15 Oct 2015

Noah 5776: Weathering the Storm

Noah 5776: Weathering the Storm

“The effort to combat psychotic prejudice with reasonable counter-arguments
is an act not only of folly, but of capitulation.”
—David Mamet[1]
Noah is introduced to us in the parasha as a man who was a sadik-tamim bedorotav, ‘righteous and wholesome in his generations’. The Talmud[2] presents a well-known gloss on the fact that the Torah praises Noah in the context of ‘his generations’. R. Yohanan suggests that it was only in his generations that Noah could be considered righteous, while Reish Lakish holds that Noah was righteous even in his difficult generation; and had he lived in better times, he would have been even greater.

I have always been partial to the former opinion. Noah spent the years building the ark in silence. He did not attempt to speak to his society nor did he try to influence any change. Perhaps if Noah would have made more of an effort there might have been a different ending to the story. I presented this approach at seuda shelishit last Shabbat after which a talmid hakham challenged my premise. He contended that the verse clearly says that the earth was filled with hamas – violence and wrongdoing and that Noah was not living in a receptive society. I took his words to heart, noting that the Torah describes the times as terribly dire:

Now the earth had gone to ruin before G-d, the earth was filled with wrongdoing. G-d saw the earth and here: it had gone to ruin, for all flesh had ruined its way upon the earth.  (6:11-12)

In order to effectively work out differences through dialogue, opposing parties must share a basic set of principles. If there is no mutual understanding and respect for one another then we end up merely speaking past each other rather than speaking to each other.

Since last shabbat we have watched the attacks and violence escalating in Israel. The painful and deeply disturbing realities make us wish to see something done to stop it. We wish that reasonable solutions could be enacted in order to calm the violence, terror and unrest. Yet there are times when such solutions are simply not available. The situation has come to a point where we are beyond normal talks that will bring rectification. Stabbings, shootings, fire bombs and even cars are wielded by Palestinian terrorists intent on murdering Israeli civilians indiscriminately and in cold blood. With the world responding in deafening silence, there is a keen sense of a world gone mad. Where does one begin the dialogue? What are the shared values upon which we can find mutual footing and common ground in order to reach sustainable agreements? It is not a situation of differing opinions, alternate views, or opposing perspectives but one of psychotic hatred. Responding with rational discussion would be yielding to the psychosis.

Could a Moses or perhaps a Churchill bring about viable change? It is difficult to imagine. The situation brings to mind the words of Gibbon regarding the catastrophic politico-religious struggles of the fourth century Roman Empire which, he wrote, was: “rapidly hastened to decay and dissolution, and was not susceptible of any solid or consistent reformation.”  G-d did not send Noah to discuss or to rectify as He had done with Moshe and subsequent prophets. Noah was instead told to wait out the developments of the deluge with his family. Perhaps today too, only events will pull the region out of its dive. It has, after all, predominantly been events — that we could never have planned nor anticipated — that brought our people forward generation after generation, rather than singular leaders or particular policies. To be sure, we must continue to do all that we can to create a better world but we must also acknowledge when we are not the sole source of the solution, and that ‘Truth will emerge from the earth’[3].

Noah did two things that we can learn from which set him apart and positioned him on a successful path towards the future. The first was his approach to the world. He is described in the Torah as being an eesh ha’adama/ man of the earth[4]. At a time when people were concerned only about personal advancement at all costs, Noah respected the earth and invested in it. He was one who loved life and embraced the world faithfully, for its own sake. When we find ourselves in a world of hamas, and where things seem to be in a state of loss and ruin, it is the eternal truths, the hope for justice and the dedication to life that keep us connected to the light. And although we may not see its end, it is enough to live for its sake.

The second was that Noah drew his family close during the flood and survived with them in solidarity. Today, the Jewish people have the ability to connect in ways unprecedented. When the external environment is hostile to our survival, our best response is to gather together — even virtually — in solidarity with one another. We must, to the degree that we can, stand as one.
עושה שלום במרומיו הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל.

May He Who creates peace in His heights impose peace upon us and all of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Joseph Dweck


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Mamet

[2] Sanhedrin, 108a

[3] Psalms, 85:12

[4] 9:20