This common moral question is known by religious philosophers as theodicy, and it has perplexed generations of clergy and believers. This is one of the most difficult challenges to faith: the terrible tragedy of innocent suffering.
But theodicy is not the subject of this week's Torah portion, quite the contrary. In the tale of Noah and the flood, the innocent are saved, the righteous redeemed. It is only the guilty and wicked who are wiped out without a trace by the mighty flood that covers the world. If anything, this portion affirms the triumph of God's justice over chaos and immorality. So why does the story give me this unpleasant queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach?
The Noah story is a familiar narrative. God tells Noah to build an ark for himself and his family, and to bring into it every kind of animal. God then causes the heavens to rain for 40 days and nights. In our culture, this has become a children's adventure tale. Small wooden arks filled with a cargo of tiny carved pairs of interesting animals--giraffes, elephants, zebras--are common holiday gifts. Wall hangings and murals depicting doves, rainbows, and smiling people in a floating zoo are displayed on nursery walls and religious school classrooms. We sing playful tunes in which "floody floody" rhymes with "muddy muddy."
All our picture books and toys portray the hopeful happy ending of the story. They certainly don't show multitudes of people gasping for breath as the relentless rising waters force them desperately to seek rooftops or high ground, and then ultimately die. That's not a very pretty picture for a children's story, and we collectively avert our mind's eye from that particular image and its moral significance.
According to Genesis, these are not innocent victims trapped in a natural disaster. The Torah explains that the entire civilization was corrupt and violent. Only Noah and his family were decent people. We are not told the exact nature of the crimes of this society, but God's moral instruction to Noah after the flood perhaps give some clues. God tells Noah not to eat animals while they are still alive and not to murder (Genesis 9:4-6). I am willing to accept that this was a really evil culture, an entire nation of sadistic murderers, the Khmer Rouge or SS of its day.
What is the ethical human response to the defeat of evil? Is it not right to feel joy, or at least relief, that the Nazis lost the war? That Slobodan Milosovic was defeated? That those who commit atrocities are punished?
There is a familiar Midrash that explains that when the Red Sea closed around the Egyptians and drowned them, the angels in heaven cheered. God rebuked them, saying, "How can you cheer when my creatures are dying?" (Tractate Sanhedrin 39b). But God does not reprove the Hebrews who are dancing and singing with exuberance at their deliverance. After all, people are not angels.
I find that my discomfort with the flood story is not so much with the Torah's sacred narrative, but with our modern response to it. The Torah relates a fearful epic of evil, punishment, and salvation. By ignoring the most chilling part of the story, we have trivialized and discounted the Torah's moral message. This is a common American cultural process. One only has to look as far as this week's holiday of Halloween to see how we have to come to trivialize and discount even death. It's pretty difficult to feel much genuine awe around an 8-year-old Grim Reaper complaining that it's cold outside.
The unjust suffering of the innocent still evokes moral outrage and pain in most of us. We wish and hope that the good are rewarded. But we have become uncomfortable with the reverse. We know that human evil is complex, sometimes as much a sickness as a sin. We are often unwilling to grapple with human cruelty and wrongdoing, to expect justice against those who harm others, because that justice is often very difficult to define. Even God's justice, as in the mighty flood, makes us nervous.
Contemplating the destruction of an entire civilization is disturbing, and so it should be. Sometimes the beauty of Torah is that it makes us uncomfortable. It forces us to face what our contemporary secular society allows us to avoid.