The Torah tells us what we need to know about our place in this world, and our relationship to G-d. Quite reasonably, the lessons start with the basics. These simple, even simplistic, ideals appear before Avraham does. Perhaps these are universal rules, applicable to all humankind.
- G-d created the world: Idolatry is wrong.
- Adam and Chava and the forbidden fruit: We have free will, but our decisions have consequences.
- G-d does not accept excuses for wrongdoing.
- Cain and Hevel: We can master our urges – we are not animals, slaves to our natural desires.
- Cain’s murder of Hevel was wrong: We must value human life.
- People were forbidden to kill Cain: people must have systems of justice
- Taking women against their will (Gen 6:2) is wrong. It is both theft and sexual immorality.
The above list includes 5 of the 7 Noachide laws, as well as the presuppositions required for any law – that man has free will, and consequences for it. The only 2 Noachide laws I have not identified in the text is that against blasphemy, and eating flesh from a living animal.
And at the end of the first parsha, the broader lessons become clearer:
- Man matters: The purpose of the world is for mankind. When mankind becomes wicked, G-d considers destroying everything – not because G-d hates animals, but because without mankind serving a constructive purpose, there is no reason for animals to exist. It is analogous to a light on a tower. If the light is no longer serving a useful purpose, then the entire tower might as well be disassembled. When we do not do good, then we, too, become useless and disposable.
- Man has a purpose. When “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5), man became as useful to G-d as an unneeded light, and thus could be destroyed.
When we move into Parshas Noach, the lessons continue. And while these summaries may seem trite or obvious, consider that most people don’t actually live their lives as though these are true.
- It is not enough to be righteous. If G-d wanted to merely save Noach, he could have “zapped” the rest of the world – but he did not. And so we learn that G-d will not save us just for being good people – Noach has to follow G-d’s commandment, and build (create) an ark, and all the work it entails. Goodness is as goodness does. And when mankind builds something, is engaged in a creative act that partners him with G-d, then he can rise above the destructions slated for the rest of the world.
- We need a buffer zone between ourselves and divine justice. The “kaparah” of tar that insulated the ark from the water is analogous to the kaparah we ask for on Yom Kippur. We cannot undo or counter G-d’s will, but we can ride out the storm if we gain a protective layer. And both the ark and the kaparah of Yom Kippur require positive action on our part – we can create it in words and deeds.
- We are the custodians of the animals. G-d handles the planet and the flora, and even the fish. But higher order life is closer to mankind, and so Noach, not G-d, saves the animals.
- We should make sense of the world. Adam gave animals names, to reflect their natures. Noach had to classify all animals by whether they were clean or not. By giving Noach this instruction, G-d was spurring mankind toward curiosity about the natural world, toward scientific inquiry.
- G-d does not tell us everything we want to know. When Noach wanted to see how high the water was, he had to figure out how to do that himself (using the birds). As we go through life, G-d will sometimes guide us; and sometimes we just have to wing it.
- G-d likes to be appreciated. The sacrifices are welcome, because through appreciation for what we have been given, we can build and grow our relationship with our creator.
The above are just a start of a list, and I am sure there are many, many more basic building ideas. I welcome your feedback!