The Story of Noah’s Birth
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Human history doesn’t start out too great. In the first generation, Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge. In the second generation, Cain kills his brother Abel. In both of these stories, God punishes the guilty parties, but He doesn’t kill them. Adam, Eve, and Cain all live on with the opportunity to be better people in the future.
Then we get to the 10th generation of mankind, and instead of just punishing the evil people, God decides to wipe out civilization and start from scratch with Noah. Sure, the world is filled with evil and corruption, but isn’t that a little drastic? Was there really no way to fix the problems?
In this video on Parshat Noach, Rabbi Fohrman explores why God had no choice but to press the reset button. It turns out that the secret to understanding the true failures of this generation is hidden in the Torah’s brief description of Noah’s birth.
Hi, this is Ari Levisohn, Curator at Aleph Beta, and welcome to our section on Biblical stories. We’ve collected our best material for each story in the Torah in order to uncover the hidden lessons brought to life by the Torah’s narratives. You’re watching our video on the generation of the flood and the meaning of Noah's name.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to Parshat Noach. Today I want to talk to you about Noach's name.
The Torah actually talks to us about Noach's name and tells us how it is exactly that he got it. It turns out that Noach's father, Lemech, made a declaration upon the birth of Noach — and there's something very, very puzzling, very chilling, about that declaration. Let me read it to you.
The Meaning of Noah's Name
'וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ נֹחַ לֵאמֹר' and he called the name of his child Noach, saying, 'זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ מִמַּעֲשֵׂנוּ וּמֵעִצְּבוֹן יָדֵינוּ מִן-הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אֵרְרָהּ יְקוָה.' This one shall comfort us from our deeds and from the sadness of our hands, from the land that God cursed.
Somehow Lemech senses that this child is going to comfort him. Not just comfort him, but comfort all of us, comfort mankind, from the curse of the land.
What's the curse of the land? The curse of the land goes back to the earliest stories in the Torah, the stories of the Tree of Knowledge, the stories of Cain and Abel, where the land became cursed.
There were consequences to eating from the Tree of Knowledge, there were consequences to Cain's killing of Abel — and those consequences express themselves in two main ways. One of them was an alienation from God. Adam and Eve hide from God immediately after eating from the tree. Cain senses that he will spend his life continually hiding from God.
And similarly, not just an alienation from God but an alienation from land. Adam is told ’בְּעִצָּבוֹן תֹּאכְלֶנָּה כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ,' in sadness and toil will you work on the land all the days. It won't just provide for you; you'll have to work on it. 'בְּזֵעַת אַפֶּיךָ תֹּאכַל לֶחֶם,' by the sweat of your brow you will work the land.
And that curse also intensifies itself in the times of Cain, when Cain is told that even if he works the land, it's not going to help: 'לֹא-תֹסֵף תֵּת-כֹּחָהּ לָךְ,' it won't continue to give you its bounty.
And now, generations later, Lemech comes and senses that things could be different now. 'זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ מִמַּעֲשֵׂנוּ וּמֵעִצְּבוֹן יָדֵינוּ .' This one will comfort us from the sadness of our hands, from the land that God has cursed.
So it all sounds very nice, sounds very hopeful — but here's the chilling part. If you fast-forward not six verses ahead, you get to the verses that describe God's decision to bring the flood, God's decision to destroy the world, because Lemech lives in the generation which is right before the flood.
Noah's Name and God's Decision
Now listen to God's decision to destroy the world as described by the Torah. Chapter six, verse six: ’וַיִּנָּחֶם יְקוָה,' and God regretted, ’כִּי-עָשָׂה אֶת-הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ,' that He had created man in the land, 'וַיִּתְעַצֵּב אֶל-לִבּוֹ,' and He was saddened to His heart. And then God said: 'אֶמְחֶה אֶת-הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר-בָּרָאתִי מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה,' I will wipe out man that I have created from the face of the earth.
Now if you pay careful attention to the words here, you will find a very fascinating but very chilling thing, which is that God's declaration in creating the world exactly echoes Lemech's declaration upon the birth of Noach.
These are the words to look for. Go back to Lemech's declaration: 'זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ,' word number one. 'Yenachem,' comfort or regret — it has both meanings. ' מִמַּעֲשֵׂנוּ,' this one will comfort us 'mi-ma'asenu,' from our deeds. Word number two, deeds. ' וּמֵעִצְּבוֹן,' word number three, sadness [ִitzavon]. Word number four, 'מִן-הָאֲדָמָה' [min-ha-adamah].
'זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ מִמַּעֲשֵׂנוּ וּמֵעִצְּבוֹן יָדֵינוּ מִן-הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אֵרְרָהּ יְקוָה' this one will comfort us from the sadness of our hands, from the earth that God has created.
But if you take those four words – y'nachem, ma'asenu, me-itzvon, adamah – you will find them repeated in this exact same order in God's decision to destroy the world.
'וַיִּנָּחֶם יְקוָה,' there's word number one, and God regretted — but it's the same word for comfort, going back to the declaration of Lemech. 'כִּי-עָשָׂה,' there's word number two, that He had made man in the land. 'וַיִּתְעַצֵּב אֶל-לִבּוֹ,' and He became saddened - there's itzavon, sadness, word number three. And then, as if on cue, God says: I will wipe out man 'מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה,' from the face of the adamah — there was word number four.
It's impossible to resist the conclusion that for some strange reason, God is mimicking Lemech when He decides to destroy the world. The declaration for destroying the world has, as its prototype, the naming speech that Lemech gave for Noach. Now why would that be?
The Real Meaning of Lemech's Words
So I want to propose a theory to you. It comes from Rashi. Rashi makes a very innocent little comment in describing Lemech's declaration. Lemech said that this one, Noach, will comfort us. That's why he is named Noach — from the word 'yenachem,' to comfort. This one will comfort us. Comfort for the curses of the land. How would Noach comfort mankind from the curse that God had placed upon the land?
The sages of the Midrash said that Lemech saw prophetically that Noach would be the creator of the plow. The plow would be a form of comfort. We wouldn't have to deal with the curse of the land anymore.
I want to suggest that that was the straw that broke the camel's back. That comfort, the declaration of the plow, in the world before the flood, for reasons of comfort – and not just the creation of the plow but the significance that mankind attached to the plow, that the plow would comfort us – is the reason to destroy the world.
Why? The answer is: Because the plow can never comfort you.
But what is comfort all about? When do we achieve comfort? How do we achieve comfort? When we are wracked by a terrible loss, how do we get comfort from a loss?
Comfort involves a kind of change in perspective. There is a kind of mourning which you can't get comfort for, which is called 'aninut': terrible pain, searing grief, before burial. But after burial, there's a new kind of mourning, and it's called 'avelut,' alef-bet-lamed. It's the same word as 'aval,' 'but.'
An 'avel,' a mourner, asks himself a question — but the question has no answer, and the question is: How could this have happened? Why did this happen? And the only thing that the 'avel' can do, ultimately, is to say '...but it happened.' It happened anyway — and 'avelut' is the stage of but-ness, of nevertheless-ness – 'It happened and I must deal with it.'
It's a change in perspective, it's a willingness to accommodate the uncomfortable reality.
'זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ מִמַּעֲשֵׂנוּ,' Lemech said. 'This one will comfort us, he is going to create the plow that will allow us to live, to accommodate ourselves to an uncomfortable reality.'
The Consequences of God's Regret
What were the purposes of the curses? The curse of the land, the sadness of the land? Why was it so sad to toil on the land, such that the language for the curse should be 'בְּעִצָּבוֹן תֹּאכְלֶנָּה כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ'? That you will work the land by the sweat of your brow and you will eat it in sadness?
What's so sad about work? The answer is: When work is just work, it's not sad — but when work is toil, when work could have gone easier, but it goes harder, then it's sad. There's a futility involved — and then the sadness is a reminder that things could be different.
The curses in the wake of the Tree of Knowledge, in the wake of the murder of Hevel (Abel), were curses that alienated us from land and they alienated us from God. We hid from God, and when we worked the land, it would no longer give its power to us. It would be sad and we would toil.
Land and God. There's a fascinating comment that the Ramban makes. The Ramban says that when God said, 'נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ' – 'let us make man' (Genesis 1:26) – the 'us' was because God was speaking to the land. God said to the land: 'You contribute the body and I will contribute the soul. We together shall make man.'
So land and God stand as man's Creators — but we become alienated from our Creators, land and God, in the wake of the Tree of Knowledge... and that alienation grows after Cain and Abel and it grows and it grows... and when will it stop? And what's the point of that alienation?
Why make curses that alienate man from God? God doesn't want us to be alienated. The answer is: There is a homing beacon. A homing beacon we all have to come back to our Creator. We were once one with our Creator. We always want to come back, we never want to be separate — and the more you become alienated, the stronger the homing beacon becomes, the stronger you want to come back.
And that's the point of the curses. The curses are: Understand the consequence of the sins, understand how alienated we have become, and desire to come back! Feel the sadness, the toil, and return!
The Reason for God's Decision
When would God say that the time has come to give up, to just destroy the world? It comes when you find comfort in all the wrong places. It comes when you find comfort in the plow. The plow is a technological solution to a spiritual problem. It is a way of taking Tylenol so that you don't feel sadness anymore.
We can work the land with the plow! We can accommodate ourselves to this uncomfortable reality! We don't have to deal with the alienation anymore! We can inure ourselves to it! And it's at that moment that God says: 'You say that you will comfort yourselves with the creation of the plow? You are giving up on the relationship; there's no way that you will ever come back. I have no choice but to start all over again.'
And God uses the exact same language that mankind used to comfort themselves with the plow, to start all over again with a watery end to the previous world and the hope for a better one, in a recreated world with a new slate, and a new relationship with this being.