Noach: Lesson of the Flood

Noach: Lesson of the Flood

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department

Cassuto, in his work From Noah to Abraham (pp. 30-31), comments as follows on the story of the deluge as related in our sidra:

The structure of the chapter is carefully worked out down to the last detail. The story is divided into two acts of six paragraphs each. The first part starting at the beginning of the sidra to chapter 7 verse 24, stage by stage, the workings of Divine justice, unleashing catastrophe on a world that has become filled with violence. The picture becomes progressively darker, until only one spark of light remains to illuminate the deathly gloom characterizing the sixth paragraph (7, 17-24). This is the ark which floated on the awesome waters that had covered everything, and which guarded within its bounds the hope of life in the future:

And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and reptile, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth and no one save Noah remained alive and they that were with him in the ark.

The second act depicts for us the various successive stages of Divine mercy renewing life on earth. The light that had become reduced to nothing more than a tiny dot in a world of darkness now shines brighter and brighter, till it once again illuminates the whole of our canvas. Now we are shown a tranquil world adorned with the rainbow, reflecting its spectrum of color through the clouds, as a sign of surety of life and peace for the coming generations. This is the token of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth (9, 17).

The wrongdoing of the antediluvians is alluded to in the last paragraphs of the previous sidra, illustrated in the continuous moral decline of the human race, from fratricide (Cain and Abel) to the glorification of battle and the sword in Lemech’s lyrical outburst, and the deeds of the sons of God, who took themselves wives of all which they chose.

These latter were strong-arm men who, in the words of R. David Kimhi, upheld the principle of might is right and there were none to deliver from their clutches. This picture of moral disintegration becomes steadily blacker until it is stated at the end of the last sidra:


And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (6, 5)


The moral crime of the generation of the flood is further described in somewhat different phrasing, in two sentences, at the beginning of our sidra:


The earth was also corrupt before God And the earth was filled with violence. (6, 11)


In the opinion of our sages cited in Rashi, the first sentence refers to sexual corruption, while the second refers to social crimes (hamas); violence refers to robbery (gezel).

In the Divine message to Noah wherein He reveals to him his dread decision to wipe out mankind, only the last type of offence is referred to:


And God said to Noah, the end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence (hamas) through them. (6, 13)


Our sages were puzzled by the variation in the description of human behavior, prior to the deluge in verse 11 and the naming of the sin that led the Almighty to steal mankind’s fate in verse 13.

Here is what our sages comment on this subject in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 108a:


Said R. Yohanan: Come and see how dreadful is the power if violence! For behold the generation of the deluge committed every conceivable transgression, yet their fate was only sealed when they put forth their hands to robbery, as it says: for the earth is filled with violence through them, and behold I will destroy them from the earth.


The Midrash abounds in descriptions of the wickedness of the generation of the deluge, of the exhaustive list if inequities perpetrated by them. Nevertheless it is always stressed that of all their numerous transgressions, only that one specifically named, that of violence, sealed their fate and brought down Divine judgment on them:


For the earth was filled with violence.


The Midrash aptly sums up the corrupting nature of violence which is capable of demoralizing all that is good in human nature, and acts as an inexorable barrier between man and his Maker:


Thus said Job (Job 16, 17): Not for any justice in mine hands: also my prayer is pure. Is there the a prayer that is impure? But he who prays to God with hands soiled by violence is not answered. Why? Because his prayer is impure, as it is said: And God said, the end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence. But since Job never committed any violence, his prayer was pure. (Shemot Rabbah)


The words of the Neilah prayer should still echo in our ears, permeated by its ever-current theme that we cease from oppression of our hands. An allusion to another concept that is the keynote of the Neilah prayer is also detected in the sidra by our sages. This concept is referred to in Ezekiel (33, 11), pointing out that God does not desire the death of the wicked but rather their repentance.

The Midrash weaves this theme into the fabric of the story of the building of the ark, and the miraculous deliverance of Noah and his company through its means:


Come and see, why did the Holy One blessed be He command Noah to make the ark? In order that mankind should see him engaged in its construction and repent of their ways. Could not the Holy One blessed be He have saved him by his word or have borne him up to Heaven by his faith that he said to him, Make for these an ark of gopher wood? Wherefore thus? But said the Holy One blessed He: Since I say to him: Make for thee an ark of gopher wood, and he becomes engaged in the work and cuts cedar wood, they will gather around him and say to him: Noah! What makest thou? Saith he: An ark! – Because God hath told me that he is bringing a deluge on the earth. As a result of this, they will listen and will repent. So the Holy One blessed be He thought … but they took no notice. (Tanhuma)


Here is another version:


Noah went and planted cedars and they asked him: These cedars what are they for? He said to them: The Holy One blessed be He seeketh to bring a flood and hath told me to build an ark for myself and household to escape in. Whereupon they laughed and mocked at him. Towards the end of his life he cut them down and planed them, whereupon they said to him What art thou doing? He would tell them and give them warning. Since they did not repent …


This again is the theme of Rashi in the next chapter (7, 12) when the Almighty gave the generation its last chance to repent:


And the rain was upon the earth.


And the rain was upon the earth: Further it states: And the flood was… upon the earth (17)? When He caused it to descend with mercy, so that in the event of their repenting, the rain would be one of blessing. When they did not repent it turned into a deluge.

The last warning did not avail and the flood came and wiped them out.