Letter and Spirit

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When 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 states, I will no longer curse the ground for the sake of man, for the design of man’s heart is evil from his youth, nor will I destroy every living thing as I have done. (Ber. 8:21)

The traditional explanation of this verse is as translated above: G-d’s decision to never again bring destruction upon the world is because man is bound to be evil from his youth. Rav Hirsch rejects this explanation on logical, textual, and grammatical grounds. First, it cannot mean that G-d has given up on educated humanity, for it is futile. It would not be in keeping with G-d’s dignity and majesty to make such a statement about Himself or His creations. Second, a strikingly similar sentiment is expressed above (Ber. 6:5) as the reason for the punishment of the flood. It would be absurd for the unavoidable evil designs of man to be both the reasons for punishment and for clemency! Third, the emphasis in the verse is on the two statements, “I will no longer,” which flank the parenthetical statement, “for the design of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” The Hebrew word ki can mean ‘because’ or ‘when/if.’ Rav Hirsch reads this verse with the second meaning: If the design of man’s heart should again become evil — even from his youth — and the destruction of the generation should be the only way of salvation, nevertheless, never shall I do as I have done.

The word for youth, na’ar, is composed of the same letters as the verb ‘to shake’ (l’na’er). Young people want to develop “out of themselves.” Neither good nor bad impressions are permanently absorbed by them. A youth’s nature is not yet cloaked by hypocrisy and still ‘shakes off’ both good and bad impressions.

It is not true that children have a wicked nature and that they aspire to bad. We are not doomed by an evil inclination from youth. While young adults may do evil things, this is generally because they have not yet learned the art of subordinating themselves to a higher calling, the art of self-control and respect for duty. In their quest for independence, they seek to “shake off” these burdens. But it is this independence of will which will ultimately serve them well, when intellectual maturity teaches them to use it for moral development. They can learn to use this same obstinacy in the tenacious and steadfast pursuit of good.

Now, the adults who have not learned this art are the ones who remain addicted to base desire and greed. Once the adolescent quest for independence has passed, he learns to accommodate and conform, and also succumbs to desire and selfishness. The time when evil prevails is usually well past youth.

Our verse speaks of a most unusual era, when even the young consciously aspire to evil as their hearts’ ideal. Were this to be the case, all hope for the generation would appear to be lost. But even in this desperate era, G-d promises not to bring destruction again. Instead, a new model of the education of man, one that depends on climactic change and dispersion to create a gamut of experiences for mankind, will bring man back to his noble calling.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bereishet 8:21

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