23 Oct 2014

Noah 5775: Playing the Part

There once was a small village in which there were exactly ten Jewish men over the age of bar mitzvah. Each of the men knew that his presence at the daily minyan was essential, so every morning each man attended synagogue without fail in order to ensure there would be a minyan. One day, a new family moved to the village and there was finally an eleventh man who could help the minyan! The next morning he was the only one in synagogue.

There are unique moments in life when we are presented with an opportunity to do good, support a constructive cause or lend a helping hand. A sacred duty for us is to recognise when we can partake of such endeavours and participate. We might not, however, always be inclined to engage if we are not sure that our involvement will make a direct difference in the situation at hand. We learn from a tender moment in Perashat Noah that even being part of a positive endeavour, albeit not directly affecting the outcome, is a blessed and meaningful act.

At the end of the epic flood narrative this week, we read of an act of honour and kindness. Shem, the son of Noah, finds his sleeping father exposed as a result of having been drunk. Unlike his brother Ham, who left his father in his exposed state, Shem, along with his brother Yefet, cover their father in a most respectful way. Rashi points out[1] that we see Shem as the initiator from the fact that the verse uses the singular for the verb לקח – ‘to take’ (9:23) when mentioning that he took the blanket to use as the cover. Instead of saying “they took” – vayikhu, it says “he took” vayikah, indicating that Shem took the garment and Yefet assisted. Yefet saw the opportunity to participate in the good deed and assisted Shem. Yefet is praised and blessed by his father, along with Shem, for taking part.

Yefet knew that Shem’s goal would’ve been met without his participation. Why then, was it worth acting even when the contribution may not have made a difference in the outcome? Yefet knew that although he was not the driving force behind the kindness, he nonetheless had the ability to become part of it. He saw participation itself as a value and knew that it was something with which he wanted to be connected.

We shape our identities and the world around us not only by the differences we make but also by the elements with which we choose to engage. We could be the 71st person in synagogue or a face in the crowd of a virtuous event; the services and event may well go on similarly with or without us, but being part touches our lives and places us in the positive environment.

There is value in being part of good even when we are not the ones who will ensure its particular achievement. It strengthens our own resolve for virtue and it casts our vote in favour of what is righteous and honourable. As we live life in this world we must not only consider how we might improve it, we must also endorse the worthiness that already exists within it.

[1] 9:23, s.v. Vayikah