Parasha Noah

Servant or Partner? We are smack in the middle of the college football season and talk has begun about who is a candidate for the Heisman Trophy, the award for the best player in college football. Geno Smith, the quarterback for West Virginia, is a leading candidate for the award.  However, his team suffered a humiliating 49-14 loss to Texas Tech, and Smith had a below par game, passing for only 275 yards and one touchdown. Smith has completed over 75% of his passes this season over 6 games, but in the Texas Tech game he completed only 52% of his passes.  This led ESPN sports curmudgeon Skip Bayless to say about Smith, “He is a great quarterback on a mediocre team.  Just think how much greater he could be if he were on a good team.” Perhaps more than in any other sport, the people who surround you on the football field are crucial to a player’s effectiveness and ultimate success on the field.  Because of the team that Geno Smith plays on, he may not get the award as the best college football player in the land.  He may never reach his full potential as a college football player.  Something similar to that reasoning is operating as the rabbis evaluate Noah.  In the beginning of our Parasha, the Torah describes Noah as “a righteous man – he was complete in his age – Noah walked with G-d.”  Some rabbis interpreted this to mean that Noah was righteous compared to others of his generation. Had he lived in any other generation, he would not have been considered righteous at all.  In other words, he was head and shoulders above everyone else, but everyone else was hopelessly flawed.  Other rabbis, however, interpret this to mean that Noah was righteous despite the corrupting influences of the generation in which he lived.  This is especially praiseworthy. Had he had better people surrounding him, he could have achieved even greater heights. Whether in team sports or in life, the people who we surround ourselves with really matter.  They can either support us to reach our full potential, or they can hold us back so we can never truly become our best selves.  The rabbis advised, in the collection “Pirke Avot” that one should “uproot oneself to a place of Torah, and do not say that it will come after you.  Only with a community can your study be fortified.”  One cannot be a Jew alone, in isolation.  In using the term “uproot oneself” the rabbis are acknowledging that at times one has to overcome inertia to be a part of a Jewish community.  We have to uproot ourselves from in front of the television, uproot ourselves from our couch, uproot ourselves from our daily routine to make Jewish participation and study a regular part of our lives.  As the midrash says, “If a person does not come after words of Torah, it is unlikely that words of Torah will come after him.”  If we fail to pursue a Jewish life, a Jewish life will not pursue us, and we will not be complete. The Torah describes Noah as walking WITH G-d and “being complete”.  In contrast, G-d says to Abraham in next week’s parasha, “Walk BEFORE me and become complete”.  This difference in wording gives us a clue to Noah’s character.  With Noah, there doesn’t appear to be any room for growth.  Noah is already complete.  Noah is a finished product.  What we see is a man totally submissive to G-d.  G-d tells Noah that G-d is going to destroy the world and he should build an ark. Noah doesn’t argue with G-d about the justice or wisdom of this plan. Noah does not try to get his community to repent and thereby avoid destruction. Noah just builds an ark. G-d tells Noah to load his family into the ark, along with two of every kind of animal.  Noah carries out that order too. He doesn’t protest that the animals will be smelly and noisy!  Nowhere do we see Noah engaging in any kind of dialogue with G-d.  Noah does what he is told. Even in the construction of the ark we glimpse Noah’s submissiveness.  The ark is not really a boat. Rabbi Baruch Melman points out that if we look at the instructions in the Torah, the ark is built in a rectangular shape, with square edges and a flat bottom.  The ark is more like a “tub” than it is a boat – in fact, the word “tub” may have its origins in the Hebrew word for ark – teba”.  The ark has no steering mechanisms.  It will float, but it cannot be guided by Noah.  This is in keeping with Noah’s character – he is perfectly comfortable with his journey being completely guided by G-d. Here is a difference between Noah and Abraham.  Noah walks “with G-d” – Abraham walks “before G-d”.  This conjures up an image of the child who doesn’t want to hold his parents hand.  He wants independence.  Abraham does listen to G-d – after all, he does leave his homeland to travel to Canaan at G-d’s command. But when he gets there, he finds a famine in the land. He decides, on his own, to descend to Egypt. While there, he realizes that he and his wife are physically vulnerable, and he devises a plan to protect themselves –without any input from G-d.  When he returns to the land of Canaan there are problems between him and his nephew Lot.  Abraham comes up with a solution without G-d advising him. When Lot is taken captive in war, Abraham doesn’t wait around for G-d to tell him what to do. Abraham saddles up 318 men and rides to the rescue.  When G-d tells Abraham that he will have a child with Sarah his wife, Abraham laughs at the preposterous thought of such elderly people having a child.  He responds with an alternative suggestion – “Let my son Ishamael live by your favor!”  By the time G-d contemplates the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah, G-d cannot imagine carrying out the plan without first sharing it with Abraham.  Abraham has become a true partner with G-d.  Abraham even convinces G-d not to destroy the cities if there can be found ten righteous people living in them. I cannot imagine Abraham getting into a boat that he could not steer. We Jews are the Children of Abraham.  It is Abraham, not Noah, who serves as our model for a relationship with G-d.  It is partnership with, not submission to, G-d that is our guiding principal in our relationship to the divine.  When Abraham heard that his nephew Lot had been kidnapped, he did not throw up his hands and say, “Well, that must be part of G-d’s plan.”  When G-d shared with Abraham that He was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham did not respond “Thy will be done”.  That was Noah’s way, not Abraham’s way.  We Jews are not so much servants of G-d, like Noah, as we are partners with G-d, like Abraham.  We are partners with G-d in bringing G-d’s holiness into our world.  In working to do so, we, like Abraham, can grow to become more complete human beings.   Shabbat Shalom                                                                                                               Friday, October 19, 2012