Friday, October 27, 2006

Noach - Did the Animals Fit?

When G-d created Adam, He gave him a tour of all the trees of the Garden of Eden and then said to him: “See how beautiful and praiseworthy My work is? Everything I created, I created for you! See to it that you don’t mess up and destroy My world.” (Midrash Kohelet 7:13)
That was the original mandate, but man sure does mess things up. The sins of Adam, Eve and their son Cain were just the beginning of the great decline. By the end of parshat Bereishit, the early days of utopia in the Garden are long forgotten. The world is a very different place now – cruel, corrupt and evil. G-d runs out of patience and dooms His creations to destruction by flood. Fortunately, Noach found favor in G-d’s eyes, so He tips him off.
"Make yourself an ark of cedar wood… This is how you should construct it: The ark’s length shall be 300 cubits, its width 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits…" (Genesis 6:14,15)
Of course, if G-d is going to save humanity then animal life must also be saved:
"From all life, all flesh, bring two of each kind into the ark to live with you – male and female. From each separate species of bird, from each separate species of livestock and from each separate species of live animals, bring to yourself two of each kind to live. Take with you all the food that will be eaten…" (Ibid 6:19)
There seems to be a fundamental flaw in this story. How are all the animals going to fit in the ark? Not to mention all the necessary food and drinking water! According to the dimensions outlined by G-d, the floor plan of the ark is 15,000 square cubits, giving its three decks a maximum total of @70,000 sq feet. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) exacerbates the problem by limiting the animals to the second floor. Is this really enough room?
Christians have long grappled with this problem. “Noah's Ark: A Feasibility Study” by John Woodmorappe (298pgs!), has revived the discussion. The author makes an impressive attempt at explaining how so many animals could fit and survive inside the ark. While his conclusions are debatable, it doesn’t matter much; we Jews are quite comfortable taking a different approach. Let us read the words of the Ramban (Spain, 1194-1270):
"It is known that there are very many animals, and some of them are quite large, such as the elephant, the rhinoceros and the like… [With the addition of] the collected food for a full year for all of them, this ark cannot hold them, nor could ten more [arks] like it! Rather, this is a miracle – a small space containing a great deal."
Simple enough. It doesn’t take 298 pages to answer our question; like the flood itself, the ark was a miracle. But the miracle solution presents a new problem. The Ramban continues:
If so, [why not] just build a small boat and rely on the miracle?
It’s a great question. Why must Noach undertake such a massive project if G-d is anyhow going to be working a miracle here? The Ramban proposes two answers. Here’s a paraphrase:
· G-d wanted the ark to be immense in order to generate a buzz among the people of that generation. The ark makes headlines and people start considering the possibility of a flood… maybe they will repent.
· The ark had to be large in order to minimize the miracle. This is standard operating procedure for all biblical miracles: Man does his best and G-d does the rest.
Reading this Ramban, we get the sense that we have discovered the keys to the parsha. But to fully appreciate the Ramban’s second point we need to review the original mandate of mankind.
The very first thing said about man is this verse: “G-d took man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to service it and to protect it” (Genesis 2:15). In the language of the Midrash, G-d said to man: “See to it that you don’t mess up My world.” From the beginning, man was vested with an awesome responsibility – but he failed. His corruption led to the world’s destruction. While G-d is prepared to give man a second chance, G-d does not want a repeat performance. So He comes up with a new plan, a plan that will transform Noach into Adam 2.0.
As any good manager knows, the best way to get people to take responsibility is to give them ownership of the project. This is the idea behind the ark. Yes, G-d could have saved Noach and the animals some other way (cf. Rashi 6:14), but here was an opportunity to help man develop into his predestined role: the caretaker of the world’s spiritual and material wellbeing. Make man a partner in the salvation of life and you will end up with a very different kind of person, a person who cares.
Noach’s Ark was designed to be a place where man and G-d could work together in the creation of a better world. Noah is well aware that he can’t save the world himself, but he also knows that he has been delegated a very real and critical role. Recognition of this reality transforms man into a noble and responsible being – and it’s just as true for us today as it was for Noach then.


  1. Jonathan Gershater10/27/2006 5:38 PM

    Another great cyberspace step for the JSN

    You write that "a plan that will transform Noach into Adam 2.0." and later "Recognition of this reality transforms man into a noble and responsible being".

    I am curious, why much later in Tanach when faced with a similar instruction from G-d (save Nineveh), Jonah hides. Is Jonah only Adam 1.1 ? :)
    Is there any parallel between Jonah, Noach and other heroic saviours in Tanach?

  2. In addition to the task of building the ark, Noach and his family had to work virtually non-stop during that year feeding the animals. Again, it is not possible for a small family to feed so many animals, and yet they had to do a great effort and Hashem took care of the rest. I heard a drasha by Rabbi Levin several years ago where he explained that Noach and his family had to do tremendous chessed (by working extremely hard in the ark even though many miracles were operative at the time) in order to make up for the sorry state of humanity before the flood.

    Shavuah Tov!

    PS.- It would be nice to have the divrei Torah posted much earlier in the week so a good discussion can take place in this blog in advance of Shabbat; otherwise we'll always be talking about "last week's sedra".

  3. Yonah is sort of a reverse Noah, isn't he? Good point. They do make for a great contrast, especially when we consider the Midrash that faults Noah for not praying for his generation (as opposed to Avraham who prayed for Sodom & Gomorrah).
    I am unaware of Midrashic parallels, but don't let that stop you!

  4. I love R. Levin's insight!
    You're not the first to make the request for an earlier email. Now that we got the blog thing going, i'll make an extra effort. But let me tell you a story - Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik gave a weekly parsha class every sunday on the previous week's parsha. When one of his students made the simple request that he speak on the current parsha, he responded that if he did they would say over his torah that shabbos and forget it. Now they have to remember it for a full year!

  5. leo hmelnitsky10/29/2006 12:05 AM

    Yasher Koach Rabbi Gordon on the excellent idea and a tremendous commitment!

    Question: I've always been puzzled by the irrationality of Israelites’ disobedience and endless complaining upon leaving Egypt (despite Rabbi Felsen’s tireless explanations), and similarly I always find it difficult to understand the behaviour of Noah’s contemporaries.

    However, posuk 8:21 might hold a key to such unseemly conduct: “Hashem smelled the pleasing aroma, and Hashem said in His heart: "I will not continue to curse again the ground because of man, since the design of man’s heart is evil from his youth… [Artscroll]. (Alternatively: “since the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth).

    The commentary (Bereishis Rabbah 34:10, Maskil LeDavid) argue that “the drive to do evil enters man from the moment he is born”. The tendency to behave in such an inappropriate manner appears to be Hashem’s “design”. Arguably, the question and the responsibility shift from men to G-d, for having created us in such a way. But, WHY should HaKodesh Baruch Hu need to “put a stumbling block before the blind” – since the youth can potentially be considered “a blind” in many regards ?

    Many thanks.

  6. Shalom Leo!

    Does Hashem hold the young responsible for their behavior? No, not until Bar-Bat Mitzvah when they have the maturity to make the right choices. (At least they used to. Nowadays, people don't reach that stage before 45!)

    The point is that G-d balances our inclinations in order to grant us the unique privilege of bechirah, free will. Without a powerful negative drive in man to counterbalance the positive, we would be reduced to automatons, and our mitzvot would be meaningless.

  7. Rabbi, first of, thank you for a wonderful parsha!
    If you don't mind, I have a question I always wanted to ask. Probably it is somewhat more related to the first parsha than to the second, but still...

    I have a feeling that for some reason the later generations (including ours) are kept by G-d to a much higher moral standard than the earlier generations (generations of forefathers, Exodus generation, etc.). In the earlier generations G-d was constantly revealing Himself to the individuals and to the whole Nation. Kind of constantly stimulating the "free will" of His people. It didn't quite work even back then (there are plentiful examples of how He was not too happy with His people). So how/why does G-d expect it to work now?

    I'd greatly appreciate yours and other reader's thoughts on the subject.

    And thank you again!

  8. Thank you for providing this forum to learn from the questions and insights of others!

    I have a few comments and questions that combine the thoughts of Marcos and Leo. How is it that Noah, after caring for the animals aboard his ark with so much chesed, can then turn around and slaughter and burn them on an altar? Is this the first actual account in the Torah of man killing animals? Although it is commonly thought that Abel’s offering of the choicest of his flock (Gen 4:4) was a sacrifice, a close reading of the text shows that, unlike the case of Noah, no altar was constructed, the offering is not referred to as an olah, and there is no mention of G-d smelling an aroma. Could it be that Abel merely “set aside” the choicest of his flock for G-d without actually sacrificing it? (R. Yosef Kimchi and the Tur acknowledge that he did not build an altar because they were prohibited from slaughtering animals. Radak suggests that the animal was consumed by a heavenly fire—see Artscroll commentary). This would leave Noah as the first human in history to kill an animal.

    Indeed, it is immediately after Noah’s sacrifice that G-d states “the impulse of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” On this verse, R. Soloveitchik commented, “The new privilege granted man (i.e., eating meat) is a consequence of his evil intentions and is closely associated with the sacrificial act.” (The Emergence of Ethical Man, p. 35).

  9. I am posting this question on behalf of my 6 year old daughter Vanessa. The Flood destroyed man, beasts, birds, and creeping things—“all the flesh that moves on the earth.” But not the fish in the sea. My daughter wants to know…what happened to the fresh water fish that cannot survive in sea water?

    “The world exists only because of the [merit of the] Torah study of school children." (Rambam, Hilchot Talmud Torah 2:1).

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. Gary-
    There is no question that G-d's relationship with people is entirely different in the post-prophetic era.
    I don't know if we are held to a higher moral standard, but many have pointed out that G-d trusts His people today much more than He used to. The challenges of contemporary society for the traditional Jew are quite unlike anything the Jew of the Shtetl had to deal with.

  12. Barry-
    Ultimately, the answer to your question must be that G-d commanded him to offer these sacrifices. This was the intent of the original command to bring aboard extra kosher animals. Maybe the point is to remind man, at the dawn of the new world order, that he is not animal.

    In contrast to R. Soloveichik's interpretation, the Ramban writes that it was Noah's saving of the animals that gave him the right to kill them.

  13. Vanessa-
    Great question! I'm not really sure. Maybe G-d protected their ecosystems from flood contamination. Or maybe Noah had a really large tank on board.
    There might be another possibility, but I am not sure if this is consistant with tradition or the text. Maybe the flood was only in populated areas?

  14. I am not sure if you received my prior note on gopher wood and pitch. Here it is again.
    1. “Gopher” wood- almost the same, in Hebrew, as “sulpher”. Thus, the gopher wood is PHYSICALLY compatible with the sulpherized waters and protects the occupants of the Ark from physical destruction.
    2. “Pitch”- is the same, in Hebrew, as “atonement”. Thus, the pitch placed between the wooden boards of the Ark SPIRITUALLY protect the occupants of the Ark from destruction by the Heavenly waters.
    a. Atonement is used by us today for the same purpose as it was used in the Ark.
    b. “Gopher” wood seems to be our individual construction of a barrier to attack by physical means. To me, that implies the development of positive, constructive characteristics (based on Torah values) to allow us to face and interact with the physical world.

    Al Milgram