Who Learns What From the Flood: Mortality or Morality?

Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner

By Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner

Parshat Noach
Last week, we followed the Torah description of the Creation. Now, seemingly this same benevolent Creator decides that this new world does not deserve to survive: “Adonai saw how human wickedness filled the earth — how every plan devised by the human mind was nothing but evil all the time.” (Gen 6:5)
But haven’t you ever wondered whether our universe is constantly created and destroyed, one after another? Not a new question for the Jewish tradition! Our sages of the Talmud themselves debate whether our “world” is the first and only world created or “just another one in a series of creations.” “Rabbi Abbahu claimed that the Creation story itself teaches us that God created worlds and destroyed them, saying, ‘This one pleases me; those did not please me.’” (Ber. Rabba 3:7)
But the sinfulness of humanity apparently is never-ending in our narrative, from the very beginning. Firstly, Adam and Eve fail to follow simple instructions and are punished and are driven from Gan Eden. Then Cain ultimately murders his brother Abel, needing punishment.
Human beings persist in such disobedience and selfishly destroying what God made for them that the Torah records what is to me one of the saddest verses in the Bible. Can anything be sadder than the omniscient divinity being forced to acknowledge a cosmic blunder, an absolute miscalculation? God declares that he will blot out every living thing he created because he’s sorry he made them! As the Torah itself records: “And Adonai regretted having made humankind on earth.” (Gen. 6:6)
But, as in every great story, we can discern a silver lining of hope: God finds one redeeming human being. Everyone knows the description of Noah and the reason he is selected to survive: “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.” (Gen. 6:7) Therefore, Noah was given the blueprints, the protocols and the details of the survival of the great flood.
However, two very important questions remain for interpretation: (1) Did Noah truly act as a “whole-hearted, righteous” leader in his generation? Two comparisons come to mind in this season of beginnings. When Abraham was told of the impending destruction of the evil in Sodom, he begged God for mercy and even forgiveness. And we read just a short while ago about Jonah who, when faced with the destruction of evil, ran away.
Some of our sages claimed that the 120 years it took to build the Ark and then to provision it for all life, was a reasonable and very visible warning to humanity, even if we are not informed that Noah ever told them of impending disaster.
(2) Perhaps more importantly, who learned the most from the flood? Noah? Not really. He was and remained passive rather than active with regard to his fellow humanity. Ultimately, Noah built his boat for himself — as he was instructed — for his own family and saved them. Even then, he was not certain until the text reports Noah entered the Ark only when told to do so. Then, “And Adonai shut him in” which Rashi interprets to mean both “He surrounded the Ark with bears and lions which killed some of them.” (Gen.R. 32:8) But the literal meaning of the text is: “He shut the door in front of him against the waters.” (Gen. 7:16)
At the beginning of the narrative, God is sufficiently disappointed in humanity to drown the whole earth. But in the end something major changes in God’s thinking; He does an about-face and announces that henceforth humanity will never again be divinely destroyed. The story of the flood is not about a change in humankind. It’s a story about a change in God, who swears off retribution and chooses relationship.
For us, however, when will we learn the lesson of the flood to become the compassionate, righteous humanity of which we are capable — justifying our creation and the stewardship of this earth we share with so many?
Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner is retired and provides kosher supervision for Traditional Kosher Supervision in the Greater Philadelphia area, while teaching hands-on craft skills to make and use properly holiday ritual objects. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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