The Bible does not believe in human beings, is not impressed by them. It even weighs the possibility that human culture is a mistake that might be irreparable and the possibility that humanity’s failure will spell the species’ demise.
Parashat Bereisheet ended with human beings refusing to accept their limitations. The mission of creating a human culture was assigned to mortals, forcing them to control their impulses. While learning to become civilized, they continue to desire sexual relations with anyone they wish and to kill anyone who angers them. In conflict with themselves, they seek to rise above their urges while emulating their maker, who has revealed himself to them. But at the same time, they plot to usurp him and control the world. In Parashat Noach, humans show that they are unable to fulfill their promises, that they have chosen the second option, and thus reality is posed to cast humanity out of this world.
Mortals have been given an immense opportunity to be partners in their own development, and they use it to plan how to shirk the responsibility such partnership entails: “And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the Lord said: ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth’” (Genesis 6:5-7).
Humans use their advantage – their intelligence – to come up with a scheme that purports to solve the conflict that exists between their desire to serve God and their desire to be God. The first scientists, the ancient priests, conceive of beings that are half gods, half forces of nature or human: tamed gods one can touch and see, who elevate mortals without demanding their moral development. The worship of an empty object creates a false self, and people lose the ability to distinguish good from evil. These invented gods forgive those they love, allowing them to become corrupt.
The base instincts of humanity gives rise to mortals’ tendency to think the world cannot exist without them. However, the Flood proves that human beings are not indispensable and that, if they do not mend their ways, the world can manage without them.
The attempt to imitate God fuels human development, but the thought that we have become God is our downfall. Modern science’s successes have led us to believe that nothing can stop us and that we are immortal. We have again dismissed God, who now strikes us as an unnecessary relic of the days of a dependent, primitive humanity; we have replaced him with the new human being.
Some in the 20th century claimed that the supreme being was the nation, or a specific method of organizing human society or science. Others argued that if human beings’ basic needs were fulfilled – if they were only given an education and offered acceptance without prejudice – they would prove themselves to be superior beings that one could believe in.
In modern Hebrew culture, we initially chose Haim Nahman Bialik, who tried to speak on our behalf with heaven, and we crowned Shaul Tchernichovsky, who believed in human beings and their proud spirit. The belief in human beings has led to the contemporary prohibition on educating children. “The child knows,” the post-modern preschool teacher tells parents who are instructed not to impose their values on their offspring because those values might not be their child’s “unique truth.” The child is now God.
The author of Parashat Noach does not seek to find favor in the reader’s eyes and is not impressed by children: “for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21). The person who chooses to believe in human beings must disregard their weaknesses and indiscretions, and turn a blind eye to their repeated failures and to the wickedness of children.
Instead of the mythological heroes of ancient cultures who seemed to cross the boundary that separates gods from mortals, the Bible proposes Noah, a righteous, innocent individual who obeys a higher authority (Gen. 6:9) – a figure who is tough to digest for those raised to believe that salvation comes to those who believe in themselves and who fear the prospect of a meaningless life.
Instead of believing in himself, Noah is faithful to the mission he has been assigned and which he tries to decipher. The success of the faithful person is the success of the journey; his failure derives from the journey’s difficulties or his poor navigation. His success does not elevate him heavenward, but neither does it plunge him and the rest of humanity into the abyss.
Those who believe in themselves can muster their energies, and sometimes those of others, to undertake seemingly impossible tasks, but at a heavy price: The lives of such people become meaningless when they fail, because they have lost themselves, their God. Those who believe in themselves seduce us into falling in love with them; they satisfy our desire to encounter a living God, but they betray us when they cannot sustain an inflated self. Faithful human beings remain faithful even when the game is not worth playing. Their failure does not destroy their selfhood.
The Bible’s humane hero is not one of the popular or amazing guys, is not normative when the norm involves idol worship, and fulfills the hope once cherished by mothers that their child will be a mensch. The Bible’s hero is the Hebrew pioneer of Zionism, whose heroism embodied manual labor – the cure for alienated Jews. He is the parking lot attendant who tells his story as a parable of the human condition.
Noah is first in a line of protagonists who will constantly reappear throughout Jewish literature: individuals who assume a duty which social norms would relieve them of, and who seek to follow the injunction in Pirkei Avot: “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” These are individuals whose save their souls and who sometimes, by setting an example, manage to save the entire world.