The Strategic Significance of Making a Threat Tangible
In Parshat Noach we read about the calamity of the generation of the flood, Noach and the Ark. Ten generations after the creation of the world (Pirkei Avot 5,2) the human race is in the midst of a crisis, "And G-d saw that man's evil in the world was great, and all the inclinations and thoughts of his heart were only evil all day long." (Bereshis 6:5) Humanity had reached the rock-bottom level of immorality in robbery and adultery, "And the land was filled with violence" (ibid 6:11) "Since all flesh had perverted its way on the land." (ibid 6:12)
The crisis puts a question mark on the world's right to exist in its present form. "And G-d regretted that He had created Man." (ibid 6:6) In spite of that, G-d wanted to give the world a chance to remedy and change its condition by its own power.
The Divine command to Noach to build the Ark is part of G-d's solution to the situation. "G-d said, because I am commanding Noach to build an ark and he will be working on it, people will come to him and ask, 'Noach, what are you making?' And he will answer them 'An ark! Because G-d told me that He will bring a flood upon the world because they are angering Him!' And as a result they will repent." (Midrash Tanhuma Bereshis 37).
The purpose of the "threat" of the flood was to avoid the necessity to carry it out. The Ark wasn't only intended as a refuge from the approaching flood, but it was also a shaking-up warning sign of what was to come – in order for mankind to get itself on a new path.
The construction of the Ark was a 120-year long project! And along with it, Noach had to implement a process of education and awareness which was aimed to convince the people of his generation to make a dramatic change: "This shows that Noach was a tzaddik who rebuked them, and told them words as hard as flames." (Sanhedrin 108b) But the people of his generation didn't accept his rebuke! And therefore a higher level of warning was necessary: "making the threat tangible" so that they will all see and know what will happen to the world if there will not be a dramatic change. The construction project which everyone saw included planting cedar trees for the ark and building a huge ark: "All one hundred and twenty years Noach planted cedars and chopped them down! When people asked him: Why are you doing this? He said 'So the Master of the world told me, that He is bringing a flood upon the world!'" (Bereshis Rabbah Noach)
How did the generation of the flood relate to the "threat," to the ark and to Noach? Our Sages describe several types of reactions (which probably typified different groups of people who reacted differently).
- 1. Ridiculing Noach and his warnings ("killing the messenger"), as if he was imagining: "They mocked him" (Sanhedrin 108b). "They said to him: No flood will come, except on your father's house (your family)!" (Bereshis Rabbah Noach)
- 2. Contradicting and ignoring Noach as a principled agenda - we determine our way of life, we are confident of and used to our ways. We aren't interested in the interference of the Divine way and don't need its benefits: "And they said to G-d leave us alone, and we don't want to know Your ways. What is G-d that we should serve Him, and what good will we do if we beseech Him?" (Iyov 21) They said, we don't need a drop of rain, but "a mist arose from the land…" G-d said to them: "I favored you with good and you are being arrogant before Me! I will come and make you pay the price." (Midrash Tanhuma Beshalach 12)
- 3. Denial and attempting to reduce the severity of the threat with so-called "solutions" to the flood: "They said, what kind of a flood will it be? If it is a flood of fire – we have something else and it's called "alita". And if He is bringing (a flood) of water: if He is bringing it up from the land – we have metal "windows" that we'll cover the land with. And if He will bring it down from the sky, we have something called "akav", and others say it is called "akash." Noach said to them: He will bring it from between the heels of your feet." (Sanhedrin 108b. In addition to Rashi's explanation there, the expression "from between the heels of your feet" can also be understood as meaning that the flood is the result of the way you are going, and it will come and wipe you out.)
Even at the last moment, when the flood began, G-d started it gradually, so that the threat will be tangible, as something that is really happening. And only when they didn't relent the flood intensified: "And there was rain on the earth" – and afterwards it says "and there was the flood." This shows that then He brought them (the rains) down, He did it with mercy, and had they repented they would have been the rains of blessing. And when they didn't repent, they (the rains) became the flood. (Rashi on Bereshis 7:12)
The construction of the huge ark and "making the threat tangible" apparently didn't work. The people of the generation stuck to their deceitful concept, ignored and denied, and the threat was carried out as a catastrophic flood that wiped out the world. In spite of this, we must remember the Divine and psychological message that was embodied in "making the threat tangible."
Many times, in order to bring about a change in dogmas and concepts (in various spiritual, ethical and military fields) which captured the heart of society, it isn't enough to describe the dangers in a verbal, abstract way, without demonstrating them. Sometimes the public is so captivated by a concept, that even making the treat tangible isn't enough to liberate it. But there are times when the ability to present the threat and make it tangible will convince the public to make the change.
Just like in other cases of people with agendas who deny and ridicule, when the threat becomes reality, at the last moment they try to the best of their ability to save themselves or to prevent others from being saved, but by then it is too late. "Since they saw that they were doomed, they tried to capsize the ark. What did G-d do? He surrounded the ark with lions and they devoured them." (Tanhuma, Noach 10)