This shiur comes largely from Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s The Murmuring Deep, in her chapter on Noach, Despondent Intoxication.
The story of נח starts in last week’s parasha, with his birth:
What does this mean? What is מעצבון ידינו? We would assume that עצבון is from עצב, ”sad“. But then what is “the sadness of our hands”?
Onkelos translates it as ליאות, ”exhaustion“:
And Artscroll as “toil”:
It’s a reference to the original curse of Adam:
Lamech’s statement at Noach’s birth was a prayer that the curse of Adam would finally end, since Adam had died:
Others have a more rational interpretation:
There’s another understanding of Lamech’s prayer, that it was related to the development of agriculture. Once humanity had the ability to control the produce of the field, they would no longer have to worry about קוץ ודרדר תצמיח לך:
Rashi cites both explanations:
But עצבון is used even earlier in ספר בראשית, for the curse of Chava:
How does עצבון refer to the “pain of raising children”? The Torah Temimah says עצב doesn’t only mean “sad”, it also means “formed”:
And idols are called עצבים, ”formed things“:
Dr. Zornberg says that the two meanings of עצב are really the same. She notes that both curses of עצבון, of צער גידול בנים and of קוץ ודרדר תצמיח לך, are curses that despite all their toil, the results are completely out of their hands:
עצבון is the עצב, the misery, of toil: when all your effort, all your hard work, comes to nothing.
Lamech’s prayer was that Noach would be the start of a new relationship with the earth, predictable and consistent, a life without עצבון. He unfortunately missed the point of the curse. First of all, he focused only on Adam’s curse, not Chava’s (typical man!). And even then, he thought the relief would either be through technology: כל חרש נחשת וברזל, or through time: if the curse was on Adam, then once Adam is gone, things will get better. We, humanity, do not need to improve our behavior.
The irony is that Noach does in fact bring נחמה. Just not the kind that Lamech wanted:
And we realize that the עצבון that was the curse of Adam and Chava was a מידה כנגד מידה: the original עצבון was G-d’s. He created humanity, only to have them fail to live up to their potential. And now, ה׳ is ויתעצב again: all that work in creating humanity and allowing a second chance after the sin of עץ הדעת, all fails. צער גידול בנים applies to ה׳ as well.
And in our parasha, Noach is the איש צדיק but he fails as well. He saves himself and his family but doesn’t even try to redeem the rest of the world. But after the flood, ה׳ renegotiates the terms of His relationship with humanity to end the עצבון. There’s a subtle difference in the two lists of “begats”, in פרשת בראשית and פרשת נח:
Every life in the first list, before the flood, ends with וימת, ”and he died“.
In the antediluvian world, after the curse of Adam, life—no matter how long—was dominated by the inevitability of death:
If existence is random, defined by עצבון, then the only thing to look forward to is וימת. Even Noach was subject to the same existential crisis:
But the later generations did not end their lives with וימת. What changed?
What changed is that ה׳ gave them purpose, something to live up to:
ה׳ created אדם in the image of G-d, but didn’t tell them until after the flood:
And it is that חיבה יתרה that made the difference. This is the relationship that ה׳ continues to have with us. Life is a multiple-choice test, but ה׳ has given us the answer sheet in advance:
This applies to the עצבון of our צער גידול בנים as well. We think our kids should know the right thing to do; we shouldn’t have to say it in so many words. But we have to. We can’t assume our kids know what we expect; saying it explicitly makes it possible for them to have something to strive for, and knowing that we are watching is an expression of חיבה יתרה.