God commanded Noah to take his family on the ark, along with 7 pairs of each of the “clean” species and one pair of all the other species. When it began to rain, they all embarked. Indeed, the flood that God brought about killed every living thing and lasted one hundred fifty days.
Our chapter includes a verse that sounds shocking:
כב כֹּל אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁמַת-רוּחַ חַיִּים בְּאַפָּיו, מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בֶּחָרָבָה–מֵתוּ.
22 all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, whatsoever was in the dry land, died.
Why did God feel the need to take such drastic measures? This question plagues me every time I read this chapter. Of course, we cannot guess why God does what He does. However, what have we to learn from His actions in this episode? The answer lies in a central theme in how teshuva, or penitence, works. According to Maimonides in the Laws of Penitence, the way to true teshuva is only through becoming a new individual. We must see ourselves as different people, not the same person who previously had sinned, but a new person who would not act in the same way in a similar situation. Rabbi Soloveitchik in On Repentance elaborated on this point. When teshuva me’ahava, repentance through love of God, takes place, then the one who has sinned is no longer the one standing before God now. Rather, it is a new individual. That is, the mere act of thinking through our actions regarding our previous sin, and resolving not to act in a similar way again, is such a significant act that it deems us new individuals. The previous individual had to be, so to speak, destroyed, in order for the new one to arise.
The story of Noah and the flood offers a very literal incarnation of this principle. The world is God’s great creation; in some way, it is a part of Him (so to speak). When the world turns so sinful, so evil, He realizes that in order to truly reform the world, He must first destroy its earlier identity. A new world must be one free of former evils. I still don’t know what to make of it the story in the literal sense. However, at some level, we understand that before we can rebuild ourselves (or the world) in a positive way, the first step is to rid ourselves of our earlier evils.
Rabbi Roy Feldman