Noach – A Challenging Passage
One of the most building phrases for children is to hear from their parents and caregivers that they are loved. Knowing they are loved, and loved unconditionally, lays the foundation in a child for self-esteem and confidence. I once heard Rabbi Noach Orlowek comment that parents should tell their children “I love you because you are mine,” thus removing any conditions to the love and eliminating the child’s instinctive feeling that they need to earn the love. (Rabbi Orlowek, in addition to his credentials as an educator and counselor, has raised 13 children, which gives him a separate set of credentials.) Conversely, one of the most painful messages a child can hear from a parent is rejection, even regret for having had the child. To feel unwanted by the very people who are meant to provide love and security to a fragile child during crucial stages of development is devastating. No child should ever be made to feel such rejection. But it happens in our society, and the scars don’t heal well.
At the end of Bereshit the Torah states: “And the Lord saw that the evil of mankind on the earth was great, and all the drives of his heart’s thoughts were only evil all the day.”(Genesis 6:5) The people inhabiting the earth had become corrupt. They had embraced immoral lifestyles, pursued hedonism and pleasure, and had no regard for the property of others. This conduct would make any good leader distraught. But the following verse is an exceptional blow. “And the Lord regretted that he had made man in the land and His heart was saddened.”
How are we to understand this? It is difficult from a theological point of view, and it is difficult to swallow in terms of the relationship between God and man. Theologically this challenges our notion of God’s omniscience. Did God really not see this coming? Was He taken by surprise? It is common for humans to misread or wrongly predict a forecast. The biggest expert can’t predict what stocks will go up next month – this is why investors make sure to have a varied portfolio. But the most basic faith in God believes with certainty that God “knows” (or controls) which stocks rise and which fall. God is all knowing and immune from any errors. Regret is not something that should ever occur in the mind of the All-knowing.
This challenge is, obviously, addressed by many commentaries, from the Midrash and all the way to modern day commentators. The Midrash, in a nutshell, explains that human actions generate reactions. In the language of the Midrash God’s “regret” was in fact such a reaction, where God moved from a relationship with the world based on mercy to a relationship based on judgment. The behaviour of humanity caused this shift in the relationship, and the result was, effectively, a reboot of the world after a systems crash, restoring it to factory settings. The “regret” expressed in the verse refers therefore to this shift in how God related to the world.
The Ramban stresses that the language used in the Torah describes God’s actions in human terms. Thus, God did not literally “regret” or become sad, but the resulting destruction of civilization echoed how a human would have reacted upon regretting the creation of some malfunctioning machine, while at the same time its creator is saddened by its demise given the investment and care put into it.
One way or another the theological issues can be overcome, but this passage is even more challenging when we think of God as the great Father of mankind. As humans we read this verse and we should be shaken by the thought that, as children of God, we can be portrayed as “mistakes,” that the Torah can express God’s regret for having created us and having invested in us, even if the choice of language is merely to give us a context.
We can accept consequences. We can accept that the destruction of civilization at that time was necessary due to the depth of corruption. We have accepted the destruction of the vast majority of European Jewry in the last century, although we don’t understand why. But we can’t accept that God would every reject us. We (subsequent to these passages) have established a covenant with God to which God can be held regardless of whether we keep our end of the deal. When we complained that God forsook us, that He abandoned us, His response through the prophet is clear. “Would a woman forget her [infant] burden, a mother the offspring of her womb? Even were these to be forgotten, but I will not forget you.” (Isaiah 49:15)
The Almighty’s commitment to us is deeper than the natural bond between a mother and her infant. Nature sometimes deviates and even such a bond can be severed. But the prophet presents the deepest of human connections and declares that the Lord’s commitment exceeds even that. It is unbreakable. But it wasn’t unbreakable back then!
I don’t know how to explain the terminology the Torah uses as far as the relationship is concerned. There are likely commentaries who address this but I have not yet seen any. The question remains on the table to continue pondering – how could the Lord walk away from a relationship?