Feeling the Flood

Noah By :  Mary Brett Koplen JTS Alum (Rabbinical School) Posted On Nov 1, 2019 / 5780 | Torah Commentary

As the curtains close on Parashat Bereshit, we find God steeped in sadness.

וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם ה’ כִּֽי-עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת-הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל-לִבּֽו:

“And Adonai regretted that God had made humanity on earth and God’s heart was grieved.” (Gen. 6:6)

God is heartbroken. The people whom God formed with such care, the people into whom God exhaled God’s own divine spark, the people God loved—had chosen a path of corruption and crime. God sees this corruption, is filled with regret over having ever created humans in the first place, and is overcome by grief.

The idea of a grieving God is complicated. To help us better grasp God’s emotional experience, Rashi points us to an example of human grief that employs the same root word.

וַתְּהִ֨י הַתְּשֻׁעָ֜ה בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֛וּא לְאֵ֖בֶל לְכָל־הָעָ֑ם כִּֽי-שָׁמַ֣ע הָעָ֗ם בַּיּ֤וֹם הַהוּא֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר נֶעֱצַ֥ב הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ עַל-ְּנֽוֹ׃

“That day was turned into mourning for all the people, because on that day the people heard that the king was grieving over his son.” (2 Sam. 19:3)

Rashi links God’s grief over the shameful state of the world to King David’s grief when he learns of the death of his rebellious child, Absalom, at the hands of David’s own troops. In the aftermath of their enemy’s defeat, the victory of the royal army is turned into mourning when the people hear David grieving over his fallen political rival, his slain beloved son.

As we hold up these two texts, our metaphors for God as Parent and God as King (familiar from our recent High Holiday recitations of Avinu Malkenu) mingle in David, a flesh-and-blood parent, a flesh-and-blood king, who cannot reconcile his duty to protect his people and his duty to protect his child. Rashi’s comparison between the grief of our quintessential human king and the grief of our Divine King helps us see God as a distraught parent, longing for a relationship with God’s children and fearing that too much damage has been done, too much distance has come between God and the people to ever find a way back into relationship.

This linguistic link of grief may provide greater context for God’s heartbreak, but it doesn’t make our story any easier. The scale of violence required to annihilate everything is unfathomable. Acknowledging that God is both Parent to all and Destroyer of all is what makes Parashat Noah so painful. This pain is hard to live with, so we try to sanitize our text. Today when we read the story of Noah, we dehumanize the other humans of Noah’s generation; we blame Noah for not protesting. We morph these words into a children’s story; we decorate nurseries with rainbows and animals in pairs of two. We do everything we can to avoid the horror. And yet if we can resist our urge to pretty-up a devastating narrative, we can come a little bit closer to knowing God’s grief through our own heartbreak.

When the ark is built and the animals accounted for, God seals up Noah and his family. Then God recedes from the story. While the floodgates of the sky break open, while the springs of the earth burst forth, while the rains last for forty days, while the ark floats for a full year with no sign of life; God is nowhere to be found. The Torah does not explain God’s absence during the year that the whole world drowned, but our text’s attention to God’s grief and regret offers a possible insight: God’s sadness was so great that God had to step away as the earth was consumed—not by rage or Divine retribution— but by God’s own intolerable grief.

This intolerable grief and Divine absence is not how our story ends. From the depths of water and the depths of despair, from the near annihilation of everything, God comes back to us. By coming back, God resolves to never end the world again, and enters into specific covenantal relationship with human beings. (Gen. 9:9-17) By coming back, God demonstrates to us that coming back is possible.

If we are able to access God’s grief through our own heartbreak, we open ourselves up to profound possibilities. When we witness God almost give up on everything, we see the power of persisting when there is no reason to hope. It is easy to permanently disengage from the horrors of the world, but our Torah urges us to resist that temptation. In Parashat Noah, God teaches us, above all, the significance of resilience through relationship. God shows us that it is possible to come back from paralyzing despair. Again and again and again.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).