This week we begin reading the Torah anew from Bereishit (Genesis), which tells of God creating the world and the story of the early generations before Noah and the flood. The Midrash tells us that prior to the flood, all the world enjoyed perfect climate conditions, and food and wealth were available in abundance. After the flood, says the Midrash, climate conditions changed throughout the world, and human life and survival became fraught with constant challenge.
So, was life better before or after the flood? We’d surely assume that life was better before, when luxuries were to be had aplenty. And yet, say the ancient Sages of the Midrash, the opposite proved to be true. Because the early generations had a life of luxury handed to them on a silver platter, they became narcissistic and self-centered. They showed no interest in helping others or in living a productive and spiritual life, and their conduct eventually brought about the flood .
In fact, even today, in our post-flood world, wherein life is challenging pretty much wherever one lives, we find something rather similar. Studies have shown that Nobel laureates, technological pioneers, and innovative entrepreneurs are unequally distributed across the globe. Their density increases in regions toward the North Pole, toward the South Pole, and very close to the equator. Where the climate is more stressful, that stress prods people to be innovative and creative.
Living through challenge can cause us, collectively and as individuals, to be more productive and even to become better people who care about finding new ways to help others. That is what we learn in studying about the lives of the earliest humans and about how post-flood the people became better and society became richer in deeds. To be sure, we would not ask for our lives to be filled with difficulties, but to the extent that we do experience challenges, let us confront them in a manner that makes us into better and more spiritual people. PJC
Rabbi Levi Langer is the dean of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.