Noaḥ lived in a world filled with strife and sorrow, “And the Lord saw that the evil of man was great in the earth, and every creation of his heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). A devout amongst heathens, Noaḥ was chosen to lead the world into a new era, emerging into a world unlike any he had ever experienced previously.
Before the flood, Man was the centre of creation, the world’s raison d’être. “And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth’” (Genesis :28). Man was lord of his domain, ruler on the Earth. Blessed by God, humans were recognised as ‘other’ from the rest of creation, its ruler and master by Divine will. It was for this reason, as we’ll see, that God destroyed the entire world.
When one examines God’s decree of the flood, it seems rather rash. Due to the sins of man, the entire world had to be destroyed? “And it [the Flood] blotted out all beings that were upon the face of the earth, from man to animal to creeping thing and to the fowl of the heavens, and they were blotted out from the earth, and only Noah and those with him in the ark survived” (Genesis 7:23).
We can compare the two berakhot given to Adam and Noaḥ in our attempt to find an answer. “…Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. And your fear and your dread shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the fowl of the heaven; upon everything that creeps upon the ground and upon all the fish of the sea, [for] they have been given into your hand[s]. Every moving thing that lives shall be yours to eat; like the green vegetation, I have given you everything.” (Genesis 9:–). There is one crucial word missing from Noaḥ’s berakha, which was present it the berakha of Adam, the word כבשה – and conquer it. Ḥazal tell us in the Midrash that the blessing of Adam was actually nullified with the flood: “Where did our Avot learn to bless in each generation? From God who blessed Humanity when He created it, as it says in Genesis (above). And this blessing was active in the world until the flood, and then it was cancelled” (Tanḥuma [Buber], V’zot Ha’berakha, ). When Noaḥ leaves the Ark, he is blessed by God, as was Adam, but is not told to conquer the land.
The startling lack of this command can tell us volumes about the sin of Humanity, and the change of attitude by God towards His creations. Until the flood, Humanity was, as we mentioned, the purpose of creation, and thus was supremely important in the ‘eyes’ of God. Each and every life was of great value, as demonstrated in the language describing the life of each character before the flood, for example: “And all the days of Mahalalel were eight hundred and ninety five years, and he died” (Genesis 5:17). Each life is its own package, given its own pasuk, indicating its own intrinsic worth. After the mabul, the Torah’s language changes, becoming a simple list of progeny, failing to even list years lived by each person!
With the flood, Humanity falls. Many list the sin of Adam as the fall of Man. In reality, the ‘fall of man’ was Humanity’s continued failing, after the expulsion from Eden, to live up to the berakha of “and conquer it”. The “conquering” that God blessed Man with was not a war-like battle with creation for supreme dominance; rather it was a charge to challenge himself, the newfound inclination that he possessed, to do good, and right. Post Eden, Humanity was open, without boundaries. Man did whatever it liked, whenever it liked, without regard for any sort of discipline or growth.
When the world was created, it was created out of “tehom” – deep, churning waters – the pool of all possibilities. Before the flood, Humanity was expected to channel that pool, that chaos of complete and utter openness, into something productive and worthy in God’s creation. When, ultimately, Humanity failed, and their “heart was only evil all the time”, creation reflexively responded, “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on this day, all the springs of the great waters [Tehom] were split, and the windows of the heavens opened up” (Genesis 7:11). The world simply couldn’t withstand the lack of proper Human response.
The waters recede, the Ark comes to a rest, the door opens, and yet Noaḥ hesitates. He doesn’t leave the Ark. Before him is a world he’s never known, a world which doesn’t respond to him in the way it did previously, a world which operates irrespective of Humanity, “…I will no longer 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. So long as the earth exists, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease” (Genesis 8:21–22). Suddenly, the charge “to conquer” is no longer applicable. Our sages tell us, commenting on a verse from Psalms, ‘it is written [Psalms 36] “Man and animal God saves” – man, in the merit of the animals, is saved” (Midrash Rabbah [Vilna], Noaḥ, 33). Humanity has fallen from grace, has receded into the background of nature, just another link in the food chain, irrelevant to the Earth’s existence.
Yisrael is the renewed realisation of pre-Flood Humanity. We are told, each and every one of us, to be more than just the stewards of God’s Earth; we are to be its consciousness. Yisrael is enjoined to rise above the background noise of the world, to appear before God, to make ourselves known to Him as relevant, real, living beings, connected to the Source of Existence, ready to live as we were meant to, before God.
“‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, do I seek.” (Psalms 27)
Based on ideas learnt from Rabbi Joseph Dweck of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation in London.