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Parashat 10/06/2010

Parashat Noah
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Ten generations from Adam to Noach – to inform you how patient Gd is, for each generation angered Him more and more, until He brought upon the the waters of the Flood.  (Pirke Avot 5:2)

Let Us make Man in Our image, in Our likeness.  (Bereishit 1:26)

For the inclination of a person’s heart is evil from his youth. (Bereishit 8:21)

The second portion of the book of Bereishit unfortunately continues some of the disturbing trends that became apparent in the first portion.  The human beings, endowed with free will, make use of that free will in the most perverse ways, until Gd “changed His Mind” so to speak about having made such creatures to begin with.  It’s as if we can hear Gd saying “OK, I understand that I gave you guys free will and you’re going to make mistakes, but that’s why I invented t’shuvah, so you could repair our relationship and improve yourselves.  But instead you’re going from bad to worse!”

I just heard a very interesting idea from the Ramban (R. Moshe ben Nachman, 1194 – 1270) which was quoted last year by R. Shlomo Riskin in his annual High Holiday drashah.  The issue is, Who is the “Us” in “Let Us make man…”  The Ramban’s answer is that it refers to Gd and the animal kingdom.  That is, it is the nature of human beings that they are on the one side Divine and on the other side animals.  We know that our DNA differs by only 2% from the DNA of a chimpanzee, and we have extremely good evidence that our bodies and our brains evolved physically according to Darwin’s principles of spontaneous variation (mutations) and natural selection.  The most recent issue of American Scientist (98:5) has an article about the remarkable abilities to (apparently) create abstract concepts from concrete reality shown by large-brained mammals like chimps and dolphins.  On the other hand, we have yet to see a chimpanzee or a dolphin study our capabilities, or create a literature, or pray.

So the other side of human nature is the Divine side, the spirit of Gd that He blew into our nostrils, making our breath part of His breath so to speak.  This is the part of us that strives upwards, our breath, which is more ethereal than our bodies, our minds and emotions, and ultimately, the infinite essential nature of each one of us.  So we are in fact made in two images – the image of the beast and the image of Gd.  Let Us make humans in Our image.

Since we are both earthy/animal and ethereal/Divine in nature, we are pulled in two directions at once.  The animal in us seeks physical pleasure – fine food and drink, comfortable clothes, sex.  Our soul also seeks pleasure, but not being of the earth, all those things that our animal nature craves leave it cold.  It desires only to return to its source and to be as close as possible to Gd.  Our Sages personified these two inclinations as the Evil Inclination (Yetzer haRa) and the Good Inclination (Yetzer haTov).

After the Flood Gd tells us that “the inclination of a person’s heart is evil from his youth.”  Our Sages point out that the Yetzer haRa enters us as soon as we are born.  An infant is totally wrapped up in his body.  It is questionable whether an infant relates even to its own mother as another person, at least initially, and certainly not to others who are less intimately bonded with the infant.  As the child grows, empathy grows; lack of the ability to relate to other human beings as human beings is a pathological condition.  Thus it is not till the age of Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah that we get our Yetzer haTov – before that we are considered too immature and self-centered to really have much of an inclination towards the Divine.

The whole purpose of Torah and of our religious tradition is to help us overcome the apparently natural advantage that our animal nature has over our Divine nature.  Although the soul’s longing is for the infinite and the eternal, next to which nothing in the physical world has any significance at all, that infinite, eternal, pure nature is completely abstract; our as-yet-immature minds and emotions cannot fathom it, and are easily led in the direction of more immediate pleasures.  By immersing ourselves in Torah we gradually allow our minds to expand as we contemplate the infinite nature and infinite wisdom of Gd.  Our Sages tell us that Gd created the Yetzer haRa and He created Torah as its antidote.  Steeping ourselves in Torah is the ultimate way to reorient ourselves away from the finite and towards the infinite.

It was attachment to the finite, to material goods and pleasures, that precipitated the Flood, and indeed, has precipitated virtually every disaster in human history, individual and social.  A person who is attached to anything other than Gd is one whose life is controlled by something external to himself.  Such a person lives in constant fear of change and loss, be it loss of material possessions, loss of a cherished idea, loss of a loved one or whatever.  Someone whose mind and heart are fully infinite and attached to Gd has no fear of loss at all, as King David describes in the 23rd Psalm.  And a person who is fearful is capable of doing virtually anything in the face of any threat, real or imagined.  This fact is the basis of all advertising, and unfortunately in the last several decades, of much of our national political discourse.

Gd, in His infinite Wisdom, put our Divine souls into limited bodies, so that our bodies could be purified and uplifted and act as perfect channels for Divinity to flow into and transfigure the material world.  Sadly we have let our bodies rule over our souls and drag them through the muck that physical existence has become.  Instead of the rider being on top of the horse, the horse has taken control of the rider.  We have just concluded the High Holiday season, where we have been given a taste of the bliss available if we correct this situation.  Now as we read again the precious words of our Torah, let us use them to take charge of our lives and rededicate ourselves to Gd’s service.