The Midrash discusses why animals and vegetation had to be destroyed in the flood. After all, the Torah does have laws against causing suffering to animals (צער בעלי חיים), as well as the needless destruction of any of mankind’s resources (בל תשחית). There is even a law against needlessly cutting down fruit trees – even in a time of war.
The Midrash offered a parable to explain why animals and vegetation had to be destroyed:
רַבִּי יוּדָן אָמַר מָשָׁל לְמֶלֶךְ שֶׁמָּסַר אֶת בְּנוֹ לְפַדְגוֹג וְהוֹצִיאוֹ לְתַרְבּוּת רָעָה
“Rabbi Yudin said that it is like a parable of a king who hires a “pedagogue” to teach his son, but his education goes awry.” (Bereishis Rabbah 28:6)
Picture a brilliant and highly educated person who can tutor the prince on whatever skills he needs to take over the kingdom one day – economics, history, agronomy, foreign languages, etc. However, instead of sticking to the agreed upon curriculum, perhaps the pedagogue taught the prince socialism or communism. The social and political indoctrination has now turned the prince into a major political enemy of the king. The king feels the threat of an insurrection and has to put his own son to death. Afterwards the king realizes that his son is dead and the pedagogue, who was to blame, has gone free. The king then orders the death of the pedagogue as well. Needless to say, in this parable, mankind is represented by the prince and the animal world and vegetation by the “pedagogue.”
How can animals cause the moral decay of mankind?
The parable does not seem to make sense. Even if we rely on the verse in the Torah which proves that every aspect of nature had rebelled against God:
כִּֽי־הִשְׁחִ֧ית כָּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר אֶת־דַּרְכּ֖וֹ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ “Because all living creatures on earth have perverted their ways” (Bereishis 6:12)
It would be hard to make the argument that the ethical failings of mankind can be blamed on the rest of nature. If anything, the commentators say that nature began to reflect the perversions of mankind. Yet this is exactly what this parable is inferring.
The commentators all offer the same interpretation of this parable which does not seem to resolve our issue. They say that due to mankind’s abundance of livestock, orchards, farm lands etc., the people in the days of Noach lived an opulent lifestyle. They felt secure in knowing that all their needs were taken care of. They reveled in their material success. Eventually they were plagued by a certain severe, spiritual malaise that the Torah describes (in a rebuke of the Jewish People) – כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי “my talents and my powerful handiwork.”
וְאָמַרְתָּ בִּלְבָבֶךָ כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי עָשָׂה לִי אֶת הַחַיִל הַזֶּה
“And you will say in your heart, all my wealth is due to my talents and my powerful handiwork.” (Devorim 8:17)
The telltale symptoms of this malady are that one feels so much self importance from their material success in life that God is out of the picture. It’s your hard work and toil that got you to your position of wealth and power. God had nothing to do with it.
A cow can either be your pedagogue or your spiritual mentor
What emerges from here is a very practical lesson concerning the powerful messages from creature comforts. If, for example, you buy a mansion, you could be thankful to God for your immense material blessing. You can use your new home to host more guests or, for example, to take care of your elderly parents. Then your home becomes an entity that gives off positive, spiritual messages. It teaches you morality and gratitude to God. However, that very same mansion can leave you marveling at the grand, spiral staircases, vaulted ceilings, and mosaic tile floors. These messages serve as constant reinforcements that your success stems from your sheer intellect and tremendous business acumen – “my talents and my powerful handiwork.” Then your home is no different than the livestock in the days of Noach.