Every year, I struggle with the justice of the flood story. What was so bad about this society that the only option available to God was complete destruction, save Noah and his family? Isn’t there always hope for teshuvah, repentance, and realizing that a change is not only necessary, but possible?
Imagine a flower-seller in a marketplace. The flowers individually are inexpensive, but a beautifully organized bouquet demands a higher price, with many flowers placed with the expertise of the flower arranger. But the flower seller is beset by a mob, and they each take a single flower. Each individual flower falls below the minimum for criminal or civil charges. And thus, the theft is “legal,” explains the midrash (rabbinic explanation/elaboration) of the Noah story.
Perhaps the fault here lies with the laws that don’t sufficiently address this situation. But really, the guilt is with each member of the thieving mob. If one person had stolen all the flowers, of course that person would be prosecuted—and no one would want to be a person who could be found guilty of theft. But in this situation, where no single person is sufficiently guilty to be punished, we have a breakdown in society.
Perhaps this is the first level of what leads God to destroy the world—the sin itself. But there’s a deeper level that responds to the question of hope for repentance. It’s not only that people were sinful—but also that they deluded themselves into believing that they were law-abiding, ethical and moral. They would never steal more than a single flower—how bad could they be? This kind of rationalizing, and of becoming accustomed to living within the letter but not the spirit of the law, dulls our moral intuition and ethical sense. And once we don’t even realize that what we’re doing is wrong, teshuvah becomes impossible.
Is this really why the Torah thinks God destroyed world? I don’t know. But there are so many ways, so many moments, where we tell ourselves we’re following the letter of the law, when we know it was just an unintended loophole, when the spirit of the law requires different behavior from us. How many times do we throw someone’s literal words back at them, when we knew what they really meant? It’s one thing if we do this guiltily, but if we do it with a clear conscience, it’s that much worse.
When people act in ways that may be legal but unethical, and yet proclaim loudly that they are completely ethical, a change is needed—from the outside—because it won’t come from within.
May we always have the capacity to recognize when we have done wrong, even if we are unable to repent, so as to always be able at least to hope for repentance.
Rabbi Noah Arnow serves Kol Rinah and is President of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association.