia 8:11). Rashi explains that the word taraf is the same as chataf, which means that the olive branch was grabbed on the fly. The dove told Noach that it preferred the taste of the food that it had sought out itself with G-d’s help, even though it tasted bitter, over the food provided by Noach in the ark, even though it tasted sweet. To be as free as a bird, dependent only on G-d, is sweeter than to be fed as a servant dependent on man.

The dove’s message to us is that even though we sow and plough and reap our produce, it is not our efforts that put food on the table. It all comes from G-d, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz. That is the why the word taraf is used. Ultimately, we are no different than the animal that finds its food in the wild, as Mishlei tells us (30:8) “Hatrifeini lechem chuki – supply me with my daily bread.”

The rainbow that G-d suspended in the sky to remind Him of His promise never to engulf the world in another flood is a symbol of restraint. Its seven colors begin with red which symbolizes sin. The red of sin which faces the heavens, reminds G-d to count to seven before He reacts. There should be some distance placed between our sin and G-d’s reaction, to give us time to repent and for G-d to cool His anger. During this time we hope He will convert his wrath into mercy, similar to the mercy He showed Yishmael when he was placed by Hagar “Harchek kemetachavey keshes,” a bow’s shot away (21:16). Furthermore, the rainbow is in the shape of an inverted bow aimed at the heavens to remind G-d that if He shoots in haste, He too will suffer, because when his people hurt, G-d hurts too, as it says, “Imo Anochi betzarah,” G-d feels our pain (Tehillim 91:15).


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Raphael Grunfeld received semicha in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Rav Dovid Feinstein. A partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, Rabbi Grunfeld is the author of “Ner Eyal: A Guide to Seder Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim, Taharot and Zerayim” and “Ner Eyal: A Guide to the Laws of Shabbat and Festivals in Seder Moed.” Questions for the author can be sent to [email protected].