Next week’s parshah brings us to the very familiar story of Noach, or Noah, and his building of the famous ark. While many of us remember the Noah of our youth as someone to be admired, for he was literally the most righteous person on Earth, I would like us to take a closer look at what the story of Noah might teach us about our responsibility not only to ourselves, but to our fellow human beings. In Genesis 6:9, it is written, “Noah was in his generation a man righteous and whole hearted; Noah walked with God.” At first glance this sentence seems like a great compliment. After all, the ultimate word in Hebrew for a righteous individual; the word “tzaddik” is used to describe him. But why the qualifier “in his generation?” According to Rabbi Yohanan of the Talmud, Noah would not have been considered righteous in other generations. Essentially, Rabbi Yohanan is telling us that Noah was the best of a bad situation. “And the Earth was corrupt before God, and the Earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). In a world full of immorality, horror, and unrest, perhaps Noah passed the individual test in that he kept his nose clean, and stayed out of trouble.
Let’s look at the phrase “Noah walked with God.” Does it clue us in to some of Noah’s failings? We can discover a lot if we look at Noah and Abraham under the same lens. Rabbi Judah tells of a parable of a king who has two sons, one was an adult and the other was just a child. When speaking to the young son, the king said: “Walk with me,” but when speaking to the adult son he said, “Walk before me.” In Genesis 17:1, God says to Abraham, “Because you are whole-hearted, walk before me.” Rabbi Judah tells us that Noah’s spiritual fortitude was meek when compared to the mighty spiritual strength of Abraham. Perhaps, Noah would not have been considered a “tzaddik” if he had lived in the generation of Abraham. Noah walked with, and Abraham was given the privilege of walking before God.
Can we see the shortcomings of Noah in his actions, or inaction? Upon hearing of God’s plan to destroy the earth and all who inhabited it, how did Noah react? God told Noah, “The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold I will destroy them with the earth” (Gen. 6:13). After telling Noah of His plans, Noah’s response was to do all that God commanded him–no questions asked. When God told Noah of his plan to destroy the entire world, Noah was silent, and did not question in the slightest. Who does question God? Fast forward to Parshah Vayera. God is prepared to destroy the city of Sodom, saying “…their sin is exceeding grievous.” (Gen. 28:20). Abraham’s response could not have been more disparate. Abraham immediately pleads with God for the sake of Sodom. He says, “Wilt thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Gen. 28:23). Abraham proceeds to bargain with God, eventually convincing God that the city should be spared if even ten righteous people live within the city. Rabbi Levi tells us that Abraham understood that in order for a world to exist, justice could not be too strict. You cannot have overly strict justice, and also a world. God was asked to relent a bit, and He listened.
Let us look at the stark contrast: God is set to destroy the entire world, and Noah is silent in response. God is set to destroy just one city, and Abraham makes a case for the hypothetical righteous residents within. Would Noah have been righteous in Abraham’s generation? The answer seems to be “probably not.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us that Judaism teaches us a “collective responsibility.” Kol Yisrael arevim ze bazeh (“All Israel are responsible for one another ”). If we only look after ourselves, and stick our heads in the sand when wrongs are being done to others, are we truly acting in a righteous manner? We are to aspire to the highest level of justice as we are taught in Deuteronomy 16:18–“Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gave you.” While it is vital that we look after our people, is it not also important that we care for the rights of others? When the flood waters approach our neighbors, or even strangers whom we do not know, do we build our own boat in solitude, or do we reach our hand to help those paddling for their lives? The Chasidim referred to Noah as a “tzaddik im peltz,” which translates to a “righteous man in a fur coat.” This phrase refers to the way in which Noah protected himself. When someone is in need of heat or reprieve from the elements, they can wear a coat, or they can ignite a fire. A coat will only protect you, but a fire can warm a community of people.
As Noah wore his fur coat, we see the ultimate righteous act in Abraham’s kindling of fire. Silence is an answer, and Noah made his answer clear.
In our world today, we see injustice taking place every day. We are still fighting for equity and equality in all facets of our society. As Jews, is it not our responsibility to speak up for the sake of humanity and its survival? Do we not have a responsibility to Tikkun Olam, or to repair the world from whatever sort of bruises it has endured?
Will we wear a coat as Noah did, or light a fire as Abraham did? Will we insulate and isolate ourselves or ignite the flames of justice and righteousness whenever and however we can? The choice is ours as Jews, and as decent human beings living amongst one another. Let us hear the words of great Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, “I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent.”
May we all be blessed with this gift of gab. May we all challenge appropriately, and understand that God truly is in search of man and humankind. It is our responsibility to make our voices heard. The world depends on it.