Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verses two and three

We’re getting into Chapter Five and the number-sayings. I’m putting the second and third verses together, for reasons that will be obvious:

There were ten generations from Adam to Noah, to make known the patience of Gd, seeing that all those generations continued provoking him, until he brought upon them the waters of the Flood.

There were ten generations from Noah to Abraham, to make known the patience of Gd, seeing that all those generations continued provoking him, until Abraham our father came, and received the reward they should all have earned.

Remember we started the chapter with ten? More tens here, which are only successful in the context of having started a list of tens. I mean, for the purpose of proving the long-suffering nature of the Divine, we are just using ten to mean many; the Divine nature would be no more or less patient with nine or eleven generations separating the prominent figures of early Genesis. I suppose the fact that there are ten is a bit of a mnemonic, in the sense that you would at least know that you had forgotten Kenan (Genesis 5 gives Adam, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, and Noah), or Serug (Genesis 11 gives Shem, Arpachsad, Salah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, Terah and Abram), but it’s not going to help you remember them if you are stuck.

By the way, since it’s parsha Noah this week, I’ll take a sidenote—actually, it’s a digression, isn’t it?

Digression: Why does it take a whole week after the animals are on the ark to start raining? In Genesis 7:10, it says And it came to pass after seven days, that the waters of the flood were upon the earth. The Rabbis have several responses to this: one is rather lovely: that the flood could not take place until Noah was absolutely the last righteous man on the planet, and the animal/ark business was timed so that it was complete on the day that Methusaleh died. However, the actual flood was delayed so that the Divine could sit shivah for seven days. Another one that I like is that when the ark was completed, the Divine decided to try once more to convince the population to give up its wickedness, so for seven days the sun rose in the west and set in the east, along with myriad other wonders—even, according to the Avot of Rabbi Nathan, preparing a table of a meal such as the righteous will merit in the world to come! And yet, the people did not even notice, but went right along doing what they were doing in their wickedness, and at the end of seven days, the flood came. End Digression.

So, the question that comes to mind with this pairing is that after ten generations of wickedness, the Divine punishes the world with a flood, saving only Noah. But after ten more generations of wickedness, the Divine does not punish the world at all, but instead rewards Abraham. What’s the difference? The first and most obvious is that the second ten generations are after the Divine promise at the end of the Noah story, so a Deluge is unavailable to the Divine at that time. Another, interestingly enough, is that while the ten generations from Adam to Noah provoked the Divine, there were righteous men among them, such as Enoch. In the ten generations after, there was (according to the Sages, not one righteous person until Abram. Not one.

I like to think that during those ten generations of long-suffering and patience, the Divine figured out that the Deluge simply didn’t work. Not only was there no tremendous increase in righteousness, there was actually even less righteousness in the ten generations after the flood than there was in the ten generations before the flood. Is that part of the Noah story? Its utter failure, viewed on its own term? Because it should be. I mean, it’s implied, I think, even at the end of Noah’s story itself, what with the drunken fornication and all, but going down the generations to say that destruction simply did not scare people into good behavior.

So the Divine tries something else. Maybe, now that I think about it, this is the through-line from our first verse, the Ten Utterances: the Divine uses Ten Utterances to create the universe, but it doesn’t quite work (the Fall, you know). After Ten Generations, he uses a Deluge to improve things, but it doesn’t quite work. After another Ten Generations, he uses a Covenant to improve things, and…

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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