Parshat Noach

Parshat Noach

Rabbi emeritus, Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

p>Each week when I prepare my divrei Torah, I look back to see what I have said in previous years. Often times my response is, “Did I really say that?” My primary reason for reviewing the texts or notes of previous sermons is to not unintentionally repeat what I have previously said. I have applied the same principle to the periodic Torah commentaries that I have been privileged to write for this newspaper during the past 20 years.

This is all in the way of introduction to the fact that what you are about to read is a rerun of a d’var Torah I wrote for parshat Noach eight years ago. Similar to this week, Noach was read on the Shabbat that immediately preceded election day.

I called that d’var Torah: NOAH, ELECTION 2000, AND YOU.

Each year when I restudy the story of Noach, I am reminded of one of the funniest comedy routines I have ever seen: Bill Cosby’s Noah. Cosby portrays Noah’s obedience to the command of God through an over-exaggerated, imaginative description of the struggle Noah must have had in placing two of each species on the ark. In Cosby’s version of the story, Noah was on the verge of exhaustion after getting the last of the animals on board. Wanting nothing but a moment to rest, Noah hears a heavenly voice saying, “Noah, you put two male elephants on the ark. Please exchange one for a female.” Exhausted and frustrated, Noah revolts and says, “No!” However, in Cosby’s version of the story, Noah changes his mind and does what God commands him to do after God responds with an implied threat in the form of a question: “Noah, how well do you swim?”

Beneath the humor of this comedy sketch lies a very challenging question: What kind of a man was Noah? Was he an “Ish Tzadik Tamim,” a righteous wholehearted man, as the Bible states in the opening verse of the parasha, or was he a weak-willed, self-centered individual who did what he saw to be in the best interests of himself and his family without considering the consequences of his actions or inaction on others?

Noah is introduced to us in Genesis 6:9 as “a righteous wholehearted man of his generation.” Over the ages, our rabbis have argued over whether the word “b’dorotav,” in his generation, was meant as a compliment to Noah or as a warning to the readers of this story that, compared to other biblical characters, Noah just doesn’t measure up.

In the Zohar, our medieval Jewish mystics critique Noah in a manner similar to the implied criticism found in Bill Cosby’s comedy sketch. In commenting upon the verse, “And Noah did just as God commanded him: He surely did” (Genesis 6:22), the Zohar states:

“And Noah held his peace and said naught. He did not intercede on behalf of the people of his generation. Whereas Abraham came forward to intercede with God on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah as soon as the Holy One, praised be He, spoke to him of his plans to destroy those cities.”

The distinction drawn between Abraham and Noah by our rabbis of old is a useful measure for us, both in judging our own actions and in judging the leadership potential of individuals seeking public office.

Noah was a righteous man for his generation but for his generations (for his children and their descendants) alone. He was a man of limited horizons. He did what God commanded him to do and thereby saved his family from disaster. However, as the Zohar reminds us, unlike Abraham, Noah expresses no concern for the plight of other human beings.

Abraham was a man of broader vision. His life was filled with episodes in which he constantly demonstrated responsibility toward others that Noah never seems to consider. Both Noah and Abraham were good family men who demonstrated concern for their offspring. They both fulfilled the obligation to family implicit in the famous statement of their descendant Hillel the Sage who wrote some 2,000 years ago:

“If I am not for myself who will be for me?”

However, Noah failed and Abraham succeeded in responding positively to the challenge of the second clause of Hillel’s teaching: “If I am only for myself, what am I?”

You and I can answer the third question of Hillel, “If not now when?” by applying this comparison of Abraham and Noah to ourselves and to those individuals whose names will appear on our election ballots next week.

On Tuesday, Americans will choose a captain to sail the ark we call America through some very troubling times. Voting is a right and a responsibility, but not a requirement. In fact, it requires a personal effort. Many Americans will not vote Tuesday because, like Bill Cosby’s Noah, they are tired or just don’t want to bother. They are not bad people. However, like Noah – the results of whose inaction are best measured by the fact that the parasha this week ends with a picture of a world just as filled with evil as it was before the flood – non-voters are contributing to the deterioration of our society by weakening our democracy.

B’dorotanu, in our generation, voting in open honest elections is the primary way that you and I can exercise Abraham-like responsibility for the fate of our families, our community, our nation, and our world. Moreover, as we vote Tuesday, let each of us ask ourselves this one question: Which candidate for each and every office on the ballot is more like Abraham in his or her concern for the welfare of others?

During the High Holy Days, each of us promised God and ourselves that in the year ahead we would try to be more responsive and responsible. Too often, all of us react to the problems in our lives, to the needs of our community, and to injustice around us like Noah and respond only to that which directly impacts upon us. Noah built an ark to save his family. They survived. However, the new world they built was just as corrupt as the one God had destroyed. Abraham built a community. He cared for and about others. He was responsive and responsible.

As Martin Buber once wrote, “Noah’s fate is bound to his generation, but Abraham’s fate goes beyond his time toward history. Abraham’s faithfulness is God’s hope – not only because of what Abraham was b’dorotav, in his generation, but more significantly because of what became of his descendants.”

The message of Parshat Noach is that we cannot and must not wait idly for a Moses-like or a messianic leader but rather, in each generation, choose the best possible people to lead us. As American Jews, let us all apply the lesson of Martin Buber, and demonstrate to ourselves, to each other, and to the other B’nai Noach that we are worthy heirs of the covenant that Abraham made with God, as recorded in next week’s Torah reading, Parshat Lech Lecha.

For our own sakes, as well as for the sakes of our children and their descendants, vote on Nov. 4.