There were so many ways that Hashem could have destroyed the population of the world. Why did He choose specifically to drown them? Why not with fire and brimstone, like the people of Sodom?

The most obvious answer is that Hashem “rebooted” the world, pressing a Divine CTL-ALT-DEL. The world began with water [Bereishit 1:2] “The Spirit of Hashem floated upon the water”, and when the world did not live up to expectations, it was returned to water.

Rav Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, writing in the “Kli Yakar”, suggests that Hashem chose water as a quid pro quo (mida k’neged mida) punishment. The Torah mentions three explicit sins of the Generation of the Flood (Dor HaMabul): Idolatry, promiscuity, and robbery, and all of them are somehow connected to water. Regarding idolatry, the Prophet Jeremiah [2:13] describes idolatry as “leaving Me, a wellspring of water”. As for promiscuity, the punishment for adultery is strangulation, which is what happens to a person when he drowns. And just as robbery means the breaking down of property boundaries, drops of water tend to fuse together such that the method of their deaths grotesquely mimicked their sin. The MaHaRaL, writing in “Chidushei Agadot” [Sanhedrin 108a], takes another approach: Everyone needs water. On Sukkot we are judged for the next year’s rainfall, and for the next six months we pray for rain three times a day. The Land of Israel is critically dependent upon rainfall[1]. The Dor HaMabul did not lack for anything. They had all the water they needed, but this led to a carefree life which in turn led to sin. To punish them, Hashem simply gave them “too much of a good thing”.

I’d like to try to build on the Kli Yakar and the MaHaRaL, but in order to do this we’re going to need some background in rocket propulsion. Rockets work on the well-known principle that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” A rocket motor burns fuel, which creates hot gasses under high pressure. The gasses are expelled backwards through a nozzle, which, in turn, pushes the rocket forward. Nearly all modern rocket motors are made of solid fuel, where chemicals are mixed together and then poured into a mold in which they harden. The ancient Chinese used rockets that ran on gunpowder. Today, we use composite propellants. The ancient Chinese stuffed in as much gunpowder as they could. Today we tailor the internal geometry of the rocket motor and the nozzle in order to get the optimal burn time and pressure, but the principle is still the same: the motor is ignited and it burns until all the fuel is exhausted.

Before continuing, let’s pause to consider the car parked in our driveway. Let’s say we struck it rich and we bought a new Z06 Corvette powered by a supercharged motor with 650 horses. Touch the accelerator and the car lunges forward. The driver is physically squeezed back in his seat by the force. But somewhere around 200 mph, the car stops accelerating. It can’t go any faster. Why has breaking the 200 mph barrier become a holy grail for car manufacturers? The reason is that at around that speed, instead of making the car go faster the engine is wasting its energy doing other things, most prominently battling the wind[2]. Stick your hand outside the car window and you can feel the resistance of the wind against your hand. What you feel are the air molecules bumping into your hand. The Laws of Physics dictate that the faster an object travels, the more the air resists its forward motion. Wind resistance, or “drag”, can be partially combated by making the car sleek and aerodynamically slippery, but the drag is always there, and eventually the engine will use all of its power just to make the car maintain the same speed.

Missiles that are powered by solid rocket motors suffer from a similar phenomenon. At launch, the rocket motor ignites and the missile accelerates. But sooner or later the missile ends up fighting the wind, and much of the energy of the rocket motor is essentially wasted. Eventually the rocket motor burns out and the missile coasts until it runs out of energy. But wait, it gets worse. Let’s consider an interceptor trying to shoot down an airplane or a Katyusha rocket. First the interceptor has to get to get to some point in the sky where it can find the bad guy, chase him down, and hit him. The problem is that by the time the interceptor locates the target, the rocket motor has usually long burnt out and the interceptor is flying like a runner at the end of a marathon: It’s slowing down and it’s gasping for air. The last thing it wants to do is to perform some last-second maneuvering that might be required in order to intercept the target.

Wouldn’t it be great if instead of wasting energy to battle the wind we could operate our motor in bursts, sprinting and gliding, not too fast and not too slow? And wouldn’t it be great if right before the intercept we could “step on the throttle” and get one last sprint before the finish line?  To address these questions, a friend of mine came up with a great idea. He partitioned the rocket motor into three sections in a way that each section could burn without igniting the other sections. He called his creation a “Three Pulse Rocket Motor”. The pulses are computer-controlled, and each pulse is lit only when it is optimal to do so. One pulse is usually lit at launch, another one somewhere in the middle of the flyout, and the last one right before impact so that the interceptor has maximum maneuverability when it needs it. The end result is an interceptor that, when compared to its competitors, flies about twice as far, and most importantly, is equally lethal at its maximum range as it is at much shorter ranges in the middle of its operational envelope. The Three Pulse Rocket Motor is such a brilliant idea. Why doesn’t everybody use it? The simple fact is that no other manufacturer has been able to make anything similar, because while the principle sounds simple, the implementation is not. The biggest problem is preventing one burning pulse from igniting the other pulses. This problem took years to solve, but we will be reaping the rewards for many years.

What does a Three Pulse Rocket Motor have to do with Noach’s flood? Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi, writing in “Torah Or”, explains the verse [Isaiah 12:3] “You shall draw water with joy from the fountains of the salvation”. The Torah has traditionally been compared to water, as in the verse [Isaiah 55:1] “You who are thirsty should go to water”. But it’s not enough to merely go to the water. If you want the water, you’re going to have to dig for it. The water is there, but it’s in a well, buried deep under the ground, waiting to be drawn to the surface. If you want this water, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty. You’re going to have to make sacrifices, in time, money, and effort.

While the Torah is likened to water, all water is not Torah. The same water that drowned the world can also be its salvation. It depends of the quality of the water and how hard you have to work to get at it. If the water is flowing freely at the surface, then you can be sure that this water is synonymous with resistance. This water will eventually suck out all of your energy. This is the water that will eventually drown you. This is the water of the Kli Yakar and the MaHaRaL. But if the water is the kind that you have to work hard to find, you can be sure that you have found the water of Torah. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we read U’ntaneh Tokef, one of the most poignant prayers of the year, in which we recognize that Hashem grants life and death in a myriad of ways. “Who by fire? And who by water?” We usually understand these words as “Who will die by fire”? The message of the flood is that while Hashem decides who will die by water, we have the power to decide who will live by water. If we are willing to expend energy to search for what is truly good, then, and only then, will we be able to merit eternal life.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

In Memory of my Father-in-Law Phil Kurtz Z”L, whose Yahrzeit was on 26 Tishrei

[1] This statement is less true than it was only a few years ago, as desalination plants provide nearly 40% of Israel’s drinking water.

[2] We’re leaving the resistance of tires on the road out of the equation. Not because it is negligible, but because it is irrelevant to this shiur.