Out of the ark and into the garden: The story of Noah in the Sabbatical year

There are three places in the Torah which talk about human beings and the animals – including wild animals – sharing one food supply. In Eden, in the ark during the flood, and in the Sabbatical year or Shmita. There’s a lot more to these stories, but you don’t really need to know much more to understand the basic message of the Torah.

We lived with the wild animals once, rather than carving out separate spaces for us and our domesticated fellow travelers. According to the Torah, that is the real truth, and all the owning and property and buying and selling is an illusion. We can return to that truth during Shmita, when we get to root ourselves in a real way in the land – not by owning it by being with it. Not by fencing it but by taking down fences. Not by hoarding but by sharing everything, with all the creatures.

Here are the relevant verses about eating:

In the garden of Eden, “God said: Here, I have given to you all every plant seeding seed which is on the face of all the land and every tree which has in it tree-fruit seeding seed, for you all it will be for eating, and for every wild animal of the land and for every bird of the skies and for every crawler on the land in which there is a living soul (nefesh chayah), every green plant for eating. And it was so.” (Genesis 1:29–30)

In the story of the flood, “God said to Noah: …from all life from all flesh, two from all you will bring unto the ark to keep them alive with you, male and female they will be. From the bird by their species and from the animal by her species from every land crawler by their species, two from all you will bring unto you to make them live. And you, take for you from all the food which is eaten, and gather unto you, and it will be for you and for them for eating.” (Genesis 6:19–21)

And in the laws of the Shmita or Sabbatical year, it says, “YHVH/Adonai spoke unto Moshe in Mt. Sinai, saying: You all will come into the land which I am giving to you, and the land will rest, a Shabbat for YHVH/Adonai…And the shabbat-growth of the land will be for you all for eating: for you and for your male servant and for your female servant and for your hired worker and for your settler living-as-a-stranger with you; and for your animal and for the wild animal which is in your land, all of her produce will be to eat.” (Leviticus 25:6–7)

There is a debate among the the earlier rabbis, about whether the tree fruit in Eden was just for the human beings and the grass for the animals, or whether it was all for all of them. Nachmanides says that humans dined separately, but Rashi says that it truly was one family sharing one food supply. As for the ark, according to the midrash Noah had to create one great store of every kind of food, because each animal needed its own sustenance, and Noah and his family had to spend every hour of the day feeding the animals, since some ate at dawn and some during the day, some at dusk and some at night.

After the flood, in between the ark and Shmita, comes the tragedy of human history. The wars and usurpations, enslavements and empires, the amassing of gold and land by some and the impoverishment of others. And in between the two are also the tragedies of our relationship to the wild animals: not just using but abusing, extinguishing whole species, and losing touch with our own wild selves.

That’s reflected in the flood story: when Noah and family emerge from the ark, they are told that “a terror of you and a dread of you will be over every wild animal of the land and every bird of the skies, everything which crawls the ground and all the fish of the sea, into your hands they are given. All that crawls which lives, for you it will be for eating – like green plants I have given all to you all. Just don’t eat flesh with its soul, its blood.” (Genesis 9:2–3)

This is no blessing but a curse. And it is no dominion: according to one interpretation, the meaning of dominion in Eden was that when Adam would call to the animals, they would come to him. Now it would be the opposite – they will run away in terror. (“Rashi” on B’reishit Rabbah 34:12)

One question for us today, in this year of Shmita, is: how can we get ourselves back to the garden? Back before our fellowship with the animals was lost? That can’t mean turn the hands of the clock back on history. Shmita answers a slightly different question: how do we get back to the garden as grownups, after having eaten from the tree of knowing good and evil? It’s not about feigned or renewed innocence, but rather about knowing our power to destroy, and not exercising that power. It’s about finding fellowship with the land and the other animals. And above all, it is about finding rest – rest from ourselves, and rest with each other, with all the other ones that inhabit the land.

A midrash says that during the twelve months in the ark, Noah “did not taste the taste of sleep, not in the day and not in the night, for he was busy feeding the souls that were with him.” (Tanchuma Kadum Noach 2) Another midrash, says that when God was setting up the world, the earth heard God say, “It’s not good, the human being alone” and she realized this meant that human beings would begin to reproduce. Then the earth “trembled and quaked”, saying, “I do not have in me the strength to feed the flocks of humanity.” God promised the earth to feed humanity at night with sleep, and so share the burden with her. (Pirkei d’Rabi Eliezer ch. 12)

In our society, where almost everyone is racing to keep their jobs or make money or outcompete, we don’t really let ourselves sleep. As a society we never rest. We don’t get enough of this divine food. And it’s not because like Noah we are feeding all the creatures. But here’s what this midrash teaches us: a humanity that never rests is a humanity cut off from the unconscious, cut off from its divine sustenance, and it is a humanity that will destroy the earth.

It is time for us to rest, and to dream, as a whole society: Shmita.

It says in Proverbs 11:30, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and one who acquires souls is wise.” These souls are the animals, the midrash teaches, and it was because Noah was capable of caring for them that he was worthy of being saved from the flood. (B’reishit Rabbah 30:6) Are we worthy?

It also says in Proverbs 12:10, “A righteous person knows the soul of his animal.” It is time to practice this righteousness. Not just with the other animals, but also with ourselves. How will we know the soul of this animal within us? How will we make peace within, with each other, and with the land? How will we dream our animal dreams again? That is the door Shmita opens for us. That is the ark Shmita builds for us. And I believe that is how we get back to the tree of life in the garden.

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