A headline last week caught my eye. It reads, “A new study reveals how the last woolly mammoths died out 4,000 years ago. That’s after the Egyptians had built the pyramids.” Until recently, scientists had believed that the woolly mammoth had become extinct about eleven thousand years ago. The discovery of mammoth remains on Wrangel Island, a small remote island northeast of Siberia in the Chukchi Sea, has led scientists to recalibrate. They now believe that a small group of mammoths that lived on Wrangel Island survived until about four thousand years ago. It is unclear why these particular mammoths outlived the rest of their species by seven thousand years.
The Russian, German, and Finnish scientists who performed the research were more interested in the reason why the mammoths died out. They believe that the mammoths were killed by a “catastrophic event”, perhaps rain-on-snow, in which an impenetrable layer of rain freezes on top of the snow, preventing the animals from grazing. The reason the scientists believe that this rain-on-snow event was particularly catastrophic is because Wrangel Island is so remote and so small that the mammoths were forced to interbreed. This inbreeding reduced their genetic diversity and with it, their capability to adapt to change. There were simply no mammoths in the depleted gene pool that possessed a genetic structure that could withstand the catastrophe.
The second part of the title of the article is no less interesting. Until the Wrangel Island discovery, the common understanding was that modern man had never seen a woolly mammoth. The fact that mammoths were grazing in the Arctic at the same time that slaves were building pyramids in Egypt is definitely a conversation-starter. Let’s continue down this path and pose a question: What was happening in the Torah at that time? The answer can be found by performing some trivial calculations: The last woolly mammoths on Wrangel Island died around the same time that the famous Methuselah died. According to the Torah, Methuselah was the longest living human. He died at the age of nine hundred and sixty nine, 1,656 years after the six days of creation, or about 4,124 years ago. This was not a particularly good time for mankind, who would be destroyed in a flood later that very same year.
The Torah describes man’s state of affairs on the eve of the flood in a very enigmatic way [Bereishit 6:1-3]: “When men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, the ‘Elohim’ saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them. G-d said ‘My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.’” So many questions need to be addressed: Who were the “Elohim”? Were they human? Were they superhuman? Why were they suddenly taking women “from those that pleased them”? For that matter, what is so terrible about choosing “pleasing” women? It must not have been a good idea because G-d’s response was catastrophic. Finally, what is the reason for the one-hundred-and-twenty year lifespan? Why does it appear particularly at this point in the Torah?
The commentators offer a wide array of theories. We will base our approach on the explanations of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch and Rabbi Gedaliah Nadel. Adam, the first human, had two descendants: Cain and Seth. The Torah describes their lineage in great detail, beginning with Cain. The Torah describes Cain’s descendants as technical-minded and utilitarian. Cain [Bereishit 4:17] “built cities” for his son, Enoch. Enoch’s great grandson, Yaval, was [Bereishit 4:20] “the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds”. Yaval’s brother, Yuval, was “the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe” and his cousin, Tuval-Cain, [Bereishit 4:22] “forged all implements of copper and iron”. While Rabbi Nadel views the technological progress of Cain’s descendants as natural and benign, Rabbi Hirsch sees it as something more sinister. His proof is in the name of Cain’s great-grandson [Bereishit 4:18], Mechuyael, which can be roughly translated as “Destroyer of G-d”. Indeed, the Midrash in Bereishit Raba makes this very connection. Cain’s descendants were guilty of attributing their technological success to their own efforts, eliminating G-d entirely from the equation.
If Cain’s descendants were technically inclined, Seth’s descendants were spiritually inclined. While the Torah does not mention this explicitly, the fact that the Torah does not mention any technological achievements of Seth’s progeny combined with the fact that the Midrash identifies two of Seth’s descendants, Hanoch and Methuselah, as especially righteous, lends support to this hypothesis. Now the stage is set. The earth is slowly being populated by two populations with opposing dogmas. One population weaponizes man’s technological prowess to deny the existence of G-d while the other population is contemplative and G-d-fearing. As long as the two populations remained small, they did not intermarry. They remained geographically disjoint, each living on his own “island”. But eventually, “when men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them”, the two growing populations began to geographically overlap and to interbreed. The “Elohim (translated by Rabbi Hirsch and Rabbi Nadel as ‘Great ones’)” from the Clan of Seth took wives “from among those that pleased them”, from the Clan of Cain. As a result of the merging of the two populations, spiritual diversity was introduced into the human gene pool. This diversity on its own was neither positive nor negative. When good and evil interact, there are three potential outcomes: the good sways the evil, the evil sways the good, or the two combine into some tepid shade of gray. The descendants of Seth would determine if good would trump evil or if evil would be triumphant. Would Seth gain from Cain’s technological savvy or would they adopt Cain’s atheism? G-d chooses not to intervene, “since [man] too is flesh”. G-d blessed Man with freedom of choice and so He waits one hundred and twenty years for the experiment to run its course. Tragically, at the end of allotted time, the descendants of Seth had failed in their task [Bereishit 6:5]: “G-d saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time.” Man’s quest for diversity had led him into an inescapable spiritual abyss. G-d had no other recourse but to reboot and start over.
Contrasting the demise of the woolly mammoths on Wrangel Island with the demise of humanity that occurred at the very same time is enlightening. The woolly mammoths died out because their isolated gene pool had stagnated and lost its diversity. The human race was heading towards the very same fate because it could not contend with the spiritual diversity brought on by accelerated physical growth.
There is another lesson to be learned here. Humans are examples of diversity, containing components from both Cain and Seth. G-d commands us to be technical-minded and utilitarian, to [Bereishit 1:28] “conquer” our world by unlocking its scientific secrets. We must strive to master everything from the smallest subatomic particles to the largest galaxies. But at the same time, we must nurture our spirit, retreating and surrendering to the will of G-d by recognizing that all of our accomplishments are due to G-d’s beneficence. We have each been given one hundred and twenty years to succeed where our ancestors failed…
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza.
 Rabbi Natan Slifkin, founder and curator of the “Biblical Museum of Natural History”, wrote that as a result of this discovery he can now display a mammoth tusk in his museum. He was concerned that displaying animals that had become extinct more than 5780 years ago would alienate some of his clientele.
 I am choosing my words very carefully here.
 E-lokim is one of the names of G-d. Indeed, the JPS translation on Sefaria translates “Elohim” in this verse as “Divine beings”.
 Rabbi Hirsch lived in the nineteenth century and served as the Rabbi of Frankfurt-de-Main during a time which saw the German Jewish power base shift from Orthodox to Reform. Rabbi Nadel lived in the previous century in Bnei Brak. He was a disciple of the Chazon Ish, then the leader of Haredi Jewry. Rabbi Nadel’s exegesis appears in a book called “B’Torato Shel ha’Rav Gedaliah”, written by Rabbi Yitzchak Shilat. The book is extremely controversial, particularly in the Haredi world.
 Rabbi Hirsch understands this term differently. I have taken certain liberties with his approach.
 This paragraph draws heavily on Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik’s “Lonely Man of Faith”.