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Parshat Noach: The Weekly Torah Portion Explained (VIDEO)

n the Jewish year, each week corresponds to a specific section of Hebrew Bible, so that by year's end the entire Torah has been read. Now, let's see about Noah and that ark.
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Editor's note: This column begins a new series, 'The Weekly HuffTorah Portion,' which will provide an overview of the Torah readings for that particular week and include links to additional resources for study and discussion. It also gives me a chance to re-read some endlessly fascinating tales.

In the Jewish year, each week corresponds to a specific section of Hebrew Bible, so that by year's end the entire Torah has been read. On Simchat Torah, the recent joyous celebration that ends the High Holiday cycle, Jews read the final sections of the Torah and immediately follow this by reading the first portion, Bereishit.

Those famous opening words of Bereishit -- "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth..." -- are actually a mistranslation. Another way to read the Hebrew is, "In a beginning..."

So we begin this new series from another beginning, the second weekly Torah portion, Noach, and hope to complete the circle by Simchat Torah 2012.

Now, let's see about that Noah.

Before the Flood

Noah, a righteous man who is "perfect in his generations," has three sons: Shem, Cham and Japeth.

God tells Noah there is corruption on earth, and because of this all flesh will be destroyed.

God commands Noah to build an ark of gopher wood that is to be 300 cubits long and 50 cubits wide. (A cubit is about the length of a forearm.) The ark should have compartments on three decks, a window and an entrance at its side.

God reiterates about destroying all breathing beings, says this will be done with a flood. Noah and his family, on the other hand, will be spared if he follows God's instructions. This is God's covenant with Noah.

God then tells Noah to get two of every species -- one male and one female -- and to gather food for himself and his family while they're on the ark.

Noah builds the ark.

God calls Noah to the ark and reminds him that he alone in the world is righteous. God tells Noah to take seven pairs of every clean animal (presumably, the kosher species) and bring them on the ark.

"In seven days, I will send rain upon the earth, 40 days and 40 nights, and I will blot out all existence," God says.

Again, Noah does what he is told.

Water Covers the Earth

Noah is 600 years old when the flood comes. He and his family go into the ark, and two-by-two the animals enter also. After seven days, the flood begins.

The text repeats a few things now. Noah's age, with added detail: He is 600 years, 2 months and 17 days old when the rain comes. It rains for 40 days and 40 nights. Noah enters the ark with his family and two of every animal, male and female, follow. God seals the ark shut after they are all inside.

The rain lasts for 40 days, and the flood lifts the ark above the earth. The water rises above the mountains, even. Fifteen cubits, above the mountains, it rose.

All flesh on earth expires, except that in the ark.

After the Flood

The text says that the water "strengthened" on earth for 150 days. Then, God remembers the ark and causes the waters to subside: "The fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed," and after 150 days of no rain, the water recedes. In that month, the ark came to rest upon Mt. Ararat. Ten months after the rain began, the mountains become visible once again. Forty days after that, Noah opens the window of the ark to see if it is possible to leave.

Noah sends a raven to see if it was dry or if there was land. The raven circles and circles above and returns with nothing. Then, Noah sends a dove, but it returns as there was no place to rest.

Noah waits seven days and sends the dove out again. In the evening on that day, the dove returns with an olive leaf in its beak. This is a good sign, Noah thinks, but waits seven more days to send the dove out again. When the dove does not return, this is an even better sign.

So in his 601st year, on the first day of the first month, the waters dried from atop the earth. Noah removes the covering of the ark, looks around and sees that the ground is dry. Nearly two months later, the earth is fully dry. Then, God tells Noah to leave the ark with his family and with all the animals aboard, and so every living, creeping, flying thing emerges from the ark.

On dry land, Noah builds an altar God and offers one of every "clean" animal to the Creator. God smells the burnt offering and says, in his heart, "I will not continue to curse the ground because of man ... nor will I again continue to smite every living being, as I have done." God's resolution concludes with the promise that day and night shall not cease.

God blesses Noah and his sons, telling them to "be fruitful and multiply" and spread throughout the land. God says that all living creatures will fear Noah and his family, adding that while all moving things will be food for them, they should not eat any blood as that is the soul of the flesh. God demands the blood that belongs to souls of humans and animals. In other words, the soul comes from God, and though man keeps the soul for a time, it ultimately belongs to God. Made in God's image, man cannot kill himself, and he may not kill another. The punishment for killing a man is to be killed by a man, God says, and commands Noah again to be fruitful and multiply, to "teem on the earth."

God reaffirms to Noah and his sons God's covenant with all living beings -- all that departed the ark, that is -- saying that there shall never again be such a cataclysmic, world-destroying flood. God sets a rainbow in the clouds as a sign of the covenant between God and earth. God says that the rainbow will serve as a reminder to God of the everlasting covenant.

Of Noah's sons who came out of the ark -- Shem, Cham and Japeth -- Cham is the father of Canaan. From these sons "the whole world was spread out."

Noah "debases" himself and plants a vineyard before planting anything else. He drinks the wine, becomes drunk and uncovers himself in his tent. Cham sees his father's nakedness and tells his brothers. Shem and Japeth walk backwards into the tent, so as not to see Noah's nakedness, and cover their father. Noah wakes, realizes what's happened and curses his grandson, Canaan the son of Shem, saying he shall be "a slave of slaves" to his brothers. Noah blesses God, Shem and Japheth, and repeats the curse of Canaan.

Noah lives 350 more years after the flood, reaching the age of 950, and dies.

The Descendants of Noah

The text lists the descendants of the sons of Noah and says that from these families the nations of earth were formed. Among the sons of Japeth and Cham, in no particular order: Ashkenaz, Nimrod, Kush, Sheba, Girgashite and Pelishtim. And the list goes on.

The Tower of Babel

At this point, there is one language and one purpose on earth. Some talk about making bricks and building "a tower with its top in the heavens" in order to make a name for themselves and protect against being dispersed across the earth.

God descends to look at the city with the tower and says, "Behold, they are one people with one language and this is what they do!" God, talking to his heavenly court, says, "Come, let us descend and confuse their language, so they won't understand each other." All the people are now dispersed across the earth and their tower-building ceases.

The Descendants of Shem

Shem, too, has descendants. Some notable names: Arpaschad, Mash, Hazarmaveth, Joktan and Peleg, and on from there son begets son until Terah begets Abram (who, of course, would later change his name to Abraham).

And these are the chronicles of Terah, who bore Abram, who married Sarai, who is barren. The whole brood goes with Terah to settle in Canaan, where Terah dies.

Questions for Reflection

What does it mean that Noah was "perfect in his generations"? Why does the text repeat itself so much? Does God really need to convince Noah that all he alone is righteous and that all flesh will indeed be destroyed? And what's so important about Noah's (staggering) age?

Why does it say that Noah debased himself by planting a vineyard? And what is so shameful about uncovering his nakedness in his own tent? How does Noah know that Shem did not cover him while his brothers did? And why does he curse his grandson to be a "slave of slaves"?

What is God's aim in confusing the language of the people of Babel? Is it more than just a cruel practical joke, as it seems?

Resources for further commentary, discussion and reflection

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