Judaism: Why the World Did Not Start with Abraham
At the close of the Torah portion of Genesis, the Torah tells us that G-d wanted to destroy the world because He "saw that there was much evil in the land and man's thoughts and heart were bent on wickedness, and G-d regretted having created mankind…"(Genesis 6, 5-6).
In the story of Noah, after the flood, the Torah says that G-d swore that he would not bring another flood on the earth and would not curse the land because of man's actions, since "the conscience of man tends to evil from the time of his youth."
What is the meaning of this? How can it be that the reason G-d brought a flood on the earth is the same reason that caused Him to swear, after the flood, not to destroy it?
The Sages ask also why the verse in Isaiah "As in the days of the waters of Noah" seems to be naming the flood after Noah, as if it is his fault. After all, Noah was a righteous man, G-d Himself attests to that, so why name the punishment for him? And they answer that he was to be faulted for failing to pray for the repentance and forgiveness of those around him. He could have done so, but chose not to, thereby placing some of the responsibility on his shoulders for not trying to prevent the flood.
But why didn't he pray? How can we fathom a righteous man who does not pray for his generation's wellbeing?
The Patriarch Abraham immediately prayed for the people of Sodom - so why was it so hard for Noah to do the same?
It would seem obvious that there is a vast difference between the situation in Sodom and the one that prevailed before the flood. Sodom was punished. G-d observed what went on there and punished them. Abraham could argue about whom to punish, bring proofs of proper behavior and the like. What happened in the flood was not really a punishment, it signified that the entire world simply was not what G-d had planned it to be - because of man's behavior – and that he wished to destroy it. That is why Noah did not pray, the Sages say, but they continue to see it as a fundamental lack in his character – for how could one not pray and feel for the suffering of others?
The Talmud says that if a Torah scholar is ill, a person must feel as though he, too, is sick – and then his prayers will be answered first. The story is told of Rabbi Arye Levine, the gentle rabbi who was kindness incarnate and patron of the Irgun prisoners in British jails, that he accompanied his ailing wife to the doctor and said "My wife's leg hurts us". Noah did not have this empathy – and perhaps that is the essential character difference that Jews had to develop beyond the sons of Noah, perhaps that is why G-d did not begin the world with the Jews.
The sons of Noah were given seven commandments to keep, seven and not eight, as the Maharal of Prague says that seven is a number describing natural – and not transcendental – phenomena. The sons of Noah dealt with rational commandments that human intellect could accept and might even think of by itself.
Rabeinu Nissim, in his preface to Tractate Brachot, says the seven Noahide commandments are aimed at human rationality, whereas Jews who keep 613 commandments (of which those are only seven), must keep the 613 commandments simply because they are in the Torah.
The sons of Noah see the world as made up of individuals, the Patriarch Abraham saw beyond that and was told that G-d saw that he would "lead his household to follow in his ways" and influence the world.
The Maharal says that at the start of the story, G-d describes Noah as righteous, but does not describe Abraham at all, just that G-d spoke to him telling him to leave his birthplace to travel to a new land. The choice of Noah to be saved was due to his behavior, but Abraham was chosen because of an innate uniqueness that remains with his descendants - even if their actions belie it. Rabbi Kook has explained in depth the difference between merits due to parents and merits due to a covenant.
The Talmud in Ktubot says that once they would comfort mourners by saying "Our brothers, we are all the sons of Israel who follow in the Patriarch Abraham's ways, emulating his loving kindess..." In contrast, the sons of Noah are not obliged to follow that tradition, but must just keep their seven logical and rational commandments. Since they find it difficult to keep the seven, there is no use giving them the rest anyway. The Jews, the midrash says, however, were "forced" to accept the Torah, but that force only brought their inherent characteristics to the surface and served to have them be revealed.
So what happened after the flood that made G-d's complaint about mankind bearable? Rabbi Charlap read the text closely and explained the difference between G-d's two statements.
During Adam's lifetime, the Torah says the earth was punished along with Adam, leaving the responsibility for running the world to man. But man's thoughts became totally evil, there was no inner argument with a conscience that tries to promote good deeds, and he had to be destroyed.
After the flood, the Torah says that man's conscience was evil, but does not mention that all his thoughts were bad. It seems that the time in the Ark had a salutory effect on Noah; it is true that sometimes one has to go off, away from one's regular surroundings, to think things through and reconstruct oneself anew.
Noah learned that he cannot live for himself alone, he must care for the animals and worry about others, learn to stop looking at the world in the egotistical, purely rational "sons of Noah" way that ruled before the flood.
Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook said that man was created with integrity, but that from his youth he begins to turn to evil – a change which can be arrested. And that is the difference between all of mankind's intrinsic, defining wickedness before the flood versus his fight not to give in to the temptations of an evil conscience after the flood.
That is the change that the flood wrought. That is why the Covenant with Abraham took place after the flood. Entering the Ark was not just to escape the waters, but in order to accomplish tikkun olam.
(Abridged from one section of a longer Torah lecture and translated from the Hebrew with the Rosh Yeshiva's permission)