Judaism: Life, Death - and the Flood
Moshe KempinskiMoshe Kempinski, author of "The Teacher and the Preacher", is the editor of the Jerusalem Insights weekly email journal and co-owner of Shorashim, a Biblical shop and learning center in the Old City of Jerusalem.
The punishment of the cleansing flood waters was a difficult and painful tragedy in the midst of mankind's voyage. So terrible, that G-d must assure the survivors that "And I will establish My covenant with you, and never again will all flesh be cut off by the flood waters, and there will never again be a flood to destroy the earth."( Genesis 9:11) . It is also a fact that it did not come suddenly ,as the ark was being built for up to 120 years in order to allow for the people to watch, ask and repent. Yet they did not.
Rashi explains that the generation of the Flood was actually guilty of a progression of three crimes.
The people had adopted idol worship, as we see in the verse "And to Seth also to him a son was born, and he named him Enosh; then it became common to call by the name of the Lord.” ( Genesis 4:26). Rashi in explaining the words " it became common (Vayuchal ) " says that it is an expression of Chilul , of profaneness. That is to say ,they began to ascribe to people and idols the name of G-d, to make them into deities and to eventually try to replace G-d
Then they abandoned all parameters of proper sexual conduct as we see in the verse “That the sons of nobility saw the daughters of man that they were fair, and they took for themselves wives, whomsoever they chose." All was permitted.
Finally, theft accomplished by force and violence was rampant , as we read "And the Earth was corrupted before G-d and the Earth was filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:11)
It is true that the crime of violent theft cannot be viewed as more serious than idol worship and unrestricted and incestuous sexual behavior. Yet when that also began to happen with no boundaries it was clear that a red line was crossed. When all the boundaries have been broken, spiritual, sanctity and value for the life and essence of the other, then the possibility of repentance becomes remote if not impossible
Repentance necessitates that one must recognize that sinful practices are detrimental and then that one needs the adequate self-control to act on this recognition. Without this , behavior cannot be changed and repentance is made impossible. That became the reality of the people of Noah’s generation .
There is yet another verse that needs understanding.
As G-d watches the deterioration of mankind's purpose and direction He declares "And HaShem said, 'Let My spirit not quarrel forever concerning man, because he is also flesh, and his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.'"( Genesis 6:3). What does limiting mankind's lifespan from the centuries described earlier to a "mere" 120 years have to do with correcting the direction of mankind's failures?
Understanding this we will also be able to understand another mysterious verse found earlier in Genesis.
After the sin of Adam and eve , HaShem declares "Now HaShem G-d said, 'Behold man has become like one of us, having the ability of knowing good and evil, and now, lest he stretch forth his hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever'"(ibid 3:22).
A careful reading of the text indicates that partaking of the "fruit" of the tree of Knowledge has given mankind the Divine power of discernment between Good and Evil. The barring of partaking of the tree of life was an action meant to help man correct and repent from his sin. The Gaon of Vilna on this verse teaches that “eternal living” bars an individual from the redemptive power of mortal death.
Understood another way, one could say that the fear of death prods mankind into repentance.
The tree of knowledge of good and evil seems to represent “Din - the divine attribute of justice”. When Eve describes the prohibition regarding this tree she uses the name of G-d ( Elokim) that represents the attribute of Justice. "But of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, G-d ( Elokim) said,'You shall not eat of it, and you shall not touch it, lest you die'."( ibid3:3).
Yet regarding the tree of Life we read of the introduction of the Name of G-d ( Hashem) representing the attribute of Hessed- Mercy ."Now HaShem Elokim said, 'Behold man has become like one of us, having the ability of knowing good and evil, and now, lest he stretch forth his hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever.'"( ibid:22).
G-d declares that partaking of eternal life through the attribute of Hessed ( Mercy) would preclude the desire and availability of repentance. Since as a result, the need to repent can be easily deferred eternally and the sins remain uncorrected.
During the time of the generation of the flood G-d allowed a reality to occur so that we would be aware of what spiritual traps exist in lives that continue for centuries. Then, as a result, HaShem declares "and his days shall be a hundred and twenty years." ( ibid 6:3). This was done to provoke and initiate in mankind the power of Teshuva-repentance.
Another powerful subtext that arises from the long period of time that G-d allowed this harmful attitude of mankind to persevere. HaShem is slow to anger and awaits our return. This is what we declare in that moving “unetaneh tokef “prayer recited during the high holy Days;
;"You [God] are slow to anger and ready to forgive. You do not desire the death of the sinner but that he return from his evil ways and live. Even until his dying day, You wait for him, perchance he will repent and You will immediately receive him."
HaShem waited for the generation of the flood, but Destiny and G-d’s eternal plan needed to be moved forward.