And I, behold, I am about to bring the Flood waters upon the
earth to destroy all flesh in which there is a breath of life from under the
Be’er Yosef: Rashi explains the “behold” as indicating Hashem’s readiness to
concur with the angels that protested Man’s creation. “What is Man, that You
should make mention of him,” 2 they asked. Ramban challenges this
(and the medrash from which Rashi draws his comment.) Hashem was poised to
deliver Noach and his family, and renew human civilization through them,
positioning them so that they would propagate and repopulate the earth. How
can this be seen as concurring with the angels and their dismissive attitude
towards human beings?
We could explain Rashi’s reasoning as follows. The angels did not object to
Man’s creation per se, but to the role and power G-d assigned to him. “They
shall rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and over the
animal, the whole earth.” 3 The angels were irked by the complete
dominion that Hashem offered to Man. (Indeed, this is born out by the lines
in Tehilim that follow the one cited above. “You give him dominion over Your
handiwork. You placed everything beneath his feet: sheep and cattle, all of
them, even the beasts of the field.”)
The extent of Man’s dominion was reflected in the devastating destruction
wrought by the Mabul. The waters wiped out not only human life, but animal
and even plant life. Three tefachim of topsoil – the typical penetration of
the plowshare – were washed away. 4 Man’s sin had corrupted
everything around him, so that even animals and plants mated and produced in
atypical ways; they, too, had to be removed from the face of the earth.
We can attribute the corruption of other life forms to the mandate given to
Man to rule over all infra-human species. This license included the
consequence that the behavior of all things would be linked to the
activities of Man, who could either elevate everything around him, or
corrupt all things. When Man’s behavior became horribly sinful, he
compromised the integrity of all things, such that corruption spread
everywhere- even to the very soil around him. (It is for this reason that
Chazal5 tell us that the Land of Israel was spared the effects of
the Mabul. While the nature of its animals was corrupted even there, the
inherent kedushah of the Land ensured that the earth itself was shielded
from the polluting influence of Man’s sins.)
In the Flood’s aftermath, Hashem pledged, “I will not continue to curse
again the ground because of Man.” 6 This is puzzling. How could
G-d issue such a guarantee? Man possesses the ability to choose between good
and evil. Should Man make the wrong choices, whatever Divine reasoning that
necessitated the destruction of mankind at the time of the Flood would apply
once more! Man would then have to be destroyed once again. Did G-d mean to
limit Man’s free will?
Not really. The changed position of Man relative to the rest of Creation
allowed G-d to make the pledge, without limiting Man’s choices in any way.
Man lost the ability to completely transform everything around him. Note
that Hashem told Noach upon emerging from the Ark, “The fear of you and the
dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth.” 7 Man’s
relationship with the animal world had changed markedly from what it was
before the Flood. Previously, Man was told that he would rule over the
animals; now, they were simply fearful of him, and kept their distance.
Man’s “rule” was diminished – at least in the sense of his behavior directly
changing their habits.
To be sure, everything that Man does – to this day – affects the entire
cosmos, even the upper, spiritual worlds. Nonetheless, Man would no longer
be able to directly transform the nature of the animals through his actions.
His ability to corrupt the world around him was greatly curtailed. G-d could
therefore pledge that no matter how evil he would become, Man would not be
able to wreak so much havoc upon his environment that even the earth would
need to be destroyed. While Man’s power was thus curtailed, his diminished
capacity was a Divine chesed, because it assured the continuity of Creation.
We now understand how Rashi would dismiss the Ramban’s objection. The angels
objected not to Man’s creation, but to G-d granting him so much power that
he could transform the natures of other creatures. In this regard, Hashem
concurred with their objection, and limited Man’s powers after the Flood!
Having come this far, the seemingly unwieldy phraseology of an earlier pasuk
now becomes a work of elegance. “And Hashem reconsidered having made Man on
earth.” 8 Why would the pasuk underscore “on earth?” We now
understand. Hashem did not regret, as it were, the creation of Man. He did
reconsider creating him on the earth, i.e. giving him enormous power over
everything around him, including the earth itself.