After the flood, G‑d gave the world seven universal mitzvot, which became known as the Seven Laws of Noah or the Seven Noahide commandments. Jews and non-Jews alike must keep these laws (though Jews are obligated by the Torah to keep many more – to a total of 613).

The Noahide commandments are...eminently sensible and practical...

The Noahide commandments are general mitzvahs, eminently sensible and practical: Do not murder, do not steal, do not engage in sexual improprieties, do not worship idols, do not blaspheme, and create a system of justice to make sure all live by these laws. There is one surprising exception – the law forbidding consumption of a limb severed from a living animal. Why would anyone want to do such a thing? Furthermore, if this is a Noahide commandment, what does it have to do with Noah?

There are some things that the Torah says that simply cannot be understood until you look into its deeper, hidden levels. As the great sage Rameh m'Panov put it, "The Torah speaks primarily in supernal or spiritual terms, and only hints at the physical world."

Shem miShmuel seeks to explain the mitzvah of not eating from the limbs of a live animal by alluding to its counterpart in the spiritual reality above. He recalls that the issue of not eating a limb severed from a live animal comes up when Joseph brings negative reports of his brothers to his father, Jacob. Joseph hints that his brothers are transgressing this serious Biblical command. Of what exactly was he accusing them?

Shem miShmuel explains that Joseph was a tzadik on a higher level than his brothers, who were also tzadikim. Joseph was the tzadik yesod olam — the righteous man who is the foundation of the world – in other words, the leader of the generation upon whom its spiritual welfare rests. His brothers were also tzadikim, righteous people who set a good example but whose main task is the help common people form a connection with the leader – in this case, Joseph.

Joseph could see the greatness of his brothers. Because he was aware of their righteousness, he was convinced that they also were aware of his higher level. When they failed to recognize him for who he was, he felt that they were acting as "severed limbs." They were guilty of separating themselves from the "living," the tzadik who is the foundation and the life force of the entire creation in his time. Therefore, they were guilty – in the spiritual sense – of "eating of a limb severed from a live animal." And because he felt that they were guilty in the spiritual sense, he assumed that they must be guilty physically as well.

They were like "severed limbs," without any link to the live body, the leader of the generation – Noah.

Noah was also the righteous person upon whom his entire generation depended. However, the people of his generation were so wicked that they had no connection with him whatsoever. They were like "severed limbs," without any link to the live body, the leader of the generation – Noah.

Noah's strength was that he fended off all the temptations of his times. Shem miShmuel says that this was not an easy or natural achievement for Noah, who had to work hard to escape the vices of his generation and not act like a limb "severed" from G‑d. When he succeeded, G‑d established his achievement as a mitzvah – a commandment for all times.

Never again would the leader be tempted by the "limbs" – by the non-believing people of the generation. From now on, it is they who would come to him, to the tzadik who is their foundation. Anything else corresponds to "eating a severed limb," separating oneself from the leader of the generation.

[From "Inner Lights from Jerusalem": based on the Shem miShmuel and other Chassidic and Kabalistic Sources, by Rabbi David Sterne, who also authored "Love Like Fire and Water: A Guide to Jewish Meditation."]