The Flood: From Fairy Tale to Urgent Wisdom

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The Flood
In my reading of Parashat Noach, I have been very much guided by the context that the practice of "khamas" (whatever it was) led to the Flood and the near-destruction of life on this planet -- a danger we face in our own generations. So I try to hear the traditional midrashim (as well as develop some of my own) as speaking to this danger.
First of all, the Torah is clearly very concerned about preserving all the species -- God commands Noach to save EVERY species by bringing them into the Ark -- so that (as God says after the Flood) they can go out and breed abundantly, be fruitful, & multiply. (For me, a teaching about the importance of the Species Preservation Act that some in Congress are now trying to destroy.)
The classic rabbinic midrash also sees a specific (so to speak!) danger to the preservation of the various species.
Says the midrash about the "khamas" -- the ruination/corruption that brought the Flood upon us -- (drawing on the hunch that "kham" means "hot" and concluding that the Flood was warm water, because the sin of khamas had involved warm water -- that is, semen -- :
"Thus dogs would copulate with wolves, chickens with peacocks. A farmer would plant wheat, but the earth yielded only pseudo-wheat."
. . . Notes Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, head of JTS, in a current sermon, "In the words of Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century), summarizing the vivid talmudic discussion of the subject: 'No living creature adhered any longer to the laws of its procreation, flagrantly perverting the known path implanted in it.' "
So in this context for me, as for Ibn Ezra, this midrash about inter-species copulation is addressing issues of procreation more than simple sexuality. That is, the danger was that sowing one kind of seed brought forth another, that different species were trying to cross-fertilize each other to create new species. The God-given species would not survive, and instead would bring a Flood upon themselves, if they criss-crossed each other. And/But God deeply wanted to preserve the Divine order of the species. The human race becomes here not the master of the many species but their servant, gathering them into the Ark to save them.
For me, this has much resonance for the dangers that today flow from the increasing practice of genetic recombination. For we know that chickens & peacocks, etc., cannot on their own physically create new offspring, but can do so only when human beings recombine their genetic potential.
And indeed the dangers that genetic recombination pose to the web of life on this planet are serious.
I have also taken another approach to understanding what the Noah story is teaching. This midrash is influenced by Rabbenu Heschel's teachings on the sacredness of time. This passage of Torah, uniquely in the whole of Sefer B'reshit, is filled with dates of the year -- when the Flood began (17th of the 2nd month -- Iyyar or Heshvan) , when it ended (27th of the 2nd month one year later -- indeed, 1 lunar year plus 10 days, a solar year --- interesting the Torah does this) and many other dates besides. (We get no other dates until the eve of the Exodus.)
For me, this -- plus the content of the Rainbow Covenant, which is about the cycles of time -- seedtime & harvest, cold & heat, summer & winter, day & night -- is a strong hint that what went wrong before the Flood was that human beings had screwed up the temporal order, the cycles and rhythms of time and the seasons. The Flood came, at least in part, because of this destruction of the cycles.
For me, this is a powerful warning from Torah. For the human race has in the past few generations done much to shatter the seasons and their celebration -- in ways that I think endanger life on earth.
May your Shabbos No'ach be filled with the Rainbow of protecting all the species and renewing the cycles of the Earth.

by Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Director, The Shalom Center.


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