Death – a New Phenomenon by Binyamin Novetsky


Parashat Noach begins with a problem. God sees that man is sinful and wicked and realizes that mankind’s creation was a mistake. He therefore concludes that mankind must be destroyed (BeReishit 6:12). While theologically there is much to discuss about this, especially concerning the fact that God makes a decision and then retracts it, that is not our concern in this essay. What I seek to address is simpler – what specifically prompted Hashem’s stern reaction? It has not been that long since the creation of the world, both in time and in events important enough to be recorded in the Torah. Less than a millennium after Genesis, God is already fed up with the world. What went wrong so (relatively) quickly?

The answer, I believe, is implicit in the part of the Torah directly before the beginning of Parashat Noach. In the chapter directly preceding our Parashah, we see the first time for an event, something so significant that it overthrows the entirety of the natural order and descends the world into utter madness, to the point that God cannot imagine allowing existence as we know it to continue.

Towards the end of Parashat BeReishit (5:4), we hear that Adam dies. Now, death itself is no surprise to the people of Earth – after all, Hevel was killed centuries ago, in all likelihood (4:8). The issue here is that nobody killed Adam. Death by murder is simple to understand: you have a body, and it was broken beyond repair. Death by nature, though, is both terrifying and incomprehensible. Nothing went wrong that you can see, because all the problems with age affect our insides, not our outsides. Sure, we see wrinkles, but how are people who have never seen a natural death before to know what those signify? In their eyes, a person died, not because he was hurt, not because he was sick, but just because he did. Can anyone imagine a more horrific sight?

And so, is it any wonder that the world collapses? Society itself can no longer stand as it once did, not when you know that life is truly finite, not when you have seen a man return to the dust from whence he came – “Ki Afar Atah VeEl Afar Tashuv,” “For you are dust, and unto dust you shall return” (3:19) – without any external force pushing him to do so. What is powerful about the entirety of Perek 5, though, is that it hits us over the head with these natural deaths. One after another after another these people die, their only recorded accomplishment being the birth of sons and daughters, and the only son who we hear the name of also dies. To those who are inexperienced with death, this cannot seem like anything less than the cataclysm itself.

God’s decision to destroy the world is still troubling, but now understandable. This is not some moral failure or repeated sin that He simply is too lazy to fix. It is a breakdown of everything that is because suddenly there is nothing to be relied upon. Trust is fundamentally destroyed knowing that you are relying upon a person who just might stop being around one day for no apparent reason. There is no way to repair this.

Theological problems aside, we see that this is a problem God eventually resolves. While Noach still lives to the ripe old age of 950 (9:29), his sons make it to only 500. By the third generation, they begin to have children in their 30’s, not their 100’s. Less than 10 generations later, Noach’s descendants don’t even live to 200 years old. God changes the human lifespan dramatically, and with it goes the disaster that made Him decide to destroy the world, but the price has been paid. We may get our fair time on a dry world, but we’re getting more than 800 years less than what we did before.

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