Noach: A World Before Us

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

“And on the seventh day the waters of the Flood came upon the earth.. . . “  (Bereshit/ Genesis 7:10)

Well, it’s late on Friday afternoon and it seems that the waters of the flood are being unleashed on Poughkeepsie today, but hopefully things will clear up within a shorter time than 40 days.

Most readers will know the basic outline of the Flood story: Noach is picked to build a vessel in which to preserve the biodiversity of the earth when humankind is punished for its corruption. Now, there are all kinds of logical and theological problems with the narrative, so it’s perhaps helpful to understand this as a psychological parable, posing a pressing question: when will humankind take seriously the consequences of its choices, and who will speak up in a world gone mad?

The ancient rabbis portray the generation of the Flood as corrupt and violent, seeking to cheat each other out of even trivial amounts, each person wanting only more for themselves and incapable of putting the common good over personal gain. On the other hand, they also see the building of the Ark as a public service announcement, a warning to that wicked generation that disaster awaits without a collective moral renewal. Along those lines, there’s a subtle midrash, found in the Talmud but quoted in the Torah Temimah, that calls attention to the unexplained seven-day period between Noach entering the Ark and the beginning of the Flood. (See verse above.)

The ancient rabbis offered several explanations for that week-long waiting period, but one that caught my eye imagines that the Holy One offered the inhabitants of the world a taste of the World to Come, so they’d know what they were missing. (Presumably, the wicked generation of the Flood lost their share in the World to Come in their stubborn refusal to repent or take heed of the warning Noach was acting out in building the Ark.) To me, this midrash captures the timeless tragedy of the story: even experiencing something close to paradise, we are often unable to truly appreciate or preserve what makes a decent life possible. We think the good times will go on forever, not realizing that our own actions, as individuals and collectively, undermine our goals and dreams.

Thinking globally, we might note that the planetary upheaval of the Flood is hardly the realm of myth in an age of climate change and environmental crisis. We live the good life, almost the paradise of heaven, but there may soon come a reckoning, and we can’t say we weren’t warned. On a smaller scale, we note that communities, companies, organizations, families and individuals typically resist changes until it’s too late. It might be the state of our relationships, finances, health or spirit, but the principle is the same: it’s all too human to put off till tomorrow the change that needs to happen today.

Yet the story of Noach, while a warning, is ultimately hopeful. The story ends with renewal and the powerful image of all humankind being descended not from the corrupt generation but the righteous exception. We don’t have to fall into the trap of self-deception like Noach’s peers; we have instead the story to guide us, to awaken us, to prick our bubbles and pull us towards the gift of introspection and the possibility of growing and learning. The Flood story asks the question: who shall speak up in a world gone mad? and provides its own answer: each one of us can be the saving force of our times.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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