The Rainbow and the Flood

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

R. Arama starts the fourteenth sha’ar with several statements from Chaza”l about how Jews should react upon seeing a rainbow, such as the blessing Berachot 59a prescribes to recite. As is his way, he will move off to other topics and work his way back here, but I wanted us to remember where he’s headed.

The Impossibility of Divine Injustice

From there, he takes up the idea of Hashem being unjust, which to him is as much of a logical impossibility as Hashem having a body or creating a Being exactly like Hashem. [both of the latter two have ramifications I think people often forget, such as Hashem’s complete Otherness, based on the lack of physicality; the issues are not R. Arama’s topic, and I will not digress. I will pause here to note his focus on injustice sounds to me like a concern of his audience he is addressing—they feel Hashem has been unjust, and he wants them to know it cannot be true.]

Hashem’s perfection rules out injustices, as R. Arama thinks Devarim 10; 17 stresses. The verses start with declarations of Hashem’s greatness, God of gods, Lord of lords, etc. and move to “Who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes, etc.” For R. Arama, the Torah means to link the two: just as Hashem cannot be anything other than the Highest Being, Who lacks any physicality, there is no possibility of Hashem acting other than fully justly.

Bereshit 18;25 shows us Avraham arguing to allow fifty righteous people to be able to save Sodom and its sister cities; any other choice by Hashem would be unjust, a sacrilege, and therefore (this last piece is R. Arama’s claim) impossible. Iyov and Yirmiyahu are exercised by apparent divine injustice because they are certain it cannot be so. People who object to the Torah’s saying Hashem hardened Par’oh’s heart, or are bothered by the sufferings of the righteous, all start from our certainty Hashem acts only justly, asTehillim 145; 17 says, Hashem is righteous in all His ways.

Mercy Does Not Contradict Justice

Some ways Hashem acts might be unfathomable rather than unjust. R. Arama knows people who question why Hashem doomed ants to their lowly role (rather than being allowed to be lofty griffon-vultures, for his example). He rejects the question as akin to asking why Hashem did not make a leg a head; each piece of creation has its purpose, and we cannot argue about the justice in those choices, as Yeshayahu 40; 28 says.

Nor can we understand Hashem’s choices about when to mete out strict justice, when to go lifnim mi-shurat ha-din, adapt to each person’s nature and capabilities, extend more kindness than people deserve, give some people more time than others to rectify their ways. It’s all embedded in the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (which he does not here expound), and raises questions about Noach’s sacrifice after the Flood, which elicited a promise to never again curse the whole earth, and the covenant of the rainbow.

The Flood Completed Creation

R. Arama pauses to wonder why the verse speaks of Hashem smelling the sweet smell of Noach’s sacrifice. He cannot entertain the possibility a pleasant smell would have swayed Hashem in any way; either people deserved never to have a flood again or they didn’t. He asks other questions as well, which I am skipping, because his answers show the problems he was resolving.

R. Arama thinks the sacrifice reacts to one missing component the Flood added to Creation, humanity’s awareness Hashem might administer the full punishment people deserve [up until that point, Hashem’s mercy had ruled, leading people to assume there was no such thing as full punishment. It reminds me of a Happy Days episode, where one character convinced another acting tough would protect him from a bully. When it didn’t work, the character remembers the key piece of acting tough, “you have to have hit somebody once.” R. Arama also assumes the Flood was what the people of the time deserved, which to me reminds us we all might deserve more punishment than we realize. When we react badly, we might be rejecting appropriate divine discipline.]

The Flood Improved Human Nature

R. Arama seems to be saying the Flood gave people permanent awareness of Hashem’s power and readiness to punish, if pushed [a common Jewish idea, which many in our times reject; he seems to think people can only reject the idea we might deserve more punishment than we realize if we forget or reject the historical veracity of the Flood. He does not entertain the possibility of such forgetting or denial. He also does not, here, mention Avot 5;2, which says all ten generations from Noach to Avraham were evil, deserved the fate of Noach’s generation, from which Avraham’s merits saved them].

More, he thinks the memory of the Flood–since all human beings descend from people who experienced it—ensures people will never stray so far as to deserve another worldwide wipeout. The pleasing element in the smell of the sacrifice was how it made clear people had internalized the necessary submissiveness to the Divine Will which would protect from such misdeeds in the future. Until then, people had borne the imprint of Adam’s sin; the Flood changed their nature, which is why Hashem says He will not again curse the ground, as had happened in Adam’s time.

[The idea seems perhaps a response to Christian ideas about Original Sin; R. Arama conceded people did bear the imprint of man’s fall from the Garden of Eden, but only until the Flood.]

The Flood also imprinted on people the ability to change for the better. Until now, Hashem described humans as “rak ra kol ha-yom, all evil all their days.” From now, R. Arama thinks, their evil will be a function of immaturity. As they (as a species, I think he means) age and grow, they will move away from their evils.

Hashem Knows Our Progress

Hashem is best able to evaluate their growth because only Hashem can see inside of us, to our souls. Our physical selves will always tend towards the nachash, the serpent, but our enosh or human sides show us the more positive ways to act. Yirmiyahu 17;9 has the prophet speaks of the heart as being ‘akov, deceitful, then says “he is enosh, who will know him?” and answers, “I am Hashem who searches the heart.” Yirmiyahu was telling us Hashem sees the struggle within humanity, and reacts to our actions by how well we choose (I skipped other verses he reads as making the same point).

When Hashem, post-Flood, decides never to kill all of humanity at one time, it’s because Hashem sees human freewill is now well-embedded enough for people to choose wisely or well. While subsets of humanity, a city or country, might “force” Hashem to destroy them—like Sodom—freewill ensures humanity as a whole will never need a repeat extinction event.

[R. Arama is not quite clear how Hashem can be sure. He does speak of Hashem telling Noach his three sons are the forebears of all of humanity; I wonder whether he means their differences guarantee they will not all descend to destruction at the same time.]

More explicitly, he says Hashem knew their experience of the terrible punishment of the Flood changed them, instilled a humility in human hearts which prevents ever again sinking low enough to make species-wide destruction necessary.

[He does not defend the proposition, which suggests he saw it as obvious; I am not as convinced. First, he seems to assume a personal experience became embedded in the genes of the people who underwent the Flood, which I can accept as a possibility although I think scientists today are only just coming around to the idea of parental experiences affecting their babies, and I think—thus far—it’s only in terms of mothers and the environment in the womb.

That aside, he has to assume the change took root deeply enough in human genetics to never wash out completely, to be there strongly enough to guarantee there would always be some people left uncorrupted. It’s a refreshing confidence in a baseline of human goodness.]

Next time, we’ll see how people’s experience shaped Hashem’s reactions and promises after the Flood.

About Gidon Rothstein

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