Oct 15, 2012

Noach 5773/2012: "Are We What We Need?"

Noach 5773/2012: "Are We What We Need?"
(c) Rabbi Menachem Creditor

The Noach story births ever-more pressing questions year by year.

Beyond "why did God destroy the earth?" and "what about the animals who weren't in the ark?" and "why doesn't Noach's wife have a name?" and countless other reactions to the narrative, beyond the comparisons (and significant differences) between Noach and Utnapishtim (the ancient Mesopotamian flood hero) we would do well to spend a moment on the following question: What might Noach have done differently?

Many commentators have spent time wondering why Noach is introduced as "whole and good for his generation" (Gen. 6:9, emphasis added), going so far as to suggest that either Noach was so righteous that he was able to maintain a holy path in the face of a failed human world or that he was only considered good in comparison to that same failed generation. Either he was magnificent or only relatively less-bad.

Perhaps the description of Noach's responses to God's instructions regarding the Ark and the animals can shed some light. We read twice in the narrative: "Noah did exactly all that God had commanded" (Gen. 6:22 & 7:5). Given the intensity of God's commands, describing the end of life on earth and the specific dimensions of the Ark itself, Noach's obedience is even more strange.

What didn't Noach do? He didn't argue for a bigger Ark. He didn't (in the Torah's text) argue for humanity's potential for redemption. He didn't argue. He didn't negotiate with God. He did as he was told. This might be seen, by some, as deep religious piety, the "teleological suspension of the ethical", as Kierkegaard described Abraham's willingness to slaughter his own beloved son at God's command. But by the standards of modern readers, those faithful skeptics who seek their homes on post-modern spiritual paths, this formulation of absolute submission by a human to a knowable God willing to save only some people rings not only false, but radically dangerous.

What did Noach do, in his acquiescence to this horrible command, this demand of God to witness through the side window (Gen 6:16) the destruction of the world, the reversal of the order of creation by releasing the heavenly suspended waters (Gen. 7:11) partitioned just one Torah portion ago (Gen. 1:9)? He was satisfied by his own survival. He built the ark and brought his family inside, fully aware that all else was about to suffer untold tragedy. Woe to the modern religious community who sees this as sufficient! When we construct our synagogues, mosques, churches, ashrams, etc. without windows, we shut ourselves off from the world. It is the goal of piety to heal this world, to not be satisfied by a "one-family ark."

Noach acted as if the flood couldn't touch him. And, of course, that's the message of God's command. Or is it? When Noach and his family emerge from the ark and offer sacrifices which appeal to God, God promises not to destroy the earth (by flood) ever again, acknowledging that "the inclination of a human is evil from birth" (Gen. 9:21). This God, who learns about human nature through observation and interaction, our Divine Parent continuously surprised by our choices, changes the measure of human accountability in response to Noach's actions - after the flood!

When Noach demonstrates a willingness to be an island in the midst of raging waters, God reformulates the whole system. Is it for the better? Even for the modern reader who believes in the inspired human authorship of Torah, can this reunderstsanding of human nature and God's involvement in the world be helpful?

Said more plainly, and directed to human beings in the United States of America, can the story of the flood guide us wisely as we face a monumentally important election day, with a national election and ballot initiatives in some states that will shift social, financial, and environmental policies: what lessons must we learn from Noach's ability to close the door of the ark?

The lessons of both Noach's self-isolation and of God's promise is that the potential for the world's salvation and destruction is squarely in the hands of humanity, who are all "on the same boat." If my concern for family's security ignores the plight of my neighbor's, I invite the world's destruction.

It is not an exaggeration to state that significant shifts in the ocean of humanity are based upon this November's outcomes. I myself believe that only some of the possibilities before voters embody a shared, hopeful human path whose fate is held in its own hands. 

Noach was righteous for his generation, a world of self-interest where the success of some was sufficient. Our country, our world, needs more today.

May we make sure, this month, to build our country the way we are instructed to construct our holy homes: with windows that allow - and demand - the vision to see and the capacity to address needs beyond ourselves.

May the world emerge healthier this month through our own deeds.


Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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Chag Sukkot Sameach, dear friends.