Guarantor of the natural world

The rainbow is a sign of protection for every living thing

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
ANIMALS FARE poorly in the Hebrew Bible. At best, in flocks and herds, they symbolize the wealth of their owners. At worst, they die in their multitudes on altars for the sins of men and women.
There are exceptions, of course, such as Balaam’s she-ass, her tongue loosened by God. Smarting from her master’s blows, she cries, “What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?” Ultimately Balaam admits the justice of her complaint, but soon afterwards he slaughters bullocks and rams as he blesses the Israelites on their journey to Canaan. The ass, this time, is silent.
In this week’s Torah portion, Noah, however, helps the natural world survive God’s wrath by sheltering it in his Ark while the Flood rages. Ecologists today use the word “ark” to signify a wildlife refuge, and a model for protecting species against extinction. But the story that unfolds illuminates something else – man’s ability to feel affection for nature.
At first, God’s command to Noah is presented as a technical problem: build a floating structure capable of accommodating prescribed numbers of animals and their food. Noah solves it, and all on board survive the catastrophe.
The waters abate. Mountaintops are visible. Is the sodden earth ready to receive new life? A raven is sent, but flies around without finding anything. A brief matter-of-fact sentence, no more.
Now, contrast the dove. She also cannot land, but look at the almost poetic turn the language takes in describing this. “She found no rest for the sole of her foot.” A note of tenderness and delicacy suddenly enters the narrative.
This note intensifies as the dove returns. “And [Noah] put forth his hand, and took her, and brought her unto him into the Ark.” The image thus created is that of a hug, and likely, Noah’s joy that the bird has survived. Love, no less.
Seven days pass, and the dove is sent out and returns. The text is clear that she is returning to Noah, not just the Ark. This time she has found something – a fresh olive leaf is in her beak. This means good news. The waters have gone down, and life can return.
But the classic commentators don’t buy into this as a symbol of peace. The 19th century commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch, fol - lowing the great medieval Biblical scholar Rashi, notes that olive leaves are bitter, and are unpalatable to birds. “Bitter, unusual, normally intolerable food, eaten in freedom and independence, is sweet - er than the sweetest in a dependent condition.” In the Ark, the dove must rely on the fickle attention of human beings to provide her with food. In the wild, she is free to care for herself.
Ultimately the dove leaves again, and does not return. Perhaps later, as she wheels above the muddy plains, and sees the smoke rise from the corpses of her former companions, offered by a less-than- loving Noah as sacrifices, she utters a silent prayer. “Blessed be thou, Creator of the Universe, who has created me, and given me wings, so that I can escape the rest of thy creation.”
Some creatures really do inspire affection in people. There are good reasons why cat videos proliferate on the Internet. But such affinities, our text suggests, are an unreliable guide to understanding the needs and necessities of the web of life that surrounds us and must, in the language of our portion, “swarm on the earth, and be fruitful, and multiply on the earth.”
God emerges as the guarantor of the natural world. His covenant in the wake of the Flood is specifically directed not just to Noah but to all living things. “I will not curse the ground any more for man’s sake... neither will I again smite any more everything living, as I have done.” Even the rainbow is a sign of protection for “every living thing.”
In the same portion, God also allows us to kill animals and birds for food. I am a carnivore, and have no regrets. But I admit that, should the transmigration of souls be real and I were to have the choice of choosing my next reincarnation, I would consider becoming a raven.
Why? Perhaps I feel sympathy for that poor bird flapping endlessly around the Ark looking for a landing spot, while an unsympathetic Noah waits for it to give up. Rashi suggests that the reason the raven did not stray far was that he suspected Noah of having designs on its mate. The bird may have been wrong, but who can blame him for harboring the darkest suspicions about man? And there is another reason. Nobody, literally or metaphorically, wants to eat crow.