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Torah Attitude: Parashas Noah: Two generations, one story
The Jewish people are expected to study the history of the world to ensure that they do not fall into the same pattern of transgression and punishment of earlier generations. The freedom of man to choose between good and evil comes with the consequence of reward and punishment. This pattern of transgression and consequence applies to nations as well as to individuals. Besides continuing and further developing idol worship, the ten generations from Adam to Noah fell further and further into immorality and dishonesty. They even made marriage contracts between humans and animals. The "corruption of all flesh" is really referring to the destruction and wasting of the seminal fluids. For three hundred years Noah warned his fellow human beings that eventually their transgressions would bring about their destruction He criticized the young women for their immodest clothing. It is most distressing to see the many similarities between the low moral and ethical standards of the generations prior to the Great Flood and those of contemporary society. It appears that the recent catastrophes are reiterating the words of the greatest prophet, Moses, who in his final speech warned us to remember the transgressions of earlier generations and the consequent punishments. We owe it to ourselves not to follow the decline in decency in the world but to stand up as a bastion of faith to show our own community and the world around us the high standards of moral and ethical values of the Torah.
Learn from other's mistakes
In Parashas Haazinu (Devarim 32:7) it says: "Remember the days [of the past] of the world. Analyze the years of generation after generation." Rashi quotes our sages in the Sifri (310), who explain the meaning of "generation after generation". Moses was instructing the Jewish people to look back at the two generations of Enosh and the Big Flood. In the time of Enosh, Adam's grandson, they were punished when the waters of the great ocean flooded them, and in the time of Noah, the Big Flood wiped out all existence. Obviously, Moses was not just referring to the punishments of these generations, but also to the transgressions that brought about these punishments. He told the Jewish people that they were expected to study the past history of the world in order to learn from the mistakes of earlier generations. In this way they could watch out and make sure not to fall into the same pattern of transgression and punishment.
Consequence of reward and punishment
Right from the beginning of Creation, G'd showed that the freedom of man to choose between good and evil comes with the consequence of reward and punishment. When Adam and Eve sinned, they, and all subsequent generations after them, suffered the consequences of their sin. Similarly, when Cain killed his brother Abel, he was told by G'd that eventually he would suffer the consequence. In His great mercy, G'd waits with the punishment or metes it out in small installments (see Shemos 34:6-7); however, eventually the consequence will come.
This pattern of transgression and consequence applies to nations, as well as to individuals. The Torah (Bereishis 4:26) relates that at the time of Enosh the population of the world started to serve idols and profane the name of G'd. G'd punished them with the first flood which destroyed one-third of the populated world (see Rashi Bereishis 6:4). The subsequent seven generations from Enosh to Noah did not learn their lesson and continued to sin. G'd showed his great patience with these generations. As the Mishnah says (Pirkei Avos 5:2): "There were ten generations from Adam to Noah. This is to let us know the extent of G'd's slowness to anger. For all these generations continued to anger Him, till He brought upon them the waters of the Great Flood."
Besides continuing to further develop idol worship, these ten generations fell further and further into immorality and dishonesty. There was neither respect for other people's wives or for their possessions. As it says in the beginning of this week's Torah portion (Bereishis 6:11): "And the Earth had become corrupt before G'd and the Earth became full of robbery." Earlier it says, (Bereishis 6:2): "And the sons of the rulers saw the daughters of man that they were good [looking], and they took for themselves wives from whoever they chose." Rashi quotes the Midrash Rabba (26:5) that this refers to the conduct of the sons of the princes and the judges who abused their power and even snatched away young brides when they were all dressed up on the way to their weddings. Rashi further explains that their level of indecent behaviour was to such an extent that they would not refrain from taking other people's wives as partners. The Midrash (ibid 26:9) says that they even made official marriage contracts not only between the same gender, but even between humans and animals. In similar ways, they would steal and rob from each other, thus undermining the whole basis of a lawful society. At this point, G'd decided that mankind had lost its right to continue to exist. As it says, (Bereishis 6:12-13): "And G'd saw the Earth, and behold it had become corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the Earth. And G'd said to Noah, 'The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the Earth has become filled with robbery …'"
We know that there are no extraneous words in the Torah. It therefore seems strange that the Torah repeats that G'd saw the Earth was corrupted because it was corrupted. However, the Hebrew word for corruption, "hashchasah", has two meanings: (1) corruption and (2) destruction. The Zohar (Noah 61a) explains that the "corruption of all flesh" is really referring to the destruction and wasting of the seminal fluids. This teaches us that the root of the corruption, and the lack of respect for other people, started with the lack of respect for their own ability to reproduce. In their indulgence of physical self-gratification, they had no interest in having large families, but wanted to minimize the number of children they had (see Midrash Hagadol 10:5). Rashi (Bereishis 4:19) quotes the Midrash Rabbah (ibid 23:2) who relates how they would marry two wives: one for childbearing who was despised and would be living on her own as if she was a widow; the other one would be a beautiful woman who they would marry just for pleasure and enjoyment, and they would therefore medically make her barren to preserve her attractive appearance. This lack of respect for the potential of future life eventually brought about bloodshed as well (see Jerusalem Talmud, Bava Metzia 4:2).
Only one individual remained righteous in that era of spiritual decline. As it says, (Bereishis 6:9): "Noah was a perfect righteous man in his generations." The Zohar (ibid 62b) explains that for three hundred years Noah warned his fellow human beings that eventually their transgressions would bring about their destruction. The Zohar continues to explain how Noah would criticize the immodest clothing of the young women who paraded almost naked in public. This, says the Zohar, was a major cause of the rampant immorality of those days, as it enticed the men in power to snatch them away.
Instructions for all generations
When Moses in his final speech instructed the Jewish people to look back into previous generations, this instruction did not only apply to the generation that was about to enter the Holy Land. As everything else recorded in the Torah, this speech had instructions for all future generations, and as such relates directly to us as well. It is most distressing to see the many similarities between the low moral and ethical standards of the generations prior to the Great Flood and those of contemporary society.
A description of the moral and ethical standards of the Western world today with its permissiveness and lack of modesty has an uncanny similarity to the description used by our sages to describe the generations of the Great Flood. The various natural catastrophes our world has experienced in recent years also bear resemblance to the generations of Enosh and Noah. We have no prophets who are able to give us clear guidance concerning the meaning of these Divine messages. However, the recent catastrophes appear to be reiterating the words of the greatest prophet, Moses, who in his final speech warned us to remember the transgressions of earlier generations and the consequent punishments.
We owe it to ourselves not to follow the decline in decency in the world. On the contrary, we must stand up as a bastion of faith and show our own community and the world around us the high standards of moral and ethical values of the Torah. Only in this way can we be assured that G'd will look after us and protect us, as he looked after and protected Noah in the time of the Great Flood.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network