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Parashat Noach: A Paradigm Shift in the Understanding of Human Nature by Yaakov Bieler

October 27, 2011 by  
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The Divine Commitment never again to bring global devestation via a flood.

Although Noach and his family are saved from the devastation of the Flood due to Noach’s virtuous attributes, as objectively attested to by the Tora[1] and then restated by HaShem Himself,[2] it would appear from Beraishit 8:21 that whether or not Noach’s descendents are to be spared future Floods is not automatically assured until a particular action takes place.

Beraishit 8:20-22

And Noach built an altar to HaShem and he took from all of the ritually pure animals and all of the ritually pure birds and he offered up whole burnt offerings on the altar.

And HaShem Smelled the pleasant smell and HaShem Said in His Heart: I will not Continue any longer to Curse the earth due to man, because the inclination of the heart of man is evil from the time of his youth, and I will not Continue to further Smite all living things as I have Done.

Throughout all of the days of the earth, planting and harvesting, and hot and cold, and summer and winter, and day and night will not cease.

Difficulties inherent in this statement.

The apparent implications of these verses are doubly difficult:

a)  Had Noach not offered up sacrifices at all, let alone in a manner that was pleasing to HaShem, would the Divine Commitment not to bring another Flood ever have been made? What was so potent about these sacrifices that it changed the course of the relationship between God and humanity so fundamentally? While Kayin and Hevel bring sacrifices earlier on (Beraishit 4:3-5), we are not told of any sort of parallel profound Divine Reaction to their offerings.[3]

b) It appears as if HaShem, as it were, only now[4] “Comes to a realization” that man possesses a particular type of nature that necessitates attributing shortcomings in his behavior to an intrinsic aspect of his makeup rather than a willful decision on his part to sin. Consequently, human beings cannot be held totally accountable for their actions and should not be harshly punished. Yet if this description is accurate, did it not similarly apply prior to the Flood, bringing into question the appropriateness of the destruction of humanity in the first place! Furthermore, shouldn’t HaShem be Familiar with the essential makeup of the supposed crowning glory of His Creation, and therefore not have to Learn about man from the latter’s seemingly “unanticipated” actions following a devastating calamity? Finally, if we accept the assumption that all human sinfulness comes about as the result of a type of internal duress arising from pressures brought to bear by man’s “Yetzer HaRa” (Evil Inclination), how can anyone ever be punished for anything, including transgressions that are categorized as great evils such as murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality?

R. S.R. Hirsch on Beraishit 8:21 frames the difficulty inherent in these verses as

follows:

…Now as far as we can see, the following (Beraishit 8:21) “…because the inclination of the heart of man is evil from the time of his youth” has been completely erroneously taken to be the cause of this new determination of destiny. We cannot understand what the reasoning is supposed to be. Possibly, “because after all it would be of no use!” (i.e., what is the point of punishing man when he is unable to learn from his mistakes and prevent future transgressions?)  That would be an extremely unworthy statement for us to attribute to God making about Himself and His Work (i.e., shouldn’t God have “Designed” man in a manner whereby he could improve and change?) For one may not overlook the fact that the same words are used above for the cause of the punishment (Beraishit 6:5 “And God Saw that the evil of man was great upon the earth and all inclinations of the thoughts of his heart was only evil every day”), and now they are to be the cause of the reverse!?…

An approach for accounting for these difficulties.

It seems that the most obvious way to understand HaShem’s profound Response to Noach’s sacrifices following the Flood, is to presume that when God originally Endowed Adam with free choice,[5] He Chose not only not to “Know” what man will or will not do in a particular circumstance, but also deliberately “Refused to Ascertain” man’s capacity for self-improvement and his ability to learn from mistakes, both more comprehensive and far-reaching functions of free will.[6] Once we accept such a premise, we can support it by noting that from the Biblical account of the creation of Adam and Chava until Noach’s sacrificial offerings following his leaving the Ark, we do not find a single instance where anyone demonstrates either the ability or even the mere desire to grow morally and spiritually over the course of the several hundreds of years that constituted life-expectancy during this early Biblical epoch.

Here is what the Bible tells us, and consequently, all that HaShem “Knows” about man’s capabilities until Beraishit 8:20-22:

a)   When Adam and Chava are Created, they are Given a single Commandment regarding refraining from eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil Beraishit (2:17). They are unable to observe this Commandment (3:6), and consequently Chava is destined to endure the pain of childbirth (3:16), the earth is cursed due to their iniquity (3:17), and they are both exiled from Eden (3:24). We have no indication from any aspect of the Biblical presentation of this story that human beings were capable of striving to reach higher spiritual heights;[7] only that they failed to observe the single Devine Demand with which they had been presented, constituting an ominous beginning to their relationship with God.[8]

b)   Kayin and Hevel offer sacrifices (4:3-4), and while Hevel is Acknowledged by God as having proper intent when he offers the best of his animals (4:4), Kayin is not greeted with a similar Divine Approbation (4:5). HaShem Directs Kayin concerning the possibility of improving his actions (4:7),[9] i.e., engaging in Teshuva (repentance) which entails spiritual growth and development, but Kayin’s eventual killing his brother (4:8) reflects his disinterest and failure to take God’s Directive to heart. His indifference to responding positively to a Divine Call for self-improvement coupled with his crime of fratricide appear to reflect additional spiritual backsliding on the part of humanity.[10]

c)    The third generation’s key character is Enosh (4:26), and regarding this generation it is stated, “Az Huchal LiKro BeSheim HaShem” (then there was begun the calling in the Name of HaShem). Commentators understand this phrase as indicating an increase in idolatrous beliefs,[11] removing people even further from the possibility of not only properly worshiping HaShem, but even maintaining a basic belief in Him.

d)   The next outstanding individual who receives special mention is Chanoch, the seventh generation after Adam and Chava. Concerning Chanoch, the Tora states that “he walked with HaShem and ‘was not’ because HaShem ‘Took’ him” (5:24). While Chanoch may have been particularly spiritual,[12] the text does not suggest that he is concerned with influencing others, but rather appears to be focused only upon his own personal spirituality. And when we consider RaShI’s suggestion[13] that the reason why Chanoch was “Taken” by HaShem, was because this individual’s commitment to righteousness and monotheism was shaky at best, he can hardly serve as an ideal paradigm for what humanity is capable of in the religious realm. MaLBIM,[14] who posits that Chanoch decided to remove himself from the world once he had finished fathering children, indirectly suggests a similar idea, i.e., that Chanoch had no interest in dealing with the rest of humanity and eagerly isolated himself as soon as he could in order to devote himself exclusively to God. Both of these approaches would account for why there is no evidence that even the members of Chanoch’s immediate family are affected positively by the example set by their patriarch. Consequently, the likelihood of Chanoch playing a role in reversing the negative trends that were becoming stronger and stronger within human civilization is unlikely.

e)   Noach, too, the tenth generation from Adam, is described as “walking with HaShem” (6:9); however we are not told at any time that he strives to improve himself or draw closer to HaShem in any manner. While Noach may not have been the sort of active criminal that it seems the overwhelming majority of his contemporaries were (6:11-12),[15] the Biblical text does not go out of its way to state that he reflected positive qualities that could be passed down to his children and which would thereby justify the long-term survival of the human race without fears of subsequent floods.[16] Perhaps this is the intent of the somewhat negative evaluation of Noach as presented in the Talmud as one of two possibilities with respect to Noach’s achievements:

Sanhedrin 108a

“…He was whole-hearted in his generation…”

Said R. Yochanan: In his generation, but not in generations of others.

Reish Lakish said: In his generation, all the more so in the generations of others.

Said R. Chanina: A parable in accordance with R. Yochanan—to what is this to be compared? To a barrel of wine that has been placed in a cellar filled with vinegar. In its context, its pleasant smell can be detected; in another context (i.e., in a cellar filled with wine) its pleasant smell would not be detected.

Said R. Oshiya: A parable in accordance with Reish Lakish—to what is this to be compared? To a flask of “Pleitoon” (spikenard oil) that is lying among garbage; if it is fragrant where it is, how much more so when it is among spices.

In order for someone’s actions to be distinguished in any generation, positive, pro-active action will be required so that the individual will clearly stand out from his/her contemporaries. However if it is asserted that an individual is notable in only his/her immediate context, this might be due to that person’s not giving in to the corruption of his age, a stance unnoticeable during times unmarked by such corruption. Consequently, even if HaShem Saves Noach and his family from the Flood, such an act of Divine Mercy does not necessarily constitute a permanent reprieve for humankind from comprehensive destruction. It is possible that the sign Awaited for by HaShem before He is Prepared to Swear never to Bring another Flood, is the indication that this individual, and thereby his/her descendents can rise above whatever immediate context in which they find themselves to actively pursue the virtuous and the spiritual. Noach, and those who follow in his footsteps, may not be evil, but on the other hand, he is not demonstrably good or does anything to indicate that he possesses great potential for transcending himself and his spiritual condition. Furthermore, since it is difficult to remain in spiritual and moral stasis, if an individual is not actively striving to improve him/herself, it is more than likely that over time s/he will retrogress and give in to the temptations that corrupt the rest of society, as implied by RaShI’s and MaLBIM’s views of what happened to Chanoch, cited above. Even Noach’s post-Flood and post-sacrifice behavior is hardly beyond reproach, when he becomes drunk in his tent and conducts himself in less than an ideal manner (9:21).[17]

Consequently, as far as HaShem is Concerned, before the altar is built and the sacrifices are offered, “the jury remains out” with respect to even Noach and his descendents, and it might just prove necessary to destroy everyone yet again and start a third time from scratch, should things not proceed constructively with regard to humankind.

The significance of Noach’s offering sacrifices when he and his family emerged from the Ark.

What was it about Noach’s sacrifices that “Revealed to HaShem”, as it were, a reproducible, universal aspect of people that heretofore had not been clearly indicated?

Several commentators discuss not only the sea-change in human nature and potential represented by Noach’s sacrifices, but even the deep significance of his act of building an altar on which to present these offerings.

R. Dovid Tzvi Hoffmann on Beraishit 8:20

This is the first time that man constructs an altar to God. This altar is an elevated place, and the rising towards Him by means of this place, as well as the sacrifice that rises up to God from upon this place reflect man’s aspirations towards the Heavens. Man desires to approach His Creator, and he therefore strives to ascend to a place that is higher than ordinary.

It is also for this reason that Noach’s sacrifice is called an Olah (lit. that which goes up; fig. a whole burnt offering), as opposed to the offerings of Kayin and Hevel, who brought Mincha (lit. gift) sacrifices (Beraishit 4:3-5), intended to reflect no more than their acknowledgement of God’s Existence. Noach, in contrast to them, offers an Olah, a sacrifice that rises up upon the fire’s flames to Heaven. It is the symbol of the sacrific-er himself, who wishes to demonstrate his yearning to dedicate and sanctify his life to HaShem, to purify himself, to remove all dross from within him by means of the Divine Fire.

R. S.R. Hirsch on Beraishit 8:20

…It is evident from many places in the Scriptures that an altar is an elevation of earth towards God built by the hands of man…

the altar upon which we are allowed to bring offerings had to be a Mizbe’ach built of stones, but not a Matzeiva (monument) made of a single stone or rock that is found in its natural state in Nature. (See Devarim 16:22). We have to build the altar ourselves. It must not be standing on an arch or pillars, but rather… must be in direct contact with the ground, thereby representing a continuation of the earth. Only in this way does the altar express the elevation of the earth towards God by human activity. To take a single slab of stone and sacrifice thereon would mean recognizing God from the standpoint of Nature; whereas the built Mizbe’ach expresses the conception of first working oneself up above the bound character of Nature to the godlike, freewill standpoint of Man, and from that point of view, strive towards God. So that inasmuch as Noach built an altar to God on the fresh gift of the earth (i.e., the earth that had been inaccessible due to being covered by the Flood, now is useable once again by man since the floodwaters had receded), he, as the Ancestor, dedicated this newly gifted earth to be a place on which the future activity of mankind is to add stone to stone until ultimately the whole becomes a holy mountain of God.

Can such a profound realization only come about as the result of such a catastrophic event?

We might contend that it is a tragedy that it would take the destruction of practically the entire civilized world to arouse in Noach a call to action and spiritual growth. And when individuals indicate by their reprehensible actions that they are negating their potential and endangering their fellow humans, the Tora commands that society judges them fairly and render appropriate consequences. However the actions of a few never completely refute the continuing potential of the great mass of humanity, once it has been demonstrated by the sacrifices of Noach. All human beings as descendants of Noach are therefore obliged by this story to recognize and seek to actualize their own unique inner potentials to reach beyond themselves and draw closer to the Divine in both prayer and deed to improve ourselves as well as the world within which we live. Only then do we justify HaShem’s Continuing Confidence that the good in each of us will become manifest and humanity therefore should never be totally destroyed.


[1] Beraishit 6:9

“…Noach was a righteous man, whole was he in his generation, with God walked Noach.”

[2] Ibid. 7:1

“…because I have Seen you to be righteous before Me in this generation.”

[3] HaShem does Show Favor to Hevel’s sacrifice, but there is no apparent subsequent effect upon either HaShem or Hevel. It is Kayin who becomes the text’s center of attention, suggesting that his inferior attempt at sacrificing conveys more long-term significance for subsequent generations than Hevel’s successful offering.

[4] This is in contrast to what HaShem originally Stated vis-à-vis man’s overall nature (Noach serving as the extreme exception to the rule) prior to the Flood, suggesting that human beings  were essentially irredeemable and therefore merited total destruction:

Ibid. 6:5-8

“And the LORD Saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it Repented the LORD that He had Made man on the earth, and it Grieved Him at His Heart. And the LORD Said: ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for it Repenteth Me that I have Made them.’ But Noah found grace in the Eyes of the LORD.”

[5] Meshech Chachma on Beraishit 1:26 “Let Us make man in Our Image”—

“HaTzelem HaEloki” (the Image of God) is freedom of choice without any influences endemic to one’s nature, but rather originating from one’s will and free mind…

This commentator therefore suggests that free choice is not merely a quality associated with humanity, but rather it is the essential aspect of mankind that serves as the basis of human commonality with HaShem.

[6] While HaShem, Who by definition is Omniscient and Omnipotent, therefore Possesses the Ability to Know and Manipulate man’s actions, He is also Able to Decide not to do so in accordance with His Will. In this manner, objective Free Choice could be made available to man, with the eternal Divine Option to limit or remove it entirely. Unless it is posited that man is truly endowed with free choice, according to RaMBaM, for one, Judaism loses all meaning—see Mishneh Tora, Hilchot Teshuva, Chapt. 5-7.

[7] Although Midrashim attribute to Adam acts of repentance and the offering of prayers and sacrifices to HaShem, there is no clear indication in the relevant Biblical verses that this takes place. Could the Aggadot and Midrashim reflect “wishful thinking” on the part of the Rabbis, who find it difficult to understand how Adam and Chava could have been so spiritually insensitive?

[8] The Tora text does attribute to Adam and Chava the emotion of embarrassment—as soon as they swallow the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil their “eyes open” and they are embarrassed by their nakedness to the point where they fabricate temporary coverings for their bodies (3:7); when they hear HaShem “Approaching”, they hide (3:8). But from their lack of attempting to admit their sins and instead, diverting blame onto others (3:12-13), it would seem that the embarrassment was due to the fear of being caught and punished, rather than because they genuinely regretted what they had done and were looking to personally improve in the future.

[9] Beraishit 4:7

“If you do good/improve, you will be lifted up/forgiven; and if you do not improve, sin crouches at the door, and to you is its desire, but you can rule over it.”

[10] See the essay on Parashat Beraishit on http://text.rcarabbis.org/parashat-beraishit-the-first-penitent-by-yaakov-bieler/ Although sources are cited to the effect that Kayin may have repented, and in part such a view is dependent upon how one punctuates Beraishit 4:13, i.e., “My sin is too great to bear!” = confession; “My sin is too great to bear?” = denial, arrogance, nevertheless, there does not appear to be a record of the manner in which Kayin actualized his repentance in terms of subsequent actions. R. S.R. Hirsch on 4:17 suggests that Kayin became a builder of cities once he no longer could remain in the field, and these cities served as a form of atonement in the sense that they helped civilization to advance (see 4:20-22), in a manner that it never could have as long as people remained essentially agrarian, and devoted their time to shepherding and farming (see 4:2). However it could still be asked whether Kayin’s development of the concept of urban living and creativity was done out of a religious need to contribute positively to society after having committed the height of anti-social acts, or did he involve himself in such projects because he simply had nothing better to do?

[11] R. Menachem Kasher in Tora Shleima, Vol. 1, p. 166, #792 quotes the following Midrash on 1:27 “In the Image of God He Created him”—

He (Adam) He Created in His Image, but the image of his offspring changed, as it is said, “And to Shet was born a son, and he called his name Enosh; then there was begun the calling in the Name of HaShem”.

Because Enosh said to Shet: My father! Who is your father?

He said to him: Adam.

And who is his father?

He has no father, but rather he was formed from the dust (2:7).

He went, took clumps of dust and turned them into an image.

He said to his father: This does not walk and does not speak.

He said to him: HaShem Breathed into his nostrils the soul of life.

He went and did the same and blew into the nostrils of the image.

Satan came and entered into it (the image), and the generation of Enosh erred by following it.

This is the dual connotation of “Huchal” (began), “Chillel” (a profanation) of the Divine Name, (i.e., a Chillul HaShem).

The Holy One Blessed Be He Came and changed their likeness to the likeness of apes during the generation of the Dispersion.

It would seem that the Midrash poetically represents the inability of man to appreciate an incorporeal Deity as long as he does not have first-hand experience with Him, as did Adam and Kayin. The march towards idolatry, in the absence of prophecy and Revelation, appears to be inevitable.

[12] The only other individual in TaNaCh who is described with this particular metaphor is Noach (6:9). Consequently, whatever praise is heaped upon Noach, should be allotted to Chanoch as well, since it is likely that he achieved in his generation what Noach was going to do in his.

[13] RaShI on 5:23

A righteous individual but ‘light’ in his mind (i.e., insufficiently resolute and self-disciplined) to avoid returning to doing evil. Therefore HaShem Hurried to Remove him and he died before his time (i.e., whereas those before and after him lived for 600-900 years, Chanoch died at 365)…

[14] MaLBIM on 5:22-4

Initially he walked with HaShem to seek out truths and to observe the Commandments of HaShem, and at the same time he also engaged in the matters of the world and fathered children. But once he reached the age of 365, the number of days in the solar year, he began to walk with God exclusively, and he separated himself from this world, and he was not, i.e., he no longer participated in this world, because then he was taken into the Heavens, similar to Eliyahu (see II Melachim 2:11)…

[15] The sins that the text explicitly mentions include:

a) (6:11-12) “VaTishachet HaAretz Lifnai HaElokim…” (and the earth was corrupted before God); “VaYar Elokim Et HaArtetz VeHineh Nishchata, Ki Hishchit Kol Basar Et Darko Al HaAretz” (And God Saw the earth and behold it was corrupted, because all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth), terminology usually interpreted as reflecting sexual malfeasance among all animate beings;

and b) (6:11) “…VaTimaleh HaAretz Chamas” (and the earth was filled with violence), interpreted Rabinically as indicating wide-spread thievery among the members of human society.

[16] A stark contrast to the Tora’s relative silence concerning Noach’s positive behavior until his offering sacrifices after the Flood, is how Avraham’s activities are described. Among Avraham’s achievements cited by the Tora are:

a) Possible conversionary efforts—(12:5 “…VeEt HaNefesh Asher Asu BeCharan” [and the souls that they “made” in Charan]—RaShI however supplies an alternate interpretation that suggests that this phrase reflects the servants that Avraham and Sara acquired, rather than the disciples that they influenced; 14:14 “…VaYarek Et Chanichav…” [and he, Avraham, emptied out his students {in order to try to free Lot from his captors}], suggesting that there were individuals who had joined Avraham’s camp in order to learn from him.

b) Offering hospitality to guests—(18:1 ff. “…VeHu Yosheiv Petach HaOhel KeChom HaYom” (and he was sitting in the doorway of the tent in the heat of the day [searching for potential guests]; 21:33 “VaYita Eishel BiVe’er Shava…” (and he established an inn/orchard in Be’er Sheva [in order to accommodate guests].

c) Openly confronting wrongdoers—(14:22-23 Avraham refuses to share in the spoils of war with the King of Sodom because of the corruption associated with his kingdom; 20:11 “…Ki Amarti Rak Ein Yirat Elokim BaMakom HaZeh” (for I said certainly there is no fear of God in this place [in Gerar, the kingdom of Avimelech).

d) Trying to save people even if they are sinners—(18:23 ff. Avraham negotiating with HaShem regarding the impending destruction of Sodom and Amora).

and  e) HaShem’s Own Testimony concerning Avraham’s proactive approach to life and religion—(18:19  “Because I Know him, that he intends to command his children and his household who will follow him, and they will observe the Way of HaShem to do righteousness and justice…”; (26:5) “Surely because Avraham listened to My Voice, and he observed My Guardings, My Commandments, My Statutes and My Laws.”

[17] I have always understood Noach’s drunkenness as an indication of his suffering survivor guilt. Nevertheless even if we can account for why someone acts in a certain manner, that does not create license for that individual to continue to do so, and we are entitled to make a moral judgment regarding the appropriateness of such conduct.

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