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Rabbi O’s Weekly: Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32) Breakaway: A Lesson from the Ark and the New York Subway

Although the story of Noah and the Ark is one of the most famous in the Bible, for many their first exposure to it was as a child. Most people don’t think it’s important enough to go back and view it as an adult. But this story is anything but simple; it contains profound, timeless truths about the human condition.
The world had gotten so corrupt that G-d decided to destroy it. It seems the only people worth saving were Noah and his wife, their sons and daughters in laws. The entire episode was obviously supernatural because even though the Ark was huge (450 feet long, 3 stories high, and 75 feet wide), there’s no way every species in the world could have fit into it; many miracles were taking place simultaneously. Why didn’t G-d just cause everyone, except Noah and his family, to collapse and die instantaneously and then Family Noah would rebuild a new world? Why did Noah have to be in the Ark together with the animals and all other wildlife for twelve months. Couldn’t the miracle of Divine retribution have happened in a more efficient manner? Why take an entire year for something that only required a moment?
The answer is that the objective of the flood was not only about meting out punishment, it was about restoring the nature of those who survived. Before the flood, the verse states, “for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.” (Gen. 6:12) There was a natural tendency among all forms of life toward violence and corruption. As such, it would not suffice to destroy those members of the population who were beyond rehabilitation-i.e. everyone other than Noah and family-because the would-be new world needed more than that. It needed to be restored to the status of how things were before the beginning stages of the deterioration began.
Here’s one example of the that deterioration. Although the misconduct at that time ranged from crimes of passion to robbery, according to the Talmud the final nail in the coffin for that generation was the crime of petty theft. Although it seems odd that minor misdemeanors would cause the destruction of the world, it makes sense when we consider that when people stop paying attention to misdeeds, no matter how seemingly insignificant, they begin to lose their sensitivity to distinguish between right and wrong. When that sensitivity is lost, a subliminal message is emitted; it’s not that damaging to do bad things.
A corollary of this idea was instrumental in reducing the growing crime rate in the New Your City in the 1990’s; it was called the Broken Windows theory and was the brainchild of criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. At first glance, their hypothesis doesn’t seem reasonable. They argued that if a window was broken and left unrepaired or if there was graffiti that wasn’t cleaned up, it would lead to an increase in crime. Although robbing people at gunpoint doesn’t seem to have any correlation to broken windows and graffitied walls, their contention was that people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. That mindset will be a catalyst for far greater crimes than broken windows and graffitied walls. Just removing the criminals was not enough; an entirely new attitude and environment was needed for the future.
Getting back to the deteriorated world in Noah’s time, although retribution can take place in an instant, education takes longer. For a person to make a meaningful and enduring change in life, it must be done at a natural rate. Why is it that crash diets or a New Year’s resolution to work out regularly don’t usually last endure? A meaningful and enduring change in nature can only take place organically, over a period of time.
The year of the flood was one of fundamental re-orientation for survivors. This happened slowly over the course of the year by conduct that helped them to go on the other extreme of the narcissistic spectrum. Even though they weren’t self-centered egotists when they entered the Ark, as the founders of the new world, they would need to be on a pristine moral standard. During that year, they were tasked with feeding the animals. They didn’t sleep too much and were constantly attending to their (the animals) needs. Noah and his wife as well as his sons and their wives refrained from conjugal relations for that entire year. The destruction of the world was such a tragic event that they didn’t want to engage in their own pleasures while so many people had suffered. By doing so, they were ingraining in themselves the message that certain things override their own pleasure. When they emerged from the Ark, they recommitted themselves to be more aware and faithful in family life. Indeed, the Midrash says that even generations later, people were careful in matters of physical morality as a result of the flood. According to this new understanding of the purpose of the year spent in the Ark, the reason why later generations were careful in the area of sexual morality was not due to the fear generated by the punishment of those who died in the flood, it was the byproduct of the experiences of those who survived it. G-d couldn’t just destroy the world instantly and save Noah and his family because they needed to be reeducated; it was was crucial for setting a solid foundation for the future generations.
How about us? Although we wish we could eradicate our bad habits with an inspiring thought or by attending a self-help seminar, the reality is that it is a long process. Even Noah, of whom it was said, “Noah was righteous, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with G-d” (Gen. 6:9), still he and the rest of his family, the only people in the world G-d deemed were worthy of saving, needed a year to reorient and reeducate themselves. Their methodology was to live for others-in this case animals-and not to indulge in themselves. It’s not fun but it’s very effective. Think of the last time you wanted to change something about yourself, did indulging in your own sensual satisfaction achieve your goal? Did it help you lose weight, get into shape, become more organized, stand up for yourself or any other trait to which you aspire? The only way to do that is by learning to be uncomfortable-to do things you don’t want to do. Noah and his family serve as an eternal paradigm for this ideal.
(Sources: Meshech Chochmah by Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, 1843-1926; Rashi, Genesis 8:19; The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell pp. 140-151; Bereishis Rabbah 70:12; The Year of the Flood by Rabbi Emanuel Bernstein)

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