The seas speak of God’s justice

The seas speak of God’s justice

­Parshat Noach Genesis 6:9-11:32

This Shabbat also marks Rosh Chodesh Marcheshvan, the beginning of the one month in the Jewish calendar without any holidays at all. There is an interesting connection in this correspondence. Rosh Chodesh celebrates the new moon, and the moon, aside from casting a romantic glow over our evenings, exerts its influence on the tides of our seas. The seas’ mysteries have elicited a sense of an encounter with the Divine since time immemorial. Consider the declaration of the ancient psalmist: “Those who go down to the sea in boats, and perform their labor on the mighty water; they have seen God’s deeds, God’s wonders in the depths.” Or the words of the modern poet John Masefield: “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky. And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”

As we read in this week’s parshah, God is angry at the corruption and violence that have consumed the earth and brings a flood to blot out all life. Noah is to build his famous ark and preserve Creation by bringing a pair of each kind of land animal and bird into the ark with himself and his family. God commands Noah, “Cover [the ark] inside and out with pitch.” The Hebrew kofer, pitch, has the same root as kafar, to cover over; for example, the covering over the Holy Ark is called the kaporet (in Hebrew, the “p” and “f” sounds are the same letter). But this root also has a more familiar meaning. The Hebrew kipeir means to make atonement, that is, to cover over our wrongdoings so that they do not continue to haunt us. In the context of God’s anger with a disobedient humanity, Noah

becomes the instrument of kaparah, of atonement for our collective corruption. The pitch with which he covers the ark completely separates the wickedness that is all around him from the new existence that he will promulgate after the Flood.

There is another connection to consider. Think back a few weeks to the other biblical story involving a boat on an angry sea. After trying to flee from God’s service, Jonah ends up going to Nineveh to declare God’s judgment on that city. Unlike in the story of Noah and the flood, the people of Nineveh are warned ahead of time of their sins and the subsequent punishment and are given time to atone, to make teshuvah. The salient element at the end of the book of Jonah is God’s reluctance to destroy the city, to carry out the intended punishment. In the account of Noah, God destroys humanity without a second thought, although the appearance of the rainbow at the end of the story is a sign that God regrets this hasty judgment.

As we enter this month of Marcheshvan, these stories bookend the importance of teshuvah as well as the true process by which one may repent. Even God appears to learn from the Flood. Rather than simply telling us what to do with no explanation, as often happens in Torah, God here is leading by example. God comes to recognize that steering humanity on the right path requires more targeted correction than harsh punishment. This is the classical formulation of teshuvah — recognizing one’s wrongdoing, making amends (here in the covenant God forges with Noah) and then acting differently the next time the situation arises. As God has shown us by example in the story of the Flood, so may we develop the patience with ourselves and with others that allows for growth.

Shabbat shalom v’chodesh tov!

Rabbi Howard Stein is a member of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.