Revivim, rabbi Eliezer Melamed

Faith, Idols and the Generation of the Flood

Idolatry leaves man with his animal instinct, and drives him to a life of war and enslavement of others, whereas monotheism advocates towards humanity’s common effort for good and justice * The ‘sons of God’ who captured women, on the one hand, and Noah on the other, represented these two approaches, and the flood that Hashem brought upon the earth decided between them * The appeasing fragrance of the offerings that Noah sacrificed after the flood represented the self-sacrifice with which he conducted himself contrary to the entire world, and it was re-revealed in our forefather Abraham and his descendants, until today

The more man portrays emunah (faith) in a material way, as pagan forces whose character and behavior are drawn from nature, under the influence of his faith, he thus becomes less moral. This is because the human moral idea is not reflected in nature; on the contrary, in nature the tough survives – the stronger animals overpower the weaker ones and prey on them. The forces of nature also act arbitrarily. Without warning, a storm and a flood of rains drowns people and animals, lightning causes fires and death, and sometimes, the skies are held back and rain ceases to fall – trees wither, grain fails to grow, and man and beast die of thirst.

The personification of God also requires the splitting of faith into many gods, because numerous forces are revealed in the physical world, and in order to give expression to them, many idols must be created. Normally, these idols compete and fight with each other, in the same way as the forces of nature, animals, and various peoples’ fight each other. As a result of this, man perceives that war and competition are the natural way of the world, and anyone who is able, must overpower the other people, and enslave them.

Accordingly, we see that in all the stories about the idols, powerful gods murdered their parents and ruled in their place, and when they ruled, used their power to commit adultery and rob those weaker than themselves. For example, Zeus, the powerful Greek god, managed to outwit his father who had never seen him, and in a great war between the idols, defeated his father, cut him into a thousand pieces, and was appointed supreme ruler of the gods. By nature, Zeus was lustful, a drunkard, a pursuer of idols and women, volatile, and hot-headed, but when sacrifices were made to him, he tended to reconcile. These stories deeply reflected to humans what was going on in nature – if this was the way idols behaved, it is understandable that people who believed in them, would follow their example.

The Separation between Power and Morality

According to the belief in monotheism, which is the Jewish faith, Elokim (God) is the source of goodness and justice, and the various forces are intended to serve goodness and justice, and the purpose of man, created in the image of God, is to walk in His ways, to do righteousness and justice, and to add blessing to the world. Therefore, one who believes in Hashem wishes for human beings to cooperate among themselves, to love and help each other, and not deceive one another; no one should take advantage of his friend’s distress to extort his wages, or take interest from him. In this way, society will gain welfare and abundance, and the general good in the world will increase.

In contrast, in idol worship there is a separation between morality and power, and since, according to the materialistic perception, power is more prominent and influential, it is more important. And just as the idols use their power to satisfy their lusts, human beings, garnering power under their idols’ auspices, can also use it to their hearts content, and enjoy all the good in the world, without caring about the world’s cultivation for the benefit of all and future generations.

The Sins of the Generation of the Flood

After the expulsion of Adam Ha’Rishon (the first man) from Gan Eden, in the struggle between the belief in truth and avodah zara (idol worship), the wicked prevailed. Instead of engaging in settlement and repair of the world, under the auspices of the belief in idols, the wicked behaved like the idols – they murdered, raped and robbed as much as they could. Consequently, humanity deteriorated, and when the land was full of idolatry, incest, bloodshed, and robbery, their fate was sealed to be wiped off the face of the earth by the flood (Genesis Rabbah 31: 1-6).

The Torah says:

“Man began to increase on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them. The sons of God saw that the daughters of man were good, and they took themselves wives from whomever they chose … the sons of God had come to the daughters of man and had fathered them. The titans (Nephilim in Hebrew, literally ‘fallen ones’) were the mightiest ones who ever existed, men of renown” (Genesis 6:1-4).

Our Sages said:

What is the meaning of “and they took themselves wives from whoever they chose”? These were married women who they took by force, “from whomever they chose” means, also men and animals (Genesis Rabbah 26:5).

Who were these ‘sons of God’? Some meforshim say they were judges and ministers. Others say they were literally angels (Midrash Aggadah), and this was an expression of their pagan belief, according to which the sons of the great gods mated with the daughters of man, and thus half-idols were formed, and they were the kings and heroic rulers. In any case, this was not a marriage out of love and loyalty, rather, rape by those in power, who abducted women as they pleased, corresponding to the pagan perspective.

“And the earth was corrupt before God”. Our Sages said: “Anywhere that the term corruption is stated, it is referring to nothing other than a matter of licentiousness and idol worship (Sanhedrin 57a).

The Meaning of the Punishment of the Flood

In consequence of the sins of the generation of the flood, God said:

“I will obliterate humanity that I have created from the face of the earth – man, livestock, land animals, and birds of the sky”.

The possessors of power and authority who saw themselves as sons of gods, thought their power, resting on the forces of nature and idols, was limitless, and without working or adding blessing, they could always take advantage of all the good in the world, and deprive the weak of all they had grown and created. The flood came and taught them that nature and the power of man are limited, and God has the power to take life and goodness from him. The weak and poor also perished in the flood, because they also believed in the same pagan perception, and if they had the chance, they would have also behaved like those who with power and authority, who filled the land with corruption.

Noah – Derech Eretz through Faith

Only Noah was righteous and faultless in his generations. He possessed power and property, but he chose to believe in the true God, and stood up against the wicked; he did not steal and rob, rather, engaged in the world’s development. Our Sages said that he invented the plow, with which working people could extract a great and blessed harvest from the earth, instead of stealing from others or using magical forces to “coerce” nature to give forth its fruits, all the while, destroying its natural powers.

Therefore, God commanded Noah not to be corrupt, rather, add favor and blessing, to make an ark by means of which he, and all the living creatures, would be saved.

Lessons from the Flood

After the flood, when Noah came out of the ark, he built an altar, and on it, offered sacrifices from the clean beasts and birds he had saved. These sacrifices represented a new revelation of true faith, and thanks to them, God established a covenant with Noah and his sons that He would no longer bring a flood to the world, as the Torah says:

“God smelled the appeasing fragrance, and God said to Himself, ‘Never again will I curse the soil because of man, for the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth. I will never again strike down all life as I have just done. As long as the earth lasts, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night, shall never again cease to exist” (Genesis 8:21- 22).

From the time of Noah, mankind realized that there are laws above man and the forces of nature, and man must obey them. In wake of this understanding, God made a covenant with Noah and his sons that from then on, He would not change the laws of nature and destroy the world.

These laws, ideally, are the seven commandments that God gave to the sons of Noah; imperfectly, they are man-made laws, such as the Hammurabi code of laws, which, while not striving for justice and morality, at least determine there are laws that bind everyone. In other words, before the flood the ‘sons of the gods’ thought that those in power were above the law and consequently those under them must obey their laws; they themselves, however, were allowed to rape and steal as they pleased because they were the source of the law. The flood put an end to this lie. After the flood, mankind realized that there are laws, and they are necessary for human existence.

While the yetzer ha’ra (evil instinct) may cause people to corrupt their ways and break the laws or think they are above them, nevertheless, the well-established position is that the challenge facing man is to overcome the passions that lead to it, by way of suppressing, or correcting the evil instinct.

The Appeasing Fragrance of Devotion

Our Sages said that there is a profound secret in the sacrifice Noah offered.

“‘God smelled the appeasing fragrance’ – He smelled the fragrance of our forefather Abraham rising from the fiery furnace … the fragrance of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah rising from the fiery furnace … the fragrance of the generation of shmad (apostasy)” (Genesis Rabbah 34: 9).

In other words, in the sacrifice that Noah brought was his willingness to give his life for belief in the One God (emunat ha-yichud), which was later revealed in times of crisis among the elect of his descendants who continued on his path, stood in the breach, and saved the world with their mesitut nefesh (self-sacrifice). The first was our forefather Abraham, who preferred to fall into the fiery furnace rather than succumb to the lies and the evil of idolatry, and was privileged to become the first father of the People of Israel. After the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, the whole world seemed to have succumbed to the great power of Nebuchadnezzar and bowed to his statue, however, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah sacrificed their lives, and fell into the fiery furnace, and by virtue of their faith, Israel was able to return to Eretz Yisrael to build the Second Temple. Likewise, after the destruction of the Second Temple when the Romans wanted to deprive Israel of their faith and assimilate them into the nations, thanks to the Jews who sacrificed their lives in the generation of shmad, Am Yisrael continued on its difficult path, to hold on to its ancestors’ faith and Torah, until the time we merit complete redemption.

Standing up against idolaters requires mesirut nefesh for on the face of it, owing to their pagan belief, they murdered, raped, and looted – and were successful. People of truth and faith must repudiate their success and their pagan faith, because it is based on evil and falsehood, and forsakes the masses of miserable people on whose battered backs the palaces of evil were built. People of truth and faith must be willing to give their lives for faith in the Lord God, the father of orphans and the judge of widows, who counts the tears of all who suffer and groan, and will help those who walk in his ways to repair the world in the Kingdom of Shaddai.

The appeasing fragrance that rose from Noah’s sacrifice expressed the depth of Noah’s willingness to give up his life for the faith of truth, and it also rises from his heroic, righteous descendants who continue in his path, and in moments of crisis are willing to give their lives for the faith of truth, in order to continue climbing the ladder to the world’s rectification until its redemption, as God spoke. Thanks to them, God made a covenant with mankind that he would no longer destroy the world.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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