Parashat Noach tells the story of God’s decision to destroy the earth with a flood because of the corruption and wickedness found in the world. Only Noach – the only righteous man on earth – his family, and a pair of every kind of creature on earth were to survive. Noach was told to build a large boat, the Ark, sufficient in size to accommodate the family and all the creatures. After the flood, those aboard the Ark started a new life on earth all over again, and God promised to Noach that never again a flood would be sent to destroy the entire earth.
Having saved Noach and his family, God enters into a new covenant with humanity. This includes the prohibition against eating live flesh (Genesis 9:4), the law against shedding another person’s blood (Genesis 9:6) and the instruction to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 9:7). The rainbow is a reminder of the covenant which God entered into with Noach, not just for us, but also for God, who will see the rainbow: ‘And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh’ (Genesis 9:15).
We often focus on the covenant between God and Abraham (mentioned from Genesis 15:18), as this is our particular birthright as Jews. We often forget that there was first a covenant with all of humanity, and no particular group or religion. In Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 we are told that the entire world was created from Adam so that no person would say my father was greater than yours. Just in case there was any doubt, the story of Noach provides the same function, so that we are all descended from Adam and Eve, through the line of Noach.
The Torah makes a wonderful statement about God’s relationship with all of humanity by asserting a universal covenant before focusing on a specific one. God is in a relationship with all human beings, not one or another specific religious or ethnic group. And the rainbow is the perfect symbol to represent that covenant.
The rainbow, like the flag of South Africa, brings together seven different colours, creating a whole, which is significantly more spectacular and beautiful than the sum of its parts. It is representative of the different elements, which make up the human race. We come in all shapes, sizes, colours, creeds, religions and races. Each group possesses an individual beauty, but it is together that humanity is truly spectacular and awe-inspiring.
Let me end with some short thoughts on the end of the parashah: The Parashah continues with the report of the building of the Tower of Babel. The people decide to build a city, and to create a tower that would reach from earth to heaven. This, too, angered God, who destroyed the tower and scattered the people across the entire planet, each group talking a different language.
We regularly find, either in the news or on TV of another attempt by man to build The World’s Tallest Building. It has become something like a ‘competition’ to construct one skyscraper that beats all skyscrapers, and it seems to me that the builders not only strive for that. It is almost implied that through their building they will gain fame, and make a name for themselves. This Torah portion clearly shows us that the people who populated the earth at the time of the report failed in their quest to construct a city and a tower, but they succeeded in making a name for themselves – or at least for the place where they embarked on this project.
But “Babel” is a name that has been tarnished by this experience; it’s a name that reminds us of confusion and failure. I am not saying it’s not good to strive for and seek perfection – the creation of The World’s Tallest Building, for example – but we need to question the motives behind the creation of such a building, and what purpose such a building would serve, and what will be located in it? The same applies to the concept of ‘making a name for oneself’. We need to be conscious of the association we want to be linked to our name.
In Jewish tradition the aspiration of such an undertaking would be not simply to attain ‘a name’, but to obtain a ‘good’ name, for as Proverbs says: “A good name is more valuable than great riches.” (Proverbs 22:1).
Both parts of our Torah portion teach us an important message: God wants us humans to have an active part in this world, as partners in an eternal covenant, but there are limits and consequences for our acting. We need to be aware of them, and to respect them, if we want to reach our goal, a just society, a repaired world.
(Sources: Fields, A Torah commentary for our times; Burkeman, 2 Minutes of Torah)