Our sages are ambivalent about the biblical figure of Noah as a role model for the Jewish people. Yes, he “walked with God” and was “righteous in his generation.” We should all be so lucky.
Yet there are conflicting opinions about Noah’s goodness: Does Noah merit the role of moral leading man because he managed to stay uncorrupted despite the tremendous wickedness of his generation? Or was Noah righteous by default, only standing out as the mediocre best of his rotten age?
In a world beset by a billion hungry people, Noah is of no relevance — unless we see him as the anti-hero, and re-examine the Tower of Babel as a premature Jerusalem.
As the first annual global Jewish Social Action Month begins this week with the Jewish month of Cheshvan, sinking Noah is a mitzvah.
Surely there were hungry and vulnerable people in Noah’s age and we have no hint that he did anything for them. He was, quite simply, a good guy minding his own business.
Walking with God in our age, and for our people, may mean something different.
Consider Abraham’s relationship with God, compared to that of Adam or Noah. Abraham is a towering figure in our theology and the first Jew, not only because of his idol-smashing ways but because he had a dose of chutzpah that I suspect is a signature of the Jewish people in almost every generation and in nearly every land.
In the case of Adam in the Garden of Eden, after his historic bite, the first human’s words to the creator of the universe were used to evade responsibility. Adam and Eve could neither affirm God’s majesty nor satisfy God’s craving for a responsible partner in the creation of moral civilization.
In the case of Noah, he simply did what God asked him to do — which was to save himself, his family and lots of pets.
Abraham is different. He answers God directly and with a challenge never before heard in the world, “Hineini”: Here I am.
God now has to contend with a creation that talks back and has a point. Abraham challenges God’s plans for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. And in a high-stakes, death-defying game of chicken, God blinks, Isaac is spared, and Abraham’s knife “and that of his descendants” is free of the blood of our children.
Couldn’t Noah have put up just a little bit of a fight or raise one tiny objection?
In the month of Tishrei, which begins with Rosh Hashanah, we pursue tikkun pnimi, internal fixing, aligning our values and intentions. If we’re lucky, we emerge as clean and righteous as Noah, with renewed life in an uncertain age.
But is that really good enough?
Cheshvan, Noah and a global effort to step up social justice are destined for each other this year. According to tradition, the rain before the biblical flood began on the 17th day of Cheshvan, and the door to the ark finally sprung open a year later, on the 27th of Cheshvan.
Cheshvan is the month recently endorsed by the Knesset as Jewish Social Action Month, and Deputy Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior, on behalf of the government and people of Israel, has been amplifying the call for Jews everywhere to jump-start our pro-active, post-Noah activity and go out to heal the world, linking our tikkun pnimi with tikkun olam, or repairing the world.
Endorsements are flooding in — see SocialAction.com and Cheshvan.org.
Having the call to social action begin in Jerusalem, and then echo in all the places of the Jewish people’s dispersion, helps us see Noah’s descendants in a new light.
The generations that followed Noah naturally are afraid. While the rainbow signifies that water won’t be used to wipe out creation, what about fire or lack of water?
Noah’s generation was washed away because it was a corrupt society. Our tradition provides an opportunity to juxtapose the corrupt society of Noah’s time with heavenly Jerusalem, Yerushalayim shel ma’alah.
The flood is followed by the building of the Tower of Babel, perhaps marking the people’s desire to jump past thousands years of moral fine-tuning and to go straight to a perfect society as quickly as possible. They hoped this would please God, but God is not ready for such a big step.
Genesis 11:4 could be read charitably as follows: “Let us build a city and a tower whose consciousness is heavenly, so we can make a good name for ourselves and not be decimated and expelled like our ancestors.”
A city with a tower that reaches for heaven’s ascent and consent, and lives in fear of exile, is not alien to the Jewish consciousness. Tellingly, the Haftorah for Noah is Isaiah 54, in which the destruction and rebuilding of Jerusalem are the dominant themes.
The people of Bavel, fearing God, began building without heavenly authority in an effort to receive heavenly blessing. But Jerusalem was only ready to assume her rightful place as the destined gateway for the Messiah when Solomon, the wisest of kings, was able to mete out justice.
God chooses the time and place for a city with a tower and a heavenly orientation to be built, reminding us of what is said in the Aleinu prayer: L’taken olam, b’malchut shaddai — to heal the world, with the blessing and under the sovereignty of God.
Perhaps, though, we’ve been too hard on Noah. He is, after all, a pre-Jewish transitional figure, doomed to survive the greatest wave of death on the planet. Of course he plants a vineyard and gets drunk; he’s lonely and traumatized. Yet even in his stupor, he still lacks the sensibility to condemn or challenge the Destroyer.
Noah is a passive player in history and morality, a good person who didn’t do anything bad. But that’s not the lesson or mission of Judaism. It’s not just about ourselves: A good person intervenes in history, a good person challenges God by calling out to accept the moral duel, a good person condemns death and destruction, waves and floods, and plants not only a vineyard but also hope.
This month is traditionally called mar Cheshvan, bitter Cheshvan, because it lacks the holidays that we just celebrated. But we must not be passive by allowing bitterness to remain as part of Cheshvan’s legacy; that’s Noah’s legacy. It’s a legacy of powerlessness because of acquiescence and silence.
We are the children of Abraham, not Noah. We are the builders of Yerushalayim, not Babel. And we have work to do.
Yosef I. Abramowitz, winner of the Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education, is a member of Kol Dor, serves as co-chair of global Jewish Social Action Month, and is publisher of SocialAction.com, JBooks.com and Sh’ma. This article was commissioned by and reprinted with permission of the Wexner Foundation’s Electronic Beit Midrash.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.