The verse in Yeshayahu 54:9 twice contains a curious phrase. “For this is to Me [as] the waters of Noah, as I swore that the waters of Noah shall never again pass over the earth, so have I sworn neither to be wroth with you nor to rebuke you.”
Waters of Noach?
This week’s parsha makes it clear that the waters come from the heavens, in other words, they are more accurately “G-d’s waters.” G-d told Noach he was going to send the flood and destroy the world. If anything “belongs” to Noach, it is the ark that he took many decades to build. How are the waters his?
Rashi famously notes two opinions when he compares Avraham and Noach: either that Noach was righteous only in his generation, but had he lived in Avraham’s time he’d have been nothing special, or that Noach was an extremely righteous man, no matter in which time period he might have found himself.
One major difference between Avraham and Noach is that when confronted with the proposition that there was to be a destruction, Avraham prayed on behalf of Sodom, while Noach said nothing on behalf of the people of his era, simply going about his business.
In his book “Me’otzarot Bereishit,” Rabbi Yeshayahu Maleyeff says it’s an unfair argument. Noach was told by G-d, “The end of humanity is before Me. I’m going to destroy the earth.” (6:13) Avraham was told, “The cries of Sodom have reached Me. I’m going to descend to see what’s going on.” (18:20-21)
Before I explain the difference, I’ll give another example. Moshe is told, “Leave Me, so My wrath can flare up against them and I will destroy them” (Shmot 32:10). Similarly, in the aftermath of the Korach story, as G-d begins to send a plague to kill those complaining about what had just transpired, He says to Moshe and Aharon, “Get away from this rabble so I may destroy them in an instant.”
The difference is that in Noach’s case, he was essentially told, “This is going to happen and there’s nothing you can do about it.” In Avraham’s case, and in Moshe’s case, the pending destruction wasn’t clearly going to happen. Sodom needed to be examined. Twice it seems that the destruction facing the people was conditioned on Moshe leaving the space he was occupying. Such a concept is certainly unnecessary — meaning, if G-d wants to destroy and wants to spare Moshe, He could certainly make that happen without Moshe moving. So if Moshe needed to move, it is clear that G-d was opening the door for a prayer or objection to take place.
But in Noach’s case, the door doesn’t seem to be open to an objection.
Rabbi Meleyeff points out that Chizkiyahu, the king, was told by the prophet Yeshayahu, “Put your house in order, because you are going to die” (Kings II 20:1, Yeshayahu 38:1). Yet he was able to repent, and he lived another 15 years.
Along similar lines, we have the tale of Yonah whose prophesy to Nineveh was pretty definite: “Another 40 days and Nineveh will be overturned!” There doesn’t seem to be a way out. But, as we all know, the Ninevites changed their ways, and the decree was overturned.
And this is why the waters are ascribed to Noach. Because while it’s true that a definite pronouncement of a decree doesn’t seem to be open for discussion, there is a difference between whether Noach personally — or, better, the people it actually affected — could do anything about it. The Nineveh example is great because it demonstrates the truth that there was nothing that Yonah could do for the Ninevites, but in informing them of the pending doom, they could change their own destiny.
Building an ark was not enough — Noach needed to do more to teach his generation of the danger of the pending “unconditional” doom. Not that his prayers on their behalf would have been enough; that element, I think, was out of his hands. But it was not out of the hands of those who would be directly impacted by the flood. As a result, the flood waters are ascribed to Noach, because he did nothing — to the extent that he could have had influence — to help people stay the waters.
In that sense, he remains at fault. Even when things seem definite or destined to be, those most directly impacted have the power to shift their destiny. I’m not saying it’s easy —it can be exceedingly difficult. But what is life worth, if we can’t use our strengths for a purpose and put ourselves in the driver’s seat to accomplish our goals?