The Ark. The rainbow. The Flood. Themes familiar to all of us from childhood on. This portion commands a sweeping series of stories that speak to so many themes. Yet, look at the beginning and end of the portion, Genesis 6 and Genesis 11. Interesting that the portion beings and ends with a type of destruction. Genesis 6 is the call to Noah to build that Ark as the world had become corrupt. Genesis 11 details the very strange story of the Tower of Babel and the disbursement of the peoples of the earth. It does seem that you can make the argument from just this portion that human beings just cannot exist in harmony, despite the symbol of the rainbow and the Covenant.
What can we of our generation make of some of this? I had a conversation recently with some people who are taking a class I am teaching at a local congregation. The class is on how the liturgy of a Shabbat service can inform us as to values that we can use as we age. We got into a conversation about “mitzvot”. One person was asking about the need to do “tikun olom” (deeds to repair the world) but was being overwhelmed by the sheer need. We went round and round and recalled a passage from Pirke Avot that reminds us that we are not required to save the entire world, just our part of it. Each of us are given the opportunity to do our part in the bringing about of a better world. No need to build a literal Ark, maybe a symbolic one? That Ark may represent an attempt to bring some sense of order to a world gone awry. That Tower may represent the innate desire of mankind to control, when the reality of life is that we are “but dust and ashes”.
So what if all of this for we Boomers? A hint may come from an interpretation of a word in the first line of the portion. In 6:9 we read that Noah was “tamim” which can be translated as “blameless”. One commentary defines “tamim” as one who has “unimpeachable integrity” (Etz Hayim. p.41). Dr Vivian Skolnick, in her commentary sees this word as having a sense of maturity, “a trait associated with being grown up and responsible”. Maybe here is a message for us.
We live in a complex world where confusion and information often overwhelm us. At our age, we have the benefit of life experience and some ability to place things in context. We know we cannot remake the world as at large. We can, however, continue to work to influence the part of the world that we inhabit; attempting to bring order and meaning where chaos and confusion exist. This is not easy. There is confusion all around us, yet we cannot simply destroy the world and start over. A mature approach to all of this may be to take one step at a time, one relationship at a time to bring about a society of real equality. There is not better generation to do this than ours.
Rabbi Richard F Address