The story of Noah and the great flood actually began at the end of last week’s Torah portion. That is when G-d determined that the moral corruption of man had reached terminal levels. His decision was to erase all of mankind, indeed the whole world, and start afresh. As this week’s reading begins, He instructs the prophet Noah, the only righteous man of his generation, to begin construction of an ark that will save his family and all the various kinds of animals.
Noah was given 120 years to construct this life-saving boat. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) explains that G-d intended a public, 120 year spectacle as Noah completed his construction project. People would inevitably ask Noah what he was doing, and this would give him the opportunity to warn them of the impending flood, and to beg them to change their ways to prevent the destruction.
Sadly, his warnings went unanswered. It’s perplexing: why did no one heed his message? Given Noah’s ongoing work, the skeleton of the Ark warning humanity that the evil into which they had descended was going to destroy the world, why didn’t anyone turn away from evil and corruption? Noah was known both as a righteous man and as a prophet, so his statement of G-d’s intent was undeniably accurate. Yet, over more than a century, as multiple generations of children asked their parents about the big Ark Noah was working on, and about his prophecy, no one took his message to heart. Even when the flood rains began to fall and the truth of the prophecy was coming to life, no one changed their ways.
The people didn’t change, because they were not able to change. Their 120 years of stubborn refusal to budge proved that their evil was beyond repair. As the Talmud says (Eruvin 19), “The wicked, even at the gates of purgatory do not repent.” Habits have the potential to reach such a state that even if you know that your behavior is wrong, and you say you want to change, you tragically lack the ability to change.
Habits, and even addiction, do not usually reach the intensity of Noah’s generation. Most often, they can be changed — but its not easy. The recalcitrance of that generation is a lesson for all of us to be vigilant in our behavior, and avoid forming destructive habits. The more habitual an activity is, the more difficult it becomes to break the pattern.
The challenge we have is that although we are wise enough to know that our behavior is wrong, our actions do not necessarily follow. The sages of the Mishna (Avos 3:22) say, “All whose deeds are more than their wisdom, their wisdom will endure.” The secret to practicing what you preach, is to practice! And practice, and practice some more. When you learn a piece of wisdom, find a way to put it into practice. Commit to some small improvement, something easy, and keep to it. If your good deeds, those tiny changes, accumulate, they too will become habits, and the great wisdom you’ve learned of how to live a more meaningful, joyful, spiritual life, will endure and stay with you for a lifetime (Based on Lev Shalom, Rabbi Sholom Shvadron ztl).