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Parashat Noah – 5779

October 12, 2018

A D’var Torah for Noah
By Rabbi Isaac Mann

Much has been written by the Bible commentators on the sins that caused God to bring on the Great Flood in the time of Noah. But little ink has been spilled (or keys pressed) in regard to what motivated the Supreme Being to ensure that there will never be a flood again to destroy the world (see Gen. 8:21, 9:8-17).

Surely if the corruption of humankind, and possibly the animal kingdom as well, brought on God’s anger (see Gen. 6:5-7, 11-13) and justified the destruction of all beings (except for Noah and those with him in the Ark), then what would happen if there would be a replay of this selfsame corruption? God’s hands, so to speak, would be tied by the oath He took not to put an end to all life. But then does that imply that He was wrong initially when all lives were wiped out? Did God regret doing so? Or was there a difference between the pre-diluvian generations and those that followed?

Some support for the former opinion, namely that the Almighty anthropomorphically regretted His decision to erase all human lives, in effect to create a new world, can be gleaned from the wording of the text:

“And the Lord smelled the pleasant aroma, and the Lord said to Himself [el libo—to His heart], ‘I will never again curse the earth because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth, and I will no longer smite all living things as I have done’” (Gen. 8:21).

The pleasant aroma is a reference to the burnt offerings that Noah offered after he left the Ark. The verse seems to suggest that God’s mood, so-to-speak, changed after inhaling the fragrant smell of Noah’s sacrifices. This prompted the Almighty’s reevaluation of humanity’s innate spiritual weakness. Moreover, the language in the beginning of this verse, “and the Lord said to Himself [el libo]” is reminiscent of an earlier verse (Gen. 6:6) —

“And the Lord regretted that He had made man upon the earth, and He became grieved in His heart [el libo].”

Again there is a reference to something changing in God’s heart, which suggests that that is the way the Torah hints at a change in the Divine’s anthropopathic demeanor. Just as there was an expression of God’s regret at creating humanity, however this is understood in light of Divine omniscience, there is a similar sense of regret of blotting out His creations by having brought on the Flood.

But perhaps there is another approach that avoids the need to claim a second Divine change of heart, and that is by looking for a major difference between the pre-Noah generations and the post-Noah world. Indeed we don’t have to look far. Shortly after God determines that He will never destroy the world again, but before He reveals that decision to Noah and shows him the famous sign of a rainbow, the Almighty gives him a series of rules and instructions on how to follow those rules (Gen. 9:3-7). These form the basis for what is known as the Seven Noahide Laws (see Sanhedrin 56a ff.), which include among others the outlawing of idolatry, murder, sexual immorality, and theft, all of which were violated, according to various commentators, by the generation of the Flood.

In brief, what changed after the Deluge was the giving of a Code of Law. Unlike the previous generations, for whom there was no divinely ordained and enunciated prohibitions, the new world that formed after the exit from the Ark was beholden to a God-given code that set limits and boundaries on human behavior. No longer could a powerful man, for example, take any woman he desired even if she was married to another man (as alluded to in Gen. 6:2). The code of law forbade such acts of thievery and immorality. And if one violated these laws, the consequences were severe, as the text indicates (Gen. 9:6).

Of course, this begs the question how could the previous generations have been punished if there was no law to violate. This issue was raised by, among others, the Keli Yakar (Rabbi Ephraim Luntschitz, 16th century Bible commentator) with regard to Cain’s punishment for killing Abel. After all, we find only one prohibition given to Adam – not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Where do we find any Divine promulgation outlawing murder? To this the Keli Yakar (to Gen. 4:9) responds that there was no need for such a specific prohibition coming from God, for the act of murder if permissible would undermine the very world that God created, and therefore, he says, it was in the category of the muskalot – laws that are logically discerned.

In a similar manner, Nahmanides, in his comment on the verse (Gen. 6:13) that refers to the thievery rampant before the Flood came down, speaks of this sin as one that is known by one’s reason “and there is no need for a prophet to instruct us on this matter.”

Apparently, reason and the use of logical discernment – coupled with a probable lack of judicial enforcement — were not enough to deter those early generations from following their evil inclinations. What changed was the formalization of a code given to Noah and to all generations thereafter which enshrined the laws that undergird human civilization. “Without law men are beasts,” as quoted by Maxwell Anderson. And even earlier this notion was expressed by Aristotle – “At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst” (Pol. I.2)

Indeed, God could now promise to never again destroy the [second] world He created, for this new world was circumscribed by Divine law.

(It should be pointed out that the above is based on the plain reading of the Biblical text [the peshat], but there is a tradition that the seven [or possibly six] “Noahide” laws were actually transmitted by God to Adam and his descendants. See, for example, Maimonides’ Code, Laws of Kings 9:1. See also Midrash Ha-Gadol to Gen. 2:16 that quotes both traditions regarding the original recipient of these so-called Noahide laws.)
Rabbi Isaac Mann is a former member of AJR’s Rabbinic faculty. He is currently the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.