As I mentioned two weeks ago, much of Chapter 5 of Pirkei Avos contains lists. Mishna 1 discussed the Ten Utterances with which G-d created the universe. This mishna continues with the earliest generations of man.
We know very little of the people of the antediluvian era. The great Deluge has left little meaningful trace of this prehistoric age. The lives, cultures and societies of the ancients of that time have all but been forgotten. Were they advanced or primitive, cultured or savage? Did they reap the wisdom and lessons of Adam and Eve and live with knowledge of G-d, or did they degenerate into a primitive, animalistic existence in search of food, shelter and conquest? Scripture does little more than list the names and superhuman lifespans of the patriarchal leaders, leaving us with little knowledge of their true lives and natures.
Scripture (Genesis 6) does provide us a brief summary of the wickedness of the generations leading up to the Flood — and the Sages draw for us a clearer picture. Genesis 6:2 tells us that the “sons of the lords” — either the noblemen or actual heavenly angels — saw the beautiful daughters of the common folk (or the humans), and took wives of whomsoever they chose. In verses 5-8 G-d observed that the wickedness of man was great and that his inclination was “only evil all the day.” G-d resolved to destroy man — all except for Noah who “found favor” in G-d’s eyes. Finally, verse 11 refers to the earth as having become “corrupt” before G-d, and filled with violence and robbery.
So, the world suffered from lawlessness, lust, and intermarriage — possibly of the extraterrestrial kind. (The Talmud writes further that the people of the time mated animals of different species both with each other and with humans (Sanhedrin 108a).) How did people who lived so close to Genesis — who could hardly not know of G-d and His wondrous creation — degenerate into such corruption and debauchery?
Our Sages elucidate further. The Talmud writes: “The generation of the Flood was arrogant on account of the great good G-d had bequeathed unto it” (Sanhedrin 108a). The Talmud there, in a few brief comments, depicts a people blessed with natural bounty and physical beauty. The earth was richer and more bountiful than it is today. Humans lived longer and led more fruitful lives. They were not shackled by physical weaknesses of any kind — old age, arthritis, hemorrhoids, bad backs, nearsightedness, etc. The flesh was strong: they were invincible. How did they respond? How did they use the far superior gifts G-d had blessed them with?
The answer, it appears, is that they lived totally and wholly for themselves. Each man looked out for his own, enjoying and indulging in every pleasure his dark heart fancied. Rather than using comfort and physical well-being as goads towards spiritual growth, they used their endless potential towards their own selfish ends. They felt their invincibility; they had nothing to fear. There was nothing they could not solve with their own great strength and ingenuity — and nothing to humble them before G-d. They did not experience the challenge and frustration which would be the lot of latter-day man — battling the elements for food, clothing and shelter, and consequently they saw no reason to turn to G-d in prayer. They lived lives of eternal youth — in endless pursuit of physical pleasure, without the maturing effects of aging and of sensing one’s mortality. They were eternally virile and youthful — and they were never forced to grow up. And such a world left little room for a G-d of morality and accountability.
G-d realized that man had become irredeemably evil. But G-d did not content Himself with punishing man alone. G-d “reconsidered” His creation of man, states the Torah (v. 6). G-d was to refashion Creation in a much more fundamental manner. He was to break the divine levees, wash away all that existed, and begin anew. Why was this necessary? Why destroy the entire earth on account of puny, obstinate man?
The answer is that in the days before the Flood, the physical world was far superior to the postdiluvian world. The earth was richer, people were stronger, and generally speaking the world was a closer reflection of the G-d who created it.
And this was no mere coincidence. There was a reason for this: the physical world was more closely tied to the spiritual worlds above. We discussed last week the close correlation between the physical world and the spiritual, metaphysical ones above, and how the physical world is “energized” by the spiritual forces which emanate from above and work their way down through the myriad layers of creation. (One of the more Kabbalistic lectures I’ve written — with even less idea what the heck I was writing about…) 😉
In the time before the Flood, these forces were much more closely aligned. The physical world — and the human race — had so much more vitality and potential because they drew from the infinite wellsprings of the spiritual worlds. People lived infinitely longer and the earth was infinitely richer because the physical reality of the world below was a much stronger reflection of the spiritual one above.
This arrangement made for a more bountiful and vibrant world, but it also wreaked havoc on the fabric of the universe. A more strongly interconnected world meant that the sins of man would corrupt the earth itself — far more severely than they do today. (As we explained in past weeks, in this system of interconnected worlds our actions, both good and pact, impact enormously on the worlds above — which in turn impact on the layers of existence below them.)
And this is exactly what happened. Adam, for eating of the Tree of Knowledge, was punished that he would attempt to plant grain and weeds would flourish (Genesis 3:18). When man became steeped in immorality the animals followed suit. There were few animals still loyal to their own species which Noah could allow on board the Ark. The others had all followed the evil ways of man. Man’s sins corrupted and damaged the physical world about. The result was that the earth itself became evil — so much so that it was doomed to the same destruction man had brought upon himself.
To correct this situation, G-d did more than destroy man. He destroyed the very bonds which coupled heaven and earth so tightly. And this could only be achieved by destroying the entire earth — that spiritually-charged place which so closely reflected man’s spiritual state. And so, G-d washed away all. The Midrash tells us that the Flood washed away the top three handsbreadths of the world’s topsoil (Bereishis Rabbah 31:7). The very rich and verdant earth which — as reflection of the spiritual worlds — had become corrupted by man, had to be removed forever. The one that would remain would be far coarser and earthier, but it would not be so vulnerable to the rise and fall of fickle man.
And with this came a Divine pledge: G-d would never again destroy the earth on account of man. “All the days of the earth — planting and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night — they shall not cease” (8:22). Why? “For the inclination of man is evil from his youth” (v. 21). Precisely because man’s propensity is so thoroughly towards evil, G-d saw fit to sever the world from man’s influence — so that the world would no longer be utterly dependent on man’s rises and falls. G-d recognized that man would not always reach the lofty pinnacle G-d intended for him, and He would not allow His world to suffer irreparably on account of this. The world would no longer be the spiritually-attuned place it had once been. It would be more earthy, stubborn — and physical — and yet it would have the stability and permanence it needed to survive.
So the world after the Flood had a new beginning. The world lost much of its lushness and vitality — as reflected in the many inches of topsoil the Sages state were lost. It would no longer have the same physical potential — and would never be quite the same reflection of G-d it had once been — although to be sure the discerning observer can still see Earth’s beauty as a reflection of its Maker. But man was not able to handle this awesome task — of serving as caretaker for the entire physical reality of the universe. The physical world was here to stay — a message attested to by the dazzling yet delicate beauty of the rainbow, and man would — till the time of the Messiah — walk in a smaller, more humbled mission before G-d.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.