Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Noah

Parashat Noah

October 10, 2007

By Michael Kohn

Two years ago, as the flood waters from Hurricane Katrina raged in New Orleans, some thought it necessary to remark that the devastation wrought by the storm was divine retribution for the sins of the people living in that area. According to press reports, some prominent Rabbis described Hurricane Katrina as America’s punishment for supporting Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and/or condemned its mainly African-American victims for failing to study Torah. And another noted an article he had written in which he suggested that the sinfulness of New Orleans residents, rather than the Gaza withdrawal, might explain the destruction and death Katrina visited on their city in particular.

These comments, coming from those who believe in the literal truth of the Torah, raise a troubling theological question: “Does G-d keep a promise?” For if mankind’s sins can result in a divine act of retribution large enough to ravage a city, can those same sins, on a more massive scale, cause the destruction of life on earth?

The Torah tells us that after the flood, “G-d said in G-d’s heart (i.e to G-d’s self): Lo osif l’kaleil `od et ha’adamah ba’avur ha’adam, ki yeitzer lev ha’adam ra min’urav; v’lo osif od l’hakot et kol hai ka’asher `asiti – Never again will I curse the ground because of man, for the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and never again will I smite all life, which I have done.” (Gen. 8:21) Rashi comments that the repeated phrase: “Lo osif . . . v’lo osif” serves as G-d’s oath – as G-d’s promise. The Torah continues: “Od kol y’mei ha’aretz zera v’latzir, v’kot v’hom, v’kayitz va’horef, v’yom va’laylah, lo yishbotu – For all the days of earth, seed and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never rest.” (v. 22) Rashi comments that while the sequence of those seasons had ceased during the flood, thereafter G-d pledged that thereafter they would not cease from their natural course while earth exists.

Yet, only a few verses later, G-d appears to limit the oath: “V’ha’kimoti at b’riti itkhem v’lo yikareit kol basar od miei ha’mabul; v’lo yiyeh `od mabul l’shaheit ha’aretz – I will keep my covenant with you and no longer will all flesh be cut off by flood waters; and no longer will a flood destroy the earth.” (Gen. 9:11) Rashi does not comment on this discrepancy, but Sforno reads Mabul as any sort of catastrophe which destroys the substance of the earth. Sforno also notes that G-d’s covenant requires humans to refrain from shedding innocent blood.

I am old enough to have lived through the cold war era of Mutual Assured Destruction, where the United States and the Soviet Union each possessed more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy all life on earth several times over (not that those weapons have since been reduced to zero, but they seem less threatening to the existence of earth at this moment). And I am told by those whose knowledge in this area far exceeds mine, that global warming may just accomplish in a few short decades what thermonuclear weapons did not.

The Midrash teaches that G-d’s promise was not eternal, but exists only so long as heaven and earth endure (Gen. R. 34:11). Moreover, the promise was only that G-d would not destroy mankind. It did not include the apparent willingness of humans to be the instruments of their own destruction. The story of the flood teaches that mankind’s baser instincts are the seeds for the earth’s destruction. Whether such is accomplished through shedding of blood, the wanton destruction of our natural resources, or something else, such as building a major metropolitan area 15 feet below sea level and failing to maintain the flood control system, our survival is up to us. And if someday our actions do cause the destruction of this planet, G-d will have kept the promise. The troubling question is – which promise?