There Still Was Time Left
Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg
The dor hamabul, or generation of the flood, personified the low point of human society, evidenced in God’s punishment of complete annihilation, sans Noach and family. Their abhorrent behavior is noted in the Torah, expanded upon greatly by Chazal, and ultimately expressed as a complete break from any sense of moral order. Indeed, they are a bad bunch. However, this is not to say that God did not offer them numerous opportunities to repent. The Talmud elucidates how, during a seven day reprieve prior to the flood, a glimmer of hope remained for these condemned people to return to God.
After everyone was loaded up into the ark, there seems to be a short interlude prior to the oncoming flood (Bereishis 7:10):
“And it came to pass after the seven days, that the waters of the flood were upon the earth”
This seven day breather is taken up by the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b), with four possible explanations offered:
“And it came to pass, after seven days, that the waters of the flood were upon the earth.What was the nature of these seven days? — Rab said: These were the days of mourning for Methuselah, thus teaching that the lamenting for the righteous postpones retribution. Another meaning is: After the seven days during which the Holy One, blessed be He, reversed the order of nature, the sun rising in the west and setting in the east. Another meaning: the Holy One, blessed be He, [first] appointed a long time for them, and then a short time. Another meaning: After the seven days during which He gave a foretaste of the future world, that they might know what good they had withheld from themselves.”
Of these four reasons, only the first seems reasonably comprehensible at first glance. Indeed, a pause is in good order if these people were truly engaged in eulogizing the great Mesushelach. However, what are the other three reasons offered referring to? What does this reprieve have to do with some type of re-orientation of the rising and setting patterns of the sun? In the last explanation offered, God is being presented as some type of vindictive deity, ensuring they appreciate their destruction even more when contrasted to what they were missing. Above all, are we to take this transfer to olam haba literally?
To understand the third reason, we must turn to Rashi, who helps elucidate the meaning of these two periods of time. God gave the generation of the flood 120 years to repent – however, they were not moved whatsoever. God then chose to give them an extra seven days to engage in teshuva. What exactly is the logic here? If there people were not inspired for 120 years, why would seven days make a difference? What is the idea of this “extra” chance?
It would seem the ideal way to understand these four very different explanations would be to try and uncover a basic theme that unites them. The section of the Talmud that discusses the characteristics of the generation of the flood heaps a tremendous amount of criticisms and condemnations on these people. The case for their annihilation was a strong one. However, this should not in any way imply that these people were excluded from the possibility of teshuva. The ability to recognize one’s flaws and acknowledge that which is incorrect is built into the human condition. Choosing to make use of this ability is just that – a choice (excluding the unique situation of Pharaoh). Thus, the generation of the flood indeed had the ability to choose to return to God. And God did not withhold the opportunity to achieve repentance from them. This seven day period of time attests to this idea that God presented numerous occasions that could have preceded the tectonic shift of these people from a condemned society to one deserving of praise.
The chance for teshuva is the key point here, and, as we will see, was apparent in each of these four explanations. Let’s start with the first one, as it seems to be the most intuitive. The implication of the Talmud was that the people were greatly affected by the death of Mesushelach, and their involvement in eulogy bought them some time. In and of itself, this reaction is indeed praiseworthy. However, how would this be an impetus for teshuva? The people had been warned over and over by Noach of their impending destruction, yet these warnings went unheeded. Clearly, part of this resistance was due to a fantasy of immortality, as if they could avoid any potential early termination of existence. The death of someone as respected as Mesushelach could have functioned as a mortality “wake-up call” of sorts, reminding them of the finality every human faces. In their period of mourning, the hope was that this idea would take center stage and begin to encourage their return from the precipice; alas, as we see, this was unsuccessful.
How is this idea of teshuva expressed in the second explanation offered by the Talmud? The key to understanding this may lie in removing one’s attention from the specific concept of the sun not rising in the east to the overall notion of what such an action would reflect. Another major flaw in this generation arose from a denial of the Creator. In essence, these people lived a life where there was no reality of God to speak of. God therefore acted in a manner which left no doubt whatsoever that He was the Creator. Whether the entire system of orbit changed or not is irrelevant. The idea here is that an event of immense magnitude took place that could only be explained as coming from the Creator of the universe. Such an action would normally set off a reaction that would lead to teshuva. Yet these people were too entrenched in their corrupt value system to be affected by such a Divine manifestation.
The third reason is the one that, on the surface, seems most reflective of the concept of teshuva. After all, God is giving this generation “another chance” to change their ways. However, we need to understand further this unique concept, where God gave them these seven extra days. It is possible God was operating using the general human mechanism of dealing with an aberrant lifestyle. God gave the people 120 years to engage in teshuva, which would seem to be an ample amount of time to achieve this objective. Generally, when given a long period of time to achieve a specific objective, people tend to procrastinate. Here, it is clear why people would push off any such change. Coming to grips with the reality that a person is abiding by a corrupt value system is something very difficult to admit to, and naturally a person will try and push such an admission off as long as possible. In this case, procrastination being the order of the day, teshuva was never a realistic option. The reality of the flood was too far from them to instigate a reaction to engage in teshuva. This “final” chance took place when the flood was imminent and procrastination was not an option. Sadly, this additional opportunity was for naught.
This leaves us with the remaining idea about the olam haba, the world to come. The Talmud indicates that God gave the generation of the flood a “taste” of this world. Rather than focus on the major issues a literal rendition of this concept would result in, it would make more sense to focus on what this idea indicates. It could be that God created an environment in the physical world that simulated (to the extent possible) the environment of the world to come. One of the basic tenets of olam haba is the complete severance from the physical world. A person exists unimpeded by the obstacles this world presents – the need for instinctual gratification, the complexities of the psyche, and so forth. To exist in such a situation, where no energies whatsoever are directed towards satisfaction from the physical world, is one that should direct the society to turn to God. In this case, the opportunity presented itself, but ultimately was not taken advantage of.
As mentioned above, the theme of teshuva was present in force during the generation of the flood. They were steeped in a corrupt value system, but God did not abandon them; rather, in exhibiting the idea of middas rachamim, God demonstrated how the potential to change one’s ways is never beyond the pale. It is an essential idea in teshuva.