The Holiness of Where We Are: Noah
Noah: Genesis 6:9-11:32
The two main events of Parashat Noach draw our attention to the sacredness of Place (one of God’s names in Jewish tradition). Both the Flood and the Tower of Babel are stories about God’s response to the disconnect that can occur when we seek to separate ourselves from earth and its creatures by building cities and fortifications.
At the end of the previous portion, the descendants of Cain built for themselves a city (Gen. 4:17-24). In the process, they grew not only disconnected from God, but also increasingly arrogant. They created for themselves a high-culture society, and achieved unrivaled military might by making iron weapons. They boasted that they had become more powerful than God who, ultimately, wiped them out with a flood.
But only a few generations after the waters have receded, humans in this week’s parashah are building yet another city. Just like Cain’s descendants, the post-flood humans build a military fortress, this time with a high tower. Many commentators have claimed that the tower was reaching to heaven because mankind wanted to assert autonomy and challenge God, but Torah never speaks of heaven as being the place of God’s dwelling, only as God’s creation. The insistence on building “a tower that reaches the sky” (Gen. 11:4), stresses the highly fortified nature and impregnability of the city. Humanity, finding strength, security, and comfort living together in one small place, hunkers down, closes itself off from the world, and disconnects itself from the earth and from God. But despite their best efforts, God intervenes and scatters people all over the earth anyway, and in so doing multiplies their languages.
Why were the cities in Torah seen as the center of evil and sin? Because they symbolized mankind’s resistance to fulfilling the purpose for which we were created. We read: “God then said to [Adam], ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and tame it’” (Gen. 1:28). This injunction is repeated in this week’s portion: “God then blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply; and fill the earth’” (Gen 9:1). We are to fill the earth, to be scattered everywhere; not to be concentrated in one place, closed off from the natural world. In fact, we are to immerse ourselves in nature: “So the Eternal One sent [Adam and Eve] away from the Garden of Eden, to work the soil from which they have been taken” (Gen. 3:23). The word for “work” in this verse is “la-avod” which, in Hebrew, refers to sacred work, to prayer and worship, to spiritual work as much as physical work. Thus humanity’s purpose is to be the sacred workers, the caretakers, the stewards of this hallowed earth. Through the sacred work of our hands the earth fulfills its purpose of bringing forth its bounty. Despite what many interpreters have claimed, the Torah does not assert that the earth is here to serve us and our needs; it rather posits that we are of the earth, bound to live in a harmonious and sacred relationship with it.
In recognition of the sacred dimension of Place, let us rededicate ourselves to an earth-friendly ethic and lifestyle. May we grow ever more aware of the holiness of both who we are and where we are. May we glimpse the face of the Divine in all we see, and work toward restoring balance to our ecosystem before the flood submerges us again.