Sunday, October 14, 2012



How did Noach, who once walked with G-d, now roll in the mud?



What shall we make of Noach, one of the Bible’s more elusive characters? His introduction is full of promise: “Noach was a righteous man, faultless in his generation. Noach walked with G-d. No one else in Torah receives such accolades: not Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or even Moses.                       

However, a mere three chapters later, the narrative records Noach’s final project. “Noach began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard...he became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. Cham...saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Yafes took a garment...and covered their father’s nakedness. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see.”                         

Shem and Yafes may have covered their father’s nakedness, but even they could not hide the sad fact that their father who once walked with G-d now rolled in the mud. How did such a man fall so low? This question has yielded a variety of answers. Try this one on for size.                           

Once the waters had abated, Noach should have left the ark. However, Noach thought, I only entered with G-d’s permission when He said, “Go into the ark.” Shall I leave on my own? The Holy One said, “You need permission? Very well…Come out of the ark.” Rabbi Yehuda Bar Ilai said, “If I had been there I would have broken down the ark to go out.” (Tanchuma)                                                       

To understand this midrash one has to appreciate the anti-climax after the Deluge. G-d announces the imminent destruction of life on earth. He orders an ark built, specifying precise measurements and what must be brought on board. Civilization perishes; those in the ark survive. When the waters recede we naturally expect Noach to emerge. Instead, Noach seems stuck. First he sends out a raven; then a dove.  He waits seven days only to send it out again. It returns with an olive leaf. Another week passes and the dove is sent a third time. Even when it does not return, Noach does not quit the ark until G-d Himself says, “Come out.”                 

The Midrash sounds exasperated. A shattered world needs rebuilding, and you’re waiting for permission! Can Noach not take the initiative?                                                 

But then, what does Noach say when universal death is decreed; when he is told to make an ark to save his family; when the rains begin to fall? Nothing. During the whole sequence of events, Noach is not reported as saying a single word. Instead we read, four times, of his silent obedience, “Noach did everything just as G-d had commanded him.” Noach is the paradigm of biblical obedience. He does as he is commanded. But that is not always enough.                          

One might reasonably assume that for a life of faith, obedience is the highest virtue. Yet strangely enough, despite the fact that the Torah contains 613 commands - there is no Biblical word for ‘obey.’ Instead the Torah uses the word lishmoa - to listen, hear, understand, or reflect. Judaism requires something greater than mindless submission, it demands responsibility.                                                          

Thus the hero of our faith is not Noach, but Abraham. The same Abraham who prayed for the wicked people of Sodom; who challenged Heaven itself with the words, “Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?” What might Abraham have said when confronted with a flood? Abraham might have saved the world. Noah saved only his family. Noach’s drunken end, eloquently tells us that if you save yourself while doing nothing to save the world, you do not even save yourself.                                                     

The difference between Noach and Abraham is best reflected by the words, “Noach walked with G-d.” A parable explains. A king had two sons, one grown up, the other a child. To the child, he said, “Walk with me.” To the adult son he said, “Walk before me.” So it was by Noach of whom the Torah says that he, “walked with G-d.” But to Abraham, G-d said, “Because you are wholehearted, walk before Me.” (Bereishis Rabbah)

It takes courage to rebuild a shattered world. Just ask the brave women of ancient Egypt who defied Pharaoh’s decree of infanticide and continued bearing children; or the valiant Jews who witnessed the destruction of two Temples and their homeland, yet re-established flourishing communities in exile; or the resolute Holocaust survivors who, against all odds, recreated Jewish institutions of learning that no one imagined would attract any ‘customers’. Unlike Noach, they did not wait for Heaven to hold their hand or give them permission.                                          

We are the “Seed of Abraham.” So claim your rightful place and go the front of the line. Take responsibility for Judaism. Walk ahead, He won’t mind.

No comments:

Post a Comment