This week we learn about Noah, his triumphs and his failures. Or at least, his actions that we perceive as failures.
Here's the beginning of the parshah:
ו:ט אֵ֚לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃
This is the story of Noah: Noah -- a righteous man, he was morally unblemished in his generations. Noah walked with God.
In Hebrew, the phrase and syntax of the sentence; Noah walked with God imply two things:
God's pride in Noah
Noah lived in keeping with God's instruction.
Put another way, Noah walked on God's path. Keep in mind, the whole notion of halachah derives from the theme of walking: walking on God's path, keeping His commandments ... obeying God.
Throughout Genesis to this point, two major themes are:
Genesis reads like a text in developmental psychology, We'll explore this phase of man's development as well as the meaning of morality. And let's see where blind obedience fits in.
Let's take a look back. First lesson in responsibility: the story of Adam and Eve. God asked Adam why he ate the fruit. Adam blamed both God and Eve. Eve blamed the snake. They did not take personal responsibility for their actions.
Was this a test the first two people failed? Or was this part of mankind's learning curve...
A tenth century sage, Rav Saadia Gaon, said that the truth of Torah could be established by reason. However, this would be a long, difficult process.
Ultimately, people learn by making mistakes. Or, by learning from others' mistakes. Adam and Eve taught that we really should take responsibility for our actions -- and it's all to easy to not do so.
Next story: Cain and Abel. Cain kills his brother, but he doesn't deny it! In one sense, he does take personal responsibility. After all, he admits his guilt. So what's the problem?... Okay, outside of killing his brother...
Cain's issue isn't personal responsibility. It's the difference between what he wants to do and what he should do. Cain refuses to take moral responsibility.
But morality is about more than the individual and how he treats others. We must look at the community.
And so we come to Noah. As we saw, God singled him out as a righteous person in a horribly corrupt world. And when God told Noah about his plans to destroy the world -- and save Noah and his family -- Noah did everything God said to do.
So why do our sages debate whether Noah was righteous? Didn't God say he was!
The question comes over an enigmatic phrase: he was a righteous man in his generation.
Not a righteous man, period. God qualified his praise.
Here's a talmudic viewpoint:
Rabbi Yochanan said that Noah was only righteous because the rest of the people were so corrupt. Noah might not have been so righteous had he lived at a different time.
Resh Lakish answered that Noah would have been righteous in any generation. After all, if he could be righteous in a violent and sinful world, just think how good he could be in a different setting...
Remember: humanity is on a learning curve. The reason the rabbis even call Noah's goodness into question is this: Noah saved himself, his family, and the animals.
He did -- exactly -- as God commanded. It didn't occur to Noah that perhaps he could save others. He could have questioned the Creator. He did not. Did he even know that was possible?
Noah represents the stage of communal responsibility. However, the first stage of development really is: I must look out for myself.
It's later that we learn -- our world is much much better when we take responsibility for each other.
A few decades ago, an experiment called the Prisoners Dilemma showed that cooperation yielded better results than competition. Prisoners could choose:
If you testify against the other, you go free, she gets ten years.
If you both testify against each other, you each get five years.
If you both remain silent, you'll both face a possible year in prison but on a lesser charge.
Inevitably, the result was: I'm out for myself, so I will testify -- five years is better than ten.
But this was a one-time event. When the "prisoners repeated the experiment, they learned that cooperation yielded better results! It took time to get to that point.
It's something we have to learn. We must grow into this sense of mutual responsibility.
Noah -- mankind -- had not yet learned the morality of being responsible for the community.
Noah's life did not end happily. How could it be otherwise? He emerged into a broken world -- a world of death and destruction. Noah had his family, but no one else.
Did he struggle with guilt, that maybe he could have saved others?
Noah remains a figure of pathos. Yes, he was a righteous man -- and yes, he did as he was told. But Noah did not question.
Noah did not realize that God gifted us with free will. That means: our Creator never expected -- or wanted --
us to follow blindly.
And we assume that the Kadosh Baruch Hu expects is to exercise compassion ... and to rebuild shattered worlds.
Among the many things we learn from Noah, a basic theme is the formation of communal responsibility. Morality means that we are responsible not just for ourselves -- we are responsible for our community.
We often give lip service to Hillel's great saying:
If I am not for myself, who will be.
followed by ... If I am only for myself, what am I?
And: if not now, when?
Noah didn't know that he could have taken greater responsibility for his community. Maybe he could have saved them, but he didn't think to try. Humanity was young; it took Noah to teach us that it could be different.
And note, psychologists tell us, this a developmental stage that must be learned.
We can excuse Noah. We cannot excuse ourselves.
For instance, when it comes to the synagogue, how many times to we hear:
they shouldn't do things that way. But who is they? There is no "they." It's us.
Or, it's a shame people don't make synagogue and Judaism more of a priority. Do we hear this from people who are among those who don't come?
On the other hand, we have lots of people who know that our communal life depends on every one of us.
Noah teaches us that yes, we should listen to God. He also teaches that we must do more. It's not enough to follow God to the letter. We should -- we must -- err on the side of compassion. And we must understand that we cannot be moral ... if ignore the needs of others.