What exactly did the people of the Generation of the Flood (Dor Hamabul) do to deserve such a dreadful fate? The Torah is quite explicit on this point. "And the earth was degenerate before the Lord, and the earth was filled with violence" (Genesis, 6:11). They were corrupt, degenerate, violent. They reached the outer limits of perversion, affecting even the animals and the land itself. We can well understand when society becomes so depraved and incorrigible, it is time to wipe the slate clean and make a fresh start.

But the Midrash tells us something entirely different (Bereishis Rabbah 32:2). The men of the Generation of the Flood used to take two wives. One was designated to bear children, the other to keep her husband company. The first was forced to live in seclusion, in a state of virtual widowhood while her husband was still alive. The second was given medications that would make her barren. She would sit beside her husband, heavily made up, and entertain him. This is inferred from the verse in Iyov (24:21), "He encourages the barren woman that does not give birth, but he gives no benefit to the widow." Rashi quotes this Midrash in Bereishis (4:19).

Now, we would certainly not argue that this sort of practice reflected the highest levels of spirituality. In fact, it was certainly an indication of a high level of self-indulgence. But was this such a terrible sin that virtually the entire human race had to be wiped out? Was this such an abysmal level of human corruption that the world had to be inundated and obliterated by the Flood?

The answer is that this Midrash is not providing a picture of antediluvian society in its final degenerate form. Rather, it is revealing to us the root cause of the precipitous decline of society. How does society fall so low that it is defined by pervasive degeneracy, theft and violence? By making the unchecked pursuit of personal pleasure the ultimate value.

Eat, drink and be merry. Have a good time. Enjoy yourself. Live for today. Self-indulgence. Gratification. When these are the values of society, when the moral compass goes haywire, the road leads straight down. Today, people may limit themselves to made-up, barren pleasure wives, but tomorrow they will inevitably expand their horizons. Eventually, they will turn their greedy eyes to unexplored illicit indulgences and all sorts of other acts of perversion and immorality. It is only a matter of time before it happens. The two-wife system led to the "degenerate world filled with violence" that triggered the Flood.

Unfortunately, we have a vivid illustration of this process in our own times. Look at what has happened in the past few decades. As soon as the society opened the door to permissiveness and self-indulgence, it went into a sharp downward spiral. Morality has become a thing of the past. Family life is disintegrating. Respect for authority and civic responsibility are just about nonexistent. Drugs and alcohol take over at a very young age. All that matters is a good time. People measure the value of their lives by the number of pleasure buttons they have managed to push.

This insight allows us to understand a rather puzzling passage in the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 36:3). The Torah tells us (9:20) that after the Flood, "Noach, the man of the earth, profaned himself and planted a vineyard." The Sages observe that Noach, who had originally been described (6:9) as "a righteous and perfect man in his generations," was now described as a lowly "man of the earth." In contrast, Moshe was originally described (2:19) as "an Egyptian man" and is eventually described (Devarim 33:2) as "a man of the Lord." Moshe went up, while Noach went down. And all because he planted a vineyard.

What is so terrible about planting a vineyard? All right, it would have been better to plant some wheat or string beans to provide some basic levels of nourishment. Noach was probably off the mark in choosing to start with a vineyard. But how did Noach "profane himself"? Was planting a vineyard such a dreadful crime?

Indeed it was. By planting a vineyard before anything else, Noach showed that he had not fully learned the lesson of the Flood. He saw the end result of many long years of degeneracy - the perversion, the immorality, the violence - but he did not penetrate to the root causes. He failed to see the whole picture. He did not recognize that it had all begun with some supposedly harmless self-indulgence. He did not recognize that the vineyard, the self-indulgence of intoxicating wines, was the symbol for the downward spiral that led to the Flood.

If there was one thing he should not have done after such a Flood, it was to plant a vineyard.