Revisiting Noah

Revisiting Noah

Rabbi emeritus, Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

With the month of Holy Days of Tishrei behind us, I believe the real challenge of beginning a new year starts now. The book of Genesis is a collection of stories about both the imperfections of human beings and our potential for being God’s partner in the on-going creating and redeeming of the world. After all the promises and bargains we made with God and with each other during the Holy Days of Tishrei, will you and I really change? Will our month of introspection have any long-lasting impact?

The Genesis narrative takes us through generations of human beings and in particular our Biblical ancestors, who are constantly wrestling with their imperfections. I find stories such as Abraham’s offering up of Sarah as a concubine to Pharaoh in Genesis 12, immediately after receiving God’s promise to make of him a great nation, a great example that oftentimes, real life circumstances challenge our faith. Similarly, the lesson of the Akeida ten chapters later, that we all hear every Rosh Hashanah and will study again this month, raises for me the danger of blind faith fundamentalism, be it Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. When is the Biblical narrative a context within which we can find guidance toward better relationships with God and our fellow human beings, and when do preachers, teachers, and public leaders use text as a pretext for self-centered grasps for power?

The subject of this week’s parsha is Noah. What kind of a man was he? Noah is introduced to us in Genesis 6:9 as “a righteous wholehearted man of his generation.” Over the last two thousand years, 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, in particular Abraham, Noah just doesn’t measure up.

Speaking of measuring up in a traumatic situation, forty-four years ago I was assigned to deliver my senior sermon on Parshat Noah at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati before a congregation of my teachers and my peers. That sermon was built around two phrases in the opening of our parsha, which to this day still trouble me. How can Noah be called an “ish tzadik tamim haya b’dorotav” — a righteous wholehearted man of his generation — and it also be said of him that “Vaya’as Noach k’chol asher tziva Elohim, kayn asa” — And Noah did just as God commanded him: He surely did?

Forty four years ago, I spoke about how Noah’s theology was child-like in that his image of God is that of an all-powerful father figure. I remain troubled by what I see as a fundamentalist theology that teaches that if we humans obey we will be rewarded and if we disobey the Almighty we will be punished. Human history and my personal experiences of 70 years of life teach me that righteous people do suffer. Must we not question whether there were some good and innocent people who drowned in the flood because there was no room for them on Noah’s ark?

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.

The fact that our parsha ends with the birth of Abraham reminds me again each year that being a good person who cares for myself and is concerned with the welfare of my immediate family and circle of friends is not sufficient. 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 two thousand 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?”

In my senior sermon in 1974, by a then 26-year-old Zionist idealist and a passionate activist for civil rights in America, I spoke about the challenge that renewed anti-Semitism in Europe and the weakening of support for Israel among American liberals posed to American Reform Jews, and about the need to balance our commitments to our fellow Jews and to our larger world family, symbolized by the children of Noah. As I sat down at my computer to write this d’var Torah, I realized both how little and how much the world has changed in forty years.

One challenge that remains unchanged is this: How well we in our generation swim through the flood waters of hatred and bigotry and the tidal waves of religious zealotry that are encircling our globe will impact upon the future of the generations to come.

As a young and optimistic rabbinic student, I believed that my generation of Americans and my generation of Jews worldwide would turn the tide of human history. I believed that American efforts for peace in the Middle East would be realized. I also felt a renewed sense of optimism for America that, two months earlier, had affirmed through the forced resignation of Richard Nixon that we were a nation ruled by laws not potentates. With the 20-20 hindsight of 44 years neither my dreams for America nor Israel have been realized. Though I must acknowledge the dark clouds of hatred and intolerance that cover our contemporary society, I still believe that as Americans and as Jews we have the responsibility as taught us by Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot to continue wrestling with the self-centeredness of human nature and to never give up on seeking a partnership with God to repair the world.

Forty four years after I first gave a d’var Torah on Parshat Noach, I have a lot more sympathy for Noah. Instead of being critical of him for not being Abraham, I should in fact congratulate Noah for seeking to do his best in an age of evil amorality. Like me, Noah was an imperfect human being. Like Noah, you and I should not expect ourselves or others, neither our friends nor our enemies, to be perfect. Rather, the message I saw, as I sought to use the Machzor this past month as both a mirror on my soul and a window on the world, is that the challenge for each of us every day is to be, the best me that I can be at this moment.

May each of us see in the life of the imperfect Noah a challenge in our generation to, in the challenging words of the prophet Micah, act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

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