Humans are the apex predator on Earth. We possess superior intelligence, which we communicate through speech in order to cooperate with other humans, giving us a considerable advantage in forming groups, as we can pool workloads and specializations. Speech is the tool through which we actualize our intelligence and self-awareness.

Through speech, we have formed societies and built civilizations; developed science and medicine; literature and philosophy. Crucially, we do not have to learn everything from personal experience, because we can use language to learn from the experience of others.

The Torah holds language and speech in the highest esteem because words are tangible. Indeed, they are the fabric of Creation – וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that the concept of covenant is a performative utterance that creates a relationship between two people – a mutual commitment created through speech. Whether it’s God giving us the Torah, or a husband marrying his wife; relationships are fundamental to Judaism. We can only build relationships and civilizations once we can make commitments to each other.

We make important decisions based on thoughts and feelings based on words on a page or a conversation with someone. It has been said that with one glance at a book, you can hear the voice of another person – perhaps someone dead for thousands of years – speaking across the millennia clearly and directly to you.

Given the potency of speech and language, the Torah emphasizes in multiple places: the laws of the metzora; the incident where Miriam and Ahron challenged Moshe; and even the Torah’s choice of words about the animals that boarded the Ark:

מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהוֹרָה, תִּקַּח-לְךָ שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה–אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וּמִן-הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא, שְׁנַיִם-אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ – Of every clean creature, take seven and seven, each with his mate; and of the creatures that are not clean two, each with his mate. (7:2)

The Gemara notes that instead of using the more concise and accurate expression of “impure,” the Torah uses extra ink to express itself more positively – “that are not clean” – אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא. The Lubavitcher Rebbe preferred to refer to “death” as “the opposite of life”; and hospital “infirmaries” as a “place of healing.”

The Torah cautions us of the power of speech repeatedly in more general settings:

לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ:  אֲנִי, ה – Do not allow a gossiper to mingle among the people; do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am Hashem. (19:16)

The Torah instructs us broadly not to hurt, humiliate, deceive, or cause another person any sort of emotional distress:

וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת-עֲמִיתוֹ, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ: כִּי אֲנִי ה, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – Do not wrong one another; instead, you should fear your God; for I am Hashem. (25:27)

It’s interesting that both these laws end with “I am Hashem” – evoking the concept of emulating what God does; which suggests that just as God speaks constructively, so must we – אֲנִי ה.

The Gemara teaches that verbal abuse is worse than financial damages because finances can be restituted but words can’t be taken back.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that as much as God creates with words, so do humans.

Of course, one major caveat on harmful speech is the intent. If sharing negative information has a constructive and beneficial purpose that may prevent harm or injustice, there is no prohibition, and there might even be an obligation to protect your neighbor by conveying the information – לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ.

Language distinguishes humans from other animals. It’s what makes us human. God creates and destroys with words, and so do we.

Rather than hurt and humiliate, let’s use our powerful words to help and heal; because words and ideas can change the world.

The Torah isn’t so much about God as it is about humans and how we ought to behave. This is in large part because we cannot comprehend what God is, only what God does.

One of Judaism’s fundamental beliefs is that we can change, through the ability to repair and repent – Teshuva – which presupposes that to some extent, God can also change. While this may sound absurd at first, it’s quite benign. We believe that with prayer, repentance, and charity, God might offer compassionate mercy in lieu of strict justice.

This transition from strict justice to compassionate mercy ought to be instructive to how we exercise judgment in our own lives.

The stated reason for the Flood was a human tendency towards evil:

וַיַּרְא ה, כִּי רַבָּה רָעַת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ, וְכָל-יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ, רַק רַע כָּל-הַיּוֹם –  Hashem saw the great evil of humans on Earth, and that every imagination of his heart’s intent was only ever evil. (6:5)

After the Flood, God laments the destruction, and promises not destroy life ever again:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-לִבּוֹ לֹא-אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם, כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו; וְלֹא-אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת-כָּל-חַי, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי – Hashem said in His heart: “I will not curse the ground again for humanity’s sake; because the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every living thing, as I have just done.” (8:21)

What changed between the beginning and end of the Flood?

Quite remarkably, it seems like nothing at all changed. Humans were bad before, and they are still bad after – יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ, רַק רַע כָּל-הַיּוֹם / כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו.

This non-change also happens when the Jewish People misguidedly craft the Golden Calf, upon which God states He can longer tolerate their obstinate rigidity:

כִּי לֹא אֶעֱלֶה בְּקִרְבְּךָ, כִּי עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף אַתָּה פֶּן-אֲכֶלְךָ בַּדָּרֶךְ – I will not go up with you; because you are a stiff-necked people; otherwise I might destroy you on the way! (33:3)

Yet Moshe appeals for God’s compassion and mercy based on that very same characteristic:

וַיֹּאמֶר אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ, אֲדֹנָי, יֵלֶךְ-נָא אֲדֹנָי, בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ:  כִּי עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף הוּא, וְסָלַחְתָּ לַעֲוֹנֵנוּ וּלְחַטָּאתֵנוּ וּנְחַלְתָּנוּ – And he said: “If I have found favor in your sight, Hashem, please go in our midst; because this is a stiff-necked people; and forgive our error and sin, and take us as Your inheritance.” (34:9)

While we cannot know God, we can learn to understand God a little better by imitating what He does. In both instances, humans do not earn forgiveness through Teshuva, because they have not, or perhaps cannot change. We are prone to error and don’t always learn from our mistakes.

In the story of Noach, God does something extremely unusual and talks to Himself – וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-לִבּוֹ. The power of this soliloquy teaches us that how we frame a characteristic can be the difference between strict justice and compassionate mercy. The self-same flaw God can condemn can also be excused on the same basis – כִּי.

We can’t change other people. But we can change the lens we use to scrutinize them. In the same way that God can choose to judge favorably out of a commitment to life, we can do the same.

A judgmental attitude helps neither ourselves nor others.

The book of Bereishis is about the evolution of human justice and the evolving dynamic of God’s relationship with people. Avraham is considered the first prototype of the kind of person God wanted people to behave like, and it is his descendants that would go on to receive the Torah.

But Noah was righteous too. Why is Noah not presented as a model of what a good person looks like?

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains that our role models never suspend their internal moral compasses, even when it brings them to the point of directly questioning God outright.

When Noah left the Ark, everything and everyone was gone. Noah properly took in the scale of desolation and loss, and questioned God – where was God’s mercy? The Zohar describes how God stunned Noah with a stinging reply – where was Noah’s mercy when God told him what was going to happen?

When God announced that Sodom would be destroyed, Avraham questioned God’s justice. When God threatened to destroy the Jewish people after they danced around the Golden Calf, Moshe questioned God’s justice. Throughout history, our heroes have challenged God when something is wrong.

Even if unsuccessful, they are still fundamentally correct. Avraham stood up for pagan barbarians, and said that if God is merciful and good, then that ought to be true even towards the wicked! Our heroes internal moral compasses tell them that something is wrong, and they follow through.

Noah simply accepted that his society was corrupt, and deserved annihilation. He did not question the course of events until it was much too late.

Accepting such things isn’t a feature – it’s a flaw. It meant that he agreed that everything and everyone was bad, and deserved what was coming. Reb Yisrael Salanter says that a hidden tzadik is no tzadik at all. Avraham went out into the world to show people a better way, whereas Noah just let his whole world fall into oblivion.

Maybe that’s why he never seems to make the list of truly righteous people. It may also be why he planted vineyards and turned to alcohol and solitude. The magnitude of his missed opportunity was enormous.

It is a Jewish characteristic to question everything, even of God. Just because God Himself says something, does not mean we must accept it. The entire point of prophecies of doom is that it spurs us to do something different and avert it so that God’s promise does not happen!

This may help explain the concept of prayer.

When something feels wrong don’t just accept it. It’s a challenge! Do something, say something.

The flood story is a complex and layered story, with many different messages about right and wrong.

One of the messages that Chazal understood is the importance of careful speech. When the Torah talks about the different kinds of animals, it does not use the accurate and concise form of טהור and טמא, pure and impure. Instead, it uses the terms טְּהוֹרָה and אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה, pure and that which is not pure. Avoiding a word with negative connotations teaches the value of the words we use.

Yet the opening of the story is not overly complimentary:

נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו – Noah was righteous; he was flawless in his day… (6:9)

Chazal detected ambiguity, and understood that this description could be interpreted favourably or unfavourably. Either he was absolutely righteous, and would have been considered righteous in any era, or he was only relatively righteous. In a degenerate age, he was the best person humanity could muster.

But how could Chazal teach the importance of speaking nicely, yet within the very same story interpret an ambiguous phrase unfavourably?

God spoke to Noah and said something similar:

כִּי־אֹתְךָ רָאִיתִי צַדִּיק לְפָנַי בַּדּוֹר הַזֶּה – I have found you alone to be righteous in this generation… (7:1)

The Zohar says that the Noah thought that he was being damned with faint praise, and God didn’t rate him. Therefore, Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains, Chazal didn’t read it as a criticism – but Noah did! And his disappointment tarnished his subsequent choices and actions.

He didn’t try to save his community, influence them, or even pray for them, because he was only תָּמִים – flawless. There was only nothing wrong with him; in another time, that might not be enough. He could have been so much more, but believing that God’s ambiguous remark was a criticism destroyed him.

It is incorrect to be trite and small. Not only does it let yourself down; but far worse is that it lets the people who need you down too. It’s not wrong to believe in our ability to affect the people around us.

One of the messages of the flood story teaches that the opposite is true – there is a universal principle that every one of us would do well to believe that we can positively impact each other.

The  Flood narrative is complex. Human society had populated the world, and initially fulfilled its mission, until they lost their way, and degenerated to a point where things needed to start over.

What went wrong?

The Torah emphasizes Noach’s role as a partner with all living things:

צֵא, מִן-הַתֵּבָה–אַתָּה… כָּל-הַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר-אִתְּךָ מִכָּל-בָּשָׂר, בָּעוֹף וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל-הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ–הוצא (הַיְצֵא) אִתָּךְ; וְשָׁרְצוּ בָאָרֶץ, וּפָרוּ וְרָבוּ עַל-הָאָרֶץ – Leave the Ark; you… and every creature with you. Every creature, bird, animal and insect that creeps on the earth, should leave with you. They will multiply and infest the earth. (8:16-17)

The Malbim explains that the partnership aspect was beyond the fact their survival was due to the fact they were physically with him.

Humans are created with the gift of free will. When Adam and Eve, as the only people in the world, corrupted their moral freedom, the consequences were dire, and the same almost happened once again; an entire generation collectively squandered their moral consciousness, defeating the purpose of their creation. The moral fabric of the world disintegrated to a point where the Torah  states that all hope was lost:

כִּי-הִשְׁחִית כָּל-בָּשָׂר אֶת-דַּרְכּוֹ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ – that every living creature had lost its way… (6:12)

Noach reclaimed and preserved decency, and “humanity” – in the true sense of the word, by exerting his moral freedom for honesty and goodness. As the sole creature not to lose his way, existence could linger on exclusively for his sake. The entire planet owed him a life debt, and this is the partnership the Torah refers to:

צֵא, מִן-הַתֵּבָה–אַתָּה… כָּל-הַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר-אִתְּךָ מִכָּל-בָּשָׂר, בָּעוֹף וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל-הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ–הוצא (הַיְצֵא) אִתָּךְ; וְשָׁרְצוּ בָאָרֶץ, וּפָרוּ וְרָבוּ עַל-הָאָרֶץ – Leave the Ark – you… Every living creature with you. Every creature, bird, animal and insect that creeps on the earth, should leave with you, and they will multiply and infest the earth. (8:16-17)

Nature literally survived  through him – אִתְּךָ. It therefore follows that after this event, humanity is permitted to consume meat for the very first time.

By rising above a failing world, Noach set humanity aside as being the noblest of all creatures.

When Noach is warned of the impending flood, the first ever distinction is made between kosher and non-kosher animals. This was not practical dietary information yet, as humans were not yet permitted to consume meat. Yet there was still a certain degree of relevance to the people of the time – they were only allowed to bring sacrificial offerings from kosher animals.

When Noach is instructed how to populate the ark, he is to seek out the kosher animals, whereas the non-kosher animals would come to him. But why the distinction?

Kosher does not exist for bodily health.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that animals are  טהור if they are receptive to human influence; they are submissive to man without requiring to be tamed; they serve our purposes; their instincts do not overwhelmingly determine their behaviour. Animals which are not טהור  are unable to be controlled, and can only be tamed, if at all, through violence.

The word for kosher animals, טהור, is related to the word צהור meaning transparent, which describes a property that allows light to pass through something. Consequently, purity has the implications of being conducive and receptive.

This same property is relevant to sacrifices. The main function of a sacrifice is to symbolically dedicate or actions to God. Through its blood, we symbolically devote our own lifeblood to God’s will. Accordingly, only animals which closely align to this disposition are suitable. The characteristics of the kosher animals are what Jews should aspire to have within them – a controlled instinct.

The animals designated as kosher inform humanity of our mission. Consequently, it is understandable why Noach was commanded to actively seek out the animals that showed the characteristic missing in his generation.

Moral consciousness is an active choice.