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Flesh and Spirit (Noah)

Near the end of last week’s Parshah, as humanity reaches its spiritual nadir, Hashem declares: “Let My spirit [רוחי] not reside forever within man, for he is also flesh [בשר]; his days shall be a hundred and twenty years” (Gen. 6:3). It seems that it is against the backdrop of this declaration, and the fundamental tension between “flesh” and “spirit” which it implies, that the events of our Parshah, Noach, are set.

Literarily, the conflict between “flesh” and “spirit” is highlighted through the use of both terms as leitworts in our text. In the course of the Parshah, biological existence is referred to fourteen times with the crude, suggestive expression, “flesh:” “all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth” (6:12); “and God said to Noach, ‘the end of all flesh has come’” (ibid. 13); “and from all life, from all flesh, two of each shall you take onto the ark” (ibid. 19); “and all flesh perished” (7:21); “and I shall establish My covenant with you, such that no flesh shall ever again be destroyed through the flood” (9:11); etc. Simultaneously, however, careful mention is made of the “spirit” inherent in man and beast: “and I shall bring a flood upon the earth to destroy all flesh that has within it the spirit of life” (6:17); “and they came to Noach, to the ark, two by two of all the flesh that has within it the spirit of life” (7:17); “all that had within it the spirit of life in its nostrils, of all that was on dry land, died” (7:22).

Perhaps, then, the flood can best be interpreted as Hashem’s mechanism of extricating His “spirit” from the “flesh” with which it has proven incompatible. Notice, in this vein, that by submerging the earth in rain, Hashem is in essence returning it to its primordial state, in which His spirit had reigned supreme “over the face of the water:” “In the beginning of God’s creation of heaven and earth, the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water” (Gen. 1:1-2). Nor is it incidental that Hashem formally puts an end to the flood by “passing רוח over the earth until the waters subsided” (8:1)—רוח in this context most naturally meaning “wind,” though identical with the Hebrew term for spirit, and often presented as such in English translations of our Parshah. To wit, the story of the flood is the story of spirit reasserting its primacy over flesh.

Hence the curious episode which we encounter in the resolution of our narrative:

And Noah built an altar to the Lord, and he took of all the clean animals and of all the clean fowl and brought up burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled the pleasant aroma [וירח ה’ את ריח הניחח], and the Lord said to Himself, “I will no longer curse the earth because of man…” And God blessed Noah and his sons, and He said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. And your fear and your dread shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the fowl of the heaven; upon everything that creeps upon the ground and upon all the fish of the sea, for they have been given into your hands. Every moving thing that lives shall be yours to eat; like the green vegetation, I have given you everything. But, flesh with its soul, its blood, you shall not eat. But of your blood, of your souls, I will demand [an account]; from the hand of every beast I will demand it, and from the hand of man, from the hand of each man, his brother, I will demand [an account] for the soul of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man through man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God He made man. And you, be fruitful and multiply; swarm upon the earth and multiply thereon” (Gen. 8:20-9:7).

Man’s first act in the postdiluvian universe is, in effect, the placing of flesh in the service of the spirit, yielding the spiritual by-product, ריח—a term both semantically and phonetically related to רוח. It is upon “smelling,” וירח, the “aroma,” ריח, of flesh thus directed that Hashem announces the arrival of a new world order, in which humanity shall no longer be destroyed through flood. Hashem then translates the axiological priority of “spirit” over “flesh,” which man has apparently intuited, into a normative mnemonic, by permitting human consumption of meat while prohibiting murder of that creature created “in the image of God.”

Thus we proceed into the rest of the Torah, our line of scrimmage clearly demarcated. Man, comprised of two fundamental elements, spirit and flesh, must never allow the former to be suffocated by the needs and desires of the latter. Yet he may not disavow the latter, nor dismiss its religious value, for that, too, would constitute a departure from his divine mandate. Instead, man’s mission, as formulated by Ahad Ha’am, is to realize “neither the ascendancy of body over spirit, nor the suppression of the body for the spirit’s sake, but the uplifting of the body by the spirit.”

Shabbat shalom!


Notes: 

  • The title of this article and the citation in the last paragraph are taken from Ahad Ha’am’s essay, “Flesh and Spirit.”
  • For last year’s Noach article (on parallels between Noach and Yitzchak) please click here; for a sneak peak at some of next year’s material, please click here.

1 Comment

  1. Mike Shriqui says:

    Great analysis Alex, I never looked at it this way. Thank you for your efforts.

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