Noach: The Balance between Giving and Receiving

Noach: The Balance between Giving and Receiving

Parshas Noach:

The Balance between Giving and Receiving

This Torah portion speaks of two kinds of people: one typified by the generation of the flood, and the other by the generation of the Tower of Babel. In between the stories of these two generations the entire world is submerged in flood waters.

The mystics allegorically understand the Flood as an immersion in purifying mikvah waters—a renewal or rebirth for the world. The flood thus parallels the creation process in Genesis, in which the world is covered with water before life-sustaining dry land can appear.



What goes so terribly wrong with humanity that the Creation requires such a radical purification?

What part do Noach and his family—the surviving remnant of human consciousness—play in this purification?

How does Noach’s experience in the Ark help to rectify consciousness?

After the Flood even the human diet is transformed. Originally Adam is a vegetarian: “And Hashem said, Behold I have given you every plant… and every tree whose fruit bears seed; it shall be to you for food” (1:29). Noach however receives divine permission eat the flesh of animals: “Every moving thing which lives shall be to you for food. Like the green plants, I have given you everything” (9:3). Why after the Flood are people suddenly allowed to eat meat if they desire?




In the verses following the creation of Adam we read,
“And Hashem blessed them and Hashem said to them: be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and every creature which moves on the earth” (1:28).

‘Dominion’ seems therefore to be the human task. Despite the gentleness implied in Adam’s vegetarianism, one might assume that this verse is giving humanity the license to control animals and the environment. This view is mistaken. The meaning of rediya, dominion, is not ‘to control’, but rather ‘to take care of’—to be powerful yet yielding, in a mode of stewardship, ensuring the well-being of all life. This role is an aspect of the Divine image: “And Hashem said, Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea…” (1:26). Man is invested with the power to be, like G-d, a universal caretaker. The criterion for true ‘dominion’ or ‘caretaking’ in G-d’s image is selfless giving.

How did man bring upon himself and all of Creation the decree of the Mabul, the Flood?

Society had degraded to the point that “…the earth was filled with chamas” Onkolos says chamas means chatufin—they grabbed from each other.  According to the Talmud the final decree was sealed because of theft. People became so selfish they lived only to take, to receive. The Divine image had become completely reversed.


In Kabalah, giving is understood to be a spiritually masculine activity. Designed to be givers, yet lacking a strong counterbalance to this masculinity, pure selfless giving easily flipped into selfish giving, which is essentially about taking, giving to others for the sake of self. The world was awash with male energy without dilution. ‘Dominion’ then became domination—“giving”, but with a motive of controlling the receiver—and this set the stage for wanton abuse.

The imbalance in masculine consciousness was rooted within Adam himself, as the verse says, “And the man assigned names to all the cattle, birds in the sky, and every beast of the field, but man did not find a helper corresponding to him” (2.20). To name someone or something is to define it, and thus to control it. According to the Midrash and to Rashi, the verse implies that Adam attempted to mate with each of the animals, obviously precluding consent or mutuality. Although this interpretation may appear very strange to us, it can be understood on the grounds that Adam was living in a state of childlike innocence. He had been given the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, and yet he had not been provided with an appropriate mate. Therefore he sought, as commanded, a receiver—the feminine attribute of receptivity.

The narrative continues “He did not find someone corresponding to him”—in all of Creation Adam was unable to find a corresponding partner, literally an ezer kenegda—a “helper opposite him”. Only once Chava was created could Adam’s energies find balance, for Chava alone was capable of helping him through opposition, as an equal. We can learn from this that a good relationship requires us to be open to another—an ‘other’, a kenegda, a counter-balancing opposite.

The generation of the Mabul may have sensed that giving was important, but they hid their selfish desire to ‘receive’ behind imposing the ideal on others: “Give! Give!” As the Beis Halevi points out, man’s actions affect his environment, and even the animal kingdom can be influenced by man’s state of consciousness. Nature itself became infected with the tyranny of this generation, and each of the animals began mating with other species. A world which is completely permeated with self-centered hypocrisy and chaos is so contrary to its original plan, of giving  that it can no longer support its own existence. There is no way out, other than complete transformation.


Even the single modicum of righteousness in the world—represented by Noach—was to some extent infected with selfishness, in the sense that he cared only for his own kin. The Zohar comments that Noach was unlike Abraham who demanded that G-d not harm the people of Sodom. He did not pray for his generation.

The verse however clearly defines Noach as a tzadik. Since, as we learn, he had three children, perhaps a literalist interpretation may be offered: his righteousness lay in that all of his children were boys. According to Torah and Rabbinic teachings, when one is engaged in relationships with his wife and gives joy to his wife, withholding himself and allowing her to enjoy first, he will father a male child. Noach’s fathering three boys points to a certain capacity for selfless giving, making him unique amidst a generation of ‘takers’.



Noach was commanded to build a teivah, an ark, a vessel which contained the universe in microcosm.  Within this miniature world, Noach was forced to give himself totally to the care of each of the animals, as well as the humans, in the ark. It was a constant labor of feeding the creatures from the smallest to the largest, according to each of their needs and schedules.

Once, when Noach came late to feed the lion, the lion hit him with his paw, injuring him,  the Midrash records. This physical injury can be understood as a manifestation of a spiritual defect: even though Noach was surely exerting himself in his service, whatever it was that delayed him also happened to cause another being discomfort. Nevertheless, through Noach’s concentrated activity in dedication to others, he was finally able to rectify the forces of selfishness and reverse the destructive course of history. The human being now had the power to return to the status of caretaker and giver.


Despite this redemption and rebirth, humanity’s collective status as benevolent rulers was not fully recovered by means of the Flood. The human capacity for G-d-like responsibility and ‘dominion’ remained tenuous. The distortion of the G-dly image had too deeply submerged part of human consciousness into natural reality. Now subject to the general rules of nature, in which he-who-is-stronger is predator, man was permitted to eat meat.

Hashem commanded, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and the fear and dread of you shall be upon all the creatures of the land and all the birds of the sky.… Every moving thing which lives shall be to you for food, like the green plants, I have given you everything”. (9.1-3) Still not an expression of the level of ‘dominion’, the human being began to bring fear and dread upon animals. This was something new—a reality foreign to Adam, despite his inappropriate behaviors and their effects on the animal kingdom. Even though Adam manipulated the animals, he still intended in general to care for them—it would not have occurred to him to kill and eat them like a predator. He was somewhat outside of nature, and in charge of ensuring that nature operates according to plan.

The Flood of purification did remove the global dead-end, but perhaps it was not meant to completely remove the potential for selfish control. Therefore, our verse regarding the eating of meat could be saying, as it were, “Even after the Mabul, humanity continues to be attached to selfishness and predation. Let them live from that level as long as they wish, but let it be gentler than before the Flood. With some constraints and compromises in place, man may be gradually retrained to be a G-d-like ‘ruler’.  Although he now has some of the urges of a predatory animal, ultimately he will lose his taste for self-centered control, and with it,  perhaps his appetite for meat. Nevertheless, because humanity saved My animal kingdom, the animals in turn owe humanity their lives. And despite humanity’s downfalls, there remains an essential qualitative difference in their souls that allows them to stay on course while satisfying their desire with a provisional and balanced consumption of meat. Here is a middle way, a wider path back to My original plan.”



Once the infection of ‘taking’ was wiped out by the Flood, the world was suddenly vulnerable to a different set of side-effects and imbalances. The Generation of the Tower, the Dor HaFlaga, endeavored to return to the status of ‘givers’, but now humanity wanted to be the sole givers—only givers and not receivers.

The Torah says of this generation, “They were of one language, and a common purpose.” We might ask, what could be wrong with that?  At least they realized that basing their lives on ‘taking’ is a path leading to destruction. At least they gave themselves to the collective. However, in their spiritual ‘high’ they reacted by swinging to the opposite extreme, to a distorted type of selflessness.

The Dor Haflagah rallied together to “wage war with heaven.” As the Midrash tells us, the people argued, “God has no right to have the heavens for Himself; let us go up to heaven and wage war with Him.” The Abarbanel asks: could they really have been that silly? The Ran joins in: “How could it be that an entire generation agreed unanimously on such a stupidity”—as to make war on the Creator?!

The Ran concludes that the subsequent dispersion was not because of something they actually did wrong. Rather, their extreme utopian idealism was based on a reaction to the chaotic events of the past. Ibn Ezra writes that they wanted perfect unity as a society. Although this had the appearance of G-d’s will, it was really an attempt to attain immunity in regards to G-d’s will.

In general, ‘Heaven’ is a generic term for ‘giver’, while ‘earth’ implies ‘receiver’. In this generation, the consensus was that Heaven should no longer be the source—they themselves should be. In order to avoid ‘receiving’, they felt they must subsume G-d’s role of divine benefactor. Then they would never again have to receive G-d’s correction—they would already be spiritually correct. Nor would they have to depend on G-d’s blessing for survival if they could rise to the level of being the givers of blessing. They understood that if they had a perfect, selfless consensus on all matters, that nothing could threaten them again, not even negative Divine decrees such as the Flood.

The naivete of this solution is clear. Perfect selflessness is a valid spiritual goal, but it can end in ruin if humble receptivity and human dependency on G-d is excluded. Everything we have to give comes from Heaven. Cooperative unity is a wonderful high ideal, but it is doomed if it doesn’t embrace human diversity and individuality. Authentic unity on the human level is not the facile unity of mere conformity, but the harmony between unique individuals. One of the greatest ways of giving another is to make a tzimtzum—to create the inner space to receive the ‘other’, to validate their unique qualities and compassionately understand their frailties. 

The dispersion was therefore not exactly a ‘punishment’ for a wrongdoing, it was an inevitable effect of their ‘spiritual fascism’. It was a swing back to diversity, both inward and outward, one necessary to ensure that humanity would not take the easy way out, but instead continue to grow toward Divine balance.


Let us now take the wisdom enfolded within these stories and process it on more abstract levels. The story of the Flood and the story of the Tower represent two forms of extremism, and the point in the middle which balances and cancels out the two is the Teivah.

As is now clear, man is born to be both a giver and a receiver. The Teiva represents the essential name of G-d, the Tetragrammaton, otherwise known as the name Havaya, the Yud, Hei, Vav and Hei and the name Havaya includes the qualities of both giver and receiver. If the four letters of the name are visualized in descending order, the first letter, Yud, is on the top. This position symbolizes giving. The next letter below the Yud is the Hei, therefore it receives descending energy from the Yud.  The third letter, Vav, takes the energy from the upper letters and channels it downward, giving it to the lower Hei, the lower-level receiver.

Using the numerical values for each letter and the interpretive mathematical techniques of gematria, the Ari explains how the name Havaya alludes to the Teivah:

Yud =10.


10 x 5 = 50. 

The width of the Teivah was 50 cubits.



Again, the Vav is like a channel between the upper Hei and the lower Hei. Based on the equation described above, the upper Hei now equals 50. The connection between the upper Hei (50) and the Vav (6) therefore manifests as:

50 x 6 = 300. The length of the Teivah was 300 cubits.

The connection between the Vav (6) and the lower Hei (5) is:

6 x 5 = 30.  The Teivah was 30 cubits tall.

Thus, spiritually speaking, the Teiva contains all of the elements of giver and receiver.

Another way of demonstrating that the Teivah symbolizes the balance of giver and receiver is in processing the relationship between the name Havaya, and the name Ad-nai. Havaya is the ineffable four-letter name of G-d. Our current historical era is characterized by an inability to communicate a total understanding of the Infinite Transcendence corresponding to this name. To attempt a direct verbal expression of this name, one would be implying that they had attained spiritual perfection, immunity to the growth process of exile. For virtually all people, this would resemble the spiritually arrogant idealism of the generation of the Tower. Therefore, we humbly refrain from verbalizing the name as it is spelled. Within the sacred circumstance of prayer or Torah study, we refer to the reality behind the four-letter name, using a verbal substitute, Ado-nai. This name (henceforth it  will be spelled Ad-nai) corresponds to a lower level of G-dliness. An experience of this level of revelation is possible to articulate within appropriate circumstances.

The reason we substitute the name Ad-nai for Havaya is that the two correspond to each other—when we say Ad-nai, we actually touch the reality of Havaya through a protective covering. Ad-nai is the vessel in this world for expressing the reality of Havaya. Havaya may therefore be pictured above Ad-nai, as an infinite benefactor positioned to bestow light upon an imminent receptacle. With this in mind we could create a diagram with the letters of Havaya on top of the letters of Ad-nai.  The Alef (1) of Ad-nai would be below the Yud (10) of Havaya: 1 x 10 = 10. The second letter of Ad-nai, Daled (4), would be beneath the Hei (5) of Havaya: 4 x 5 = 20. 10 + 20 = 30. We arrive again at 30 cubits, the height of the Teivah.

As we continue to join the imminent and transcendent realities, a Nun (50) would be below a Vav (6): 50 x 6 = 300. This refers to 300 cubit length of the Teivah.  A Yud (10) would be below a Hei (5): 10 x 5 = 50. This is the width of the Teivah.

The Teivah was the vessel that allowed life to coexist with the raging waters of the Flood. As we stated originally, the waters were a kind of cosmic mikvah. In Hebrew, the word for immersion in a mikvah is t’vila. T’vilah has the same three letters as the word bitul, meaning nullification, to become nothing. One immerses and becomes nullified within the mikvah in order to change from one ritual status to another. To transform a state of selfish taking to a spirit of generosity, one must pass through nothingness, or ayin.

By way of illustration, the numerical value of the word mikvah is 151. Anger,  ka’as, is 150. According to the rules of gematria we can also count the whole word (kolel) as a unit, so ka’as can also add up to 151. The power of bitul, mikvah cancels out the imbalances of the ego, transforming anger at its roots.

Picture the generation of the Flood and the Generation of the Tower as the two ends of a long beam that rests like a see-saw on a fulcrum. If you were to stand on one or the other end of this beam, it would be easy to lose your footing. The most stable place on the beam would be the middle, as close to the fulcrum as possible. The fulcrum between the two generations is the Teivah. In our lives, the Teivah represents the middle path between extremes. Whenever we experience ourselves swinging from one extreme to another, we can take refuge in the center, the ever-present point of stillness.

It may be obvious that when we discover the darkness of selfishness in ourselves, we need to become nothing in the purifying mikvah of G-d consciousness. More subtle and mature however, is when we detect in ourselves a trait of perfectionism or of brilliant spiritual ego, and then return to ayin. Whenever we think we have the answer, or that we’ve finally ‘made it’, it’s time to run back to our Source and begin again.

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