Why did Hashem bring the flood upon the world? The Torah tells us that the world had become “corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.”1 The word translated as corrupted comes from the root shachat, which Rashi tells us is an expression of sexual immorality and idolatry.2 We are also told that the “earth had become filled with robbery.”3 Furthermore, Hashem’s first words to Noach are: “The end of all flesh has come before Me.”4 Rashi comments on this to say, “wherever you find promiscuity, catastrophe comes to the world and kills both good and bad.”5 So there we have it – three strikes and you’re out: sexual immorality, idolatry, and robbery.
Within these three, we find a common thread: a severe lack of boundaries. All three represent a lack of boundaries within oneself, between oneself and Hashem, and between oneself and others. Interestingly, we find that the first instance of the destruction of the world was also a result of insufficient boundaries. Kabbalah reveals that when the world was first created, Hashem constricted His infinite light through a process called TzimTzum. However, the first worlds that He created could not contain the intensity of the light and shattered in what is referred to as Shbirat Keilim (the breaking of vessels).6 Even further, we are told that the first temple was destroyed for idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder.7
The message is clear: a lack of proper boundaries can be utterly destructive. The world and us in it exist within a delicate balance between chesed (loving kindness / boundaryless giving) and gevurah (strict judgment, boundaries, limits). It is elucidating that Rashi says that promiscuity kills the good and the bad. There are those who give out of love and this leads to more love. But there are those who give out of obligation and expectation, and that leads to resentment. We all have both within us. When we give without consideration for our own limits, when we do not respect our own proper boundaries, even our good turns evil. We give too much, do too much, with no respect to ourselves and, in the end, we crumble, we explode, we resent those to whom we have given. Our sages tell us that we should not give more than 20% of our income to charity, lest one makes oneself poor. Without proper boundaries, even the good we do results in bad. It truly leads to baseless hatred, which is interestingly the reason given for the destruction of the second temple.
What is Hashem’s response? He tells Noach to build an ark, and then lists the precise dimensions with which it should be built. It is as if to say, the world is shattered, boundaryless, but through your building of boundaries, down to the smallest measurement, you will repair the world.
Contained in this story is an additional point – to walk with Hashem is to walk a challenging path of balance. Noach himself struggles to balance between giving and boundaries. Despite being the single person worth saving the world for, Noach’s righteousness is still questioned. Some Rabbis say that the sentence, “Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generation”7 is to his credit, and others say it is to his detriment. Those of the latter opinion hold that Noach was only considered to be righteous because he was surrounded by wickedness. Chasidic teachers have often referred to Noach as a tzaddik in peltz (a fur coat), in reference to Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk who referred to a specific rabbi as ah tzaddik in peltz — "a righteous person in a fur coat." The Rabbi explained that when it is cold and one has visitors in one’s home, one can either wrap oneself in a coat, keeping only oneself warm, or one can build a fire and thus warm everyone. Noach put on a coat. The walls he built were too thick.
But goodness, isn’t that what Hashem asked of Noach? Surely, He didn’t want Noach going around trying to save all of the wicked people in his generation. If his challenge was to build boundaries in a boundaryless world, did he not accomplish that? Truthfully, what Hashem asks of Noach is what he asks of all of us: walk the middle path in a world that demands extremes. When the world is devoid of boundaries do not compensate by building a fortress, and vice versa. Walk with Me in My path no matter what goes on around.
To be a Jew is to toe the line between these opposites, to live within the midst of paradoxes. It is always easier to live in extremes. Free love. Give without limit. Or oppositely: Seclude yourself and go inwards to escape from this world. But we are told to be spiritual while not having the luxury of sitting on mountain tops. We are told to be of this world without the luxury of letting it consume us. We are told in one breath to build in ark against all of the evil in the world and in the other, to walk amongst the wolves and light a fire. Our purpose is to build an ark in a boundary-less world and then, break the boundaries to go back out into the world.
Further, we see this emerge in the balance between love and hatred. We learn that the true reason that the second temple was destroyed was not because of hatred. We are told in many instances to hate and to despise evil. No, rather it was destroyed for baseless hatred. To be Jewish is to walk this almost laughably difficult job of loving and hating at the same time. The Alter Rebbe in the Tanya writes:
“This love also applies to those who are close to you — the ones that you have rebuked and yet they have not repented of their sins. Yes, it is a mitzva to hate them, but it is also a mitzvah to love them, and both should be in all earnestness: hatred due to the evil within them and love due to that aspect of good that is buried within them.”9
Rav Kook writes further: “Though our love for people must be all-inclusive, embracing the wicked as well, this in no way blunts our hatred for evil itself; on the contrary, it strengthens it. For it is not because of the dimension of evil clinging to a person that we include him in our love, but because of the good in him, which our love tells us is to be found everywhere. Since we isolate the dimension of the good to love him for it, our hatred for the evil becomes sharpened and absolute.”10
To be Jewish is to be utterly of this world and all of its challenges and contradictions. In the end, perhaps this is what ruins Noach as he resorts to drunkenness. Perhaps it was the utter challenge of living in paradoxes, secluding himself from the world, building boundaries, yet at the same time, not being allowed to close off entirely. How do we give while remaining firm in our own limits? How do we hold both love and hatred in our hearts at the same time?
Often we find ourselves flipping to extremes to combat the difficulty of this middle path. We categorize that person as bad because they did something we do not like, and that justifies our anger and resentment towards them. This is not the right way. Rather, empathy is the way. Empathy says that I can hate your action, but that I have compassion and understanding for the tortured soul who would be driven to such an act. Empathy says that I can say no to giving and still sit there and comfort the person I disappointed. It means not protecting ourselves, not closing ourselves off behind a cage of black and white thoughts and conceptions. It means not fighting extremes with extremes, radicalism with radicalism. This is what Hashem asks of Noach, to hate and love, give and not give, to survive and to save. This is what Hashem asks of each of us.
To be Jewish is to live in a world of particulars and still be universal. Can we see evil in those who we categorize as good and not rationalize it away? Can we see good in those we categorize as evil and not rationalize it away? Can we accept that someone can contain both good and evil? Can we accept that we ourselves contain both good and evil? This task is nearly impossible – a balancing act in an unbalanced world. May we all merit that our best effort be enough – because it is.
- Bereishit: 6:12
- Rashi: Bereishis: 6:12
- Bereishit: 6:11
- Bereishit: 6:13
- Bereishit: Rashi: 6:13
- The AriZal: Etz Chaim, Heichal Nikudim
- Talmud, Yoma 9b
- Bereishit: 6:9
- Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi: Tanya: Chapter 32
- Rav Kook: The Moral Principles