Each week IPA Deputy Director of Public Policy Howie Beigelman takes a look at the weekly parsha and discusses it in a way you may never have seen. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official psak or policy of the OU.
Noach 5771: Just Doing His Job
There’s an old story of the man who survived the famous flood at Johnstown (the 1898 flood was an awful natural disaster, claiming over 2,200 lives). For the rest of his life, this man would tell everyone about the flood and his experiences in it. When he died, he was offered the opportunity to address the heavenly host and he said he’d like to speak about the Johnstown flood. The reply was, “Sure, but just do remember that Noah will be in the audience.”
Al Gore, as Vice President of the United States told over a version of this story when he addressed the Orthodox Union’s centennial dinner 1998. The story has more than a few messages, but I got to thinking of it when a good friend mentioned to me that this will be the “bar mitzvah” anniversary of his first, voluntary and knowing entrance into a synagogue on Shabbat. Imagine the first Torah portion you ever hear read aloud in synagogue is Noach. What do you think? How do you respond? It’s a story that raises many questions.
George Orwell noted about our military, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” (Jack Nicholson, in a Few Good Men, has a slightly more crazed version of this that essentially makes the same point.) We would say not only because they are ready, but because they actually do commit violence. They likely regret the need for their very existence and the tasks – the orders – they find it necessary to carry out. But they know that the peacemaking and society building, the child raising and the healing that occur back home occur because of their watch.
We think Noah – Noach – is very much the same. He gets, in the traditional commentaries, a bad rap. He is held to either be only righteous in comparison to his own generation’s evil ways. Or, we are told, if he lived ten generations later, he’d be even a greater individual due to the influence of Abraham. He is criticized for not going out of the ark on his own accord. He is held liable for failure to feed the lion on time and he is held liable for not taking any time during his decades long ark building project to try and sway his fellow men and women back to the right path.
But in heaven, at least if our Johnstown anecdote is true, and if Mr. Orwell is right, Noah gets his reputation back. And we think that’s only fair. Because poor Noah was just doing what he was supposed to. The Chief Rabbi of England, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues Noah should have been more proactive. The Talmud questions Noah on his lack of initiative. And these are all valid questions. But we think that Noah’s first responsibility was to the task at hand.
Noah was charged with building an ark, ensuring every cubit of it was watertight, loading it with enough food to last – well no one actually told him how long it was supposed to last – counting out pairs (or sevens) of every insect, mammal and bird, squaring them away safely and securely and getting his immediate family on board without being massacred by the locals. In short, he was ordered, by G-d Himself, to rescue the whole of the animal kingdom and be the salvation of mankind. That’s a lot of work for just one man – even if the wife and kids pitched in.
And Noah succeeded. Betting parlors the world over probably wouldn’t have given him very good odds. The spread was probably by HOW MUCH he’d fail. But he doesn’t fail. The world is destroyed by G-d, and it is rebuilt because of Noah.
Surely, he felt a tinge of regret or a twang of doubt regarding the wholesale destruction of his neighbors, writ large. But that wasn’t his task. His task was preserving and protecting a remnant of all so that, finally, when it is all over, there could – there would indeed be a tomorrow.
Someone had to do Noah’s job. And that someone, Noah must have thought, is Noah himself. Preaching repentance to sinners was someone else’s and while it was a good idea, a worthy goal, and a fervent wish, it just wasn’t his to realize. Working on himself to be better and more righteous would be great, if only he had the time – but he had an ark to build. Proactively leaving the ark is fine for someone who doesn’t have any responsibility, but Noah had the care of all living creatures in his hand and on his conscience.
We think in heaven, he is getting congratulated for a job well done.
In our own lives as well, we ought to think of course how we can grow and change, but also how to ensure that what is ours to do – especially when it is ours alone – is actually done. That is the lesson of Noah.
Words to consider, ideas to ponder – politics & the parsha