This is what I think will be my words in the synagogue tomorrow, October 21, 2023, for Parashat Noach.
When Noach was born, the human world had only just stopped being young. If you do all the math, you see that Adam had lived to see nine generations including his own. I can imagine that people had begun doubting whether Gan Eden had ever existed, whether the ideal mattered anymore, but there had always been Adam to respond. Noach’s generation was the first one who had no Adam, no one with them who could say I saw it with my own eyes, I was there.
The Torah isn’t clear whether humanity’s spiral into violence and lawlessness began before Noach was born, while Adam was still alive. (The Hebrew word for this situation is actually chamas. The name of the terrorist group is actually not related linguistically to the biblical word, but it’s hard to not hear the similiarity.) Whether or not Adam was there as a presence, things were bad enough that Noach was given a burden the moment he was born. His father Lemech named him: Noach, meaning rest. And also he added more layers of meaning -- Zeh y'nachameinu mi-maaseinu u'mei'itzvon yadeinu, min ha-adamah asher eir'rah Adonai. This one will comfort us, or maybethis one will turn us around, because of our deeds, and the sadness of what our hands have done out of this earth that the Divine has cursed (Genesis 5:29).
Imagine being given that name, that hope, right at birth.
Maybe all of Noach’s life or maybe just some of it, the earth was beyond redemption, except without drastic and unthinkable measures.
When the point of no return had been reached, the Torah tells us this about the adult Noach had become: Noach ish tzadik tamim hayah b'dorotav -- Noach, a man, righteous, blameless was he in his generations (Genesis 6:9).
Our medieval guide Rashi says: Some interpret this as praise and some interpret it as an insult. He references this argument in the Talmud about it: Rabbi Yochanan said: Noach was righteous in his generations -- the many generations he overlapped -- but in other generations he wouldn’t have been considered righteous. Resh Lakish says: If Noach could be righteous in the era he was living, when there was not a single other righteous person, how much more so would he have become righteous in any other generation?
Rashi seems to take Rabbi Yochanan’s side, that the Torah is giving Noach faint praise, adding: About Noach the Torah says he walked with God, meaning he needed God’s assistance to be a tzaddik; but about Avraham the Torah says he walked in front of God, by himself. Noach built an ark to save a small number. Avraham argued to save every life in the five most evil cities of the land.
But Resh Lakish stands for the idea that Noach was as righteous as one could be in his time, and that he was righteous enough. You know I don’t use the word “righteous” a lot as a translation for tzaddik, but I think for us today it gets the job done. When you can’t fix everything, or maybe anything, and when there’s nothing to do but gather who you can in an ark -- you gather who you can in an ark, and that’s what it means to be righteous.
As much as we might want to be Avraham, as much as we are sitting today in Beit Avraham after all -- I think we need to consider whether there’s a time to be okay being Noach the way Resh Lakish sees him.
I think about this every year the week of Parashat Noach -- about being a good-enough parent or a good-enough citizen or a good-enough man -- and all this week I’ve been thinking about what it means at the moment to be a good-enough Jew.
It’s only two weeks since the atrocities of Oct. 7. It’s not really two weeks in the past, because it is still happening, funerals and hostages and more rockets and our soldiers and our people displaced from their homes. And in the newnes and the overwhelm, there is so much pressure on Jews to be more righteous than our generation, to be righteous against the standard of a time we’re not in. And that pressure comes from the outside world, and from within our community, and inside our own neshamot and our hearts.
It sure seems that the world expects the Jews to be more perfect than our generation, to be the ones to turn us around from sadness and the terrible deeds that human hands have done in the world.
We Jews are expected to be the best universalists, to look out for every human life as much as those of our own people, while we are in mourning and we are shaking and we are physically overwhelmed.
We Jews are expected to take care of Israeli and Jewish lives, and also to take care of another people whose own leaders aren’t taking care of them and have repeatedly betrayed them and even now put them in harm’s way.
We Jews are expected by the world to be the ones to figure out the solution to complexities of nationalism and democracy, group solidarity and minority rights. Or some people expect us Jews even right now to go first and transcend the nation as the basis for a state, to give that up and be a pilot project in multiethnic democracy, even at the risk of our lives.
We Jews are expected to know how to go from powerlessness to the kind of power we’ve had in the world for maybe half a century, maybe that long, without being affected by the collective trauma of centuries that fifty years does not erase.
We Jews are expected to be the best in the world at wielding ethical power. To decide not to fight a war necessary to defend lives and defend the state, to choose instead to leave in place a group that would do what Hamas did because we might not do it right, or to figure out how to fight a war where innocents on the other side are almost never killed and not fight at all until we’ve figured out how to do that.
And right now it’s just not possible to be expected to be all of these things. I don’t know if you feel those expectations but even if you haven’t articulated them, I think you do feel them. It is exhausting to carry that weight anytime, as we often do, and it’s particularly exhausting right now.
And I think we experience these as impossible pressures because in our neshama we do want to be much of that list. Along with our current agony and along with our collective generational trauma, we have generational idealism, and we don’t want to put in a position right now where it feels like we have to lose it or to have it taken from us by Hamas, or by the harsh hearts of some in the world around us.
I think it’s all right to be Noach as Resh Lakish sees him, and not Avraham, in the context of the current war. Maybe for a week or two, or maybe at moments ahead of us off and on as the war goes on, or maybe through the whole time of this mabul, this Flood.
Some of this pressure to be more righteous than our generation comes from within our group also. I’ve been registering how people seem in conversations the past week or so. It’s dawned on me that we may be putting certain pressures on each other unintentionally.
I’ve noticed that my question to people about who you have right now in Israel and how are they can also be taken as a kind of pressure. Like if you don’t have someone directly who you know, who you’re WhatsApping with regularly, or if you don’t have the name of a hostage that you know, then maybe you don’t have the same right to speak among peole who do.
If you do post something about Israel or Gaza on social media, you have to know the perfect way to say that your concern for Israelis is paramount, otherwise you’re not entitled to speak or raise a question. You have to know the perfectly convincing response to an outrageous post, informed and ethically airtight.
I’m concerned that these kinds of expectations, intentional or unintentional, push some of us away from each other and from the synagogue community. So to everyone within our community I want to say it’s all right as a Jew to be Noach, and to show up to take care of people any way you can.
It’s okay to be Noach, sometimes and more than sometimes. It’s impossible right now to be zen y'nachameinu, the one who will turn everything around. Pirkei Avot 5:2 teaches that there were ten generations from Noah to Avraham, to teach us how patient is the Kadosh Baruch Hu, how patient was the Divine, for as much as the world was infuriating during those times, there would be a generation where Avraham could start to make a difference, and then everything that happened before would not be in vain.
It’s hard to be that patient with ourselves.
And it’s hard to be that patient with others. On Monday and Tuesday I was very off -- I mean we’re all off, but just in my particular way I was off. But the more I tried to take Resh Lakish to heart, the more I could also release my need for all my non-Jewish friends and colleagues to be at the level of Avraham. I started to see and appreciate the Noach-ish things as righteous enough for right now.
I see all the mutual support people are giving here. One parent last Sunday, with very close ties in Israel to Kibbutz Be'eri, said how grateful she was just to sit in a room with other Jews for the first time since it all began.
I sat with a Muslim acquaintance over coffee and we exchanged concerns for each other’s safety in our places of worship, and offered to help protect each other’s communities and to come and teach.
I heard from and had my usual get-togethers with Christian colleagues whose denominations have published statements that sicken me, in underplaying what Hamas has done. I realized that people here didn’t write those, and they are listening to what we say because they know us, and they are reading what I write, and they are worried for us and are not abandoning us.
We learn from the Torah too that there is a certain basic level of righteousness that goes with being a Noach. After the Flood, the Divine says even though the nature of people’s hearts includes harm from when we are young, nonetheless there will be a covenant which our tradition says includes a basic code of seven mitzvot.
So I think we each have to define what it means to be like Noach, righteous for the time we are in and the generations we have been a part of. We have to find a few certainties that we cling to no matter what.
One certainty is chesed. Each of us needs to bind our hearts to a mitzvah of caring, for people here in our Jewish community and in Israel, for anyone at all. Zeh y'nachameinu -- if Noach’s name means simply “this one will comfort us”, we can be a comfort by our presence and our mitzvot. We need to infuse our spiritual bloodstream with chesed; we need that even physically to steady ourselves.
Another certainly is that all people are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image. Rabbi Aryeh Klapper has pointed out that the Torah reteaches this after the Flood, and that the first meaning is that when lives are taken by human hands, they demand justice in response. So lives taken by Hamas require response; it is a moral obligation.
And being a people who believe in Tzelem Elohim means we recognize that when Israelis kill enemies in a just war, it is still a spiritual burden, and it lasts far longer than the war itself. Which is why that burden is shared across society in Israel. It is too much for only a small group to live with.
And Tzelem Elohim means that when innocent civlians are killed in the course of a just war, sometimes their death is not a crime and sometimes their death is a crime, and we remain accountable for the difference, but always their death is a tragedy. When Golda Meir z”l famously said that when peace comes at last, she could forgive the Arabs for killng our children but she could not forgive them for forcing us to kill their children, I think all this is what she was trying to say.
And these kinds of minimal things we can in fact expect from others, to do and to understand. Too many university leaders, by and large, are not doing the minimum for our kids -- not taking care of them, not standing up for a principled understanding of Tzelem Elohim, whatever language they would use for that.
Noach ish tzaddik tamim haya b'dorotav -- Noach was a man, righteous, blameless was he in his generations. I know this community well enough to know that we want to be righteous and we have done so much the past two weeks in that spirit. Thank you. And whatever it is for you to be in this mini-Mabul, flooded emotionally or spiritually or physically, some of the time or all of the time, I hope you’ll let yourself in those moments just be as good as Noach. Get yourself into an ark, take someone in or let someone see you and take you in. That what it means to be righteous in this time.