Noah was a righteous man in his generation (Genesis 6:9). With this famous verse, this week’s Torah portion begins. Commentators have opined for centuries about what this verse means. After all, the world had descended into chaos (6:11), so was Noah just the best of a bad lot, or was he chosen because of his faith and would have stood out in any generation? He is a man of faith who, without question, obeys the command to build the ark. In our own day, how often have many of us wished to be able to escape the chaos and challenges of life in an ark of our making? The messages of this week’s portion are many and meaningful but permit us to ponder another one.
Can we ask this week, who are the righteous people in our generation? In this age of information promiscuity and facts defined by sound bite, where are the voices of reason, the individuals who speak of compassion, reason, and maturity? This portion is the perfect time to ask these questions. There are storm clouds gathering around us. The recent coverage of the frightening rise in antisemitic acts and words should have all of us deeply concerned. So, we can ask, where are those people of righteousness who can serve as guides and role models for all of us. Where is the rhetoric of reason and kindness that allows people to practice civility, even if they have deeply divergent views? Instead of maturing as a society, we seem to be modeling the world of Noah and becoming corrupt.
Ask yourself this Shabbat who, for you, are the voices of reason and compassion. In a recent class, when discussing aspects of this, we looked at a phrase from the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z’l) who coined the term “text-people”. We all have used textbooks to learn from, who are the “text people” who can serve as role models for us now? Can you name a few? One? Who can or could be the Noah for this generation, for us now? We really need to ask that question, especially considering the growing divisions in our country along racial, ethnic, social, and economic lines. Are we descending into real chaos? Are we already there and what kind of “ark” can be constructed to let us emerge from this chaos? We have been blessed with scientific progress and technological brilliance, but, as the portion shows, we have not matured as a society. Even the ark, in a way, fails, for what takes place immediately following the ark’s resting on dry land is an act of family dysfunction and a return to confusion (babel) with the attempt to build a tower again to be as gods. (11:1-9)
Perhaps a theme of this entire portion again may be that to live in society without a grounding in a sense of meaning, or a truth outside of one’s own self is to ultimately be destructive. Hovering over all of this is the command to “listen” to the words of tradition, the idea that to live together we need laws and a sense of direction and mutual respect. If everyone does what everyone wishes whenever they wish, we destroy the very life and world with which we have been gifted.
This portion is another reminder that human beings are constantly being given the possibility to create a world of peace. The authors of the Bible knew, even thousands of years ago, that this will not be easy for the inclination for self-satisfaction is always there. It is, however, in joining hands that we progress to overcome hate, division and fear. We have a lot of work to do and so we need to look for those “text-people” in every age and generation.
Rabbi Richard F. Address
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the Founder and Director of www.jewishsacredaging.com. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a Regional Director and then, beginning in 1997, as Founder and Director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011-2014.