Parshas Noach - Why Were the Fish Spared?

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Oct 7, 2010

Although the Mabul (Flood) obliterated all earthly life, save Noach and his family, and the Medrash records that even the top layer of ground was subject to destruction (v. Rashi on Bereshis 6:13), the Gemara notes that marine life was not harmed by the Mabul. (Sanhedrin 108a, quoted by Rashi on Bereshis 7:22) 

Why is this so? Chazal explain that the world became so corrupt such that even beats and fowl were interbreeding, each with different species within its respective general category. (Rashi on Bereshis 6:12) Were marine creatures somehow different than land-bound wildlife, resulting in the marine creatures being spared?

I think that we can answer this question by analyzing exactly how the world became corrupt, precipitating the Mabul. 

The first record of societal sin appears with Enosh, in whose generation idolatry commenced. (V. Targum Yonasan ben Uziel on Bereshis 4:26.) We later read about mass licentiousness (Bereshis 6:1-5), and then about pervasive robbery (ibid. v. 11).

There is a pattern to these aveiros (transgressions). First came the denial of an omnipotent, infinite, noncorporeal, single God, as the result of the emerging belief in various deities, to which were attributed physical forms and limitations. Once deities were envisioned as limited, they could be defined, crafted and manipulated by humans, such that they had no “authority” to which humans were compelled to surrender. This allowed for a society of unrestricted freedoms such as licentiousness, as the deities were defined by the people rather than the people being subject to divinely-imposed statutes and standards. Once people became acclimated to being unfettered and unencumbered by restrictions imposed by any “higher authority”, there was nothing to prevent them from acting against each other, i.e. robbery.

In other words, society was overtaken by all-encompassing and wide-ranging corruption through a gradual process of sin which unfolded and expanded, likely without the people realizing the extent and long-term effects of their actions. Things were getting out of hand in a manner never imagined by those who, in the generation of Enosh, merely accorded undue honor to celestial bodies, eventually leading to the worship of these bodies and other physical forms. (V. Rambam Hil. Avodah Zarah 1:1-2.) The initial erroneous beliefs seven generations prior evolved and snowballed into total societal degradation by the time of the Mabul.             

Furthermore, one must note the pervasive manner by which the aveiros spread. The Rambam (ibid.) writes that the scholars of the generation were the ones who promoted the beliefs and actions that led to avodah zarah (idolatry); widespread licentiousness was initiated by the leadership and nobility (Rashi from Medrash on Bereshis 6:2); the Torah mentions this immorality as first committed by humans (ibid.), and we later find that it had spread to wildlife (ibid. v. 12, in Rashi [from Medrash]).  A single sin of a select few expanded into a group of sins by the masses, encompassing all life, as the qualitative and quantitative influence of corruption enveloped all that was exposed to it. Everything in the sphere of those horrific aveiros became tainted by them.

What was not in the sphere of influence of the corrupt society? Marine life. Marine life exists in its own biosphere, impervious and immune to what transpires on land. Land life cannot survive in the water, and aquatic life cannot survive on land. These two classes of creatures do not and cannot exist in the same realm; hence, marine life was unaffected by the pervasive corruption that had spread on the earth, and was therefore spared from the Mabul.

On a philosophical level, the message that comes forth is reminiscent of the Rambam’s mandate for one who lives in a sinful society: he must flee from that society and dwell far away - in solitude if need be. One who is surrounded by corruption is bound to be overtaken by it and may not stay put; the negative influences cannot be kept away permanently. Marine life was not influenced by the Dor Ha-Mabul (Generation of the Flood) and was thus spared because it was cut off from what was happening “on the ground” due to the natural border that keeps the land and aquatic biospheres apart. 

Although the Torah does not encourage people to live as hermits, if one finds himself in the midst of a corrupt environment, the Torah dictates that he may not remain there. Such an individual must become a Noach and escape to a taivah (ark) if that is the only locus where he can live free of deleterious influences.   


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