Noach: Why Did God Destroy the World?

When Noach is named, his father Lamech claims that he will provide relief for humankind - and less than 10 verses later, God decides to destroy the world. By comparing textual parallels of the two events, Rabbi Fohrman helps us understand Lamech's mistake, and how to better relate to God today.


Parshat Noach


Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Noach.

Today I want to talk to you about Noach’s name. The torah actually talks to us about Noach’s name and tells us how it is exactly that he got it. It turns out that Noach’s father, Lamech, made a declaration upon the birth of Noach and there’s something very, very puzzling, very chilling about that declaration. Let me read it to you.

“Vayikra et-shmo Noach”, and he called the name of his child, Noach, “le’emor,” saying, “zeh y’nachamenu mima’asenu u’me-itzvon yadeinu min-ha-adamah asher er’ra HaShem.” This one shall comfort us from our deeds and from the sadness of our hands from the land that God cursed. Somehow Lamech senses that this child is going to comfort him, not just comfort him, but comfort all of us, comfort mankind from the curse of the land.

What’s the curse of the land and the curse of the land goes back to the earlier stories in the torah, the stories of the tree of knowledge, the stories of Cain and Abel where the land became cursed. There were consequences to eating from the tree of knowledge and those consequences to Cain’s killing of Abel andthose consequences express themselves in two main ways. One of them was an alienation from God.

Adam and Eve hide from God immediately after eating from the tree, Cain senses that he will spend his life continually hiding from God and similarly not just an alienation from God but an alienation from land. Adam is told “b’ze’at apecha tochel lechem,” ‘by the sweat of your brow, you will work the land,’ “b-itzavon tochalena kol yamei chayecha,”—in sadness and toil will you work on the land all the days. It won’t just provide for you, you’ll have to work on it, and that curse also intensifies itself in the times ofCain. Cainis told that even if he works the land, it’s not going to help, “lo tosef tet-kocha lach,” it won’t continue to give you its bounty.

And now generations later, Lamech comes and senses that things could be different now. “zeh y’nachamenu mima’asenu u’me-itzvon yadeinu.” This one will comfort us from the sadness of our hands, from the land that God has cursed.

So it all sounds very nice, sounds very hopeful but here’s the chilling part. If you fast-forward not 6 verses ahead, you get to the verses that describe God’s decision to bring the flood, God’s decision to destroy the world because Lamech lives in the generation which is right before the flood. Now listen to God’s decision to destroy the world as described by the Torah. Chapter six, verse six: “V’yenachem HaShem,” and God regretted “ki asah et ha-adam b’aretz,” that he had created the men in the land “vayitatzev el-libo,” and he was saddened to his heart.

And then God said “emche et ha-adam asher barati me-al pnei ha-adamah.” I will wipe out man that I have created from the face of the earth. Now if you pay careful attention to the words here, you will find a very fascinating, but very chilling thing, which is that God’s declaration in creating the world exactly echoes Lamech’s declaration upon the birth of Noach.

These are the words to look forward, go back to Lamech’s declaration, “zeh yenachamenu,” word number one, “yenachem,” comfort or regret. It has both meanings. “Mi’ma’asenu”: this one will comfort us ‘mi-ma’asenu,’from our deeds. Word number two, deeds. “Me-itzvon,” word number three, sadness. Word number four, “min-ha-adamah.”

“Zeh ynachamenu mima’asenu u’me-itzvon yadeinu min-ha-adamah asher er’ra HaShem,” that this one will comfort us from the sadness of our hands, from the earth that God has created. But if you take those four words—y’nachem, mi-ma’asenu, me-itzvon, adamah—you will find them repeated in the exact same order in God’s decision to destroy the world. “Vay’nachem Hashem,” and there’s word number one: and God regretted, but it’s the same word for comfort, going back to the declaration of Lamech. “Ki asah.” There’s word number two, that he had made man and the land, “v’yitatzev el-libo” and he became saddened. There’s itzavon, sadness, word number three. And then, as if on queue, God says, ‘I will wipe out man “me’al pnei ha-adamah” from the face of the adamah, there was word number four.

It’s impossible to resist the conclusion that for some strange reason God is mimicking Lamech when he decides to destroy the world. The declaration for destroying the world has, as its prototype, the naming speech that Lamech gave for Noach. Now why would that be?

So I want to propose a theory to you. It comes from Rashi. Rashi makes very a very innocent little comment in describing Lamech’s declaration. Lamech said that this one, Noach, will comfort us. That’s why he is named Noach, from the word ‘yenachem,’ to comfort. This one will comfort us. Comfort for the curses of the land. How would Noach comfort mankind from the curse that god had placed upon the land?

The sages of the Midrashsaid, that Lamech saw prophetically that Noach would be the creator of the plow. The plow would be a form of comfort. We wouldn’t have to deal with the curse of the land anymore. I want to suggest that that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That comfort, the declaration of the plow, in the world before the flood, for the reasons of comfort…and not just the creation of the plow but the significance that mankind attached to the plow—the plow would comfort us—is the reason to destroy the world. Why?

The answer is because the plow can never comfort you.

But what is comfort all about? When do we achieve comfort? How do we achieve comfort? When we are wracked by a terrible loss, how do we get comfort from a loss? Comfort involves a kind of change in the perspective. There is a kind of mourning which you can’t get comfort for, which is called “aninut”: terrible pain, searing grief, before burial. But after burial, there’s new kind of mourning, and it’s called “avelut” alef-bet-lamed, it’s the same word as “aval”: ‘but.’ Because, a colleague of mine once said, and “avel,” a mourner, asks himself a question but the question has no answer and the question is: how could have happened? Why did this happen? And the only thing that the ‘avel’can do, ultimately, is say ‘but it happened.’ It happened anyway and ‘avelut’ is the stage of but-ness, of nevertheless-ness: and it happened and I must deal with it. It’s a change in perspective, it’s a willingness to accommodate the uncomfortable reality.

“Zeh y’nachamenu mi-ma’asenu,” Lamech said: ‘this one will comfort us, he is going to create the plow that will allow us to live, to accommodate ourselves to an uncomfortable reality.”

What were the purposes of the curses? The curse of the land, the sadness of the land, why was it so sad to toil on the land, such that the language for the curse should be “b’itzavon tochalena kol yamei chayecha”:that you will work the land by the sweat of your brow and you will eat in sadness.

What’s so sad about work? The answer is when work is just work, it’s not sad but when work is toil, when work could have gone easier, but it goes harder, then it’s sad. There’s a futility involved and then the sadness is a reminder that things could be different. The curses in the wake of the tree of knowledge, in the wake of the murder of Abel were curses that alienated us from land, and they alienated us from God. We hid from God, and when we work the land, it would no longer give its power to us. It would be sad and we would toil.

Land and God. There’s a fascinating comment that the Ramban makes, the Ramban says that when God said, “na’ase adam b’tzalmenu k’dmutenu,”—“let us make man,”—the ‘us’ was because God was speaking to the land. God said to the land, ‘you contribute the body and I will contribute the soul, we together shall make man.’ So land and God stand as man’s creators but we become alienated from our creators, land and God, in the wake of the tree of knowledge, and that alienation grows after Cain and Abel and it grows and it grows and when will it stop and what was the point of that alienation?

Why make curses that alienate men from God? God doesn’t want us to be alienated. The answer is, there is a homing beacon. A homing beacon we all have to come back to our creator. We were once one with our creator. We always want to come back, we never want to be separate, and the more you become alienated, the stronger the homing beacon becomes. The stronger you want to come back and that’s the point of the curses. The curses are, understand the consequence of the sins, understand how alienated we have become, and desire to come back, feel the sadness, the toil, and return.

When would God say that the time has come to give up, to just destroy the world? It comes when you find comfort in all the wrong places. It comes when you find comfort in the plow. The plow is a technological solution to a spiritual problem. It is a way of taking Tylenol so that you don’t feel sadness anymore. We can work the land with the plow, we can accommodate ourselves to this uncomfortable reality, we don’t have to deal with the alienation anymore, we can inure ourselves to it. And it’s at that moment that God says, ‘you say that you will comfort yourselves with the creation of the plow? You are giving up on the relationship, there’s no way that you will ever come back.

‘I have no choice but to start all over again’ and God uses the exact same language that mankind used to comfort themselves with the plow, to start all over again with a watery end to the previous world and the hope for a better one, in a recreated world with a new slate, and a new relationship with the children of mankind.

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