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The Flood: Not Meant to Punish, but to Purify

October 26, 2006 By:
Rabbi Robert Rubin
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NOACH, Genesis 6:9 -- 11:32

We messed up and were evil. We got punished, and then were mostly destroyed by a flood. A few of us were saved. God promised the survivors (and us) that this would not happen again.

This is a common interpretation of the flood story. The Torah tells us that human beings had become violent and were acting badly. In fact, all life forms had botched things up in rather serious ways.

The Torah does not provide many specifics, but it must have been pretty bad. In some way, creation itself was getting out of control.

The flood is often seen as a punishment for this wretched behavior. A few righteous people were saved -- Noah, his family and some animals -- to repopulate the world afterward. We can learn from this story that if we do bad things, we will be punished, and if we do good, we will be saved.

But there is another way to look at this story. In fact, in Judaism, there's often more than just one way to interpret a text, a verse or even a word.

Many times, we cultivate multiple interpretations. This is done not just to validate the popular saying, "Where there are two Jews, there are three opinions," but it stems from a realization that, as human beings, we are not able to claim a total understanding to the exclusion of anyone else's opinion.

We should be open to other people's opinions and interpretations, as we hope that they will be open to ours.

If we take a different view of the Noah story, the focus may be placed on what the Torah states in a beginning passage -- "God said to Noah, 'The end of all flesh has come before Me for the world has become filled with violence because of them ... .' "

In this view, humans and other life forms in the world were acting violently, and God could see our destruction coming.

That is, we were on the path to our own self-destruction when God intervened with the flood.

In this view, the flood is not a punishment; rather, it saves us from our total annihilation before it's too late to be saved. The waters of the flood come to purify us and allow us to start over, to act righteously and build a proper world.

This view of the story teaches us that there is hope for us yet -- that people can change their behaviors and that we can save ourselves if we try.

Actually, from this angle, God's assurance that the flood will not happen again becomes more of a warning -- the next time, the waters will not save us. We must act to save ourselves.

Yet in today's world, there are several paths to self-destruction before us, if we were to act upon violent emotions. Two examples would be a nuclear holocaust -- through the use of weapons the world is attempting to control -- and great climate change due to global warming.

With the recent nuclear test by North Korea and the growth of a weapons program in Iran, we are once again facing a crisis.

With increased global warming, the melting of the polar ice caps and the various climate changes that have resulted from these actions, we face developments in the natural world that may be too pervasive now to reverse.

These are very scary -- and very real -- possibilities.

The Torah, though, teaches us that we must act to reverse our destructive ways and do the right thing before it's too late.

We must not lose the opportunity to act by assuming there will be some outside salvation. If we work together, we can save ourselves in time. And there's no time like the present.

Rabbi Robert Rubin is the rabbi of Congregation Beth T'fillah of Overbrook Park.

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