The parasha

Noah and the storm of adolescence

Shabbat Shalom to all our readers.

AS a parent navigating the stormy waters of adolescence, I contend with eyerolls, grunts and tempers. Child psychologists explain that adolescence is a period of intense and dramatic development – both physically and cognitively. As a result, emotional regulation lags and children can struggle with impulse control, mood swings and a sense of ego that does not leave much space for seeing another point of view.

Similarly, the beginning of the book of Bereshit tells the stories of civilisation in its infancy. It is a raw, warts and all account of Hashem’s struggle to civilise human beings despite the divine qualities gifted them by God. Humanity develops in fits and starts with many setbacks. The expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the conflict between Cain and Abel, the flood and the Tower of Babel all consistently highlight the moral failings of human beings despite technological progress. When faced with the free will to act in the ‘image of God’ or to follow their baser biological desires, human beings consistently fail to seek out the moral or righteous path.

More specifically, in parashat Noah, we find humanity in its adolescent phase – humanity has only existed for 10 generations! In this parasha we see a fundamental shift in the way that Hashem relates to humanity. Essentially, God realises that he has become the parent of adolescents – and that changes everything. At the beginning of the parasha, Hashem first seeks to punish bad behaviour. He resolves to ‘cancel’ humanity because of the wholesale evil that abounded in the world:

“Hashem saw how great was human wickedness on earth – how every thought or plan devised by the human mind was nothing but evil all the time.”

However, following the deluge and the destruction, Hashem resolves never to inflict such widespread devastation on the world again.

“Never again will I curse the ground because of humanity, because the inclination and desire of humanity is evil from youth, and never again will I strike down all living creatures as I did.”

When comparing the two statements it seems that the reasoning for both destroying and preserving the world is because of the proclivity for evil in human beings. How can this be?

Stephen Bailey, psychologist and educator, in his parasha series Hearing the Biblical Voice, analyses the commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch to solve this apparent contradiction. While both verses refer to the evil inclination – the yetzer ra – they are also distinguished by the concept of adolescence. After the flood, Hashem attributes the evil of humanity to the immaturity of youth or adolescence rather than to an inherent evil inclination.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who lived in the time of the European Enlightenment, looked to highlight the enduring lessons of the Torah relevant to the ‘modern’ world, He further connects adolescence with the upheaval caused by the flood. He highlights the Hebrew root word for adolescence is nun’ayin’resh, which is the root that means movement or instability. Dr Haim Ginnott, one of the founding fathers of child psychology, also describes adolescence as “a time of turmoil and turbulence, of stress and storm”.

In Aboriginal Dreamtime, stories of floods often result in a reshaping of the landscape. In adolescence the landscape between parent and child is reshaped as both move toward more mature interactions as adults. In the Torah too, the world order is rearranged after the flood. The first mention of seasons, of flux and change and accompanying human actions of seeding and harvesting, occur after the flood. The human lifespan is shortened.

After the flood, Hashem resolves that he will not punish an immature civilisation by annihilation. Rabbi Yitz Greenburg describes the renewed relationship between God and humanity as one governed by a covenant or partnership, as evidenced by the rainbow.

He teaches: “In entering a covenant, omnipotent God self-limits, out of love, to allow humans their freedom and the chance to grow into full dignity.” The covenantal relationship acknowledges human weakness and provides a path back to connection through teshuvah and Divine forgiveness.

The covenantal approach provides a paradigm that we as parents of adolescents can use when relating to our children as they grow and become adults.

Sydney-based Rabbanit Judith Levitan works as a lawyer in the field of social justice, regularly represents the NSW Jewish community at interfaith events, runs women’s tefillah services and serves
as chaplain to the ADF.

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