Commentary for Noach

21 Nov

In this week’s parshah we read the story of Noah. When people think of this parshah, the first two numbers that often come mind are two (for the number of each animal and bird initially brought onto the ark) and forty (forty days and forty nights of rain, plus Noah waited an additional forty days after the water receded to the point where he could see mountaintops before sending out the raven), but the number that appears most often in the story is the number seven. In most of these instances, the number is referring to a seven-day period, which Rabbi Yehudah Halevi in his popular Shabbat hymn “Yom Shabbaton,” connects the final instance, in which Noah waits a week before sending the dove out for a third time and the dove does not return to the ark, to Shabbat (“on it the dove found rest”).

Following Rabbi Yehudah’s lead, the other occurrences of the number seven in the story of Noah can also be connected to aspects of Shabbat. The most straightforward and simple of these is Gen. 8:4, where we learn that “The ark came to rest in the seventh [month]. We cease journeying on Shabbat, and so did the ark and all of those in it. In Gen. 7:4 God tells Noah that the flood will start in seven days. The Etz Chayim chumash explains that, “presumably, this is the period of time needed for the future occupants of the ark to get aboard and be properly accommodated (p. 44).” In other words, they spend six days doing work and preparing for what was to come on the seventh day, just as we prepare for Shabbat during the week.

The fourth instance of the number seven is the seven-day period that Noah waits in between his initial sending out of the raven and dove (in which both returned empty-beaked and empty-clawed), and the second instance of sending out the dove. This is the famous moment where the dove returns to Noah with a fresh olive branch, indicating that fresh vegetation had begun to grow again.   Just as Noah received this sign that nature was being revitalized on Shabbat (it takes place seven days before the day that Rabbi Yehudah identifies as Shabbat so it, too must be Shabbat), our spirits are also revitalized via Shabbat.

While those four instances of the number seven connect to the more physical and spiritual aspects of Shabbat, the remaining instance connects to an aspect of Shabbat that is more psychological in nature. At first God only told Noah to collect two of each bird and animal. Then, in Gen. 7:2-3, God tells Noah to collect seven male-female pairs of each “pure” bird and animal. Many midrashim envision pre-flood human society as having been vegetarian. If that were the case than the prospect of a long flood would be extremely disturbing to Noah and his family because they knew that after a certain point their vegetables and fruits would go bad and they would have no way to replenish them. To assuage these fears, God lets them know that there are some animals that it is okay for them to eat, and that they should bring along extras of those so that their own need to survive doesn’t cause them to wipe out another species.

Many times on Shabbat we feel anxious. We worry that we are wasting a day that we could be working to earn extra money to sure up our financial situation, or we feel cut off form the outside world because we don’t know what’s going on because we can’t use the TV, radio, or internet to get the news. With this gesture, God reassured Noah’s family that their needs would be met during this time when they were cut off from their usual mode of living, and we can help settle our anxieties by understanding that that reassurance extends to us today. Shabbat is a day of rest for the body, the mind, and the spirit. It was so for the passengers in the ark and it can be for us as well if we are willing to let it.

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