Parshat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)
Barely a single portion of the Torah has been concluded, and already God has decided to destroy the entire universe. The optimistic mood echoed in the verse, “And God saw all He had done and behold, it was very good” [Gen 1:31] has given way to a more foreboding atmosphere, heralded by the verse, “And God saw that the evil of man was great in the earth” [ibid. 6:5].
As last week’s portion came to a close, we learn that God now regrets the outcome of His creation [ibid. v. 6]. What is surprising is that this is not mentioned following the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, nor after Cain murdered his brother, Abel. Rather, this declaration came when God says that although He had once believed that He had created a good world, humans came along and turned everything sour.
Yet the Torah does not simply state that humans did evil things, or that, perhaps, some of his deeds were evil. The verse describes the evil of humanity as being an ingrained trait that serves as the guiding principle for all he does: “…and every imagination of his heart was only evil all the time.”
Humans were constantly thinking about what evil they could commit at any given time. Therefore, God ostensibly had no other choice but to regret the outcome of His creations, and destroy everything He had made. “And God said, ‘I will blot out humanity, which I created, from upon the face of the earth, from human to cattle to creeping thing, to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I made them’” [ibid. v. 7].
Two burning questions emerge from this text. One is theological: Did God not know that this would happen? Is God a creature of flesh and blood, who could regret what he had done, without having foreseen the dire outcome?
The second question is more existential: How could such a wondrous creature, created by God, degenerate to such an extent? What does this say about us as human beings? What is it meant to teach us?
The Torah continues, telling us that despite all of this, there was one person – Noah – in whom God found favor, and concludes the portion on this positive note [ibid. v. 8].
The logic that governs the division of the Torah into weekly portions would dictate that all of the verses describing the degeneration of humanity during Noah’s generation should appear in Parshat Noach. After all, the previous portion, Breishit, is already quite long and packed with content. Why, then, were these verses appended to the end of Breishit, including the very last verse, which ends with a description of God’s satisfaction with Noah?
Our Sages wanted to conclude Parshat Breishit on a positive note, so they leave us with a gleam of hope, personified by Noah, who, unlike his contemporaries, was moral and upstanding. In doing so, it teaches that perhaps there is hope for all of humankind, after all.
Still, despite this optimistic conclusion, our questions are left unanswered. Is just one human enough to save all of humankind from annihilation? How could such a good creation become so evil, to the point of threatening the very existence of the entire world?
One verse appearing in our portion reveals another facet that seems to shed light on the matter. After the flood, as Noah leaves the ark and offers a sacrifice to God, the Lord “smells” the scent of the sacrifice and proclaims, “I will no longer curse the earth because of humanity, for the imagination of the human heart is evil from its youth…” [ibid., 8:21].
These grim words are indeed difficult to swallow, and even frightening, from a moral standpoint. God takes for granted what He calls an inherent evil in humanity, concluding that if people are cruel by nature, the entire world must not be punished on account of humanity’s conduct. But what about all of the good contained deep down within people? Where had it gone with the passage of time?
These chilling words, which describe human inclinations as being essentially evil, might, perish the thought, engender the feeling that if this is the case, we can not be held responsible for our actions, for ultimately our evil inclinations will always get the better of us.
Moreover, what about all the gentle, noble souls we see every day, people who do good for themselves and for others? Is the entire world truly evil and corrupt? Any sensible individual should know, from experience, that sometimes, decisions are made based on logical considerations and careful thought, after factoring in ethical and moral considerations that affect these decisions, while at other times, we are propelled by our desire for revenge, greed, a lust for honor, and so on.
Indeed, a number of opposing forces are at work within us, and the selfish and materialistic aspects of our being have been a part of us since we were born. If we don’t cry, we won’t get food or attention from our parents. If we don’t fend for ourselves in kindergarten or at school, our teacher might not pay any attention to us.
Our fundamental struggle for survival drives everything we do when we are young and vulnerable, and so it should. Only when we grow and mature will we realize that alongside the struggle for our physical existence, we must infuse our lives with loftier goals and substance. We call these aspirations values and good traits, which give expression to humanity’s good inclination.
As mature adults, our challenge is not to simply suppress our existential needs, but rather to channel them by adapting them to a more profound world of values of which we are a part. God created the forces of subsistence in humanity so that they could be used for either good or evil, and our role is to properly rein in these forces, so that we, too, can review our actions and exclaim: “it is very good”.
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