This drash (commentary on the weekly Torah portion) was delivered at JTS on October 5, 2013.
Shabbat shalom! In reading and rereading this week’s parsha (portion), I was struck by what our parsha can teach us about proper interpersonal relations and having compassion for others. Our Sages famously do not see Noach as a flawless character, Rashi noting that Noach may have been righteous in his generation, but had he lived in Abram’s generation, this would not have been so.
Our parsha opens with the observation that the earth was filled with lawlessness. Although the Torah opens in last week’s parsha, Parashat Bereshit, with God calling God’s works of creation “tov” or good, we are soon witness to the first murder, followed by generations in which more violence occurred. In other words, humanity has become concerned solely with self-preservation and self-protection. God is seemingly at the end of God’s rope, fed up with us. God is determined to rebuild the world anew, and despite perhaps feeling like the creation of humankind was a tremendous blunder, demonstrates faith in us as a species by selecting the most righteous man and his family to rescue from the impending flood.
To me, there is a tremendous irony in Noach’s selection. When God tells Noach to build an ark and then later to enter it, Noach remains silent—he does not argue with God, as will Abraham several weeks hence, begging God to save even the tiniest fraction of the righteous. Rather, he does as God instructs, and the Torah makes no mention of Noach making any attempt to warn his neighbors of the impending danger. The Midrash famously states that the creation of the ark was a laborious process, taking 120 years, and that the reason for it being so lengthy was to give people ample time to repent. Nonetheless, I am discomfited by Noach’s actions, or perhaps more accurately lack thereof, and I believe this has much to teach us today.
Although the Torah calls Noach a righteous man in his generation and tells us that he walked with God (Gen. 6:9), how truly righteous was he? Granted, he may not have participated in the lawlessness that was all-encompassing in his time, but we do not see him working constructively to save his fellow human beings, let alone to save any animal species at all besides those he is commanded to by God. Where is Noach’s agency? Did he feel constrained by God, only able to do what God commanded him, despite his desire to act independently and to strive to help his fellows repent? Or was he self-satisfied, patting himself on the back, as it were? And, I just have to ask—what did the animals do wrong here?
Putting aside for a moment Noach’s psychology, about which we can merely speculate—we do know that God determines never again to destroy the world in this way, the rainbow serving as a tangible sign of God’s covenant with all humanity. The remnants of the animal species and Noach’s family are tasked with recreating and repopulating the world. Though God begins our parsha extremely angry with humanity, God later shows incredible mercy and compassion. God knows that this is far from the last time humanity will blunder terribly, yet God has faith in our ability to partner with God in making the world a dwelling place for God’s presence, even when we act in ways that cause God’s face to be hidden.
Noach is unable to extend compassion to his fellows in like manner—or so it seems. In this way, though we may find Noach to be an incredibly difficult person to relate to, and we may find his lack of action abhorrent or at least disturbing, the Torah presents Noach unpolished—deeply human, foibles, failings and all. In this way, he is immensely, if uncomfortably, relatable. Who hasn’t experienced judging another person based on the small bit of knowledge we have about that person, or jumping to unfounded conclusions about a person’s motivations, character, etc.?
My reading of our parsha is that God is presenting Godself as able to do teshuvah (repentance), as it were, for the tremendous destruction and devastation caused. God is able to recognize that even from amidst the lawlessness, lack of kindness and compassion, humanity is able to transcend this and is able to do good and be good. This is not to say that God will always be thrilled with humanity—we only need wait until the end of our parsha to see that God was not happy with humanity’s attempt, noble thought it may have been, to unify itself through the construction of a tower with its top to the heavens—but we are assured that, even when God gets angry with humanity, humanity will never again be utterly destroyed, because there is always the potential to do and be good.
May we learn from Noach’s lack of action. Our tradition calls us to go out into the world and make it a dwelling place for God. May we not be satisfied with what we have done and accomplished in this world alone, but reach out to others and lend a helping hand. May we show kindness and compassion to our fellow human beings from all walks of life, knowing that within each and every person there is the potential for growth, transformation and goodness.