By: Rabbi Osher Jungreis
There is a famous Midrash based on this week’s parsha that asks, “If there are so many ways through which G-d could have saved Noah, then why did He make him go through the difficult, arduous task of building an ark that took one hundred and twenty years to complete?
The Midrash answers that HaShem, in His infinite mercy, did not want to bring the flood upon the world. He was hoping that man would reconsider his evil ways and repent. Thus, if Noah was seen busily building his ark day in and day out, people would ask him what he was doing, and he would inform them about the impending flood tell them that they could cancel the evil decree through repentance. It was all in their hands.
But this Midrash begs yet another question. Why couldn’t Noah speak to the people directly? Why did he need the ark as a prop? Why couldn’t he inspire the people to mend their ways? The answer to this question can be found in the beginning of the parsha: “Now the earth had become corrupt before G-d (Genesis, 6-11), teaching us that it was only in the sight of G-d that the earth was corrupt, but man saw nothing wrong with his life style. How does it happen that man can be so blind to his own faults and corruption?
The generation of the flood was obsessed with hedonism and the pursuit of pleasure and in such a climate, the law of G-d, which requires discipline, is eclipsed. In a society without Torah guidelines, even the most depraved acts become acceptable. So Noah had no one with whom to talk; there was no one who was willing to listen, for they all saw themselves as “righteous people”, and it never occurred to any of them to ask how G-d saw them.
Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement, explained how this process takes place through the following analogy: The first time a man commits a wrong, he feels guilty, but if he repeats that act often enough, his conscience will no longer bother him and eventually, he will see himself as a paragon of virtue. So it is that immorality, decadence, degeneracy and corruption can become an accepted way of life and no longer be considered sinful.
Sadly this lesson is of special significance to our generation; for our culture has also embraced hedonism, immorality and corruption. We regard self-gratification as the ultimate goal, and we too pride ourselves on being good and are incapable of seeing ourselves as G-d sees us.
Ongoing Torah study is one of the most effective ways to overcome this gap–when we study G-d’s Word we hear His voice, come to realize how far we have departed from His path and take steps to come closer to Him. Make a commitment to attend Torah classes regularly.
Still you might ask why Noah had to enter the ark–why couldn’t G-d have saved him in a different manner. But G-d wanted to make certain that when Noah and his family emerged and undertook the task of re-building the world, they would be fortified with righteous deeds. In the ark they had to care for all the animals that G-d had commanded them to gather–back-breaking labor that consumed them day and night, but through which they learned the meaning of chesed – reaching out with loving kindness, and it is on the pillars of loving kindness that G-d builds His world. As it is written “Olam Chessed Yibonoh” -The world is built upon the foundation of loving kindness.