Friday, October 4, 2013

Noah's Silence: A Jewish Take on the Government's Shut Down

(My sermon from this Friday night)

I think it’s fair to say it’s been a difficult week.

Unbelievable, yet real events have led up to and continue through our Government’s shut down, leaving so many throughout our country and even beyond in a state of increasing peril.  Whatever your view of politics, we can likely all agree that the current state of affairs in our country is not a good one, as our land these days seems flooded, so to speak, by elected leaders and power players whose interests are so focused on their own side’s voice and needs that they are willing to drown out the voices and needs of everybody else, if they deem that such behavior is what it takes to “survive.”  There is no interest like self-interest after all.

It’s an eerie coincidence, seeing that our Torah portion this week details the famous story of Noah and the Ark.   10 generations after God created the world, the Torah tells us that “lawlessness” filled the earth, as corruption overtook the actions of mankind.  Fed up, God decided to flood the whole thing and essentially start over.   But God saved one man, Noah, along with his family, and 2 of every animal.  Why Noah?  Because as the text says, "In his generation, Noah was a righteous man, and he was blameless.” 

Do you see anything odd in that phrasing?

Whereas at first, we assume that Noah was an all-around fabulous, outstanding human being, when we look more closely, we see that he may have been a good guy, but only relative to the other people -‘in his generation” – who as we know, were not of the highest repute. Midrashim – ancient stories that help to answer questions otherwise unanswered in the Torah text itself - go to great lengths to emphasize just how bad the people of Noah’s generation were.  One particularly disturbing midrash teaches that the people of the generation were so corrupt that they expressed compassion through means of cruelty.  To quote it: “When God raised the depths of the waters over them, and they saw that the fountains of the deep threatened to submerge them, what did they do? They took their own children and placed them into the depths, pressing them down mercilessly.”[i] Essentially, in order to assure their own safety, one generation was willing to sacrifice the needs, no really the lives, of the next.  Pretty awful stuff.  You can imagine that winning the competition for “all round good human being” in Noah’s generation was not so challenging.  

So what was it about Noah that diminished his status from a righteous man in every generation to a righteous man only in his generation?  Let’s think back to the story.  God sees a world so overcome with evil that a decision is made to end to it, and then to start over with Noah and his family.   God informs Noah of the plan, and Noah dutifully and faithfully constructs the ark.  Noah is nothing if not obedient.

Do you know that throughout the entire story, from the time God asks Noah to build the ark- to the actual deluge itself – to God making a rainbow, promising never to wipe out all existence again – Noah never says a single word?!  He is literally the most silent main character in the Torah.  Sure, he follows directions well.  He’s dedicated too.  One story even suggests that Noah never slept for the year the ark was afloat because he was too busy tending to the needs of his family and the animals with him on the ark.[ii] But regarding the suffering of those around him, Noah is surprisingly unconcerned.  According to the brilliant Aviva Zornberg, Noah’s indifference becomes clear right from the start“…in a process that begins with planting cedars that are to provide wood for the ark, so that they may become a topic of general conversation and lead to the rebuke and repentance of his contemporaries.”[iii] So instead of seeing his guaranteed safety as insurance enough to try to reach out and help the others around him to avoid suffering, Noah keeps his head down, focussed on what he perceives as the task at hand.  He accepts the status quo, and does what he’s told, nothing more and nothing less.  One Chasidic scholar[iv] teaches that the reason the Torah says that “God shut Noah in the ark” instead of Noah walking in the ark and closing the door behind him is to stress that, although Noah was saved by the ark, it also represented a punishment for Noah’s self-concern –with God serving as the guard that shuts the door behind a prisoner in jail. 

There is a strong lesson for all of us in this.   We learn that righteousness is diminished when we are not open to the suffering of those around us, as was the case in Noah's generation.  It follows that if we are not aware of the world around us and the needs of others in our midst, we too risk being shut out.   We may not be directly or personally impacted in the immediate wake of any danger, but the conditions of the world in which we survive will undoubtedly affect us all at the end of the day.

If we merely accept the situation in the world around us, its corruption, its dangers, its suffering, and spend all of our time building our own proverbial arks to shield us from the inevitable impacts of these problems on us, that doesn't make us bad people – but it also doesn't make us righteous or holy.  And since the whole purpose of Jewish living, not just living, but Jewish living is to bring righteousness and holiness into the world, well, then our obligation to others around us is clear.  We Jews don’t ever have luxury of silence, of not speaking out against suffering and injustice. 

But I want to be clear about one more thing. On a universal level, Abraham Joshua Heschel couldn't have said it better when he declared, “Some may be guilty, but all are responsible.”   Let’s be clear: If, in order to achieve our own well-being, we somehow cause added suffering to another, we fail not just as Jews, but also as human beings.

It’s interesting to know that next week’s Torah portion raises up another character that is called righteous.  And in some ways, places him in an eerily similar situation to Noah’s.  This time, it’s not the entire world that that God wants to destroy – just the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah, since the behaviors of the inhabitants of the towns have deteriorated to a Divinely intolerable rate.  When God tells Abraham of the plan, Abraham responds differently than his Octo-great grandfather Noah.  In the face of God's willingness to wipe out an entire population, Abraham does not just accept God's decision.   Abraham stands up and argues, questioning the justice of God’s judgment.  In complete opposition to Noah’s self-interest and apathy toward the other, Abraham puts his own life on the line by engaging in a disagreement with God, concerned completely in upholding justice and mercy for the other.  This is one of the reasons that Abraham is righteous unconditionally, not just relative to his generation.  

There is something else that Abraham and Noah have in common.  Both are described as walking in relation to God.   The Torah tells us that Noah walks with God, but Abraham, Torah teaches, walks before God.

What is the difference between walking with God and walking before God?   Walking with insinuates keeping pace with.  Walking before, on the other hand, means going beyond that, standing up for what we know to be right, and making our best attempt to see that justice in a given situation is upheld before it is too late.  

If we follow Abraham's model, walking before God, speaking out and acting on behalf of what is right is not something we do only with a guarantee of success.   We are commanded to seek out justice, to bring righteousness and holiness into our world, regardless of the outcome.  There is no fine print disclaimer stating that the offer is only valid if we feel our actions will really make a difference.  The expectation is that we do the right thing, go above and beyond, regardless of how daunting a situation is, simply because this is what Jews do.  We don’t have the right to say, "The situation is so horribly beyond repair that anything I do will make no difference, so I will instead do nothing."   From a Jewish lens, the end result is not nearly as critical as the means by which we walk in the process.  Noah may have been the progenitor of humanity after the flood, but Abraham is called the first Jew. From a biblical perspective, there is a fundamental difference between what it means to be human versus what it means to live Jewishly.  And the fact that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all root themselves not to Noah, but to Abraham, well, that should be a source of great hope for us all.

Shabbat Shalom.

[i] Tanhuma, Noah 7 as described in Aviva Zornberg’s The Beginning of Desire, p.57
[ii] Zornberg, Aviva.  The Beginning of Desire. P. 60.
[iii] Ibid. p. 58.
[iv] Aharon Shmuel Tamaret