Perfection of Character
"And as for Me - Behold I am about to bring the floodwaters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which there is a breath of life under the heavens; everything that is in the earth shall expire." (Genesis 6:17)
The prophet Isaiah (54:9) refers to the Flood as mei Noach - the waters of Noah - thereby implying that Noah bears at least partial responsibility for the Flood. Sforno suggests that Noah's failure lay in failing to teach his generation to know God and to walk in His ways. Had he taught them to know God, they would surely have repented.
We can explain this Sforno as follows. The Midrash comments on the phrase, "the path (derech eretz) to the Tree of Life," that derech eretz is middos, proper character traits. Middos are the paths that lead to the Tree of Life, the Torah. Hence, "Derech eretz precedes Torah." First one refines his middos, and only then can the Torah dwell within him. The Torah cannot reside in one who does not possess good middos: "Where there is no derech eretz, there is no Torah." (see Rabbeinu Yona to Pirkei Avos 3:22) Even though only Torah can bring one's middos to ultimate perfection, where there is no foundation of proper middos, the acquisition of Torah is impossible.
Rabbeinu Yona's categorical negation of the possibility of Torah residing in one who lacks good middos can be understood in two ways, both true. The first is that a person's lack of good middos makes ultimate retention of his Torah knowledge - no matter how great - impossible, because his lack of middos prevents the Torah from fully meshing with the essence of his soul. Hence when he leaves this world, the Torah will not accompany him, but be left behind with his other external physical components.
An alternative explanation is that even in this world the Torah will not remain with him. This idea can be illustrated with the following anecdote. Maimonides had a dispute with a philosopher whether instinct or training is the decisive factor in animal behavior. To prove the efficacy of training, the philosopher taught cats to stand erect, balance trays and serve as waiters. He dressed them for the part and conducted a banquet with the cats as the waiters. Maimonides countered his proof by releasing some mice at the banquet. The cats, forgetting all their training, let the trays and dishes crash to the ground as they rushed about on all fours in pursuit of the mice.
Human beings also have their baser instincts and desires that, without training, drag them onto all fours. A human being is distinct from the animals, however, by virtue of his ability to perfect his middos so that they control his baser instincts. One who has not worked on perfecting his middos will, like the trained cat, be able to put on a show of Torah discipline for a time, but only so long as no "mice" are released in his path.
A Torah scholar, says Maimonides, is one who has mastered good character traits. Since he has perfected his character, his sins are by their very nature incidental, not symptomatic of basic character flaws. Therefore we are told that if we see a righteous person sin at night, we should assume that by the next day he has repented. Because the sin did not flow from an intrinsic character flaw, he certainly recognized the need to repent in the interim.
Rabbi Chaim Vital explains that middos were not enumerated in the Torah among the Mitzvos because they are the very foundation of all Mitzvos and the Torah itself. It is in his ability to emulate the perfect character traits attributed to God that man is in the image of God. One who lacks proper character is therefore deficient in the very essence of humanity.
The Alter from Kelm once remarked that Darwin was able to formulate his theory of evolution only because he had never seen a real human being. Thus he could view men as no more than smarter monkeys. "Had he seen my teacher, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, who developed his character traits to a degree of perfection that fully expressed the essence of the Divine Image, he never could have entertained the possibility that human beings evolved from monkeys," said the Alter.
Darwin's peers were surely socially respectable people, but with regard to true character development, they remained mere trained cats, whose instinctive desires could at any moment bring them down on all fours.
The sins of immorality and robbery of the generation of the Flood were merely symptoms of the underlying disease of deficient character development. Noah attacked the symptom, but failed to cure the disease. He did not teach them to know God through contemplation of His middos and to walk in His ways by correcting and developing their own character traits. Hence he was unsuccessful. His rebuke may occasionally have suppressed the symptoms, but they soon reappeared, since the underlying cause had not been treated. Without changing their underlying character, no true repentance was possible.
The Torah describes the generation of the Flood as "rabbas ro'as ha'adam." This can be translated to mean the evil they perpetrated was beyond the boundaries of adam - of human beings. They corrupted the very essence of their humanity, their middos. Hence, the Midrash says, they were punished measure for measure with the overflowing of the great deep. They destroyed their natural humanity, and therefore the natural order was abrogated and the waters of the deep breached their boundaries and inundated the world. Likewise, the result of the Flood was literally to dissolve their human forms - an external manifestation of their inner spiritual decay.
The mystical works explain that the colors of the rainbow are representations of God's middos (attributes). Thus, the rainbow is the symbol of God's promise not to bring another flood, for by reflecting on and emulating God's middos, we ensure that another flood will not be necessary.
Only after the Flood did God permit the consumption of meat. Sefer Halkrim explains that mankind, prior to the Flood, equated animal life with human life; man was, in their eyes, reduced to but a glorified and more developed animal. To counter this tragic mistake, God permitted mankind to eat meat. He thereby demonstrated that there is an essential qualitative difference between people and animals that gives us the right to kill them for food. That essential difference is inherent in man's ability to develop and emulate the middos of his Creator.
Unlike Noah, Abraham was able to influence the people of his generation precisely because he concentrated on teaching middos. He was thus able to remedy the disease and not just the symptoms. At the age of three, Abraham knew that there was a God, but not until 40, says Maimonides, could he be described as "knowing his Creator," i.e. as recognizing God through the comprehension of His middos and their emulation. Only then did Abraham begin to teach his generation. By teaching middos, he succeeded in breaking the idols. He convinced his contemporaries to abandon gods made in their image for the service of the true God.
God explains His choice of Abraham as the progenitor of the Jewish people:
"For I know that he will command his children and household after him that they will keep God's way, doing charity and justice." (Genesis 18:19).
God knew that Abraham would direct his descendants in derech Hashem - the path of middos that leads to the Tree of Life, Torah. That is why we, Abraham's descendants, were worthy of eventually receiving the Torah.