Noach: The Right Questions At the Right Time

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

The Torah
portion Noach, as the name [Noach=Noah] indicates, begins with the
choosing of Noach, then continues with God’s instructions to build the
Ark, the flood, and the eventual renewal of humankind. Yet an ancient
question concerning this story points out that God didn’t need to send
a flood to wipe out those doing evil, nor did God need Noach to build
an Ark in order to save him and his family. So why did God tell Noach
to build the Ark?

Rashi, quoting an earlier text, tells us that the building of the Ark
was meant as a public warning to those engaged in violence and
wrongdoing- perhaps they would see Noach engaged in this huge project,
make some inquiries, find out that disaster is on its way, and repent
of their misdeeds, which would presumably avert the flood. (Cf. Rashi
on Bereshit/Genesis 6:14.) This midrash [homiletic interpretation]
changes the tone of the story from one in which an angry God desires
to punish wrongdoers to a story of a patient God desiring that
humankind change from within.

The idea that we are given the capacity for reflection, and the
responsibility to use it, is a fundamental concept in Judaism,
reflected in the positive mitzvah [that is, a commandment to take a
specific action] of confession and “returning,” or t’shuvah. This
mitzvah is based on Bamidbar/Numbers 5:6-7, which says that a person
who wrongs another must confess and take reparative actions. The
Chafetz Chaim* lists confession and t’shuvah as mitzvah #33 on his
list of positive mitzvot, saying that the essence of this commandment
is remorse in the heart and resolve to act differently in the future.
Most commentators also include verbal admission of doing something
wrong, apology, and making amends, when possible, in the practical
application of t’shuvah.

In other words- in Judaism, reflection on one’s deeds and awareness of
their consequences isn’t just a good idea, it’s the law! The mitzvah
of t’shuvah- “returning”- presupposes that nobody is perfect, but
everybody has the capacity for good. We are called to do t’shuvah all
year round, not just before Yom Kippur, because we are all created in
the image of God- the mitzvah teaches us about our potential to lead
lives reflecting the ideals of compassion, justice and truth which are
the core orientations of religious striving.

In summary: if Judaism didn’t believe that every person can grow in
awareness, sensitivity, responsibility and compassion, we wouldn’t
have a mitzvah to reflect on our actions, apologize when necessary,
and think hard about the ways we’d like to be in the future. It
shouldn’t take somebody building an Ark in his backyard to get us to
ask a few basic questions- but in our day, the questions are for each
person to ask him or herself. But as in ancient times, the answers can
return us to becoming our truest selves.

Shabbat Shalom,


* R. Israel Meir HaKohen Kagan, d.1933- this year we will frequently
refer to his short book listing the mitzvot operative in the Diaspora.

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