Parashat Noah / The Sages’ Headaches

The promise made by God to Noah after the flood relates to the future relationship between humankind and the earth they inhabit, which will no longer be punished for the sins committed by mortals.

Yakov Z. Meyer
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'Noah, His Family and the Animals Leaving the Ark,' by Daniel Sarrabat, 1688.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Yakov Z. Meyer

After Noah and his family leave the ark that sheltered them during the Flood that destroyed nearly every living creature, God promises that he will never again send such a deluge: “And the Lord smelled the sweet savor; and the Lord said in His heart: ‘I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done” (Genesis 8:21).

This promise relates to the future relationship that will exist between humankind and the earth they inhabit, which will no longer be punished for the sins committed by mortals. From now on, nature will conduct itself in an independent manner and will not be affected by any natural “punishment” intended to cause mortals to repent: “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22).

Henceforth, nature will conduct itself in accordance with a cyclical law. The season for sowing seeds will be followed by the season for harvesting the crops; heat will be replaced by cold, and vice versa; summer will be followed by winter; and day will be followed by night. This promise of harmony will sever completely nature’s dependence on God and on human actions.

Ostensibly, humankind should rejoice over such a promise. The sages, however, do not do so, and they react to it with the only means of protest available to them – biblical exegesis.

“It is written, ‘While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest shall not cease.’ Rabbi Yuden, citing Rabbi Acha, said: Did Noah’s children actually believe that their covenant with God would last forever? Well, they were mistaken. As long as heaven and earth exist, the covenant will remain in force. However, when the day that it is referred to in the Book of Isaiah – the day on which ‘the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment’ [Isaiah 51:6] – comes, the covenant will be terminated, as it is written, ‘And it was broken in that day’ [Zechariah 11:11].

“Rabbi Acha stated: [God declared:] What led them to rebel against me? They sinned because they sowed seeds without harvesting the crops – that is, they brought children to the world without burying them. From now on, ‘seedtime and harvest shall not cease.’ From now on, ‘cold and heat shall not cease.’ There will be heat waves and bitterly cold weather. From now on, ‘summer and winter shall not cease.’ I will cause the birds to spend the summer with you, as it is written, ‘and the ravenous birds shall summer upon them, and all the beasts of the earth shall winter upon them’ [Isa. 18:6].”’ It is said of one great rabbi that he complained of headaches. There are those who claim that the anecdote can be attributed to Rabbi Samuel, son of Nachman. This rabbi complained: What has the generation of the Flood done to us?(Bereisheet Rabbah 34:11)

According to Rabbi Yuden, citing Rabbi Acha, Noah’s children thought that the covenant God had made with them would last forever, irrespective of their future conduct. They thought that the promise of cyclical harmony in nature was as stable as the sky and the earth and would never end. Rabbi Acha points out that, indeed, this cyclical pattern is as stable as the earth and the sky – that is, it is not stable at all.

To refute the literal meaning of the verses in the story of the Flood, Rabbi Acha mentions Isaiah’s prophecy of consolation, in which the temporal character of reality is contrasted with God’s eternal justice: “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look upon the earth beneath; for the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment, and they that dwell therein shall die in like manner; but my salvation shall be forever, and my favor shall not be abolished” (Isa. 51:6).

According to Isaiah, when compared with God’s mercy and justice, even the sky and the earth are transitory. Rabbi Acha then cites the prophet Zechariah, who describes how he harmoniously led his flock in God’s name with both a gracious staff and a staff to which ropes were attached – the symbols of the attribute of mercy and the attribute of justice, respectively – until the nation became disgusted with him and he became disgusted with them: “And I took my staff Graciousness, and cut it asunder, ‘that I might break My covenant which I had made with all the peoples.’ And it was broken in that day; and the poor of the flock that gave heed unto me knew of a truth that it was the word of the Lord” (Zech. 11:10-11).

The breaking of the staff of graciousness expresses the termination of the covenant between God and humankind. On that day, sums up Zechariah, the “poor of the flock” will know that the termination of that covenant is an act of God, just as its implementation was.

In line with this interpretation, God’s conception of eternal cyclical harmony is not in fact eternal, but is rather dependent on human actions, as was the case before he issued his promise.

Rabbi Acha also explains what the sin of the generation of the Flood was: They sinned because they sowed seeds but did not harvest the crops – in other words, they brought children into the world and these children lived forever. The fact that the world operated in perfect harmony led the members of that generation to sin. Thus, Rabbi Acha explains the divine promise in a manner that is completely different from a literal explanation: From now on, “seedtime and harvest shall not cease”: From now on, he says, parents will bring children to the world, and these children will die prematurely. Humankind will suffer from “cold and heat” – that is, from diseases – and from “summer and winter” – from the threat of predatory animals. The above midrash ends with a brief hagiographical comment about a great scholar who blamed the generation of Noah’s Flood for his headache.

What was the sages’ motivation in giving a nonliteral interpretation that is the complete reverse of a literal one? It is possible that they were attempting to cope with a promise whose fulfillment is different from what a literal reading would suggest. In mortal eyes, God’s promise is of a harmonious nature that will not be affected by human actions. However, in practice, reality is not harmonious. Sowing time does not always lead to harvest time, and it is, sadly, not uncommon for parents to bury their own children. Were the literal interpretation of God’s promise valid – namely, that the earth would not be cursed because of human actions – we would be left with a capricious nature that would operate in total and inexplicable disharmony.

However, nature’s capriciousness is not a sufficient reason for providing a nonliteral interpretation of the verses in this week’s Torah portion. In my view, if sowing time and harvest time really never ceased – the sages would still insist on seeing a link between these two periods and human actions, and they would do so for theological reasons. In a world bereft of prophecy, the explanation of climatic aberrations as being acts of God is the closest thing, in the sages’ eyes, to a living dialogue with God. The sages use the severest tool of protest they have – biblical exegesis – and they protest against the concept of nature’s indifferent cyclical character. They protest against a literal reading of the Book of Genesis.