“Why was the World Destroyed by a Flood?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Noah, features the destruction of the world at G-d’s hands, by a massive flood that destroys all of human and animal life on earth, with the exception of Noah, his family and the animals they brought with them into the ark.

At the conclusion of parashat Bereshith, in Genesis 6:5, we read of G-d’s dismay at the sinful behavior of the human race, וַיַּרְא השׁם כִּי רַבָּה רָעַת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ, וְכָל יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ רַק רַע כָּל הַיּוֹם, G-d saw that the wickedness of the human being was great upon the earth and that every product of the thoughts of his heart was always evil.

The Torah further underscores the wickedness of humankind, in parashat Noah, Genesis 6:11-12, where we are told, וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ לִפְנֵי הָאֱ־לֹקִים; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ חָמָס, the earth had become corrupt before G-d and the earth had become filled with robbery…for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.

As a result of the pervasive evil, G-d reconsiders His act of creation, and decides to blot out humankind from off the face of the earth.

The commentators raise the interesting question regarding why G-d specifically chose to inundate the world and destroy all of humankind with water, rather than use one of the other methods at His disposal such as fire and brimstone, which He later used in Sodom and Gomorrah, or a plague of poisonous serpents that He would later visit upon Egypt and on the Jewish people on other occasions? After all, G-d has many instruments with which to punish His creations.

Rabbi Zave Rudman, in his series, “Chumash Themes” on the Aish HaTorah website, discusses G-d’s specific choice of floodwaters and offers several suggestions.

Rabbi Rudman notes that G-d is never capricious, and that the specific mode of punishment that G-d metes out to humankind must have a particular purpose. He notes that at the moment of creation, the primordial state of the world was water (Genesis 1:2), and that since water was created to support humankind, when the earth’s population is undeserving, the earth reverts back to its original condition. Hence the floodwaters.

Rabbi Rudman also suggests that since water is the universal “solvent,” G-d chose water to “dissolve” the wicked society.

Additionally, Rabbi Rudman notes that water, specifically waters found in the Mikveh, have the power to purify and renew. Perhaps G-d intended to symbolically purify humankind in the great Mikveh that resulted from the floodwaters. It may also be that since the evil people died from the floodwaters, perhaps it was the survivors, Noah and his family, who were purified in the worldwide Mikveh.

The well-known Israeli Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer, offers an interesting take on the flood waters. Rabbi Firer cites the comments of Rashi on Genesis 6:14, who explains that while building the Ark for 120 years, the wicked people of Noah’s generation would ask Noah what he was doing, providing the people with an extraordinary opportunity to repent.

Rabbi Firer points out, insightfully, that the ark, together with the floodwaters, actually served as a dual punishment. Not only were the people of Noah’s generation drowned in the flood, they were also witness to Noah and his family floating away to safety in the ark. The people painfully realized that they had forfeited the opportunity to be saved themselves. Had they only repented, they too could have been saved along with Noah’s family.

Rabbi Firer points out that the people of Sodom were not subject to that painful experience since Lot and his family were saved at the last minute, leaving the Sodomites with the impression that the entire world had been destroyed. The impression of total destruction was also confirmed by Lot’s daughters (Genesis 19:31).

The Egyptians, on the other hand, who were also drowned by water, were keenly aware of the triumphant rescue of the Jewish people as they drowned, and suffered a painful fate, similar to the fate of those who died in the flood in the time of Noah, of seeing others survive as they drowned.

In the analysis of Rabbi Firer, the floodwaters teach a profound and painful lesson. In the course of life, accidents happen–people lose their lives through a variety of tragic circumstances. But, the most tragic circumstance is when one realizes that a slight change in behavior or attitude could have resulted in salvation and survival. How pitiful, how truly painful.

May you be blessed.