This past week we learned about Noah or Noach, one of the most popular biblical stories especially with children. Probably because it tells of the animals going two by two on a great adventure on a boat. But if we dig a bit we see that there is a lot more going on in this story.
The Torah says that Noah was righteous in his generation and that he walked with God. These two statements seem positive, superficially, but the ancient sages of Israel, in the midrash, give us a different perspective. In fact these statements turn out to be an indication of less than desirable characteristics when we look below the surface.
When the Torah says Noah is righteous it says “in his generation”; it is qualified. The sages tell us that if he lived in a different generation perhaps he would not have been viewed as being as righteous as he was in his own. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his commentaries called Covenant and Conversation, brings up some amazing ideas from the midrash. It doesn’t just say, for instance, that he was righteous with a qualifier, it also says Noah “walked with God.” Now this is not necessarily complimentary, but I’ll explain that a bit further on.
Rabbi Sacks asks the question what is Noah saying when God says he’s going to destroy the earth with a flood. What does Noah say when Gold told him to build the ark, or gather the animals, or when he told Noah to get in the ark? What did Noah say? Rabbi Sacks points out that Noah said nothing, he just acted in silent obedience. For those of us that come from a church background, as I do this may seem like a desirable response. But that is not the Jewish way. In fact the midrash asks what if Abraham had been in Noah’s shoes. Remember Abraham was the one who fought a war to save his nephew Lot. Abraham said to God will the judge of the earth not do justice?
If there is one word to describe Noah’s response it is passive, he silently obeys, he does everything God says to but does not give a response to God. Remember what Abraham said “would you destroy the city if only there are a few righteous in it?”. The midrash says that if Abraham was in Noah’s shoes he might have failed to change God’s mind – to spare humanity – but he would have tried. Noah did not try, he just saved himself and his family.
It might bother us to hear these negative ideas about Noah when we think of him as a hero. But here we get to the walking with God idea. Rabbi Yehuda tells a parable about a king with two sons, one who is grown and one who is a child. To the child he says “walk with me.” But to the son who is grown he says “walk before me.” That is exactly what God said to Abraham – because you are whole hearted walk before me. So in the context of Noah walking with God is almost a negative. Noah sends out the Dove over and over but only leaves the ark when he is told to. Rabbi Yehuda says if he was there he would have broken out of the ark himself, not wait for permission.
Rabbi Sacks tells us that when the world is broken and destroyed you should not wait for permission to start repairing. Our own Rabbi Shapira does not like passivity, and this is why. We are to take an active role in tikkun olam, in repairing our broken world, we don’t wait for permission. If someone needs help, if the world needs repairing, we need to be active and not sitting on the sidelines.
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So be active, take the reins, take a stand.
Shalom and Kol Tuv.