Last week’s parshah, Breshit, shows God feeling a bit of buyer’s remorse. The brand new world that was tov me’od, very good, in Genesis 1:31 suddenly appeared, by the opening verses of chapter 6, to be ra, evil. We were left on a cliffhanger—all the people are evil, God wants to blot them out, and Noah found favor in the eyes of God…
This week, we pick up where we left off, but with different vocabulary. Instead of ra, evil, the Torah uses the root sh-h-t to describe both the problem and the solution: “vatishahet ha-aretz—the earth became corrupt,” so God says, “hineni mashhitam et ha-aretz—I am about to destroy [the people] with the earth” (Gen. 6:11,13). It’s intriguing that the same root—used seven times in the narrative—is both cause and effect. What exactly was so corrupt that led God to hit ‘reset’?
The classical rabbis let their imaginations run a bit wild with sh-h-t and its companion word, hamas. By analogy with other biblical verses, various commentators explain the problem as sexual immorality (including widespread interspecies sex), idol worship, theft, and violence. Rather than their itemization, I am more drawn to Professor Nahum Sarna’s interpretation in the JPS commentary, where he writes, “From the divine enactments for the regulation of society after the Flood, detailed in chapter 9, it may be deduced that hamas here refers predominantly to the arrogant disregard for the sanctity and inviolability of human life. (p. 51)” Sarna is referring to the Noachide Commandments, the laws that Jewish tradition expects even non-Jews to follow; the two that are stated most clearly in the text are prohibitions against tearing a limb off a living animal and murder (Gen. 9:4-6). The latter is explicitly grounded in the idea that humanity is created in the image of God.
As I contemplate the human rights campaigns that T’ruah works on—as well as the myriad issues that fall outside our scope—I am slightly unnerved by this idea that the “solution” shares the same root as the problem. It seems like if we don’t get our act together to live up to the values we espouse, all of us could be in for some very difficult and unpleasant times. “…Humankind cannot undermine the moral basis of society without endangering the very existence of its civilization,” writes Sarna. “In fact, through its corruption, society sets in motion the process of inevitable self-destruction. (p. 51)” Sarna is a biblical scholar explicating a 2500-year-old text, but he sounds eerily like a contemporary social commentator giving voice to prophetic call: corrupt societies, like corrupt hard drives, get reformatted and wiped clean. I imagine the process isn’t pretty.
After the flood, God realizes that the basic impulse of humankind is still ra, still evil most of the time (Gen. 8:21), but it’s something that can be controlled and lived with. It HAS to be controlled and lived with; the alternative is too terrible to contemplate. If we allow our dark impulses to rule us, we sow the seeds of our own collapse from the inside out.