It was the first Holocaust. Nothing before or after rivaled its devastation. Only
one man and his immediate family survived.
For forty days and nights the rains fell and submerged the world. For 150 days the
waters prevailed over the land before they began to recede. For 365 days Noah and
his family survived aboard the ark, with the animals they had saved, before they
emerged to walk again beneath the sunlight.
It was the 27th day of the Hebrew month of Cheshvon that the Great Flood came to
an end and the survivors disembarked to set foot upon a desolate but newly
Yet Noah felt neither relief nor elation on that extraordinary day. The awful
weight of responsibility crushed his spirit, and feelings of futility haunted his
mind. Despite the miracles he had witnessed and the personal salvation he had
experienced, he could not put to rest his fear that mankind was destined to repeat
its sins and again bring about its own destruction.
DESTROY THE WORLD TO SAVE THE WORLD
Why had the Almighty brought the waters of the Flood upon the earth?
In the era immediately preceding the great flood, there remained alive people who
had known Adam, the first man, people who remembered his spiritual greatness and
could recount it to others. Living in such close historical proximity to the Six
Days of Creation should have inspired those generations to strive for spiritual
and moral perfection. Instead, mankind persisted in following the corrupt ways of
Cain, Adam’s firstborn who murdered his brother Abel.
Men abandoned the repentant path of Adam and the path of his virtuous son, Seth.
Violence and perversion defined human society. Life became cheap. Personal profit
and pleasure became the ideal. The fall of mankind from such lofty spiritual
heights to such base moral depravity in so few generations was a profound
indictment against all humanity.
As men sank ever further into corruption, G-d instructed Noah -- the last
righteous man of his generation -- to build an ark. For 120 years Noah labored to
complete ark's construction, providing time for all men to learn of the sentence
G-d had decreed upon them so that they might repent. Instead, they ridiculed Noah,
ignored his warnings, and sealed their own annihilation.
Why did the Almighty not reveal Himself more clearly, through a heavenly voice or
divine revelation? The more overtly G-d shows Himself, the less man's free will
remains in play and the less the purpose of creation is fulfilled. And so G-d
waited until the last possible moment to give humanity the chance to redeem
itself, even as humanity’s unwillingness to turn aside from the path of
self-destruction became ever more certain. Only when the infection of wickedness
had worked its way irreversibly into the body of humankind then, like a surgeon
left with no alternative but radical surgery, the Almighty decreed the destruction
of the world in order to save the world, lest human beings destroy themselves and
leave nothing that could be saved.
DESTINED FOR DESTRUCTION?
Thus came the devastation and purification of the flood, followed by the
opportunity for the world to begin anew. But Noah’s heart failed him as he
contemplated the task of rebuilding a world that might one day, again, deserve
destruction. To assuage his doubts, G-d promised never again to bring such
annihilation upon the earth.
However, since the destruction brought by the flood ultimately saved mankind from
its own self-destruction, how could G-d make such a promise without allowing the
possibility that man might one day succeed in self-annihilation? If man became so
corrupted once, what would ensure that he not become so again, especially
considering scripture’s testimonial that "the fashion of man's heart is evil from
It was for this reason that G-d placed the rainbow in the clouds as a sign of His
covenant. No mere symbol, this, but a reminder of how the Almighty changed the
very nature of creation as a guarantee to Noah -- a guarantee not only that He
would never again destroy the world, but that the world would never again be in
danger of self-destruction.
Before the Flood, earth was a paradise. True, when G-d had expelled man from Eden
He had decreed that Adam would eat only "by the sweat of his brow;" but this was a
curse only in contrast to Adam’s previous life in the Garden, where all sustenance
grew upon the trees ready to eat with no effort at all. True, after the expulsion
man had to work for his food, but the earth gave up its bounty readily, and man
enjoyed the fruits of his labors without hardship. True, man had become mortal,
yet he retained mastery over all creation under the heavens. Although man had
traded pure spirituality for physicality, he found that material pleasures made it
easy to forget the consequences of his diminished spirit. The season never
changed, and the rain fell but once in forty years. Men believed themselves
all-powerful, until arrogance and corruption consumed them.
After the Flood, however, the Almighty altered nature itself, tilting the world on
its axis to create the familiar patterns of climatic change. In this new world,
Noah and his family exited the ark to discover the phenomena of changing
temperatures, of rain and snow, of summer heat, of annual seasons for sowing and
Now, ceaseless labor in the fields, together with the perpetually changing
temperatures and seasons, would weaken man, forcing his body to exhaust its
resources merely to sustain its basic functions. Man’s strength waned, his health
failed, and the human life span rapidly declined. Whereas Noah lived 950 years,
his son Shem lived only to 600. Shelah, Shem's grandson, lived only to 433, and
Peleg, Shelah's grandson, to 239.
Absorbed by the work of survival, forced by the new difficulties that confronted
him to turn to his fellow for help and accept his place as a member of a larger
community, mankind after the Flood found less excuse for arrogance and less time
for sin. True, man might, and often did, turn away from G-d. But never again would
man descend to so profound a level of corruption to necessitate the Almighty’s
destruction of the entire earth.
This is the significance of the rainbow, the sign that reassured Noah that his
mission to rebuild the human race would not fail. The difficulties and obstacles
that a seemingly capricious fate strews across our paths are in fact part of the
divine plan, to save us from the pitfalls of arrogance and to provide us the
opportunity to grapple with adversity, to rise to every challenge, and to climb
ever upward back toward the perfection that was Eden.