Parashat No’ach 5873


26 October 2022 – 1 Heshvan 5783

Rabbi Ariel J Friedlander

 

What was it about Noah that made him first choice out of every single person on earth to be saved by God? Our text begins clearly:  Noah was an ish tzadik, a righteous man. However, this is followed by the declaration that he was “blameless in his generation”[1]. Why qualify the original statement?

There has long been a debate between those who argue that Noah was just the best of a bad lot, and those who think that when all around you appear to have lost their moral compasses, and you stick to yours, then that is actually a pretty big deal. No matter how you see it, though, did all those others really deserve to die? Meanwhile, having done everything God had told him to do[2], and having survived the Flood, why then did it go so spectacularly wrong for Noah once he left the Ark?

Dr Anne Lapidus Lerner asks if “(Noah’s) post-Flood fall from grace can be traced to his unquestioning obedience and his inability to see the humanity of others”[3]. After all, Abraham tried to persuade God to save the people of S’dom & Gomorrah, and Moses argued with God (and won) on behalf of the Israelites in the desert. But not once did Noah question God’s commands. And this appears to be a problem. There is a commentary in the Zohar[4] that tells us:

“When Noah came out of the Ark he saw the whole world destroyed. He began to cry for the world and said, ‘Master of the world, You are called Compassionate! You should have shown compassion for Your creatures!’ The Holy One answered him, ‘Foolish shepherd! You say this now, but not when I spoke to you tenderly, saying “make yourself an ark …” Because I saw that you were righteous before me, I lingered with you and spoke to you at length so that you would ask for mercy for the world! But, as soon as you heard that you would be safe in the ark, the evil of the world did not touch your heart. You built the ark and saved yourself. Now that the world has been destroyed, you utter questions and pleas?’”[5]

We may understand Noah’s instinct to put his family first, but why didn’t he think to ask if there might be a chance for anyone else? The Zohar suggests that Noah had the opportunity to ask, and as a righteous person he also had the responsibility to try and help others. But he did not, and thus at least some of the deaths could be considered a consequence of his lack of action. Once he realised that, no wonder he drank himself into a stupor!

Meanwhile, even though we read that God promised never to doom the world again, we cannot be complacent. The commentator Ibn Ezra notes that God makes this promise “for as long as the earth endures”, and thus indicates that the world will end at some point[6]. Even if God has chosen not to destroy the earth, that doesn’t mean that we do not have the capacity to do it.

God saw the potential within Noah to be a righteous man, and gave him every opportunity to speak out. But he did not, and the world was destroyed. Are we so very different to Noah? We have just experienced a season in which we examined every kernel of our beings in order to turn back towards righteousness. We know that bad things are happening out in the world, yet believe ourselves to be safe on our little arks, and shelter quietly within. And the waters continue to rise.

But it’s not too late! We can still speak out. We can demand leaders that serve us, rather than themselves. We can open our arks and let in some of the people who are trying to escape from parts of the world that threaten to destroy their lives. And we can demand legislation that protects our earth and its climate, for ultimately Earth is the Ark for all life. Noah was only one person, but if he had spoken up, who knows what difference that would have made. It is time for us to behave like anashim tsadikim, to be righteous people, and ask for mercy for the world.

  • Rabbi Ariel J Friedlander is rabbi at Or ‘Ammim, Emilia-Romagna

[1] Genesis 6:9

[2] Genesis 6:2 “just as God commanded him, so he did, 7:5 “Noah did just as God commanded him, 7:16 “as God had commanded him”.

[3] “Seeing the Faces of Noah’s Neighbours”, JTS Torah online, 4.11.2016

[4] Sefer HaZohar (The Book of Radiance) is a mystical Torah commentary written in Aramaic. Consisting of many volumes and over 1000 pages in total, it is part of the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah.

[5] Zohar, Midrash Hane’elam, Parshat Noah (via Sefaria)

[6] Ibn Ezra on Gen. 8:22

 

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