November 5, 2005
After the flood had subsided, God promised Noah that He would no longer bring a flood of such monumental proportions that would destroy all living things: \”And God said to Noah: \’And I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living thing that is with you – birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well – all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth. I will maintain My covenant with you, and never again (v\’lo) shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again (v\’lo) shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.\” (Genesis 9:8-11)
The sages sought an affirmation that these promises were indeed oaths since they used the language \”never again\” rather than terms more formally associated in a legal sense with oaths. This was important to them because they viewed oaths as a very serious way of binding someone to an agreement. Since the language of the Torah\’s promise did not formally meet their conditions, they felt compelled to prove that these promises were nevertheless valid and binding as oaths: \”Rabbi Elazar said: \'[The word] \”lav – never again\” and [the word] \”hayn – yes\” should be considered legitimate usages for a valid oath.\’ This is easily understood regarding \”lav – never again\”, as it is written: \”never again will there be a flood…\” while elsewhere [in a verse from our haftarah] it is written: \”For this is to Me like the waters of Noah: As I swore that the waters of Noah nevermore would flood the earth, so I swear to you that I will not be angry with you and rebuke you.\” (Isaiah 54:9) (See Shavuot 36a for continued discussion.)
The approach of these sages was to try to bind God to His commitment in an iron-clad contract. This, however, was not the only approach to this question. In another source, other sages attempted to qualify God\’s commitment to this promise in order to allow Him a free hand in controlling evil: \”When the wicked provoke God, saying, \’Didn\’t you swear you wouldn\’t bring a flood on the world, as Isaiah said: \’ For this is to Me like the waters of Noah: As I swore that the waters of Noah nevermore would flood the earth\’. God noticed how the wicked taunted Him, and regretted, as it were, His oath. He said to Himself: \’What can I do for I have sworn?\’ On the other hand, there will be no justice in the world, (as it were). So what did He do? He said to Himself: \’I said I will not bring another flood but I have other wonders that I can bring!\”(Adapted from Tanchuma Buber Bereshit 36)
Rabbi Hayyim Hirshenson, one of the early prominent religious Zionist sages (20th century Hoboken, NJ), was more concerned with insuring that human beings lived up to their side of the bargain. He asserted that God\’s promise in this contractual agreement required that human beings also live up to their responsibilities by fulfilling their minimal obligations to God (the seven Noachide laws). Only then was God accountable for His side of the agreement. (See Eleh Divrei Habrit, pp. 6-7)
What becomes clear in the assessment of these three sources is the overriding concern that God\’s world be orderly, stable and just. This is in the best interest of all parties involved.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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