“Noah erected an altar and took from every clean animal and every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. God smelled the pleasing aroma, and God said in His heart: “I will not continue to curse again the ground because of man, since the imagery of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again continue to smite every living being, as I have done. Continuously, all the days of the earth, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.” (Gensis 8:20)
* * *
THE CONCEPTUAL PROBLEM PRESENTED BY THE FLOOD
Our Sages interpret this passage as an oath taken by God to refrain from the type of destruction described in the Flood story, no matter the degree of human provocation. They even authored a blessing to recite when one sees a rainbow, the natural phenomenon selected by God to serve as the symbol of this oath (Genesis 9:13):
“Blessed are You, God….. Who remembers the covenant,” is trustworthy in His covenant, and fulfills His word.”
Avudraham explains the blessing; when you see a rainbow you know that the world should really be destroyed owing to the preponderance of human iniquities; the fact that it is not being destroyed is entirely due to the oath God made to Noach.
Rashi (Ibid.) quotes a Midrash to the effect that in the entire subsequent history of the world, only two generations were able to dispense with the protective shield provided by this oath.
Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher offers the background for this; he explains that the mass destruction of mankind in the Flood was not an impulsive Divine response to some particularly pernicious human evil, but was mandated by objective considerations of Torah law. Whenever the iniquities of mankind outweigh its collective merit, Torah law demands mankind’s immediate destruction. This preponderance of human iniquity is the situation the Torah describes at the end of Genesis:
“God 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.” (Genesis 6:5)
God destroyed mankind as the objective dictates of Torah law demanded. (Yad, Laws of Repentance, Ch.3:,2)
If we put all this together we arrive at two conceptual problems. Is the world so consistently evil that only two generations since the flood were deservedly absolved from destruction? How come we aren’t sensitive to the existence of such great evil? But let us say we could solve this problem we are immediately confronted with another.
Torah rules are eternal and cannot be revised. If the flood was truly mandated by objective judicial considerations, how are we to relate to God’s post flood oath to ignore His own rules henceforth?
* * *
THE HARSHNESS OF THE PUNISHMENT
Let us tackle the issue of the preponderance of human iniquities that were responsible for the uncompromising harshness of the destruction first. We recite twice in our morning prayers, “in His goodness God renews daily, perpetually, the work of creation.” To the human observer, the universe appears permanent and solid, but in our prayers we state the view that it is actually being constantly renewed by God. Creation is an ongoing process, not a historical event. The phenomenon that lends the universe its permanence is not Newton’s law of inertia but God’s willingness to continue the dynamic of the creation process.
This steadfastness of the Divine will is readily explainable. Inasmuch as God is a rational being in the Torah view of the world, He obviously had a good reason to create the universe; abstract rational considerations do not alter over time; consequently they always favor creation and it is the steadfastness of God’s Will that lends creation its apparent stability.
In the Torah view of the world the abstract rational consideration that prompted God to create the Universe was the need to express the Divine Attribute of Benevolence. Enabling God to shower His bounty on His creatures is the single return the universe provides its Creator (see Derech Hashem Pt.1, Ch.2)
* * *
THE FLOOD AS AN OCEAN OF BENEVOLENCE
The best way to understand the balance of iniquities that are responsible for the flood is not to regard the flood as an act of destruction, but to characterize it as drowning mankind in an ocean of kindness. Rashi (Ibid, 7:12) quotes the Midrash that declares that the waters that fell were actually beneficial rains. Had mankind repented even after the flood-rains had begun, the flood-waters would have brought blessing instead of destruction.
Let us compare the ceaseless renewal of creation to someone pouring water from a bottle into a glass. If the glass is not sufficiently large to contain the contents of the bottle, the liquid will spill over the sides of the glass and be lost. If the contents of the bottle contain a sufficient amount of liquid to fill the world, the effect of pouring the contents into the glass that was too small would precisely resemble the Flood. The liquid would keep spilling over the sides of the glass until it drowned the entire world.
Following the analogy that the liquid in the bottle is the energy required to renew the world, it is immediately obvious that refraining from pouring it into the glass is not an option. Without the energy of renewal the world could not continue to exist in any case. The continued survival of the universe demands that God keep pouring the energy of renewal from the bottle into the cup; the bit of information that is crucial to understand the flood is that it is man’s job to maintain the cup of creation in a position that it is able to catch the energy of renewal that is being poured out of God’s bottle inside the cup of the universe, without allowing it to spill over the sides.
* * *
THE CUP THAT CAPTURES THE ENERGY OF RENEWAL
The fact that the responsibility for positioning the cup belongs to man follows from the fact that the vessel into which this energy of Creation is constantly being poured is the human being.
Jewish tradition teaches that the human being is the beneficial recipient of Creation. It is on him that God showers all the bounty of creation. If man positions himself properly to receive creation from God, he enjoys all the bounty that the universe has to offer. But if he allows the flow of Divine energy to spill out over the sides of the cup as it reaches him, the Divine energy will inundate the world and will ultimately drown him. To really understand the flood, we must come to grips with the question of what it is that man does that determines whether he spills out or catches the Divine energy of renewal, and we can only determine the answer to that all important question when we discover the human capacity that constitutes the cup in which the energy of renewal must be caught.
Talmud (Sanhedrin, 37a): Man was created singly (i.e. initially God created only a single human being, Adam, in contrast to other life forms which were created as species) to teach you that whoever destroys a single Jewish life is regarded by God as someone that has destroyed an entire world; and whoever preserves a single Jewish life is regarded by God as someone that has preserved an entire world … therefore each and every person is obligated to say, “For my sake was the world created.”
* * *
THE LOCUS OF THE HUMAN CREATIVE POWER
This passage implies that the Divine power of creation that God pours into man’s soul specifically takes the form of the ability to create other human beings. Since the entire world was created for the benefit of a single individual, and since the preservation of the life of a single person is equivalent to the preservation of the entire world, the power to create new people equals the Divine energy input of the entire Creation. In terms of our flood imagery, the cup that catches the energy of renewal must be positioned to grab hold of this power to create other human beings. This means that our imaginary ‘cup’ will find its specific down to earth expression in the romantic relationship between males and females.
To create spiritually whole people requires much more than the sexual act that brings about conception. In order to develop spiritually human beings need to be nurtured emotionally and infused with libraries of information and a plethora of values. This nurturing/educational process stretches over many years. By the time a human being is fully educated and developed he is well into his twenties. Nurturing humans for less time necessarily limits their potential.
In order to be capable of dedicating themselves to develop their young for such an extended period of time, the human couple must be cemented together by a spiritual bond that is stronger than steel. This human cement is the romantic relationship that develops between the sexes. Inasmuch as the Divine energy of creation translates itself into the ability to create other human beings, it is not too much to say that the ‘cup’ that holds the energy of creation in our image, is nothing other than the romantic bond between the sexes.
* * *
THE SIN OF THE FLOOD GENERATION
The Midrash informs us that the sin of the flood generation was pouring out their seed in vain. (See Kallah Rabbati 2:7 for example; actually, all the Talmudic and Midrashic sources associate the Flood with the widespread commission of sexual offences] At fist glance, the commission of sexual offences seems like an inadequate reason for the destruction of human life, but on closer examination the idea is not so farfetched; we have only to refer to our ‘cup’ image to appreciate the gravity of such sins.
The intense joy and pleasure programmed by God into the romantic/sexual relationship was a direct consequence of its association with the creation of life. A relationship that provides the emotional cement that ensures the endurance of the relationship needed to nurture human life deserves to be infused with all the joy and pleasure inherent in life itself.
To take only the pleasure and joy inherent in this relationship and cast aside the creation of life is an act of spiritual perversion. All these Torah sources that associate the Flood with sexual perversity are expressing a single common thesis; the people of the flood generation established romantic/sexual relationships solely for the intense physical/psychological gratification they offer. As far as making use of the powerful bonds created by such relationships to create and nurture new life, they felt that the less people there were in the world, the more resources and therefore the more enjoyment was available per person.
As the sexual/romantic relationship became separated from the ideas of procreation and nurturing, it ceased to matter whether such relationships were heterosexual, or whether they violated the human taboos against cohabitation with close blood relatives. Measured purely in terms of pleasure and joy there is no reason to prefer any particular romantic relationship over any other. The cultural bias towards heterosexuality and the taboos against cohabitation with close relatives are based on the association between romance and procreation. When you separate romance from procreation you the Divine energy contained in the romantic bond is considered “spilled out in vain.”
The pre-flood world is incredibly reminiscent of the orientation of our own society towards human sexuality. We are also focused on the reduced quality of life associated with large numbers of children; as a society we are marrying in steadily decreasing numbers increasingly later in life, and having fewer and fewer children. As our social focus on bearing and rearing children lessens, our social tolerance and even positive advocacy of relationships that are defined by the Torah as deviant abominations steadily increases. Sexual orientation becomes a matter of individual taste and is entirely separated from moral considerations.
* * *
THE RELATION TO THEFT
To appreciate the influence that the bringing of sacrifices can have on all this, we must next consider the issue of theft. The Talmud (Sanhedrin, 108a) states that the sin that prompted God to finalize the edict of the Flood was the crime of theft, a total lack of appreciation of the sanctity of what belongs to another. How does the sin of theft relate to the lack of sexual mores?
(Talmud Brochot, 35b): R’ Chanina taught; whoever takes enjoyment from the world without reciting a blessing … steals from God and from Israel. Every enjoyment the world offers is actually a Divine blessing. Accepting enjoyment by reciting a blessing before the taking renders the taking permissible.
To comprehend the thesis behind this passage of Talmud we have only to consult our ‘cup’ image once again. The acknowledgment of the blessing is the cup, or container into which Divine blessing can be poured. Taking enjoyment without offering acknowledgment amounts to theft because it deprives God of the cup or container in which He can pour His blessings.
Harnessing the happiness afforded by romantic relationships to produce more human beings is the spiritual equivalent of reciting a blessing. In the consummation of fruitful relationships there is recognition of the source and purpose of the joy of life, the same sort of recognition that is the essence of all the blessings we recite. The consumption of romantic relationships in the way God intended has the marvelous effect of converting human pleasure into a source of Divine blessing.
* * *
Contrary to common conception, when there are more human beings, the quality of life goes up, not down. God is able to increase the flow of the Divine energy He pours into the universe, as there are more human recipients to absorb it, and consequently the level of Divne blessing increases; this increase translates into more available life-force and there is more pleasure to share. Happiness and the quality of life increase exponentially.
Taking enjoyment from pouring out one’s seed is the exact reverse. The person who takes the pleasure offered and uses it merely to stimulate his or herself stops the flow of Divine energy dead in its tracks. He extinguishes life by engaging in the very activity designed to produce it; he spills the seed of life out of the ‘cup’ that was designed to hold it at the very second the precious fuel of life is poured. It is the most serious form of theft because it deprives both God and man. It deprives God of the ability to practice His Attribute of Benevolence, and it deprives man of the increased happiness available through intensifying the flow of Divine blessing. This is the ‘theft’ that drowned mankind.
But what of the oath? Why wouldn’t the same sort of ‘theft’ automatically bring about the same consequence? How does the offer of a few sacrifices offset all this?
* * *
THE OATH AND THE SACRIFICES
To appreciate the significance of sacrifices, we must familiarize ourselves with a Divine Manifestation known as the Shechina. The source of man’s soul, or Neshama, is located in a spiritual realm much higher than the physical world known as Azilut. All the Neshamot that were ever sent down to the world, considered together, are known as Knesset Yisroel, literally the Congregation of Israel. But they are also referred to as the Shechina, one of the names of God. (see Nefesh Hachaim Gt.2,17)
There is a point where this congregate human soul is still part of the Divinity and has not yet separated from God. At this point, from man’s perspective this congregate soul is called Knesset Yisroel, whereas God refers to it as the Shechina, a part of Himself:
Adam appeared and the Shechina came down with him, and rested in him; when he sinned, the Shechina left him. Noah appeared and brought the Shechina down to earth again; the flood generation sinned and drove Her from the world again; Abraham appeared and brought Her down again; the people of Sodom drove Her from the world again. (Zohar Chadash, Ruth 59b)
Rakanti (39,d) explains the significance of Noach’s burnt offering in terms of this Zohar. The word for sacrifice in Habrew is korbon, meaning to bring close. The sacrifice of animals to God is to be regarded as a symbolic act, representing man’s desire to connect his neshama with the congregate neshama and with the Shechina. The sacrifice of Noah was a way to connect his individual soul with Knesset Yisroel, which connects with the Shechina. Through the korbon, the individual soul of Noah forms a bond with the Shechina.
* * *
CONSEQUENCES OF SPIRITUAL DISCONNECTION
Only when the Shechina and the neshama of man are disconnected is the world vulnerable to the danger of a flood. The lack of such spiritual connection forms a gaping hole between God and His universe. The universe pours out of God’s bottle through this gap into man’s soul, and since man does not present his vessel properly, the energy of Creation drowns him. But when the Shechina is in the world with man, when man connects his neshama with the Shechina, there is no gap between God’s bottle and man’s soul, its container vessel. The bottle from which the energy of creation is poured and the vessel that serves as its container are bonded into a single entity. There is no separation between donor and recipient, all of creation is in perfect harmony. The neshama of man, Knesset Yisroel, and the Shechina are one.
Only when the Shechina disconnects is the paradigm of the bottle pouring into the vessel the proper way to describe the relationship of God to the world. Only then do we find destruction; the flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra. When man returns the vessel God provided to receive the Divine input of creation, the human soul, back to its source, instead of pouring out creation from Heaven down to the earth, God Himself appears on earth in the form of the Shechina that has bonded with the neshama of man. It becomes impossible to separate the donor from the recipient. This is the pleasing aroma of Noah’s sacrifice.
Maimonides’ rule still applies. If we ever allow the Shechina to depart from the world, we are liable to instant destruction. Our vessel is still not properly positioned to receive the flow from God’s bottle; the flow would still drown us. But as long as we have the Shechina with us, God’s bottle does not separate from the vessel of our souls.
While we no longer have the opportunity to cling to the Shechina through sacrifices, our Sages provided us with a substitute, our prayers; (Talmud, Berochot, 26 b) the daily prayers were established in place of the Tamid sacrifices. The world needs our prayers. We are always vulnerable to a flood. It is only the presence of the Shechina, kept by us in the world through our prayers that protects our world from instant inundation.