Silence not always golden

Silence not always golden

Noach — Genesis 6:9-11:32

Walk into any Jewish gift shop and you’re sure to see books and toys and all sorts of items for children that feature Noah’s ark, with pairs of smiling, whimsical animals — elephants, sheep, lions, alligators, zebras, goats, and, of course, giraffes with their heads poking out of the top of the ark.

But the account of the Flood is hardly suitable for children. It’s one of the Torah’s darker episodes, involving the death of all the Earth’s inhabitants, both human and animal. And while the Torah tells us the Flood was God’s response to a world filled with violence and lawlessness, there must have been some people who were, if not righteous, certainly innocent. What had the small children and animals done that could justify their annihilation?

Nor was the year spent on the ark a pleasant voyage. The midrash portrays Noah and his family as having barely a minute to sleep, rushing to feed the animals (and to keep them from eating each other). They spent an entire year in a confined space trying to cope with exhaustion, noise, and terrible smells. And once back on dry land, almost the first thing Noah did was plant a vineyard and become a sloppy drunk.

No, this is definitely not a children’s story. And one of its difficult elements is our uncertainty about the character of Noah himself. The Torah calls Noah ish tzadik tamim, a righteous, wholehearted man, but it adds the qualifier b’dorotav, in his generation. Rashi explains: “In his generation” — Some of our rabbis interpret it for praise, how much more righteous would Noah have been had he lived in a righteous generation. Others interpret it for discredit: He was righteous compared with his generation, but had he lived in Abraham’s generation he would have been considered nothing special.

Our uncertainty about Noah is exacerbated by his silence. From the time God first addresses him until well after the Flood, Noah never speaks — not to God, not to his family, and not to his neighbors, even though the midrash tells us that it took Noah 120 years to build and equip the ark. Noah is silent.

Midrash Ne’elam teaches: When Noah came out of the ark and saw the destruction wrought by the Flood he hurled accusations at God: You are called hanun v’rahum, gracious and merciful; You should have shown mercy to Your creation. God responded: Fool, why did you wait until now to say something? I called you a righteous, wholehearted man, I said I would bring a flood to destroy everything on earth, and I told you, “Make an ark.” I told you all this so that you would ask for mercy for all the earth, but as soon as you heard that you and your family would be saved, you did not concern yourself with the fate of anyone else.

During the 120 years it took him to build the ark, it never occurred to Noah that it might be possible to reverse the decree, to save the world from destruction. It never occurred to him to beg God for mercy — as Abraham did for Sodom — or to urge his neighbors to repent and change their ways, as Jonah did in Nineveh. Noah was silent.

Now, it’s true the rabbis frequently recommend silence as the best course. The gemara in Pesachim teaches: Our sages said, silence is becoming to the wise and even more so to fools, as it is said in Mishlei, “Even a fool, when he holds his peace, is considered wise.” But the rabbis also say, shtika kahoda’a dami, silence is like an admission — that is, to see injustice or wrong behavior and remain silent is tantamount to indicating your approval.

In fact, the 19th-century Polish rabbi Shlomo Kluger notes that the prophet Isaiah, in the passage chosen as the haftara for parshat Noach, refers to the Flood as mei Noach, the waters of Noah, because he was the one who caused the Flood by not protesting.

The Torah commands, lo ta’amod al dam rei’a’ha, do not stand by the blood of your neighbor. Whether it is injustice on the part of authority or illegal or immoral behavior on the part of individuals, silence is not — cannot be — an option.

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