Noah: On taking action before it becomes too late


Genesis 6:9-11:32

Isaiah 54:1-55:5

This week's Torah portion, Noah, points out a human frailty and teaches an important lesson about compassion.

The author of the text comments on Noah's personality, calling him "a righteous man in his generation." The rabbinic tradition explained that the words "in his generation" teach that Noah was not an outstanding individual.

In fact, Noah provides the biblical reader with the first recorded instance of drunkenness and incest. Furthermore, in spite of his constructing an ark, keeping it afloat for 40 days, saving a pair of every kind of creature and rescuing a remnant of humanity, Noah was perceived as callously indifferent to the destruction of humanity.

It is only in comparison to the depraved members of his society that Noah's character was held to be meritorious. For these reasons the Bible does not wholeheartedly endorse Noah.

When God revealed His plan to destroy humanity, Noah had no reaction to this devastating news. He received the instructions and dutifully executed God's orders regarding construction of the ark and assembling the animals and people that would inhabit it. Yet Noah did not plead on behalf of the wicked or even the righteous.

Perhaps Noah's obedience and his failure to question God's plans would have been more understandable if we were not able to compare Noah to Abraham, who confronted God with the injustice of His planned destruction.

When Abraham learned of God's plan to destroy the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, he objected: "Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" (Genesis 18:23, 25).

When he could not find the 50 righteous people on whose account God would have saved the cities, Abraham continued to bargain with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah.

By contrast, Noah's indifference so enraged the rabbis of later generations that the authors of the Zohar created a dialogue that they believed should have been included in the biblical text: After the flood was over and Noah had released all the animals, he and his family stood on dry ground.

Surveying the devastation, Noah asked: "God, how could you have done this? How could you have allowed all of humanity to be swept away by this flood?" God thundered back: "Fool! I described at length what I planned to do before the flood so that you might ask mercy for the world. But as soon as you heard that you would be safe in the ark, the evil of the world did not touch your heart. You built the ark and saved yourself. Now that the world has been destroyed you ask questions and offer pleas? Where was your compassion and pity when it could have made a difference…Noah, you are too late!"

The author of the biblical Noah narrative could not deal with the concept of an "unmoved mover," a God disinterested in the destiny of humanity. Therefore, he infused a sense of wrongdoing and even a belated sense of compassion into the character of God by having Him state: "Never again will I destroy all of humankind." Perhaps we can accept procrastination or indifference in Noah, but how do we forgive God?

The Noah story bids us to think about our lives and about what we might do when we are called upon. Do we just sit idly by and wait until it is too late to take any action? Do we leave it to someone else? Do we say, "What difference can I make?" Or do we spring into action? The prophetic tradition is one of speaking out, of taking a stand against the world's injustices, of not waiting until it is too late.

The message of Noah's procrastination and indifference to human suffering is simple: Time is not on our side and we cannot leave everything up to God. Each of us has a responsibility, not only to ourselves and our family, but also to our religion and our community. That responsibility demands that we not sit idly by when our neighbors suffer. We cannot be silent.

The Noah narrative and its depiction of a cold-hearted, procrastinating man and an indifferent, merciless God bring three rabbinic dicta to mind.

The first speaks to our need to find the humanity that dwells within us: "In a place in which there are no men, strive to be a man" (Pirke Avot II.6).

The second evokes the danger of procrastination and of losing an opportunity: "The day is short, the work is great, the laborers are lazy, the reward is great and the Master is impatient" (Pirke Avot II.20).

Finally, we find this dictum: "It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it" (Pirke Avot). These words make us realize that each of us has a stake in protecting and preserving humanity.

As we consider Noah and his times, let us acknowledge the rapid passage of time and our own responsibility to speak out and serve — before it is too late.