What did the generation of the flood do that made God so angry?
Table for Five: Noach
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness. – Gen. 6:11
Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew
Midrashic sources attempt to define the nature of the “lawlessness” mentioned in this verse. Although this term is, for the most part, understood as referring to theft, it is described as being a particularly pernicious type of theft. It is a type of petty theft that is too small to seek restitution for but which is pervasive and frequent enough to cause significant harm. It is a death by a thousand cuts, an atmosphere of persistent selfishness and disregard that oppresses unceasingly and cumulatively even while evading public censure and judicial correction.
Rashi echoes the Talmud in stating that it was this tacit lawlessness that sealed the fate of Noah’s generation, much more than the generation’s explicitly corrupt behavior. It is when the mistreatment of people becomes habitual and commonplace that a society becomes irredeemable.
On Yom Kippur we read the words of the prophet Isaiah which respond to the complaint that God sometimes seems inattentive to our prayers. The prophet asserts that before we can expect to have God’s attention and compassion, we must ourselves be attentive to the suffering of others, particularly when we are the cause of it. Isaiah urges us to find ways to relieve the suffering of others and to question whether we might in fact be oppressing or mistreating our fellows.
Taking to heart these words of our prophets and sages, let us commit ourselves to a more profound sense of responsibility. May our world be flooded thereby with good will and divine light.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth AM
Rabbinic literature has multiple phrases to denote, and to critique, a person whose apparent religious piety is belied by a lack of personal ethics. One of them is “tovel v’sheretz b’yado”–immersing in a mikvah while holding an insect that would invalidate any purification. Another is “naval birshut haTorah”–a villain, but with the Torah’s “permission.” Our tradition is replete with caustic admonitions against clinging to punctilious ritual practice, while jettisoning essential goodness and “mentschlikhkeit,” including the many times our Prophets say in God’s name that what is desired is righteousness, not sacrifices.
We can all think of examples of those who preen over their mastery of ritual Jewish practice, all while living lives lacking meaningful degrees of moral alertness: davening with great intention, and then turning immediately to lashon hara/gossip the moment the Amidah prayer is over; choosing a lulav/etrog with great precision, and then judging and demeaning others over their practice. The phenomenon is ubiquitous, and makes the stomach turn.
According to Rabbi Israel Tronk of Kotno (19th C. Poland), such behavior destroyed the world once, and thus threatens to do it again. That is his read of the words “before God” in our verse. Playing off the ambiguity of the original Hebrew phrase, R’ Tronk claims that what most affronted God, such that destruction was earned, was not just that people were evil and violent. That is, at least partly, the human way. But they were doing it “before God, in God’s name. Desecrating God while invoking God.
A dire and worthy warning to us all.
Nina Litvak, Accidental Talmudist Org
What did the generation of the flood do that made God so angry? The Kotzker Rebbe divides the first part of this verse into two statements: The earth became corrupt. The earth before God. Meaning: The earth became corrupt because people put the earth before God. The people of the flood valued the physical over the spiritual, worshipping wealth and lechery rather than their Creator. A society that reveres physical pleasures and has no fear of God will destroy itself. Rashi said that violent theft was rampant at that time. Driven by their unquenchable thirst for physical pleasure, people ruthlessly treated others as mere obstacles to getting what they wanted.
Are we so different from the generation of the flood? Our modern society is growing ever more secular and the most “educated” among us belittle religion and people of faith. We are constantly bombarded with advertising telling us that to be happy we must buy things and indulge in pleasures of the flesh. People seem to revere social media show-offs while reviling humble servants of the Holy One.
God promised that He would never again destroy the earth by flood. So we got that going for us. But are we sure we want to provoke His anger? Better to set ourselves far apart from the wicked generation of the flood by rejecting materialism and licentiousness. Instead let’s build lives of joy and meaning by serving God and other humans, transforming the world into a resting place for the Divine Presence.
Denise Berger, Freelance writer and Miracles in Minutiae columnist
When I first learned Parshat Noach in second grade, I had no idea what it meant for the earth to be corrupt and filled with lawlessness. Even into my adulthood, I couldn’t imagine what that looked like. I also didn’t think too deeply on it. I treated this description as background introduction, setting the stage for the story of Noach to play out.
Fast forward to 2023, and the earth around me is corrupt and filled with lawlessness. Friends of mine eating at café witnessed a random assault. The local gas station was the site of a shooting. I was late to work when the road was closed to investigate another shooting. “Smash and grab” robberies are commonplace, and the perpetrators get away in luxury vehicles. Politicians have recategorized many felonies into misdemeanors, then tell us statistics show crime is down. They actually cite the data as evidence of their accomplishments.
It’s tempting to give up, to feel that it’s just too much to fight. And it is too much. But the Torah is letting us know of another option. Right before this pasuk about corruption, we are introduced to Noach. He was righteous in his generation, choosing to walk with G-d. When Hashem destroys the world with floodwaters, Noach and his immediate family are saved. Even if we don’t feel empowered to challenge the system, we can personally choose righteousness.
Kylie Ora Lobell, Jewish Journal Community Editor
I always hear people say, “The world is worse today than it’s ever been.” When you read the news or go on social media, you could easily conclude that there is a lack of morality and that our culture is on the decline. While things do seem scary, and it feels as if the world is worse off than ever before, all I have to do is read parsha Noach to remember that this is not the case.
During the time of Noach, society was so corrupt that even the animals treated each other horribly. The only good people in that generation were Noach and his family. Thankfully, after the flood, we were given the Noahide laws for the non-Jews, and the Torah for the Jews, so we knew how to lead moral lives. Today, I see more people with morals and doing good in this world than I see people doing evil. The news highlights the evil because, as the saying goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.” But if you look at your everyday life, I’m sure you can name many acts of kindness you experienced or good deeds you carried out or witnessed. Statistically speaking, the world is a much safer place than it’s ever been. We are far away from the times when God would directly speak to us, but God is here, in our lives, at every single moment of every single day. All you need to do is open your eyes to see his Goodness.
Image: “The Flood” by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1864
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