Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Noah 5761/ 4 November 2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Noah 5761/ 4 November 2000

The Significance of the Flood Story:
On Restoring Wonderment

Prof. Dov Landau
Department of Jewish Literature

Sometimes, according to biblical accounts, there seems to be a discrepancy between crime and punishment. For example, in the case of Adam, his punishment for eating from the Tree of Knowledge seems quite exaggerated. It is also difficult for us to understand why G-d did not accept Cain's offer graciously, considering the fact that he was the first human being to seek and find a way to draw near to the Lord Almighty by bringing an offering. Similarly, in this week's reading, the punishment for lawlessness is total annihilation of the world. Even supposing that the lawlessness involved murder, it is still hard to understand the uncompromising collective punishment condemning the entire world.

The question remains troublesome and most likely cannot be answered in a satisfactory way that would be generally accepted.Nevertheless, it must be said that from a didactic, moral, and religious standpoint great importance attaches even to such perplexing problems that have no human resolution. Acknowledging that we do not have all the answers and that not everything is in our hands teaches us to be humble and modest, saving us from uncurbed hubris. Contemplating the wonders of the universe sometimes has such a powerful impact on us that we suddenly discover, to our great amazement, precisely the weaker side of our existence. Suddenly we realize that in the face of the forces operating in nature, or in the face of processes regulating our biological experience, we are utterly helpless.

Human awe and wonderment in the face of the great forces of nature are essentially our question about existence. This wonderment is perceived by some anthropologists as the foundation of religion. In a similar vein, although with certain differences, Hayyim Nachman Bialik commented in the beginning of his article, "Disclosure and Concealment in Language" (gillui vekissui balashon). We quote:

For example, as primordial man stood amazed at the sound of thunder - "The voice of the Lord is power; the voice of the Lord is majesty" (Ps. 29:4) - and as he fell on his face, stricken with wonderment and seized with fear of G-d, there escaped from his mouth of its own accord, perhaps one could say in imitation of the sound of nature, a sort of frenzied sound, like the roar of an animal, a sort of "rr-r" - a sound that occurs in many languages in the word for thunder (Heb. ra'am). Surely this frenzied cry must have brought great relief to his astonished soul! Was not primordial man at this moment also a sublime artist and seer, creating by his intuition expressions of speech, speech that faithfully expressed, at least for himself, his deep and complex emotional upheaval?

Bialik's universal idea receives more specifically Jewish expression in a verse from Psalms (104:24): "How many are the things You have made, O Lord; You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of Your creations. There is the sea, vast and wide, with its creatures beyond number, living things, small and great." A similar mood is reflected in Isaiah (40:26): "Lift high your eyes and see: Who created these? He who sends out their host by count, Who calls them each by name: Because of His great might and vast power, not one fails to appear." In these verses, as in hundreds of others, awesome fear is softened and becomes wondrous astonishment, astonishment which finds expression in a question.

The importance of human questioning and wondering is so important in Judaism that these are considered characteristics that set human beings apart from other creatures and are the basis for the morality and cultural restraint that human beings impose on their lusts and impulses. The first stage is that of wonder and question; the second is that of fear; the third is cultural and moral restraint; and the fourth is religious restraint. If the world loses its power to astonish and amaze us, if the human soul accepts the world without wonderment, simply following the routine, then the cause for moral development disappears; it is then that violence, robbery and lawlessness take over the world, leading even to murder. Apparently it is in this context that we are to understand Abraham's remark to Sarah when they went to the land of the Philistines: "Abraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister.' So King Abimelech of Gerar had Sarah brought to him" (Gen. 20:2). And later we read, "'What, then,' Abimelech demanded of Abraham, 'was your purpose in doing this thing?' 'I thought,' said Abraham, 'surely there is no fear of G-d in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife'" (Gen. 20:1-11). Insofar as Abraham was acquainted with the other inhabitants of the land as people who lived their daily lives without fear of G-d, it was hard for him to trust their decency and morality, and hence he also suspected that they were capable of murder.

R. Isaac Arama, author of the commentary on the Pentateuch, Akedat Yitzhak, in Section 13 of the volume on Genesis interprets the story of the flood as force of circumstance, as the only way to restore mankind to its primal state, after it had gone bad in the course of the generations that elapsed since Creation. His commentary is founded on the notion that opposites and antitheses leave a strong impression on human consciousness, since they shed light on a subject from two opposing angles and provide mutual confirmation from both sides. As the strong impression of great wonderment at the creation of a new world began to wane with passing generations, humanity had to be confronted with cataclysm, the opposite of renewal, in order that once again they be in a position of questioning wonderment in the face of a world which was as if created anew ex nihilo. If indeed there was a transition from living with a sense of awe to accepting life as routine, then this may plausibly have led to the demise of all morality, to the extent that "the earth was filled with lawlessness."(Gn. 6:11)

In The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto maintains that our use of the adjective "sacred" has come to be applied to the absolute good, moral, decent, straightforward, and true, which are primarily rational sentiments. In contrast, the original, primal use of the word "sacred" referred to a sentiment devoid of all rationality, a category that is totally set apart and cannot be defined in words. It was a sort of mood or spiritual condition existing in a human being, which can neither be defined nor explained. At best we can bring a person to recognize this spiritual state or mood in himself or herself. It is a state of exhiliration and festive elation, of the sublime, of being connected with the wondrous.

Otto tries to explain this special category, which he calls the numinous, primarily by negating the sensations that it might appear to resemble. Therefore he says that it is neither fear, nor awesome trembling, nor trust, nor love, nor security, nor admiration, nor dependence, in their usual senses. Hence, Rudolf Otto concludes, "it is a sense of created-ness; the sense of cataclysm of every creation as it descends and is engulfed in its own nothingness, in the face of that which rises above and beyond all Creation." Yet even this attempt at an explanation, Rudolf Otto maintains, contributes nothing to conceptually clarifying the matter; and therefore he also rejects most of William James' approach,[1] only accepting the claim that it has to do with a sense of "objective presence" which is far stronger than our usual psychological feelings.[2]

Clearly the approach described here is reminiscent of what we saw in the quote from Bialik; it also contains elements of the approach taken by Rabbi Isaac Arama concerning the inevitability of the flood in order to preserve the humanity of the human race. Similar, as well, is the distinction we draw between the Hebrew word pahad, fear (which denotes concrete and rational apprehension in the face of impending disaster), and the word yir'ah, awe, which in addition to trepidation also connotes facing the elevated and sublime.

Returning to our opening question, from the human point of view, the price that man was required to pay for the loss of his humanity seems outrageous. However we must not forget that there is a great difference between death as perceived by man death as perceived by G-d. For us death means the end of existence, even if we come from a long tradition of faith and trust in the eternity of the human soul as part of the Lord above. From the human point of view there can be no doubt that clinging to life is a primal need, and even an inalienable right, even when the person at issue leads life purely on an animalistic level. On the other hand, metaphysically it is clear that life of this sort has no meaning, no value, nor even any justification; hence there is no moral imperative to prevent the Transcendental Force, and we emphasize, only the Transcendental Force, that force which gave us life and entrusted it in our hands, to take back what He entrusted us with and to give up on life of this type, once it has become devoid of meaning.

I have explained in my major remarks on the Binding of Isaac[3] that from G-d's point of view death is not the end of existence, but only a change of venue and a transition from one condition to another, not necessarily worse than the first. The Holy One, blessed be He, has every right to take away life, because it is He who granted it to us in trust alone. From the point of view of eternity, tragedy does not reign over these changes of condition.

This approach can explain at least a bit of our wonderment about the flood, and other cataclysmic events. However this wonderment and the questions it brings up from time to time restore to human beings that sense of awe and morality without which life becomes meaningless. Perhaps in such a case, when a person goes through life without any human wonderment at the Lord's world, the House of Shammai was correct in saying that, "it would have been better for man not to have been created, than to have been created" (Eruvin13b), and as Tosafot interpreted this, s.v. Noah, "This is said with regard to common people, but the righteous and those of their generation are fortunate." Common people are those who go through life routinely, whereas the righteous are those who know to stand in amazement, question poignantly, and feel exhiliration at the wonders of Creation.

Thus we see that an attitude of amazement together with searching questions about the Lord's universe, taking a humble position in the face of the eternal questions, is what begets all morality and what causes a person to function as a human being. The questions asked in wonderment, as well as the questions asked in curiosity increase human knowledge, together constituting the advantage of the human being over the beast.



[1] Varieties of Religious Experience .
[2] Cf. Rudolf Otto, The Sacred .
[3] "Ha-Akedah ke-Motif Merkazi be-Milhemnt ha-Tarbut be-Yisrael," Ha-Tzofeh, Rosh ha-Shanah Eve, 1994.