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Posted on October 19, 2023 (5784) By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

Hashem said in His heart: “I will not continue to curse the land because of Man…nor will I again continue to smite every living being as I have done.”[1]

That’s a relief, even if it is a bit unexpected. Why would G-d want to limit Himself in this way? He had good reason to act the way He did. The same circumstances could conceivably arise in the future. Wouldn’t the same punishment fit comparable crimes?

Hashem’s statement itself seems upside-down. He places punishment of the earth ahead of smiting Man. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? The earth was only obliterated because of Man’s sins. If Hashem pledges never to punish Man in the same way in the future, then there will be no need to punish the earth. Man’s sin is the cause; wiping out the earth is the effect.

Or maybe not. Let’s remember what Ramban[2] writes about Adam’s menu. Originally, he was to eat only the seeds of plants, and the fruit of trees. Meat was forbidden to him, because animals bear some resemblance to Man, and it was not appropriate to destroy souls that show some similarity to ours. Man surely was greater than the animals, but that greatness was not so a priori, and not to be celebrated.

The mabul changed the equation. Noach was responsible for saving all animal life, by taking the animals along on the ark. All animals from then on owed their very existence to Man. It became appropriate from Man to make complete use of them.

Now, let’s look at the interim. As a consequence of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Man was told that he would be able to eat only by the sweat of his brow. In other words, he was effectively restricted even in his vegetarian diet. Whereas before the sin he could avail himself freely of things that grew on their own, this was no longer the case. His sin had reduced his stature. He could no longer see himself as so superior even to plants, that he could take them for granted. He had to earn his right to them through his toil.

Adam’s progeny continued the decline, till they arrived at the generation of the Flood. By this time, they were so corrupt – so diminished and unentitled – that they lost their license to consume anything at all! Taking anything from this world would be a form of theft, similar to what Chazal say happens when any of us take pleasure without first reciting a berachah. On the scale of humanity as a whole, it would be grand larceny.

Seen this way, mankind has to disappear not as a punishment, but because there was no appropriate way to sustain itself. All the sustenance Man needed was off-limits. Taking any food from the earth was unethical. “The earth was full of robbery”[3] does not mean only that they stole from each other, but that all of their ordinary eating was also theft!

A mankind that could not eat could not endure. G-d had no choice but to purge it from the face of the earth. And since the earth itself was created for Man, it, too had lost its purpose.

Noach’s righteousness not only saved mankind, but created the license for him and his descendants to enjoy and utilize the world that he salvaged. This is the key to understanding what Hashem meant in our pasuk in speaking about sparing the world even before pledging not to destroy mankind. Having taken the burden of continuing world civilization on his shoulders, Noach’s post-Flood world would forever be in his debt. His descendants would always possess some entitlement to enjoy its benefits. The “food chain” would never be fully disrupted for them, and therefore there would be no need to destroy the world or Man to prevent his taking what did not belong to him.

  1. Bereishis 8:21
  2. Bereishis 1:29
  3. Bereishis 6:13