Parshat Noach: Evil from Birth?
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Parshat Noach: Evil from Birth?
Synopsis: God chooses Noah to survive the flood that is meant to destroy the world and start afresh. Noah is chosen because he is “righteous in his generation.” Noah builds an ark, chooses “clean and unclean” animals, enters the ark with his wife, his sons and their wives and all the animals, and survives. A rainbow marks the covenant that God will never destroy the world again. The parsha concludes with the story of the building of the Tower of Babel.
Our Text: Genesis 8:21: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood…”
Our Question: How can human nature be evil from the start? I thought Judaism did not believe in original sin, and taught that we are essentially good? (We are, after all, created in God’s Image. ) And is God “excusing” our bad inclination and saying the earth will not be destroyed again because our character is so bad, or despite our character being bad?
Our commentators: 1) Rashi: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki 1040 – 1105, a French rabbi considered the "father" of all commentaries that followed on the Talmud and the Tanach. 2) Sforno: Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italian commentator known for his literal interpretations. 3) Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi, 1512-1585, Rabbi and Talmudist who served in Egypt, Cyprus, Italy and Prague. His commentary on the Tanach, published in Venice in 1583, is called Maaseh Hashem.
Commentary: 1) Rashi: “From his youth” is written without a vav so that it can be read as “from the womb” implying that from the moment it stirs to exit the womb of the mother (i.e. to have an independent existence from its mother) the evil inclination is given to it. 2) Sforno: From the flood on, our (human) dispositions are less (i.e. lower) then they were before the flood. We no longer possess the strength of thought like we did before, allowing us to overcome the desires that overtake us in our youth. 3) Ashkenazi: This phrase lets God excuse the people, because humanity doesn’t sin because of existential immorality (i.e. immorality in its essence) but because we are “bad in our youth”. Humanity is still in its youth, young—as it was in Noah’s day—not educated or developed enough. When it “grows up”, knowledge and understanding (i.e. wisdom) will prevail.
Explanation: Our first two commentators seem to tackle the problem from two different angles. Rashi takes an individualistic view: in the womb, each of us is a totally unformed, innocent character, only capable of good since we aren’t really capable of anything yet! Only when we become existentially independent do we have the real capacity for evil because we are, in a sense, now “detached” from being “attached” to another human being, Isn’t it easier to hurt another person if you don’t feel tied by an invisible cord to them? And only when we exit the womb do we have free choice; what chance of wrong behaviour do we have in the protection of the womb? I think Rashi is also hinting at the womb being God (God the Mother?) and once when leave the enveloping circle of being in unity with God, at one with God, alive with God, we are capable of true evil.
Sforno takes a nationalistic/historical view. Our national “womb” was life before the flood, when, like children, we were innocent. With the reason for the flood being human evil (the text says the world was filled with corruption/violence) we “learned” our evil ways and we inculcated them intellectually. In other words, since the flood, we don’t have the strength of character to repel evil they way we did when the world was young. I think Sforno is suggesting that as the world evolves, our ability to do greater and deeper harm evolves, and we become innured of it, intellectually justifying and rationalizing it so that it seems to make sense to us. And this was written before the Holocaust— when this idea proved its truth.
But Rabbi Ashkenazi leaves us with a hopeful thought against the Sforno: indeed, as we evolve, our ability to be moral evolves too. When we are “older” i.e. a more mature civilization, we will overcome that evil inclination and use our knowledge and wisdom for good and not evil. When our society is ready to act in a more mature, sophisticated and educated way, it won’t be possible to tolerate the “immaturity” of bad behaviour.
Concluding Thoughts: The question is a profound one. Are we humans basically good, and we mess it up all the time? Or are we basically a blank slate, ready to do good or evil according to our inclination at any given moment? Or are we just rotten at the core, with a few shining moments of goodness that break through?
The Rabbis struggled—and still do—with the notion of evil. If God is good, and created humanity in the Divine Image, how is it possible for us to sin, since God does not sin? Catholicism answered that question with the notion of “original sin”, the idea that we are not born in purity but with a historical stain from as far back as Adam an Eve, which only faith can erase. But Judaism has always insisted, and indeed requires us to say each morning in our prayers that “the soul you have given me is pure, You have created it, You have formed it, and You placed it in me…” The only answer is that of free choice. That when God created humanity, God also insisted, like a good mother, that we be our own agents of choice; that we are not puppets of a great Puppeter in the sky; that we live in this world as autonomous and not automatons. The result of that free choice is that we may choose unwisely, or destructively, or horrifically. Not knowing the outcome of each and every person and society’s free choice is the price we pay for having it.
I think all three commentators come together at the end with this idea: though we are created in the Divine Image, we become detached from both that belief and from the surety that that is true of all our fellow human beings (re: the way we treat them as if they were not!) from our earliest days. The older we get, the less we retain that childhood goodness, both as individuals and as a society in general. And the paradox is, the older we get as a civilization, the more immature we seem to be as a civilization. We have to live with Rabbi Ashkenazi’s hope that as we continue to evolve we will see how our own evil inclinations rule us more clearly, and strive to be wiser.
Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein