At the end of last week's portion (Bereshit), we hear that "Adonai saw that the evil of human beings on the earth was great and that every train of thought of the human mind was only evil all the time" (Genesis 6:5). And so, God contemplated ending the great experiment by destroying the newly-created human race. "Adonai regretted having made human beings on the earth and God's heart was saddened. Adonai said, 'I shall wipe out the human beings whom I have created from the face of the earth'" (ibid., vv. 6-7).
And then God saw Noah.
Noah is one of the oddest heroes of the Hebrew Bible. He is almost completely silent. God tells Noah to build an ark, and Noah builds without a word. God tells him to collect animals; Noah says nothing and collects the mated pairs. Noah is, perhaps, the perfect cure for God's regret. Noah does nothing but obey God.
After the Flood comes to destroy humanity, after God looks down on silent Noah as the ark floats on the sea that devoured the earth, God thinks again. God says, "Never again will I curse the earth on account of human beings, for the inclinations of the human mind are evil from youth, so never again will I strike out all life as I have done" (Genesis 8:21).
Both things cannot be true of an unchanging God. God cannot first decide to destroy humanity because human beings are evil, and later decide never again to destroy humanity because human beings are evil...unless, of course, something happened to make God change.
Rashi says that it was the prayer that Noah offered to God on board the ark that forced God to change (Rashi on Genesis 8:1). After the Flood, when God took in the "pleasing odor" of Noah's sacrifice, the divine quality of compassion awoke to temper the divine quality of justice. God was changed from being a seeker of perfection and destroyer of imperfection and became, instead, a God who forgives imperfection and appreciates human beings as we are.
So, we are left with this question: If God can change, why can't we?
Why can we not allow our hearts to melt when we are angry and frustrated with a world that is so deeply imperfect? Why are we not able to forgive when others hurt us to our core? Why do we punish ourselves over and over again for the mistakes that we cannot help ourselves from making?
This is a deep question that is central to the quest for joy. If we are not able to relent in our anger, hurt and self-condemnation, we will doom ourselves to misery. Yet, if even Rambam's God of eternal perfection can have a change of heart and recognize that our human imperfections make us beautiful—not unworthy of existence—then we can change our hearts, too.
Smell the pleasing odor. Forgive. Heal. Relent. Live joyously.