Mordechai Silverstein

Human Beings Really Can Make a Difference

The story of Noah is one of both tragedy and triumph, of divine despair and of blessing. A careful perusal of this story will show that, in fact, it is composed of two distinct accounts of the same story with differences both in details and plot. One significant difference is that each of the two narratives uses a different name for God. In one, God is referred to by the tetragrammaton, the four lettered name of God (we will refer to as “Lord”) while the other uses the name “E-lohim”. While modern scholars see this as one of indications the text of the Torah is made up of different sources, the rabbinic tradition has cited these two distinctive names as indicative of two different aspects of God’s person: the four lettered name representing God’s “Middat Harahamim – Attribute of Divine Mercy” and the name E-lohim, “Middat Hadin” refers to the “Attribute of Divine Judgment”.

This interpretative generalization serves as the basis for one rabbinic understanding of how God interacts with the world. Of course, where there are generalizations, there are also bound to be exceptions to the rule and that is our interest here, for when the Torah describes the moment when God intends to end the flood out of concern for Noah, his family and the other inhabitants of the ark, this generalization seems to be contradicted: “And when the water had swelled on the earth one hundred and fifty days, God (E-lohim) remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark, and God caused a wind to blow across the earth and the waters subsided.” (Genesis 8:1) How could it be that the name of God which represents divine judgment should perform an act of mercy?

The following midrash turned this seeming contradiction (and others like it) into an important opportunity to teach a valuable religious lesson:

And E-lohim (God) remembered Noah. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman said: Woe to the wicked who turn the Attribute of Mercy into the Attribute of Judgment. Wherever the four lettered name of God (Lord) is used, it connotes the Attribute of Mercy, as in the verse: ‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious (Exodus 34:6), yet it is written: And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great… And the Lord regretted that He made man on earth… And the Lord said; I will blot out man (Genesis 6:5-7). Happy are the righteous who turn the Attribute of Judgment into the Attribute of Mercy.

Wherever E-lohim (God) is used, it connotes the Attribute of Judgment: Thus: ‘You shall not revile E-lohim (God)’ (Exodus 22:27); ‘the cause of both parties shall come before E-lohim — God’ (Exodus 22:8); yet it is written: ‘And E-lohim heard their groaning, and E-lohim remembered His covenant (Exodus 11: 24); [Similarly,] ‘And E-lohim remembered Rachel’ (Genesis 30:22); [And finally,] ‘And E-lohim remembered Noah.’ (Bereishit Rabbah 33:3, Theodore – Albeck ed. p. 308)

In order to reconcile the fact that there are a good many exceptions to the rabbinic generalization mentioned above, the sages turned these exceptions to their advantage. They distill from these contradictions that human beings have the ability to overturn and change the divine will from good to bad and bad to good. Human beings really can make all the difference!

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
Related Topics
Related Posts