Not even floodwaters can wash imperfections off the face of the earth


Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5

Falsehood came and wanted to enter Noah’s ark. Noah said to him: “You may not come in, unless you have a proper mate.” So Falsehood went looking for a partner and encountered Destruction. Destruction asked, Where are you coming from?” Falsehood said, “From Noah. I wanted to enter the ark, but he refused to admit me unless I had a mate. Will you be

my mate?” Destruction replied, “What will you give me?” Falsehood said: “I promise that whatever I accumulate you may take.” Destruction agreed and they both entered the ark. (Yalkut Shimoni, Noach, 56)

This curious midrash recounts that even as the floodwaters surged over the earth, wiping out countless lives in God’s effort to purge the earth of evil, Falsehood and Destruction survived inside the ark. The world is overwhelmed by corruption and violence; God’s drastic solution is to inundate the earth and wash it clean, preserving only the seed of righteousness — Noah and his family. But God’s plans go awry; for evil boards the ark and rides out the storm in safety, ready to re-infect the pristine world as soon as the waters recede.

The midrash makes explicit what is implicit in the Torah’s account of the flood — namely, that the waters do nothing to destroy the essential immorality of human beings. Before the waters come, we are told of human depravity: “The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time.” (Gen. 6:5)

After the flood the human condition does not seem to improve. God says, “The devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth.” (Gen. 8:21) And, as many have noted, Noah’s emergence onto dry land is followed rapidly by an episode of drunkenness and sexual immorality in which he curses his youngest son. Forty days inside the ark do not tame the passions of humanity.

The flood story reveals a Creator who harbors the illusion that through violent means evil can be eradicated so that goodness may flourish. God sees the failure of His efforts and comes to accept that His creation is inherently flawed. Because human sinfulness is inevitable, God promises never again to indulge in wholesale destruction.

It is a gloomy, even cynical, view of human nature — but we who have witnessed the horrors of the past century have ample evidence of the persistence of human evil. A religion that speaks only of sunshine and rainbows, that cannot help us confront the reality of cruelty and wickedness, is a religion of little practical use.

What, then, is the point of the flood story? Does it merely recount God’s acceptance of an earth irredeemably sunk in corruption? Quite the contrary. The rest of the Torah will recount another attempt by God to civilize and humanize the world — not by dramatically exterminating evildoers but by gradually cultivating the human capacity for goodness.

After the flood story, God sets aside extremist fantasies and begins to work with the real human material at hand. Through the call to Abraham, leading over the centuries to the emergence of a people who will accept the Torah at Sinai, and then disseminate its teachings throughout the world, God plots a patient and painstaking strategy of reshaping the human character through education.

Judaism trains us to be skeptical of quick fixes and utopian revolutions. We place our faith, instead, in the slow, rigorous process of refining the self, restraining the ego and repairing the world. This faith is not naive, but it is optimistic. At its heart is the confidence that people can change for the better.

Every time we open a newspaper we’re reminded that falsehood and destruction are still with us: We live in a wilderness and human beings can behave like beasts. As Jews, we don’t yearn to be “saved” through divine intervention. The Torah has been given; the instruments for transforming this world have been placed in our hands. Now God waits for us to use them.

Rabbi Janet Marder is the spiritual leader at Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.