Despite what most people think, the story of Noach actually begins at the end of parshas Bereishis. The last few posukim introduce him for the first time, and talk about how terrible the world had become at that time, and the level of, seemingly, sexual degradation that was rampant throughout the land. Everyone knows about the posuk within Noach itself saying that the land was full of "chamas", or petty theft as it is often translated, but there was actually quite a bit more than that wrong with the world as told to us at the end of Bereishis.
The posuk following the one explaining the bad in the world at the end of Bereishis states:
"Vayinachem Hashem asa haAdam baAretz ki vayityatzev el libo..."
"God regretted making the world for he had made Man on earth and God was depressed in his heart."
Question time. And there are a lot. For one, God can regret something? Does that not inherently mean that God made a mistake? Is that not impossible? But bigger than that, what is with the weird word choice? When reading the Torah, one always has to ask why the story is being told in the way that it is. Any words could have been used and, in this case, far simpler ones would have sufficed — so why were these words used instead? "Depression" in God's heart? Is that even possible? What does that mean? God "made Man on earth"? A strange way of expressing the creation of Man, indeed.
And there is a weirder question, too. The posukim go on to say that God resolved to destroy the world and the people on it, and then says that Noach found favor in Gods eyes — and that's it. The parsha ends, and the story picks up at the beginning of Bereishis. Why end there? A strange place to break up the story, is it not? (The Catholic church was the one that broke up perakim, but the parshios were broken up by Chazal.)
The story of Noach then takes off as we all know it does. He is righteous in his generation; God implies, in a way, that He will save him; Noach is then instructed to build an ark. But then there is a strange posuk after Noach is commanded to build the ark in which God tells Noach that he promises to keep his covenant, and that Noach, his wife, and his kids will enter the ark and will be saved.
Hold on a second. What covenant? The promise he made to save Noach just a few moments before? Perhaps. But a promise is not much of a covenant — something that usually involves a give and take, or at least something more symbolic. And either way, why does God then need to reassure Noach that he will keep his own promise. Is God not good for it?
Ramban quotes Ibn Ezra as saying that the covenant, the bris, is indeed God saying, rather implicitly, that He will allow Noach to live through the flood. It is not explicit, but the inference is there. And the building of the ark makes it pretty obvious. Why would Noach have gone through all that trouble, building a whole ark, if he didn't have the feeling that God would save him? We know that Noach is going to make it out alive, but he sure didn't. Until he was told.
But still, there are problems with this answer, as it still leaves a bunch of the questions that we had above unanswered. So Ibn Ezra, as quoted by Ramban, presents an alternative answer. He suggests that the bris referred to by Hashem is the covenant after the flood — namely, the one in which God promises never to destroy the world again. It solves all our problems, true, but come on. Why would God mention a bris that Noach didn't know anything about yet?
Indeed, Ramban doesn't like the answer either, so, painted into a corner, he makes a minor tweak. He suggests that the bris Hashem refers to is a new promise that He won't change his mind. That not only would Noach survive to make it into the ark, but that God's long-term plan was also for Noach to live.
Okay. That works, I suppose, but it's all still very odd. This solves some of our problems, but it's not great.
Perhaps the best answer is right in front of us the whole time — Rashi. He says that the bris God refers to is an extra promise, as explained by the Midrash, that while on the ark, Noach's apples wouldn't mold, and that, before entering the ark, no one would kill him to try to stop him.
But where in the world does Rashi get that from? Sure, it solves all of our problems, but it sure makes a lot more.
Let's take a step back and look earlier in Bereishis when Noach is first born. It says that when Lemach was 182, there was “born to him a son”. The next posuk then introduces Noach, with a little prayer of sorts from Lemach saying:
”Zeh yenachameinu miMasaynu, U'Mayitzvon yadeinu min ha'adamah, asher ereh Hashem..."
That, in so many words, Noach would be the savior of generations and would bring Man out of the toil of the land. If you look at the other posukim introducing the previous generations, in not a single one of them does it say that "a son was born", but rather simply "so and so was born". Why here, by Noach, not only does it introduce him as a son, but why does it break it up into the two different posukim?
Let's now jump back to Noach and the posuk with the strange wording from the beginning of this all. Take a look at this, and this obviously works a lot better with the Hebrew words: The words parallel each other perfectly. Lemach says "Yenachamenu" and God says to Noach "Vayinachem". Lemach says "MiMasenu" and God says to Noach "Ki Aseh". Lemach, finally, uses the word "U'Mayitzvon" and God, in turn, uses the word "Vayityatzev" when talking to Noach. All the words have the same root. The two posukim parallel each other perfectly.
But what are we to make of this parallel? Well, there are two suggestions. One, that God was paralleling Lemach's language when talking to Noach to, in a way, spite him. To show that using the same words you used to hope to save the world, I am making the promise in which I will destroy it. God could have been showing the failure of the world.
But there is a more likely, and obviously nicer, answer as well, and one that resolves all of our questions. And that is the exact opposite. Perhaps God was showing that there still was hope in the world. There will come another day. Just like Lemach used those words as hope for his son, so too God is using them now as hope for the world. That is the covenant. That is the bris. That is why those words were used by God. God was, essentially, saying to Noach that there will be the hope that your father prayed for.
At the beginning of Bereishis, there is yet another strange posuk. And that is the one in which God creates Man and Woman. It says, loosely translated, "God made man in his image, Man and Woman he created." Once again, strange wording. Why write it like that? There are a lot of nice answers, but perhaps the best answer is found in the following posuk in which the mitzvah of peru u'revu is given: Man was made with Woman. Man was given the ability, and commandment, to procreate. Man should make a legacy. It even gives further instruction to Man in the posuk to eat food from the earth.
And here's where everything comes together. What did Rashi mean? This is what Rashi meant. That is the posuk he was alluding to. Noach's food would not spoil, nor would he be killed by other men, thus ending his legacy. Noach would still be the salvation. That was the covenant. Afterwards, Noach settles the land and plants a vineyard. Some say this was a foolish thing to do, but, perhaps, it was very much the opposite. Perhaps it was Noach showing symbolically that he was planting the start of the next story, planting his roots on earth. Sustenance. He will plant, and he will grow.
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch says that the posuk says "ben", or “son”, only by Noach specifically because Noach was the first true son. He was the Man Of Legacy. He would carry on not only Lemach's name, but the whole world. "Ben" is the root of the word "Boneh", to build. This is the first time a person was built for the future.
Finally, Rav Moshe Benovitz (from whom I got most of the ideas in this post) provides an explanation for why the parsha, and the lineage posukim, were broken up in the strange way that they were: Perhaps it is to show us that the story of Noach spills into the past and the future. It is a continuum.
When the Jews were being kicked out of Gaza, many lived in denial. They didn't pack their bags, they were still fixing things in their houses despite knowing Arabs would be living in those homes mere days later. One reporter asked a man planting a young sapling in his yard why he was doing that. What was he planting a tree now for? Why did he not see the reality of the situation? The man responded saying that, in truth, he was the most down to earth, real person there. In truth, he had packed his bags already and was ready to leave. But just as he knew the truth of that, he also knew, he said, that there was a future, and that years down the road, his children would be back in this land, and that he thought they should have a shady tree to sit under.
Everything that is done has massive effect on not just today, but for years to come. It is almost impossible to predict the full ramifications of our actions. Everything we do in the present matters — not just for the present itself, but for the future as well.
That is the story of Noach.