Parashat Noach: Can we do better in our generation?

Parashat Noach: Can we do better in our generation?

The Torah portion this week makes this a most appropriate time for us to discuss climate change and humanity’s responsibility for being God’s custodian of Planet Earth. (This command is given to humanity in Genesis 1:26.) Our rabbis of old, as well as modern Jewish teachers, have taken seriously the questions of human responsibility for what happens to the world. The opening 11 chapters of Genesis, the parshiyot of Bereshit and Noach which precede the story of Abraham, clearly set the stage for us to see the world in terms of both human society and the physical planet upon which we live.

In the very first verse of this week’s parsha we are told that Noah was “ish tzadik tamim b’dorotav,” that is, “a righteous wholehearted man of his generation.”

Our sages ask the question : Was the last Hebrew word, “b’dorotav,” meaning “of his generation,” meant as a compliment to Noah or as a means of drawing an unfavorable comparison to the biographies of the later, Jewish biblical characters such as Abraham and his progeny whose life stories will comprise the rest of the Book of Genesis? Is the text saying that Noah is less of a tzadik, of a righteous person, than Abraham ? Or is the text saying that in a time and place of total corruption, Noah remained righteous?

Both positions can be used to teach us lessons applicable to our own generation and to the issues of our responsibility for ourselves and for others with whom we share this world.

The fact is Noah was not a perfect individual. There are wonderful midrashim that note that Noah put off building the ark. The text itself tells us that the first thing Noah did when the rain stopped and his ark rested securely on dry land was to get drunk! He had strengths and weaknesses. As my brother Rabbi Mark Borovitz suggests in his book, “Finding Recovery and Yourself in Torah,” Noah was not only the first drunk, but his sons were his enablers who tried to cover up their father’s sin. The argument that Noah was no Moses or even an Abraham remains salient to us today. Noah is also criticized by Rashi and other Biblical commentators over the ages for not arguing with God on behalf of other human beings, as do both Abraham in the story of Sodom and Moses after the golden calf narrative.

On the other hand, one positive way we can look at this Biblical story is to see Noah as a wonderful model for us of a man who seeks the best possible outcome, not the perfect solution. What earns him the label of “a righteous man,” according to Rashi, based upon a passage from Midrash Tanhuma, is that he is a person who tried to do his best and is distinguished in his generation because he chooses to act ethically and morally in an age of corruption and degradation.

Looking at Noah through the lens of the last 18 months of plague and natural disasters, I wish to raise a different question: Wwhy did Noah, once he received the revelation of the pending doom and devastation coming to the world (in terms of both Planet Earth and human society), not act immediately?

According to a number of Midrashic sources, it took Noah 120 years to build his ark. During that time he would warn people of the impending environmental disaster. What is unclear from both the Torah text and the commentaries is what Noah did and could have done to be more persuasive with his fellow inhabitants of earth to take action to change their behavior, or with God to be more merciful. Could he have built a bigger Ark and saved more of humanity?

Moreover, what is very unclear from both the Torah text and the commentaries is what Noah did and could have done to be more persuasive with his fellow inhabitants of earth to take action to change their behavior. What we are taught by the story is that Noah saved himself and his immediate family and after surviving sat down and got drunk!

While the question is still out on whether climate change has played any role in the covid-19 pandemic, I find no credible evidence to counter the reality that the massive increase in both droughts and floods, as just two examples of the result of climate change, are not in good part due to humanity’s failure to fulfill our obligation as stated in Genesis 1:26 to be God’s caretakers of the earth. Similar to the population of Noah’s time, many people today continue to choose to ignore or deny the reality of any human impact upon our climate. Moreover, our political leaders, many of whom see themselves as the righteous “good guys” of our generation, are, like Noah, failing to convince our generation of Noah descendants to learn the lesson of this story and heed the scientific facts of our contemporary experiences.

The Noah story is quite similar and may be based upon an older Near Eastern tale called “The Gilgamesh Epic.” I note this because I believe that both the tendency of selfish self-survival and the willingness to ignore factual reality that is frightening and threatening are human instincts. What Torah challenges us to do as a Jewish People is to choose to limit our natural inclinations and desires and to choose to be God’s Voice and Hands in the world which God has placed in our care. The Torah is a guide to do just this.

As we are at the beginning of a new annual cycle of reading Torah, I want to conclude with a story attributed to Rabbi Simon Greenberg, a 20th century teacher who spent the bulk of his amazing rabbinic career as a leader of The Jewish Theological Seminary. The story as it was told to me is that once a young student approached his rabbi with the following question:

“Rabbi, for the last number of years I have diligently gone through the cycle of weekly Torah readings. As we conclude the Torah cycle on Simchat Torah do I really need to go through the Torah again this year?

Rabbi Greenberg’s answer, according to the retelling I heard, was: “This year, why not do something a little different. Instead of ‘going through the Torah’ this year, why not let the Torah go through you?”

May 5782 be a year in which we recognize that we are children of Noah and that “b’dorotanu,” in our generation, we have the opportunity and responsibility to righteous and wholehearted in our dealings with our fellow inhabitants of earth, and to be better custodians of God’s earth which he has placed in our care. May this be Torah that we goes forth to the world through each of us.

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