God in Mourning

Noah By :  Abigail Treu JTS Alum (Rabbinical School, Kekst Graduate School) Posted On Oct 3, 2009 / 5770

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשה לב

ד”א ויהי לשבעת הימים א”ר יהושע בן לוי ז’ ימים נתאבל הקב”ה על עולמו קודם שיבא מבול לעולם, מאי טעמא ויתעצב אל לבו ואין עציבה אלא אבילות, שנאמר (שמואל ב יט) נעצב המלך על בנו.

Another interpretation of “And on the seventh day the waters of the Flood came upon the earth” (Gen. 7:10)

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Seven days the Holy One, Blessed be He, mourned for His world before bringing the flood, the proof being the text, “And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened” (Gen. 6:6).

And still another:

“And the victory that day was turned into mourning unto all the people; for the people heard say that day: ‘The king grieves for his son’” (II Sam. 19:3).

I am so glad that the Rabbis imagined God as in mourning.

The Flood story, after all, raises the two most theologically difficult questions of all: How can we believe in God when we live through horrible natural disasters? Wouldn’t the God we believe in, the God we would like to believe in, have created a different natural order, one in which there were no monsoons, tsunamis, earthquakes, or hurricanes?

The comparison of God to King David is a bold and imaginative answer to these challenges. David’s son Absalom is trouble: he murders David’s other son (Absalom’s half-brother), goes into hiding for three years, and returns to mount a successful insurrection which overthrows David from the throne. David is forced to flee from Jerusalem and, in the battle waged to restore his rule, Absalom—against the explicit orders of David to his generals—is brutally killed. David’s response is one of total grief. As II Samuel 19:3 reads: “The victory that day was turned into mourning unto all the people, for the people heard say that day: ‘The king grieves for his son.’”

The wordplay here is on the verb translated as grieves: נעצב. The root is the very one that appears in the Genesis text, describing God’s heart as saddened: ויתעצב. The coincidence enables Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi—and us—to imagine God mourning for Creation that is now doomed to die. Just as David knew that he had to go to battle with his son’s army, and that his wayward son would almost certainly be killed, God knows that S/he must destroy nearly the entire world. And just as David grieves for his son, despite his rebellious ways, so too God grieves for plant, animal, and human life, despite their corruption.

The image of a mournful God is, for me at least, a helpful one. We know the emotional value of a seven day period of mourning in which to come to terms with our loss, and the idea of God “sitting shiv’ah” for the losses of the Flood invites us to imagine a God whose being is complicated and nuanced. It also invites us to imagine the characters on the Ark in a new light. That week of waiting for the rains to begin, in which they are shut up in the Ark per God’s instructions (Gen. 7:4), becomes a week in which Noah and his family, and the animals too, are sitting shiv’ah with God. It is a week in which they too can begin to come to terms with their losses, and with the impending death of friends and extended family who were not given a berth on the Ark. And then, having sat shiv’ah before the rains began, the forty days and nights of the Flood take God and Noah and his family through shloshim and a little bit beyond so that, by the time the dove flies in bearing its olive branch, all of the characters have moved from grief to acceptance, ready to leave the Ark and get on with their lives.

The God in which this midrash invites us to believe is not a cruel and vengeful God. This God is a God torn between love and duty, between justice and mercy. It is a God whose essence appears to mirror our own ambivalence and complexity; a God in whose Image I can imagine us all being created.