This week’s Torah portion, Noah, begins with God’s decision to destroy mankind. “God saw how corrupt the earth was” and tells Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh for the earth is filled with lawlessness” [Genesis 6: 12-13].
We all know the story. Noah is commanded to build an ark and save his family and animal life as a great flood wipes out the rest of humanity and with it, the rest of the animal kingdom.
In effect, God was unhappy with human behavior, so God started over.
We don’t have that luxury.
We are in a moment of upheaval in our society, and beyond. A moment of anger, angst and frustration. We are losing our connections to each other, our shared sense of society, our humanity. And everyone feels like a victim.
When Christine Blasey Ford described what it felt like to be sexually assaulted as a teenager, fearing for her life, she gave voice to countless women who heard her testimony. Many have experienced some form of sexual harassment, most often unaddressed because of fear, embarrassment or a sense that they would not be believed.
What lesson will women take away from how Blasey Ford was treated? — she is a heroine to some, but also the recipient of anonymous death threats and the public mockery of the president of the United States.
When now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh lashed out in anger at the notion that his nomination to the Supreme Court was in jeopardy because of allegations about his teenage behavior, including heavy drinking and treatment of women, many men who listened to him shared his outrage. For them he was the victim of, at best, a misguided allegation, at worst a smear campaign.
“It’s a very scary time for young men in America, where you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of,” asserted President Trump in his unique style. “This is a very, very — this is a very difficult time. What’s happening here has much more to do than even an appointment of a Supreme Court justice.”
The president likely had himself in mind when he spoke sympathetically of men who have been the victims of unproven allegations of bad behavior.
In stoking the fears and frustrations of his base constituency — mostly white males who feel both the upper classes and minorities have left them hurting in terms of jobs, economics and status — the president has made victimhood a core element of his politics. It’s “us” vs. “them,” and “they” are keeping “us” down.
At the same time, it appears that the majority of the people in the country see themselves as victims of a president they view as The Great Divider, a leader who has condemned the foundational institutions of our government, from the FBI to the judiciary system to the free press.
While both Democrats and Republicans bemoan the current state of affairs — about all they agree on is that we appear to have hit rock bottom — they continue to blame each other for our current crisis and show little willingness to work together if it involves compromise.
The midterm elections may shift the balance of power in Washington (at least in the House of Representatives), but there is little indication that it will change the binary, winner-take-all atmosphere in the halls of Congress.
When everyone feels like a victim, no one feels the need to take responsibility.
The problem in our society includes the college campus, where students and professors strive not to offend, and speakers with alternative views are shouted down. And it includes racial and ethnic minorities throughout the land who feel threatened by law enforcement or hostile neighbors.
American Jews are caught in the middle, sensing a rise in anti-Semitism from extremists on the right and left while being viewed as “privileged whites” by other minorities as well as by other whites of all economic classes.
Most of us defend Israel as a bastion of democracy among hostile neighbors who don’t recognize our ancient claim to the land. Despite its vaunted military might, Israel feels victimized by an international community that singles it out for U.N. censure more than any other country, and by Iranian mullahs who threaten to destroy the Jewish state. Yet there are growing numbers of our own youth who point to the plight of the Palestinians and blame Jerusalem. Aren’t Palestinian leaders to blame for prioritizing their national sense of victimhood over efforts to grant them autonomy?
By the end of this week’s Torah portion, the floodwaters have receded, and God has made a covenant with Noah for all time, symbolized by the rainbow, with God’s promise never to destroy the world by flood. But that doesn’t mean man won’t destroy the earth, intentionally or not. A hint of man’s harmful intentions comes in the final chapter of the Torah portion. It’s the story of the Tower of Babel, when men worked together to build a structure into the sky for their own glory. Some rabbinic commentaries say their goal was to build an idol or to do battle with God in the heavens. Rather than expressing gratitude to God for this second chance at building a just world, the people choose “to make a name for ourselves” [Gen. 11: 4].
God’s response is to “confound their speech,” creating new languages so the men could not understand each other and could no longer work together.
The message: When the goal is conflict, no good can come even from team efforts. When our intentions are honorable, though, we can work together even if we don’t speak the same language — and the path of progress is to resist the temptation to identify ourselves as victims.