Thursday, October 3, 2013

Oh Noah You Didn't!

1 Cheshvan 5774 / October 4-5, 2013

In this week’s portion, Noah, we are introduced to Noah by being told that “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.”

The ancient rabbis don’t come to a conclusion as to whether or not the modifier “in his generation” is a good thing or a bad thing.  In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108), both sides are presented.  Rabbi Yochanan argues that Noah was righteous in his own generation but not others, while Reish Lakish argues that if Noah was able to be righteous in his own evil generation, how much more so would he have been righteous in other generations.  Ahh… the rabbinic mind!

Personally, whether or not Noah was righteous only in his own generation or would have been righteous in others as well, I struggle with his character, given that when he receives the command to build the ark, providing him with the chance not only to save all land animals from extinction but his family as well, he does so without protest.  He doesn’t argue with God, the way Abraham later does in order to try and save the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. 

While the Midrash provides us with a tradition that says Noah spent decades planting the trees he ultimately would use to build the ark and warned others who asked him what he was doing about the impending flood (Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 30:7), even if that were true, Noah did not proactively challenge God on behalf of humankind, and did not go out of his way to warn humankind about their impending destruction.

The portion this week answers some of our most basic questions about the world around us from a traditional Jewish perspective.

Why are there rainbows?
They are a sign between God and humankind that never again shall there be a flood that wipes out all of humanity.

Why are there different languages?
God confounded the speech of humankind, who had all been speaking the same language, due to their efforts to build a tower up to the heavens (The Tower of Babel – read “Babble”).

While not traditionally associated with these questions, I think a worthwhile additional question we can seek to glean an answer to presented in this week’s portion is: 

What constitutes a righteous individual?

The answer, according to a simple reading of the text, is one who walks with (i.e. obeys) God.

But I would argue that the tradition demands more of us as Jews.

Noah was not Jewish.  He was not selected to be the father of the Israelite nation (granted, as Jews we theoretically come from the line of his son Shem (Shem = Shemite = Semite)).  I would argue that the reason he didn’t merit such was his reluctance to argue with God.  While “walking with God” may be enough for some, challenging God and the world around us by standing up for others – even those we have no relationship to or with – is, and should continue to be, a nation-defining trait.

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