This week’s portion, Noach, recounts the Israelite version of a mythic motif common to ancient Near Eastern cultures: a flood that inundates the world.
The biblical flood, however, is distinct, in that it sees the flood as a consequence of universal lawlessness and immorality.
The Torah introduces us to Noah in a somewhat peculiar manner: “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation.” (Genesis 6:9)
Rabbinic tradition, for which no word in the Torah was superfluous, seized upon the apparently unnecessary qualification — “he was blameless in his age” — and deduced one of two things.
Some ancient rabbis saw a criticism: The world being essentially corrupt, Noah, comparatively speaking, was not so bad. However, in a generation of firmer moral character, he would not necessarily be exemplary.
Other ancient rabbis understood the description of Noah to be emphatic: If, in such a generation, Noah nonetheless managed to be righteous, how much more could he have accomplished in a time when subversion and perversion were reduced?
Irrespective of which analysis we follow, the clear message of rabbinic tradition is that the nature of one’s character and of one’s actions must always be viewed in the context of one’s time and place.
Elie Wiesel tells the following story: One of the Just Men came to Sodom, determined to save its inhabitants from sin. Night and day, he walked the streets and markets, preaching against greed and theft, deceit and indifference.
In the beginning, people listened and smiled with irony. Then they stopped listening. The killers went on killing, and the wise kept silent.
One day, a child, moved by compassion, approached the preacher and said: “Poor stranger, you shout and expend yourself body and soul. Don’t you see it is hopeless?”
“Yes,” answered the Just man. “Then why do you persist?” asked the child.
The man replied, “At first I thought I could change people. Now I know I cannot. If I still shout, it is to prevent people from changing me.”
Perhaps Noah, like the righteous man in Sodom, believed there was nothing he could do to convince either his fellow humans or God that the world was worth saving. This might explain the apparently selfish manner in which Noah receives the news from God of the flood: “‘For My part, I am about to bring the Flood…but I will establish my covenant with you and you shall enter the ark’…. Noah did so; just as God commanded him, so he did.” (Genesis 6:17-22)
Nowhere do we read of a protest by Noah at news of the impending destruction. Nowhere do we see a parallel to Abraham’s challenge to God at Sodom and Gomorrah: “Will you wipe away the innocent along with the guilty? Shall not the Judge of all the earth act justly?” (Genesis 18:22-25)
Instead Noah sets about fashioning the ark, apparently content — or resigned? — to preserve only himself and his family.
The biblical imperative of ethical behavior is implicit in the early chapters of Genesis. The Israelites are consistently held to account for their actions, and the prophets are especially unforgiving of moral laxity.
When we read the prophetic denunciations of our biblical ancestors, we wonder whether the moral balance of society was in fact so heavily tilted toward one side that corporate punishment was both inevitable and justified.
From biblical times to our own time, the demands placed upon the Jewish people — by ourselves and by others — have been an imperative to strive to do better. There is little tolerance for an approach that holds that everyone else is the same — or worse. But trying to establish criteria for moral comportment in today’s world is difficult, and perhaps nowhere so clearly as in the State of Israel.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has summarized the issue this way: “Israel has the right — and thus far it has the record — to act by a higher moral standard, in accordance with past norms of Jewish values. But now that it is a flesh-and-blood state, it can only act and be judged in the context of the real world. Israel can be 5 percent better, or 10 percent more restrained, perhaps 20 percent more judgmental of its own behavior than the rest of the world. Achieving such a level would make Israel one of the greatest nations of the world morally — but this begins to approach the limits of survivability.”
Until the Messiah comes, then, perhaps the best we can strive for is to be like Noah: to be “righteous in our generation.” It may not yield perfection, but it does confer dignity on our humanity.