Bereshit (Gen. 5:1-6:8): A Red Herring

The Lord saw that great was the evildoing of man on the earth, and that every scheme of his heart’s devising [yetzer] was only evil, all the time.   

yetzer can refer to a physical form; the root is often used for the process and product of making pots.  Here, what we are forming are plans, designs—and there is something invariably crooked about them.

This verse is a locus classicus for the rabbinic concept of the yetzer ha-ra, often translated the “evil inclination.”  Our bent is – bent.

This indictment of human nature is given in Genesis as the reason for the flood.  And since this is a perpetual fact of human nature, any calamity, big or small, can be explained as a punishment for sin.

But at the end of the story, when God smells the aroma of Noah’s sacrifice, this same fact of human nature is presented, not as a motive for punishment, but as a mitigating circumstance, as God reflects, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the devisings of the human heart are evil from youth.”

So it appears that the appropriateness of reward or punishment is in the eye of the beholder–the beholder being God (if we’re speaking of the story), the anonymous authors of Genesis (if we’re speaking of the storytellers), or . . . us.  We seek to avoid calamity and find meaning.  This isn’t wrong; it’s a glory of the human condition, though sometimes a bittersweet one.  But it can at times lead us to paint an angry face on reality, an image that’s simply a projection of our frustrations and fears.

So as I re-approach Torah this year I find two signposts.  One points out a path to travel– the principle that Torah is a human story, one that applies on its deepest levels to all.  The other warns of a path to avoid–the simplistic lens of reward and punishment.

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