NOAH: When Men Discovered Mortality


What caused the flood? A meteorite? A universal cataclysm? A climate change event? The Tora is not a common book. It is a Divine book. And as such, it demands an unconventional reading. This reading implies, among other things, reading the silences of the text, reading between its lines and, particularly, knowing that nothing is there unnecessarily.

In the fifth chapter of Bereshit (Genesis) in last week’s Parasha, we read the first human genealogy: an apparently superfluous list of the years that each of the descendants of Adam, the first man, lived. The Tora mentions nine generations: Adam, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Yared, Hanokh, Metushelah and Lemej, Noah’s father. All lived a long life, but the record (so far …) is Metushelah’s, who lived 969 years.
Either way, the question is still there: beyond satisfying our curiosity, what does this civil registry teach us? Why do we need so much detail about the ages of the first humans?
If we look carefully, we will discover something wonderful.
In the year 930, counting from Creation, an extraordinary event took place. Adam, the first man, dies. Men, the thousands or hundreds of thousands of descendants of Adam, already knew that a human being could be “killed”, like Abel. But now, for the first time, they are facing natural death. HaShem had already told Adam that he will not live forever. But that warning took more than nine centuries to materialize. Enough time for humans to forget about mortality. Adam, Set, Enosh, etc. given their advanced age, were seen as immortal. The natural death of Adam was unprecedented, and provoked a state of shock and panic. The only thing that could alleviate this fear, the terrifying fear of death, was to assume that mortality would only affect Adam, as an individual, for having disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit.
But in 987 (you have to calculate by himself, because this calculation is not explicit in the Tora!) the second natural death is recorded: Hanokh dies, at the tender age of 365 years … This second death could no longer be attributed to disobedience. The Tora explicitly states that Hanokh was a righteous man, who walk on the Divine Path (Gen. 5:24)… Hanokh’s death was a shattering event. The Tora describes it with words that seem to reflect the widespread surprise and terror of the humans of that generation, coping with an event they did not quite understand. “Passing away” was something so novel that men could not yet define it with conventional words. The text, then, does not say that Hanokh “died”. it says, almost with the same innocence one explains death to a child, “and Hanokh is no longer here, because God took him.”
The third natural death was that of Set, the son of Adam. This happened in the year 1042. Now it is a fact. Death is here to stay.
Humanity’s reaction to the inevitability of death is seemingly described at the end of last Parasha, and it was not very positive. Quite the opposite. Awareness of mortality caused a panic that revealed the worst of human being. Like those Hollywood situations in which humans react to the imminent falling of a meteorite that will destroy the earth. When men know they are going to die, they just want to enjoy the most of their time, materially. And all the effort is put into surviving and taking, without caring about others. As Yesha’ayahu (22:13) said, quoting the philosophy of life of men with no Tora: אכול ושתה, כי מחר נמות, “Let us eat and drink [as much as we can], since tomorrow [anyways] we are going to die”.
A phrase in the text of the Tora reveals something of that new human condition: “And the powerful men saw the women [of other families, tribes. et.] and took [by force] all the women they wanted. ” Our rabbis added that the generation before the flood was not only guilty of sexual violence, but also of corruption, oppression of the weaker, widespread crime and especially lack of law, order and justice.
In that situation HaShem decides two things: 1. Shorten human life (something that will happen gradually) and 2. Bring the flood, to do a “reset” of human civilization thru Noah and his children.
Now we understand that for the Tora what caused the flood was not a meteorite or climate change: it was that state of anarchy, chaos and corruption of men reacting violently to the discovery of their inevitable mortality.
Noah, the protagonist of our Parasha, was born in the year 1056. He is the first man to be born in a world of men aware of their mortality. At the end of the flood Noah received the first code of laws. Seven basic rules condemning murder, robbery, promiscuity, etc., and ordering the establishment of courts of justice to avoid anarchy and impunity. All this will bring a new climate of law and order.
But we will have to wait another ten generations for another man, Abraham Abinu —and his descendants— to make a second discovery. 1. Although limited and relatively short, life is an opportunity that HaShem gives us to get close to Him by our own will and effort. 2. That we were not created by God to exploit our neighbor, but to assist him. 3. And finally, that mortality affects the body of man, but his or her Divine spirit, the neshama, survives.