“In Another Forty Days” Parashat Noah 5779

A few days before Yom Kippur, I went together with my wife and my daughter to an evening of talks at the Matan Institute in Ra’anana. The talks all pertained to Yom Kippur and to penitence. They were intended to get the listener in the mood for the rapidly approaching Day of Atonement. Whether by plan or by chance, many of the talks shared certain motifs. One of the recurring motifs was the Prophet Jonah, who was tasked to tell the people of Nineveh of their impending doom. Jonah refuses to carry out the order he has been given and he attempts to flee. Eventually, Jonah experiences a change of heart. He arrives at Nineveh and says five words[1] [Jonah 3:4]: “In another forty days Nineveh will be destroyed”.  The people of Nineveh heed Jonah’s words, they repent, and Nineveh is spared.

Jonah seems to encapsulate so very well the role of the prophet, warning the people to mend their ways before it is too late. A prophet implements G-d’s modus operandi: As a merciful G-d, He does not punish until He has exhausted all other alternatives. Nevertheless, there seem to be certain exceptions in which G-d is apparently not interested in repentance and He cuts straight to the chase: In Parashat Noah, G-d sees a world gone bad, a world whose moral and ethical norms have sunk to an abyss. G-d says [Bereishit 6:7] “I will destroy mankind that I have created from the face of the earth… because I regret creating him.” G-d then chooses Noah as the one human being who, together with his family, will survive the destruction and will repopulate the earth. G-d carries on conversations with Noah so it is clear that Noah has prophetical powers. Why, then, does G-d not task Noah to do exactly what He tasked Jonah to do: to leave his comfort zone and to tell the people of the world to repent before it is too late? Perhaps one might answer by noting that Rashi, the famous medieval commentator, is bothered by G-d’s choice to save Noah by having him build an ark instead of, say, whisking him and his family to the peak of Mount Everest, where they would be safe from the flood. Rashi quotes the Midrash, a biblical exegesis by ancient Judaic authorities, which suggests that G-d wanted Noah to spend many years building an ark so that bystanders could ask him why he was doing so. Noah would answer that he was building an ark in preparation for a flood that could be avoided if you, sir, just happen to stop acting like a barbarian. The Midrash seems to be saying that Noah was behaving just like Jonah. The problem with this answer is that Noah behaves like Jonah only in the Midrash. In the Torah, however, Noah is silent. He does not tell the people[2] of the world “In another forty days the world will be destroyed” nor is he told to do so.

Another example of G-d punishing without warning is found in the destruction of Sodom and Amorah. G-d tells Abraham about His plans to destroy Sodom, Abraham prays for Sodom, asking G-d to pardon their sins as long as He can find a minimum number of righteous residents, but at the end, G-d obliterates Sodom along with another four nearby towns. Why doesn’t G-d send Abraham to Sodom to tell them “In another forty days Sodom will be destroyed”? Why doesn’t he give them another chance?

I took these questions to my “go-to-guy” for Tanakhic matters, Rav Shuki. Rav Shuki did not answer my question but he did give me a direction. He suggested that the reason that G-d wanted the people of Nineveh, the Assyrians, to repent was because He had great plans for them. In the cosmic scheme of things, the Assyrians had been chosen to fight against the Israelites. The Assyrians would eventually defeat the Ten Tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, sending them into an exile from which they would never return[3]. If the Assyrians were to perish, then the Northern Kingdom would suffer a different fate. Rav Shuki asserted that Jonah was well aware of this Master Plan and precisely for this reason, he refused – or at least he attempted to refuse – to warn the Assyrians.

Let’s try to implement this “Master Plan Thesis” on Noah and on Sodom, starting with Sodom. We have discussed many times the less than exemplary family history of the future Messiah along with the reasons for his sordid past[4]. We explained that the Messiah is an example of how a person can rise above his past and redeem himself. One particularly low point in the ancestry of the Messiah occurs immediately after the destruction of Sodom. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, along with his two daughters, are the only people that survive the destruction. Fearing they are the only humans remaining on earth, Lot’s daughters get their father drunk and they sleep with him. Both of them become pregnant from their incestuous relationships and both of them have sons, Moab and Amon. Both of these sons figure prominently in the lineage of the Messiah and the Davidic Dynasty: Ruth the Moabite is the great-grandmother of King David and Naama the Amonite is the mother of King Rehoboam, the son of King Solomon. Without these two women, there could be no Messiah. In the cosmic scheme of things, Sodom had to be destroyed for Amon and Moab to be born and so G-d does not send Abraham to warn the people of Sodom[5].

What kind of cosmic Master Plan was propelled forward with the destruction of the world in the time of Noah? Phrased differently, what would not have happened had the people of the world been shown the error of their ways and repented? Rav Joseph B. Soloveichik, writing in “Darosh Darash Yossef”, discusses a Midrash that teaches that G-d created and destroyed seven worlds before creating ours. Prima facie, this Midrash makes G-d look kind of amateurish, requiring multiple attempts to get things right. Rav Soloveichik explains that the Midrash is teaching us a critical example of the imperative to [Devarim 28:9] “walk in His ways”, to engage in imitatio Dei, imitation of the Divine. This rule commands us to take upon ourselves Divine traits such as mercy and kindness. Which Divine characteristic is personified by the repeated destruction of the world? Rav Soloveichik answers that the fact that G-d could reboot the world teaches us that we, too, can begin again. We, too, can rise from the ashes. We, too, can shake off defeat, both spiritual and physical. “[G-d] not only challenges man to be a creator, but He challenges man, when necessary, to rebuild as well… Our history is replete with worlds created and destroyed. Jewish communities and Torah scholarship in Babylonia, the Byzantine Empire, Spain, Poland and Germany. Following the destruction of one world, a new one was born. Our survival, our ability to persevere in the face of hardship and to rebuild, are founded upon this Midrashic principle. The saga of the Jewish people is implied in this Midrash”.  There is a slight problem with this thesis: the destruction of previous worlds, just like Noah castigating bystanders who gawk at the half-built ark, is not stated explicitly in the Torah. It is relegated to the esoteric world of Midrash. How, then, can the Torah transmit the message of rebirth? This problem is resolved by the great flood. When G-d destroys the entire world, both man and beast, leaving only Noah, his family, and the animals that took shelter in the ark, He is making His point loud and clear: sometimes there is no other recourse but to start over. In order to make this message, G-d had to forgo giving the people of the world one last chance and so He did not send Noah to rattle their cages and to encourage them to repent before it was too late[6].

One concluding thought: Isn’t it paradoxical that the rebirth of mankind after a flood that was facilitated by the prevention of repentance serves as an archetype for our ability to be spiritually reborn by repenting for our own sins? That to teach the lesson of repentance, G-d had to prevent repentance? There is a message in there somewhere…


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] Five words in Hebrew, eight words in English.

[2] Indeed, many commentators take Noah to task for his inaction.

[3] This is not 100% correct. Ethiopian Jews are considered descendants of the Tribe of Dan, who was exiled by the Assyrians. They have indeed returned.

[4] See, for instance, our talk on Toledot 5767.

[5] The Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah teaches, “It is written [Psalms 89:21] ‘I found my servant David’. Where did G-d find him? In Sodom”.

[6] Make no mistake: Had the people of the world repented on their own, the flood could have been averted.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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