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Did God ‘regret’ creating Mankind? Midrash Rabbah on Parshat Bereishis.

The midrash asks a question that seems almost heretical. What could the following  theologically challenging verse in Parshat Bereishis possibly mean?

וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם ה’ כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ׃ 

“And God regretted having made humankind on earth. And He was sad in his heart” (Bereishis 6:6)

How can an omniscient God make a mistake that God regrets? The Midrash assures us that it’s not heretical to entertain such a question by presenting an actual אֶפִּיקוֹרֶס (heretic) who asked just such a question: 

אֶפִּיקוֹרֶס אֶחָד שָׁאַל אֶת רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן קָרְחָה, אָמַר לוֹ אֵין אַתֶּם אוֹמְרִים שֶׁהַקָּבָּ”ה רוֹאֶה אֶת הַנּוֹלָד, אָמַר לוֹ הֵן. וְהָא כְתִיב וַיִּתְעַצֵּב אֶל לִבּוֹ

An אֶפִּיקוֹרֶס (heretic) asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha ‘Don’t you say that God can see the future? He (Rabbi Yehoshua ) answered, ‘yes.’ (the heretic continued) ‘But doesn’t it say “.. And He (God) was sad in his heart.’” {which implies that God did not know that things would turn out so badly?} (Bereishis Rabbah 27:4)

The heretic is satisfied with an unsatisfying answer. 

The Midrash continues with Rabbi Yehoshua asking the heretic how he felt when he had a baby boy? The heretic replied that he was overflowing with joy. Rabbi Yehoshua asked how he could be happy if he knew that the baby will die one day? His answer, of course, was that he takes life as it comes.  While he celebrated the joy of a baby boy he can’t simultaneously be grieving for what might happen a hundred years later.  So too, God was happy to create the world and sad to destroy it. The answer satisfied the heretic, but it should not have. It is precisely because God is above time and space that God could have, theoretically, been happy and sad at the same time. Of course, ascribing any emotions to God is simply anthropomorphic – (דִּבְּרָה תּוֹרָה כִּלְשׁוֹן בְּנֵי אָדָם). Perhaps the heretic accepted the answer because he  brought God down to a human level. Which is what made him a heretic in the first place.

But what about the rest of us?

We too seem to be given an unsatisfying answer

The Midrash goes on to present the answer as to why the Torah used such puzzling language. Rabbi Yehuda says that ‘וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם ה  “And God regretted” means:

תַּוְהוּת הָיְתָה לְפָנַי שֶׁבָּרָאתִי אוֹתוֹ מִלְּמַטָּה, שֶׁאִלּוּ בָּרָאתִי אוֹתוֹ מִלְּמַעְלָה לֹא הָיָה מוֹרֵד בִּי

“Regret was before me because of the fact that I created Man below (on Earth), had I created him above (in the heavenly sphere) he would not have rebelled against me.” (Ibid)

How does this answer our question? Isn’t Rabbi Yehuda making matters worse by spelling out exactly what God regretted? The Midrash continues with Rabbi Nechemia offering a completely different assessment of God’s regret:

מִתְנַחֵם אֲנִי שֶׁבָּרָאתִי אוֹתוֹ מִלְּמַטָּה שֶׁאִלּוּ בָּרָאתִי אוֹתוֹ מִלְּמַעְלָה כְּשֵׁם שֶׁהִמְרִיד בִּי אֶת

הַתַּחְתּוֹנִים, כָּךְ הָיָה מַמְרִיד בִּי אֶת הָעֶלְיוֹנִים

“I am consoled that I created mankind below (on earth) because if I created them in the higher spheres, just as they provoked everyone below to rebel against me (on earth), so would they have provoked the (celestial beings) of the upper sphere to rebel.” (Ibid)

The flood – a consequence of mankind not reaching its potential

It seems to me that the only way to make sense of this is to read Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nechemia a little differently. God set up the world to function with the fundamental principle of free will. The potential was for mankind to build a society based on justice and morality – to seek out a relationship with God and exhibit some gratitude (as we previously discussed) for the wondrous world which was created for mankind’s benefit. 

Instead, mankind exercised their free will to allow the strong and powerful in society to dominate and terrorize the weak and underprivileged.  Mankind rebelled against God by trampling all sense of morality and justice.  

Perhaps what Rabbi Yehuda is saying is that, תַּוְהוּת הָיְתָה לְפָנַי “regret was before me,” meaning that, to the outside observer,  it looks like God regretted creating mankind on earth.  But that was the plan.The outcome was known to God from the very beginning. There were no surprises.  

God created mankind in the lower realms of the earth because it is the only place where mankind has free will. If God had created him in the higher spheres, mankind would not have had the free will to rebel. Perhaps Rabbi Nechemia is adding that God is מִתְנַחֵם “can find comfort” in the fact that even though mankind made unfortunate choices,  the damage was contained. Their choice to rebel, which is their guaranteed right under the system of free will, did not affect the upper realms.

The Torah does not shy away from controversy .

It’s a hard lesson in terms of how God runs the world. Mankind has complete free will even though God knows what mankind will choose. There is no contradiction. What’s most striking about this Midrash is that, rather than avoid the subject, the Torah puts it out there, front and center. What looks to mankind as regret (וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם ה) and sadness on the part of God for not realizing that things would not turn out as planned  – is not that at all. Rather,  God is comforted that mankind’s free will has prevailed, even if they had to be eradicated by the flood because of their consummate evil – thus allowing for a new chapter for mankind to begin with Noach. 

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About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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