Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 13 October 2018 / 4 Heshvan 5779

Parshat Noach

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Post-Deluvian Education

The flood is over, and Noach, his family and all living creatures emerge from the ark. G-d reflects on the destruction of the land, and promises that never again will He bring such destruction upon the world. The days of the earth shall be forever, we are told. Seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall never cease. (Ber. 8:22)

According to the plain meaning of the text, this refers to a return to the regular course of the seasons and the daily cycle, which were disrupted during the flood. But the midrash states that the seasons of the year mentioned here were instituted only after the flood. Further opinions in the midrash recite how, before the flood, people would sow fields only once in forty years, how it was always springtime with moderate temperature, and how the earth was not yet split into continents, enabling rapid transportation from one end of the world to the other.

Our verse speaks of the climactic conditions as we know them after the flood — the nature and position of earth will be such that all times of the day, and all seasons of the years, all gradations of temperature and climate, will always be present simultaneously in the various parts of the earth — summer here, winter there, midnight here, noon there.

According to Rav Hirsch, the post-deluvian arrangement of geographic and climactic phenomena introduced a new method of educating mankind. It is no longer sufficient for man to sow once in forty years. Climate and weather patterns interfere with his efforts, and he is no longer independent as he once was. The changes — continental shifts as well as climactic differences — led to great diversification among people, who came to differ in their virtues, vices and values.

In addition, the lifespan of man was greatly shortened. For example, Noach lived 950 years, Avraham lived 175, Moshe 120 and David calls 70 the average life span. This reduction ensured that even the mightiest of despots cannot wield his power for much longer than fifty years. When men lived for eight centuries, the younger generation could not express itself. But when the lifespan was shortened, the wicked would die off quickly, leaving room for a pure, innocent, youthful and upright generation to take its place. In this way, the hope for the future can rest in the next generation.

Likewise, the division of earth into continents and countries obstructed the spread of evil. These climactic and geographical changes would dictate profound differences in human experience across the globe. Instead of a single family or community, where corruption at one end would quickly infect the whole, humanity is dispersed so that it may be able to rejuvenate itself: a corrupt branch, after it has passed through all stages of human delusion, will make way for a hardier, more robust one, which will start a new life.

In this light, the mention of the seasonal changes right after the promise to never again destroy the world makes sense. Although man’s heart may aspire to evil, the response will no longer be destruction; rather the new seasonal and geographic realities will usher in a new phase in the education of mankind.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bereishet 8:22, The Nineteen Letters, Letter Six

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