Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat No·ah 5765
Rosh Hodesh Heshvan
October 16, 2004 1 Heshvan 5765
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
Midrashim often draw big ideas from the smallest of linguistic anomalies. A memorable example is to be found in the creation story for day one, when God separates light from darkness. At day's end the Torah introduces the refrain that will complete the narrative for each subsequent day: "And there was evening and there was morning, a first day" (1:15). What Scripture should have said, however, notes one Sage, is "Let there be evening." The first evening, like everything else, was entirely new and unnatural and hence required a command to bring into existence. The descriptive mode suggests that, in fact, this was not the first evening ever. The Hebrew verb vayehi instead of yehi, that is the addition of the single letter vav, implies that time preceded the creation of our world.
Building on this keen comment, Rabbi Abbahu, who often debated Christian leaders in third-century Caesarea, contended that the Torah is clearly teaching that "God created and destroyed [other] worlds before the creation of this one. . This one pleases Me; those did not." In the next generation, Rabbi Pinhas reinforced Rabbi Abbahu's contention with the verse from the end of the creation story: "And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good" (1:31). The emphatic approbation was intended to exclude the worlds that came before (B'reishit Rabba 3:7).
This unconventional midrash contains a key to thinking about this week's parashah, the story of the flood. It took but ten generations, according to the biblical chronology, for God to descend from a state of deep satisfaction to one of utter revulsion. How quickly had humankind desecrated the sanctity of creation with its vile behavior? The deluge is but another instance of divine regret and repudiation. God would not rest from creating until the result became a source of everlasting satisfaction.
Rabbi Abbahu's claim evokes the image of a master craftsman or artist, whose handiwork is the end product of many arduous efforts. It doesn't come out right the first time. Centuries before, Jeremiah had dared to conceive of God as a potter. What the prophet beheld in the workshop was a craftsman accustomed to failure: "And if the vessel he was making was spoiled, as happens to clay in the potter's hands, he would make it into another vessel, such as the potter saw fit to make" (18:4). To be sure, the analogy was meant to stress God's power over the fate of Israel, a relationship amplified by the liturgical poem (piyyut) that we recite on Kol Nidrei: "As clay in the hand of the potter, to be thickened or thinned as he wishes, are we in Your hand. Preserve us with Your love" (Harlow Mahzor, 395). But there is no denying that the recalcitrance of the material also makes life difficult for the potter.
Yet another midrash imputes the imperfection directly to God. Staying with the image of the potter and his clay, this midrash has Israel concede its sinfulness. But does God not bear some responsibility for our condition? When a potter decorates an earthen vessel with inlaid work that leaks, who is at fault? If God would only relieve us of the evil impulses implanted in us from birth, we would eagerly do God's bidding faithfully (E. Urbach, Hazal [Hebrew], 424).
In the spirit of Rabbi Abbahu, another midrash imagines God casting about for the moral principle by which to undergird creation. Again, the venture is fraught with fallibility. It is the sudden appearance of God's personal name, Adonai, in the second creation story that seems to allude to a mid-course correction. The generic term for God in the first story, Elohim, the Rabbis identified with the principle of justice, the personal name, with compassion. The midrash envisions God's dilemma as that of a king with fine glassware.
Says the king, 'If I pour hot liquids into my glasses they will crack. If cold they will crumple.' So what did he do? He mixed his liquids and his glasses suffered no damage. Similarly at creation God thought, 'If I run the world on the basis of compassion, sins will abound. If on the basis of justice, the world would not endure.' That is why God runs the world with both justice and compassion. If only it will survive!" (B'reishit Rabba 11:15).
What prompts these forays into theological minefields is the need to correlate our religious constructs with reality. The informality of midrash gives free rein to deeply felt feelings of dissonance. Imagination can often carry us farther than logic. Thus the Zohar, the late thirteenth century Spanish classic of Kabbalah, goes even beyond the midrash in boldly attributing the origins of evil to the hidden and inscrutable source of all existence, the Ein-Sof. According to the Zohar, the worlds destroyed mentioned by the midrash were actually the first tentative emanations from the Ein-Sof to form the divine realm of sefirot which underlie our world of sense data. Because unbalanced - that is without an appropriate mix of mercy, justice and compassion - these early emanations were unviable and quickly dissipated. The whole flawed process graphically depicted in symbolic language, though, did serve to cleanse God of all primordial evil. (I.Tishby, Mishnat Hazohar [Hebrew], I: 138, 150, 183-4). A truly monotheistic religion cannot spare its God of all responsibility for the state of the world.
Against this backdrop, the flood stands out as the final phase of the creation story. No more annihilations. God settles for less than perfection. The covenant with No·ah after the flood binds God to what exists: "Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth" (9:21). On that admission of human shortcomings, another midrash detects a measure of divine culpability: "Embarrassed must be the dough whose baker attests that it's quite bad" (B'reishit Rabba 34:10). The history of humanity, unfortunately, has done little to dispel that dismal judgment. Only faith and fraternity together, though often antagonists, can help us advance toward a glimmer of world peace.