Yoni Mozeson
Yoni Mozeson

Did God ‘regret’ creating Mankind?

The Torah clearly states at the end of Parshat Bereishis:

וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם יְהֹוָ֔ה כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ

And God regretted making Man in the land and it saddened Him” (Bereishis 6:6)

There is one thing we know for sure. We know what it doesn’t mean. God is beyond our notion of time and space. Since God knows the outcome of all of His endeavors from the outset,  God cannot regret creating Man. וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם can also be defined as  “changing one’s mind.”  That too cannot be taken literally. Finally, וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם can mean that one “was consoled.” This again is a human emotion that cannot be prescribed to an all-knowing, infallible God. 

As we read in the Haftorah that is read on fast days:

 כִּ֣י לֹ֤א מַחְשְׁבוֹתַי֙ מַחְשְׁב֣וֹתֵיכֶ֔ם “Because My (God’s) thought patterns are unlike your (human) thought patterns” (Yeshayahu 55:6).  As the commentators to the Midrash say, the operating principle here is דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם. This  means that the Torah uses language that we can understand to describe something that we can’t possibly understand. 

This is commonly understood to mean that the situation of Mankind had reached such dire straits that God had to take drastic action. Although God already knew about this outcome and does not exhibit human emotions, a person in a similar situation would likely feel tremendous regret and sadness. Eventually, the person would be comforted by the fact that, for the greater good, these extreme measures had to be taken. So the Torah’s choice of language was primarily meant to give us a flavor for how bad the situation was prior to the flood.

This explanation is not entirely satisfying. Perhaps the principle of  דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם (The Torah uses the parlance of man) has an additional meaning.

A message for us when we are facing difficulties

Bringing a flood to wipe out virtually all of Mankind is most certainly a situation in which something of great promise went bad. Mankind had the ability to soar to great heights. Instead it devolved into thievery and depravity. It’s not appropriate to ask how God coped emotionally with the situation. After all, God knew the outcome from the start. 

However,  there is a poignant message for us. How do we deal with situations in life when something or someone of great promise has a tragic ending. 

Consider the terrible mix of  emotions that parents have when their child has become a drug addict. Oftentimes the best remedy is to kick the child out of the house. The parent is plagued with guilt and “regret” for putting  the child they love in harm’s way. Yet, in a moment of strength they are “comforted” that these measures can enable their child to finally “hit rock bottom” and begin the road to recovery.

Another message embedded in this story can guide us on how to give “נחמה”, consolation, to someone who is grieving the death of a loved one. Perhaps the reason that the word  וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם  has so many meanings, “consolation, regret and change of mind,”  is because when you console someone you help them put their tragedy in perspective.  You help them accept their loss and  “change their mind” about focusing solely on their  tragedy.” You’re helping them transition away from a state of being filled with guilt and “regret.” 

The message of God’s ‘sadness’

Now let’s try to understand what message we can take away from the fact that the Torah describes וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ – how God was “saddened.” Midrash Rabbah brings this fascinating piece in which an apostate asks the obvious question. How is it  possible that an all- knowing God could be sad about the way Mankind turned out:

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. אָמַר לוֹ נוֹלַד לְךָ בֶּן זָכָר מִיָּמֶיךָ, אָמַר לוֹ הֵן, אָמַר לוֹ מֶה עָשִׂיתָ, אָמַר לוֹ שָׂמַחְתִּי וְשִׂמַּחְתִּי אֶת הַכֹּל, אָמַר לוֹ וְלֹא הָיִיתָ יוֹדֵעַ שֶׁסּוֹפוֹ לָמוּת, אָמַר לוֹ בִּשְׁעַת חֶדְוָתָא חֶדְוָתָא, בִּשְׁעַת אֶבְלָה אֶבְלָה. אָמַר לוֹ כָּךְ מַעֲשֶׂה לִפְנֵי הַקָּבָּ”ה

An apostate asked Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Korcha the following: ‘Don’t you believe that God knows the future.’ The Rabbi answered ‘Yes.’ Then how could it say that ‘God was saddened?’ The Rabbi asked him ‘did you ever have a son?’  The apostate answered in the affirmative.  The Rabbi asked ‘What was your reaction?’ The apostate said ‘I was joyous and made everyone joyous. But didn’t you know,’ the Rabbi continued, ‘that the child will ultimately die?’ The apostate answered ‘At a moment of joy I celebrate and at a moment of tragedy I mourn.’ The Rabbi replied ‘the same is true of God.”’(Bereishis Rabbah 27:4) 

Learning gratitude from God’s ‘sadness’

Stories told about an apostate are often not the best place to learn moral lessons. It is not clear if the same answer would have been given to someone who believes in God. The apostate was satisfied with the answer that God lives for the moment, just like he does. So God was happy at the world’s creation and sad at its demise – even though God knew its end was inevitable.

However, we can take away a far more significant lesson. We should always acknowledge our gratitude to God for the good that God bestows upon us.  We should make our gratitude dependent on how long we calculate this goodness will last.

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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