As the parent of children who seem to have steel-trap memories, I have learned to be very careful about the kind of promises I make. They’ll remember that one time, six months ago when summer was a distant wish, that I promised we’d go tubing, and suddenly they’re asking me when that will happen or how come it didn’t happen and why I don’t keep my promises. Oy.
On the one hand, I probably made that promise in a spur-of-the-moment attempt to try and move us forward from whatever tantrum or heartbreak we were in the midst of. On the other hand, I probably should’ve thought it through just a tiny bit more to make sure that promise was something we could actually fulfill.
This balancing act of expectations and being held accountable is as old as humankind, and it’s particularly noticeable in the Torah this week. This week we read Parshat Noach, the story of Noah. This second section of text in the Torah takes us through the story of the flood, building the ark, Noah saving his family and the animals, sending out a dove, and God’s promise to never do this again. We learn of the generations of Noah and how humanity moved on to create the next piece of the narrative, the Tower of Bavel. After the Tower of Bavel, we see that the nations are scattered, and then the Torah quickly moves us through the 10 generations between Noah and Abraham, where the rest of our history takes off.
As God walks Noah and his family out of the destructive flood, a rainbow serves as God’s promise that “water will never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” Beyond this, the rainbow is meant to signify an ongoing commitment to the covenant for all time that we go through this world with God, not apart from. And yet, just a few verses later the whole of “flesh” builds a tower to the heavens that enrages God, but God has to hold true to this promise if they are to maintain any sense of trust going forward.
The promise of “never again” is much more serious than mine of a water park adventure, and yet both put the weight of follow-through on our words and actions in the future. Promises are made more challenging than necessary if we’re not cognizant of all the possible ramifications.
What Parshat Noach teaches us is that as difficult as they may be to keep sometimes, promises do more than guarantee an outcome for one party. The promises we make hold us accountable and remind us that words matter.