What are we to glean from the story of Noach and the water that rained down on the earth?
“Hashem said to Noach: The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with robbery through them; I am about to destroy them from the earth” (Bereshis 6:13). When Hashem tells this to Noach, He is not telling him something that will happen in the next week. In fact, it took Noach one hundred and twenty years to build the ark. The Midrash mentions that Hashem gave Noach specific instructions on which trees to plant in order to obtain the proper wood for the ark. The Zohar explains that the reason for this was that the ark had a strong degree of holiness, similar to the Tabernacle. That just as the tabernacle was a place where Hashem “concentrated” His Shechina—Divine presence— so too the ark was a place on earth where Noach and the Shechina would be able to dwell while the world underwent a purification process (obviously Hashem does not need a place to dwell, as He has no physical needs, but one of the reasons He created the world, was that man should perfect it enough that He would be able to dwell amongst man, which is precisely what He was doing here.)
What was supposed to happen in these one hundred and twenty years? Noach was meant to have an effect on the people around him. That when they would see him building the ark, they would ask him what he was doing, and he would tell them that he was preparing for the end of the world. He would then explain to them why Hashem desired to destroy His own handiwork. Although the people themselves had not heard the voice of Hashem there is an obvious imperative to be a moral human being, and in this society, the thievery was so rampant, that it was not worthwhile for them to continue to exist.
From this we learn an extremely important lesson: the ability for one person to make a difference.
Hashem would not have had Noach build the ark for all those years if He didn’t think it there was potential for change. This shows the tremendous power we have to effect change. And although at the end, Noach did not have a positive effect on the world, he did have a positive effect on his family and himself.
The significance of the water was a purification process. “I will send rain upon the earth, forty days and forty nights” (Bereshis7:4). The number forty has a lot of meaning in Jewish thought: forty days of the flood, a mikvah—ritual bath—requires forty s’ah (a s’ah is a measurement), forty days from conception to formation of fetus, etc. This number signifies change, from nothing to something, from impurity to purity.
When Hashem made it rain for forty days, He was purifying the world. This is a lesson for us, because as we know, each person is a miniature world, and we have the ability to purify ourselves, just as Hashem purified the world.