- How should we understand the notion of HaShem “changing His mind” in Parshat Noaḥ?
- The story of the flood was really the story of the Creator reconciling Himself (so to speak) to the fact that humankind couldn‘t yet handle the immense power given us. The situation required Divine intervention and correction.
- In addition to destroying an entire generation, the flood weakened humanity’s connection with the natural world, reducing our level of influence over the earth and clouding our perception of HaShem’s presence.
Ahead of Parshat Noaḥ, I want to pose a question that I don’t think we struggle with enough. How are we supposed to feel about the Creator wiping out all of humanity with a flood?
There’s the simple explanation we are often presented with – that humankind was so corrupt and so evil that the Kadosh Barukh Hu decided to punish and destroy them. But there’s a problem with this. Evil wasn’t destroyed. We don’t really see humanity acting any better after the flood than before the flood.
And then there’s another problem. At least on the surface, destroying everyone and everything without distinction seems like an act of severe Divine cruelty. We know that Noaḥ didn’t protest, but had Avraham been there, we can imagine he would have protested. Just based on the argument he put up on behalf of S’dom, we can assume that Avraham would’ve had something to say about all of mankind being killed.
From a Torah perspective, it’s important not to ignore our intuitive human sense of justice. It’s easy to take the position that the Creator is all knowing and all loving and all good, and that whatever He decides to do must by definition be just. And that’s true. That’s actually deeply true. But it’s too easy to take that position. And taking that position is too often used as a way out of confronting the problem.
What we need to understand is that it’s also true that the intuitive human sense of justice we experience is an important manifestation of the Divine image within man. Our very need to find justice in historical processes – in the Creator’s actions – is holy. And therefore it would be wrong to suppress that feeling.
Now this can get complicated because sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between that intuitive Divine sense of justice and the politically correct values of dominant civilizations. We have to be careful not to confuse the two. We can’t allow the values of other peoples and cultures to lead us away from the worldview and folkways of our people but we need to recognize and give expression to the very real sense of human morality we experience that can sometimes raise very serious questions about what we understand our Torah to be teaching us.
That being said, more often that not, the source of the conflict between our conscience and the Torah is not that our sense of justice is polluted by foreign ideas and leading us astray. Rather, the source of the conflict is usually that we’re misunderstand the Torah. And in order to deepen our understanding of Torah, we can’t be afraid to pose difficult questions, and to search for the answers to those questions in the Torah itself.
So after the flood, we see that the evil inclination within man seems to have not really changed.
The causes of the flood are described in the Torah – in B’reishit 6, verses 5 to 8 – as follows:
“HaShem saw that the wickedness of man was great upon the earth, and that every product of the thoughts of his heart was but evil always. And HaShem regretted having made man on earth, and He had heartfelt sadness. And HaShem said, ‘I will blot out man whom I created from the face of the ground – from man to animal, to creeping things, and to birds of the sky; for I have reconsidered My having made them.’ But Noaḥ found favor in the eyes of HaShem.”
These verses essentially serve as a preface to the story of the flood. Evil permeates society and even the thoughts of human beings are categorically “evil always.” Human civilization must therefore be destroyed.
But even after the flood, the situation hasn’t changed. We see in B’reishit chapter 8, verses 21 and 22, that:
“HaShem smelled the pleasing aroma, and HaShem said to Himself: ‘I will not continue to curse again the ground because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I again continue to destroy every living being, as I have done. So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease’.”
So before and after the flood we actually see opposite Divine conclusions being drawn from the very same premise of man’s inclination towards evil. Before the flood, man’s evil inclination requires that he be destroyed. But after the flood, a completely different conclusion is drawn, namely, that because man is prone to evil, he must be allowed to live.
How should we understand this 180-degree turn?
And another question I wanna throw out there is why the Torah uses the four letter Yud–Kei–Vav–Kei in these verses as opposed to Elokim.
We generally understand the four letter Name, which we usually substitute by saying HaShem, to be used when expressing the Creator’s attribute of Divine mercy – as opposed to Elokim, which is used to express the Creator’s attribute of Divine judgement.
So why are the verses I quoted using HaShem, the four letter Name, in connection with an event that appears to be the very opposite of mercy and the very epitome of strict judgement?
So in B’reishit chapter 6, verse 6, the Torah uses an odd expression to describe the Creator’s decision to bring the flood. It says “And HaShem regretted having made man on earth.”
Do these words mean that the Kadosh Barukh Hu changed His mind? That He was disappointed in humanity, regretted creating them and therefore decided on the flood?
If the Creator creates time, and therefore exists outside of time, how can we say that He changed His mind or experienced regret? Wouldn’t it make sense that the Kadosh Barukh Hu knew from the outset that history would unfold the way it did? Doesn’t He Author history?
The truth is we shouldn’t expect our understanding of the Kadosh Barukh Hu to fit neatly into any formal structure of logic. Our perception of the Creator includes aspects that are logically incompatible, because the Divine is infinite, while our understanding is finite and limited. No man–made intellectual system is capable of embracing Divinity in its entirety.
Now we do try to resolve the contradiction by saying that the Creator doesn’t actually change His mind but that our Torah generally expresses ideas in conventional human terms – so it appears to us from our limited human perspectives that the Kadosh Barukh Hu changes His mind. But He doesn’t really change His mind. Nevertheless, this explanation doesn’t solve the original problem, because the question of why the Torah would say here that the Creator “changed His mind” still remains, in spite of all the challenges that such a statement raises.
The best answer might be that the Torah’s purpose is not primarily to serve as a philosophical explanation of the Kadosh Barukh Hu, but rather as a prophetic instruction manual for how to best function and behave in this world. How to best express our deeper selves.
When the Torah speaks about the Kadosh Barukh Hu “changing His mind,” it’s actually teaching us that sometimes, in the course of life, it’s OK to change our minds. It’s OK to change our points of view. We shouldn’t consider our own change of position to be a weakness, because it’s actually an expression of our being created in the Divine image. The world that the Kadosh Barukh Hu made is dynamic and always changing, so our approach to the world should give us the option to “change our minds” as well, when appropriate and necessary.
In any case, maybe this verse – “And HaShem regretted having made man on earth” – can help us better understand the entire story of the flood.
As we know, Noaḥ is the story’s main character. The prophet Yishayahu even refers to the flood – in chapter 54, verse 9 of Yishayahu – as the “waters of Noaḥ.” This emphasizes Noaḥ’s central role, and perhaps even his personal responsibility, for the flood.
So who was Noaḥ?
The name “Noaḥ” literally translates into English as “easy” or “convenient.” But the Torah introduces the name somewhat differently in B’reishit 5, verses 28 and 29:
“Lamekh lived 182 years, and he had a son. And he called his name Noaḥ, saying, ‘This one will console us (y’naḥamenu) from our work and from the toil of our hands, from the ground which HaShem has cursed’.”
So Lamekh took the name “Noaḥ” from the Hebrew root “naḥem” – “(to) console.”
Noaḥ’s task is therefore to “console humankind that suffers from their toil upon the earth that HaShem has cursed.” And that consolation was in fact realized when, after the flood, HaShem said: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man.”
So what exactly was this curse on the earth?
Adam HaRishon – the first man – in the Garden of Eden was at such a high spiritual level that with his knowledge and will power he could directly control the Universe.
After being expelled, he lost that ability, but not entirely: his spiritual parameters remained directly connected to the outside world. Humans could no longer directly control the Universe with their spirituality, but their moral and spiritual level still had an influence on the earth’s productivity. And since humanity’s moral level continued to decrease, this influence was expressed not as a blessing, but as a curse.
As Adam and Ḥava were expelled from the Garden of Eden, the Torah says in B’reishit chapter 3, verse 17:
“Cursed is the ground because of you.”
And in the next verse it says “thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you.”
The idea is that when man works the land, hoping to reap its produce, it will sprout only thorns and thistles.
Then, after Kayin the farmer killed his brother Hevel the shepherd, the curse of the land intensified further. We see in chapter 4, verses 11 and 12:
“Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth wide to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall be a vagrant and a wanderer on earth.”
The curse of the ground is found in the soil responding to the sins of a person by producing “thistles and thorns” instead of a good harvest.
Because the earth itself was spiritually sensitive and reacted to the moral level of man, a successful farmer at that time needed to not only understand the fundamental principles of agriculture, but he also had to be a high quality human being.
Had mankind been on a higher moral level, this could’ve been an incredible source of blessing. The earth reacting positively to human righteousness obviously carries with it an increased level of opportunity. But since human behavior continued to deteriorate, the relationship led to a “curse upon the earth.”
Now following Kayin’s murder of his brother Hevel, the moral level of humanity continued to decline & tensions between man and the earth began leading to an urgent environmental crisis. Which brings us back to Noaḥ & the flood.
The entire story of the flood is built around the concept of “neḥama” – “consolation” – which essentially means to reconcile with a difficult situation. That’s what Lamekh meant when he named his son Noaḥ. Lamekh was hoping that Noaḥ would be able to reconcile HaShem with the low moral level of humankind, and therefore make life for humans on earth easier – more noaḥ.
Lamekh’s basic argument was that “We are imperfect, so don’t demand too much from us. Let the power of our influence on the earth be limited – otherwise the curse will only increase, and it will soon become impossible for anyone to live.”
In other words, had HaShem not intervened by sending the flood to change the world, then the world would have collapsed on its own. From this perspective, the flood wasn’t just an act of punishment, but an act of mercy, which explains why the four letter Name is used during the episode in place of Elokim. By sending the flood, HaShem prevented the world from being destroyed by human wickedness.
When the Torah says in B’reishet chapter 6, verse 6 that:
“HaShem regretted having made man on earth, and He had heartfelt sadness,” the Hebrew word “vayinaḥem” – “regretted” – actually derives from the same root as “neḥama” – “consolation.”
So we can translate this verse as “HaShem was consoled, being reconciled with the fact that He made man on earth.”
HaShem was reconciled to the fact that man exists on earth such as he is, which is sad. Not only because it required the destruction of an entire generation but also because it was necessary to reduce man’s power by depriving him of the ability to exert direct spiritual influence on the world around him, and by making the earth immune to the level of human righteousness (at least until we arrive at the environmental challenges of our current generation – but that’s another story).
But it’s important to understand that this new decrease in human power – this restriction – becomes yet another concealment of the Divine Presence in our world, and yet another level of exile that would follow immediately after man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
When Adam and Ḥava were still in the garden, the Divine Presence was “below,” meaning that the Creator’s active participation in our world was obvious to the created.
With the expulsion from the garden, the Sh’khina was further removed from our world. And with the flood, the Divine Presence rose upward again, becoming even less revealed in our lower world.
The Creator became even more hidden from the created, and it was difficult, so to speak, for Him to make peace – to reconcile with this concealment. Even though it was necessary due to humanity’s weakness, it was still unfortunate. It was still not the ideal.
Nevertheless, the flood actually changed the relationship between humanity and the earth, in a way that facilitated the future life of mankind. The Kadosh Barukh Hu chose Noaḥ to create a new line of humans, who would have limited abilities to influence the world, so as not to completely destroy it.
So just to reiterate, in the generations between Adam to Noaḥ, the world was in danger of collapse and destruction because the earth was responding to man’s low moral and spiritual level. The flood was actually the way HaShem Yitbarakh stepped in to reverse this trend and save the world.
[This article appeared in Vision Magazine]