16 Oct 2017

Braving a New World – Part 1


Noah, the Flood and Transformation

The following is part one of a three part series that examines the different modalities of men and women. Its launching point is an analysis of the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.” It was spoken once to Adam and a second time to Noah. Through careful exploration of the two, numerous conclusions about our existential state, our purpose, and our modalities are drawn.[1]


The First Commandment

Elokim blessed them, and Elokim said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the heaven, and every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
– Genesis 1:28

(G-d said to Noah) “And now be fruitful and multiply, spread throughout the earth and multiply on it.”
– Genesis 9:7

The first mention of something in the Torah is the headquarters for that concept. We have the first person, the first dream, the first kiss, etc. If we want to understand any concept, our sages tell us we’d be well advised to go back to that particular “headquarter.” For our purposes, we’re looking at the raison d’être of mankind. The place to go would be the first commandment given to humankind. It’s unmistakably set out for us in Genesis (1:28 to be precise): “G-d blessed them, and G-d said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it…’” The mandate seems clear enough; we are expected to confidently reproduce and to make a meaningful impact on reality.

But things are a little more complex in our case than just going back to that one verse or headquarter. If we fast-forward 1657 years (from Creation until the Flood), we find the directive repeated – this time to Noah when he emerges from the ark. After spending 365 days within the protective environment of their floating sanctuary, he and his family step out into a world that has been destroyed. No animals roam the landscape, vegetation is only just beginning to emerge, even the soil is different. Other than their immediate group, there is not another human being on the planet. They know all this has come about because the pre-flood world reached a “critical mass” of violence and immorality. And so, just after his emergence, G-d speaks to this awareness and warns Noah and his offspring not to commit murder. It is a statement both about the past and the future. Then without skipping a beat, we find a potent juxtaposition. G-d tells him, “And now be fruitful and multiply, spread throughout the earth and multiply on it.”[2]

The obvious question is, why did the Creator need to repeat what had already been clearly instructed to Adam? The Torah is a communication of the Divine Will to humanity and as such, each word, even each letter, is of great significance. If G-d has already instructed something, there would appear to be no reason to repeat it.

One could say that apropos Adam, the words are a blessing and that to Noah they are a command. In other words, the statements are the same but their intention is different. That assertion though raises its own set of queries: Firstly, Rashi, the foremost commentator on the Torah, does interpret the verse to Adam as a command. In fact, he says, in addition to the actual instruction to have children, it teaches us that whilst men are incumbent on having children, women, interestingly, are exempt![3] Either way, we are left with a question: If the former statement is an instruction, we must answer why there was a need to repeat this most basic of commands, the bedrock of human purpose, to Noah. Surely he was aware of what G-d had instructed Adam and surely he willingly accepted the dictate upon himself. On the other hand, accepting that the statement to Adam is a blessing, we must answer why G-d didn’t then say it all in one shot? Why not bless Adam and instruct him as to his obligations rather than convey the first part to him at the outset of creation and the second part over a millennia and a half later to a post-flood world?[4]

Establishing a Bond

An alternative reading of the repetition, a more fleshed out explanation, is that in His communication to Noah, G-d was re-establishing a connection with him and affirming His commitment to existence. The flood had been a watershed event to say the least. G-d had, “…obliterated every being that was on the surface of the ground.”[5] But that action, as apocalyptic as it was, grew out of an even deeper “state” within the Creator. He “was comforted (vayenachem) that He had made man on the earth, and He grieved in his heart.”[6] The word “comforted” though is not read by our sages as “reassured” or “calmed.” Quite the contrary! Rashi tells us G-d was comforted that He had made man on earth and not in heaven for had he been created a supernal being; Adam would have caused the heavenly beings to rebel. An apt translation of the Hebrew word then would be G-d “regretted” that He had made Adam.   Or, as Rashi says, He so grieved having created His pre-flood world, that He “reconsidered” its existence.

One can well understand then that Noah was worried about bringing new life into the world. Why give birth, toil and work the program that living entails if all that is built could at a point in the future also be destroyed!? Thus, G-d promised Noah that He would never again destroy the earth. And He blessed him. His blessing was a deep affirmation of existence, and a re-establishment of the bond between Creator and creation.

What we have said so far explains the need for the second blessing but it still leaves us wondering why there was the need for a new commandment. Re-establish a connection. Fine. Make a covenant. Fine. Bless Noah and reassure him. All good and well. But why repeat to him the mission statement to humanity once it had been made abundantly clear, after he exited from the ark, that all was good to go?

The Cleansing Process

The point of the matter is that the flood was far more than the “punishment” we normally take it for. The Midrash tells us that when he emerged from the ark, Noah “saw a new world.”[7] He stepped out of their womblike sanctuary where utopian peace reigned onto soggy ground and stood beneath a sun that shone differently. It wasn’t just that no life roamed the planet. It wasn’t just that he came forward into a world that was quietly void of chirping or bleating, where even the wind had almost no leaves to whisper through. No. He saw at a deep, existential level a “new world.” This was not a coming back to square one after an extended period of destruction. The flood generated a radical innovation within the metaphysical and very material dimensions of reality. Existence was new relative to the universe that had been created at the outset.

That is a bold statement to make. After all, G-d brought everything into existence ex- nihilo. Nothing could be “newer” than that. And what’s more, Jewish mysticism teaches us that He continues to bring reality into existence each instant! He had been doing that for 1657 years without stopping for an instant! So what exactly was the innovation here? What could possibly be new in a way that was truly groundbreaking?

The key to an understanding of the concept lies in an appreciation that the flood was not intended only to punish the world. That was certainly an aspect. But the “punishment” was something much deeper. At a core level, the waters of the flood are compared to the waters of a mikva,[8] a ritual bath, which cleanses whatever is immersed within it of impurity. Just as a body or a vessel placed within the mystical and healing waters of a mikva is cleansed not of grime but of inner impurity, so too the entire planet, all two-hundred million or so square miles of it, was submerged within the waters of the flood and thereby cleansed of the impurity that had taken hold of its innermost identity through the sins of the ten generations from Adam to Noah. It cleansed and refined reality in a way that generated a fundamentally new existential state.

This very ability to be cleansed was possible because the world was “new.” Something was essentially different. At the beginning of creation, actually over the course of the one and a half millennia, the ten generations, between Adam and Noah, the wholeness of creation – or one could say the ability of the universe to be G-dly – was not generated from within itself. In a sense, the world was bound to being a physical entity, locked within its own dynamic of cause and effect. Its high points were bound with the Creator. Without the constant input from G-d, it could not rise up out of its own limitations.

Let’s take an example from human life. A student encountering a profound concept might be able to sit in the presence of her teacher and grasp the idea. As long as the insight and influence of the teacher is present, the student is able to process and take hold of what is being discussed. But as soon as the student is alone, she falls short of understanding. She cannot wrap her mind around the thought. Or, think for example of a person who is feeling down. Her friend comes over and her spirits are lifted. They laugh and go for a walk. The sadness dissipates and a feeling of wellbeing, even happiness, comes over her. But as soon as they part ways, the former gloom and damp mood returns. In both cases, the state of being is not generated from within the person. Rather it is “showered” upon her from outside of herself.

The same dynamic applied to pre-flood existence. The good was only attainable because of G-d’s constant input. But the world, from its own perspective, was locked within itself, incapable of climbing higher than its own parameters. And because the world was not whole from within itself, the evil that people committed stamped reality in a most significant way. So much so that it could bring about “regret” on the part of G-d, and even the destruction of the flood. As a result of the way the world had been created, clarification of this evil was impossible. It became saturated with violent crime and the anger of the Creator. It became alienated from G-d.[9]

Conversely, after the flood, though the world existed as a lowly entity occupying time and space, and even when it slid into a dark state filled with sin, it could be refined and elevated through the service of repentance. Practically speaking that means you can have a world of cyberspace rampant with immorality, banks ripping people off and plunging global economies into havoc and a megalomaniac disregarding human rights and dignity – but still the world is redeemable.[10]

It was as a result of this transformation that G-d could tell Noah that the world would never again cease to be, or be visited with another flood.[11][12] Thenceforth, no matter the condition the world might find itself in, it had the ability created by the flood to climb out of the depths and regenerate sanctity. That is the radical innovation spawned by Noah, which he observed in the “new world.”[13]

The Flood and the Ark

In order to accomplish this degree of purification, two things were necessary:

Just as in life, in order to heal we need to uproot our false assumptions and only then can we move forward to a desired goal, so, too, with reality at large. Firstly, evil had to be destroyed and nullified. Next, there had to be a positive act of clarification and purification. The former came through the flood;[14] the second through the ark. The flood was overtly the very opposite of peace or the sustenance of existence. Conversely, the ark protected Noah and his family and kept them alive. This in turn, allowed them to go about doing what was necessary in order to refine and purify the world.

The ark functioned as a microcosm of all reality. It housed each of the four kingdoms: mineral, vegetable, animal and human. Furthermore, it contained an aspect that corresponded to each level of the spiritual realms.[15] Within it, peace reigned in a way that was analogous to the prophecy of “the wolf will lie with the lamb” and the Messianic era, when the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d.[16] In short, it was a diametric opposite from the circumstances that raged outside – much as a person can remain calm despite dramatic and challenging external circumstances. Whilst attempts to “fix” things around us are rarely successful or lasting when we ourselves are in a state of turmoil, when we attain inner freedom and peace, we can then go out into our environment, be it home or community, and bring change to that next circle of our influence.[17]

Rock Bottom

One might ask why G-d a priori set things up in this way. Rather than create a world with a tenuous infrastructure, have it then be brought to a point where an apocalypse was necessary, and only at that point begin again with a “new world,” why not just start out with the intended goal?

What we understand from the transformation that manifested in the post-flood world is that G-d’s inner desire is that the world itself should have the ability to attain sanctity. He is not interested in a universe that will be holy when flooded with a revelation of His presence. His aspiration is that the lowest physical particles and emotional states be capable of being refined. In order to attain this condition, it was necessary to allow existence to be corruptible, to fall in such a way that it was truly distant from its source. We could frame it this way: the world had to reach rock bottom in order to elevate the bottom rock.

A New Blessing for a New World

Having laid the conceptual groundwork, we can now answer the question as to what the need was for the commandment to be fruitful and multiply to be repeated after the flood.

In Genesis, the statement to Adam was a general blessing and a general directive that expressed the overarching task and purpose of humanity. It captures the essence of why we were created: we humans are to increase and settle the earth. In other words, we are charged with the mission to make this world a place where G-d’s presence can be manifest. We are to transform the lowest of realms into “a dwelling place for G-d.”[18] He gave us the ability and obligation to “civilize” the world and make it a place where His presence can be transparently experienced.

However, at the time of that blessing the world existed, as we have said, in a way where G-d’s influence was of paramount importance. And because it was so dependant upon Him, destruction could happen, up to and including a negation of that original blessing. People’s conduct was the very opposite of what G-d desired, evil increased and murder was rampant. Their identities degenerated to the point of no longer being a vessel for the blessing.

After the flood, a new blessing and a new command were needed in accordance with the “new world” and the new existential circumstances. Firstly, the communication had to be appropriate for a world that itself could become refined. Secondly, it had to be eternal. The first one was not sustainable; it didn’t last, because it was not suitable for the parameters of creation. In fact, it “lasted” from the time of Adam until the generation of the flood and was then “used up.” It was necessary because it was the foundation upon which all our endeavors are based. But by the building of the ark, the time had come for a brave new world that could move confidently into the future with the knowledge that all existence – from the highest of sublime levels all the way down to the bottom rock – could be elevated and refined and call out that G-d is the only true existence.


This article was originally published on

In the next article we will look at the significance of the change in language in the two blessings and apply that to two different styles of leadership. We will find that each style fulfills the mission statement for humanity, the mandate to make this world a dwelling place for G-d, but in very different ways.

[1] The concepts and flow of ideas is draw from an address of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Parshat Noah, 5751 (see Sefer HaSichot 5751 Volume 1, Parshat Noah)

[2] Genesis 9:7

[3] This seemingly strange statement is addressed in Part II of this series.

[4] The subtleties are even more complex. In addition to the command given to Noah in this portion, we find the following a couple of verses earlier (Genesis 9:1): “G-d blessed Noah and his sons, He said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.’ ” So what we have is a statement to Adam that can be read as both a blessing and a command, and two statements to Noah – one a blessing and the other a command. (There is yet another time that the command to “be fruitful and multiply” is stated in the Torah. When G-d gives our father Jacob the additional name Israel, He blesses him and then says, “I am Almighty Shakkai. Be fruitful and increase. A nation and a community of nations will come from you. And kings will come from your loins. (Genesis 35:11) This command is beyond the scope of our current discussion.)

[5] Genesis 7:23

[6] Genesis 6:6

[7] Bereishit Rabba 30:8

[8] See Torah Ohr Parshat Noah 8:3 ff; at length in Torah Chayim Parshat Noah 59:2 ff.

[9] See Et Kashti, Sefer HaMa’amarim 5654

[10] It is empowering to note that this return began with one person. Noah disregarded all the people of his generation. He ignored their mores and weltanschauung and singlehandedly forged a path of transformation.

[11] Genesis 8:22

[12] Genesis 8:11

[13] This change, brought on and observed by Noah, is alluded to in his name. Rashi tells us it is connected not with “consolation” (Menachem) but with “rest,” because he brought rest into the world. He explains that prior to Noah there were no agricultural tools and that Noah’s parents named him thus in prophetic anticipation of the time he would introduce these tools to the world. In our context, he brought not only physical but also spiritual rest into the world. Yes, peace and rest were actually created at the conclusion of the six days of creation. (By way of resolving the apparent contradiction that G-d rested on the seventh day and that G-d completed his creation on the seventh day, Rashi comments on Genesis 2:2 that what the world lacked as the first Shabbat set upon the world was peace and rest. This is what G-d created at that moment.) This however was rest from the perspective of the Creator. At some level, existence was tenuous, shaking. Now, through the work of a human being, the world attained an inner rest, and consequently became settled in a way that it would never again be destroyed. It is comparable to the profound inner psychic and spiritual rest that arises when we exorcise our demons and work bottom-up in resolving the issues that deprive us of inner peace.

[14] See Genesis 6:17, “Behold I am bringing the flood waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh.”

[15] For example, the three floors within the ark (for humans, animals and waste products) correspond to the three spiritual worlds of Creation, Formation and Action.

[16] Isiah 11:6-9

[17] This idea that change must begin within is alluded to in the actual construction of the ark. We are told that at its top, it came to a length of one amah, roughly nineteen inches. The word amah is an acronym for elokeinu melech haolam, “Our G-d, King of the world.” The teaching is that first we must make Him “our G-d” and then he can manifest as “King of the World.”

[18] Tanchuma Nassa 16 and Numbers 13; Tanya ch. 36