Noach 5780

November 1, 2019


In the opening verse of our parsha this week, we learn that Noach was a righteous man in his generation. Our sages have made much of this descriptor. One of the greatest gifts our Torah gives us in my understanding is that we get a glimpse of the raw and real humanness of our ancestors. In being described as a righteous man, the Torah leaves as open and ambiguous the question, addressed by our later sages, was Noach in fact a righteous man when compared to the violence and greed of his generation, and had he lived in a later generation, he would not have been thought of as particularly righteous? Or, conversely, was Noach in fact a truly, genuinely righteous man?

Though the story of Noach and the flood is often popularly prettied up and made into a cute children’s story, complete with animals two-by-two, the story as our Torah presents it is much darker and morally complex. When Hashem, a few verses later, instructs Noach to build an ark, warning him that lest his generation does teshuvah, a flood will cover the entire earth and all who live upon it, Noach seemingly gets right to work. A midrash teaches us that it took six hundred years for Noach to build the ark so that passersby would have a daily opportunity to do a cheshbon hanefesh, a self-examination and introspection which would hopefully result in a change of behavior. Nevertheless, when the flood does arrive, Noach boards the ark, along with his wife, Na’amah, his three sons and their wives and pairs of all animals who live on earth. There are no human beings outside of Noach’s relatively small family who join him. This is in striking contrast to next week’s parsha, Lech Leca, in which our tradition notes that Avraham and Sarai brought many souls under the wings of the Divine Presence. In other words, Noach is operating out of a limited consciousness, seemingly unconcerned with his neighbors and the ark, then, becomes something of a fortress, a means of literal protection from the world with all of its manifold challenges. Avraham and Sarai, by contrast, are portrayed in next week’s portion as operating out of an expanded consciousness, able to encounter others on their literal, metaphorical and spiritual journey with a deep sense of security, compassion and love.

How many of us have acted like Noach? In the world in which we currently live, with its countless challenges, a world in which loneliness, alienation and disconnection are experienced by people at very high rates, it is easy for us to build our own ark, our own literal and metaphorical separation from the world. It is easy and indeed cathartic to fortify our own feelings of self-righteousness when we experience the world going awry, or when we find inscrutable the behavior and attitude of those in our own communities, families and social circles. Noach had six hundred years in which to encounter his generation with generosity of spirit.

Heartbreakingly, in the beginning of our parsha, Hashem gives up on humanity, which is why the flood is brought. Hashem regrets creating humankind, for they know only violence, robbery and greed. Noach and his family are the only righteous ones. How many of us have reached a point of deep, all-consuming despair, in which we cannot conceive of the world or our lives getting better? In those moments, we cannot imagine a pathway through or forward, and it feels like our inner arks lack the window which allows the light in that Hashem commands Noach to build.

I know I can empathize with the emotional landscape of Hashem in that moment. Yet, Hashem desperately doesn’t want the world to be destroyed in a flood. We learn earlier in Parashat Bereshit that Hashem created humanity in Hashem’s image, enabling us to co-create the world anew every day. Indeed, in the traditional morning prayer service, the liturgy focuses on this notion of co-creation or being partners in creation each day. Every day of that six hundred year period, then, was an opportunity to turn and return. Even in the bleakest moments, human beings do have choices, big and small. Noach is portrayed as morally complex precisely because he, like so many of us, reached a point of great frustration with those around him and gave up. What difference could have been made had Noach taken some of that six hundred year period to step back a bit, center himself and allow himself to tend to his own emotional landscape so that he could return to the world better equipped to work with and serve others?

In my own life, I know that being a changemaker can feel like a thankless or fruitless endeavor. When the status quo feels so intrenched, or inertia feels so hard to break through, it can feel like there’s no reason to keep going. In those moments, I encourage us to take some time to step back, to care for ourselves, so that we, too, might re-enter the world refreshed and renewed. Building our own arks feels cathartic for sure. Walling ourselves away from a world so slow to change feels like a huge relief, as if we are writing off those we feel are so slow to move with us. But ultimately, if we want to create a world that can truly be a dwelling place for the Divine Presence, we must be in deep touch with our own internal emotional landscapes, so in those moments of greatest despair, we are able to do what we need to do for ourselves so that we can use our energies in emotionally nourishing ways.


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