Torah Talk – Noah the Designated Driver
“Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations. Noah walked with God”
What a strange journey it must have been for Noah. He is suddenly called upon by God to build an ark (I’m always reminded of the great Bill Cosby routine where Noah says, “God, what’s an ark?”), collect the animals, survive the flood with the animals and his family, and wait until the waters recede. Once on dry land, he plants a vineyard, gets drunk, and has some intimate family dysfunctions revealed. But what do we really know about this man upon whom the destiny of all mankind rested?
The descriptive line about Noah is found above, in the sixth chapter of the Book of Genesis, Verse 9: “Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations. Noah walked with God”. Next week, as we discuss the parsha of Lech L’cha, we will deal with some of the difference between Noah and Avraham in terms of how they journey and relate to God, but the real description of him is that he was “a righteous man, perfect in his generations”. Such a vague comment, and certainly one worth looking at.
The text teaches us that Noah was the best in his generation. The most perfect, righteous being on the planet. But is that really saying so much? After all, this is a generation so abominable that the Creator of the heavens and earth had decided to blot out the entire generation! Was it really such a big deal to be “righteous” in comparison to them? This is one of the great questions that the text is begging us to wrestle with, not only in relation to Noah, but in relation to our own lives in the 21st century.
The community and surroundings of Noah were not an inspiration for good deeds, and Noah was the “righteous” one in that time. And this leads to the question:
Is it easier to be considered righteous when surrounded by evil-doers; or is it easier to be righteous when surrounded by other righteous people?
On the one hand, it’s easy to be the best of a bad lot. You give a little tzedakah in a community where no one is giving and suddenly you are respected as if you were the Moshiach. Even if you only donate a dollar, you are considered a great donor if no one else is giving anything. But at the same time, it’s easy to fall in like the rest of the community and not give charity at all. So to be “righteous” in a group that is less than that can be considered either easy or difficult depending on your viewing perspective.
Conversely, in a community where everyone gives the most tzedakah that they can, it can be challenging to keep up with the norm. Everyone is giving, and it can be difficult to “keep up with the Goldbergs”. And yet, when you hesitate, you are supported by the community in your giving efforts. So again, to be “righteous” in a group that is entirely righteous can be considered either easy or difficult…depending on your viewing perspective.
Our Sages argue about this with regard to Noah. Was it more impressive that he was righteous in that generation of evil, or would he have just been considered an “ok guy” if he had been in a more holy generation? Was it harder for him to excel in his environment, or was it easier to be the best of a group of bad apples? Back and forth our ancestors argue this, never coming to a definitive decision.
But for me, there are practical implications of looking at Noah as the righteous man in a generation of evil. All too often, I am approached by young people wanting to know what they should do, or how they should deal with a group of their peers wanting them to drink; when they know that they will be driving. Sometimes it’s not drinking and driving; but instead is taking drugs, having unprotected sex, or any other type of “risky” behavior. How hard is it for them to be “righteous” when surrounded by others who are not? When asked for guidance, I often to turn to Noah as a role model and suggest that they try to do the best they can, no matter their surroundings.
Some people might say that this is a nice concept, and applicable for a college student, but relatively inapplicable for older adults. And yet, this is simply not the case.
Have you ever thought about “fudging” on your income taxes, even when you know it isn’t exactly true? I mean after all, everyone does, right? Or have you gone to a hotel and taken one of the towels, because “everyone does it, and they even expect it”? What about running a stop sign late at night or early in the morning when no one is around, because “everyone does”? Or not giving charity when needed because, after all, no one else is doing it either so why should you? These are all modern examples of the same issues that Noah dealt with in his time.
Maybe this manifests in another way. Do we forget the needs of our family, friends, or the community in favor of our own agenda? Do we act selfishly without really thinking of others and the future, just because that’s “how everyone is”? Do we forget our core values and instead think of what we can get away with? To paraphrase the famous quote of President Kennedy over 40 years ago, are we asking how we can help others, or only asking how others can help us?
Judaism’s spirituality is based on ethical behavior: doing the right thing because we are told to by God, and because it is simply the right thing to do. Even if all around us are doing evil, we are to be like Noah and be righteous. Even when everyone else is drunk (and it doesn’t matter if they are drunk on alcohol, power, sex, ego, money, or anything else), we as Jews are to be exemplary in our ethical behavior. We, as a group, are to be “righteous people, perfect in our generations”…. Like Noah, we are to be the “designated drivers”.
There is an old story about a Rabbi who was trying to determine which of three disciples would become his main disciple and take his place when he died. He asked the first young man, “If you found a purse with a lot of money in it, what would you do?”
The first young man replied in a holier than thou fashion “I would certainly return it, Master”
“Liar!”, screamed the Rabbi. “You answered too quickly and cannot be trusted”. The Rabbi then asked the same question of the second man, who sheeplishly said, “My Master, I am ashamed, but I would certainly keep the money.”
“Thief!”, cried the Rabbi. “You’re honest, but you’re a gonif!” The Rabbi then asked the question once again to the third disciple.
“Master”, the young man replied, “I would hope that I would have the courage and strength to return the money.”
“You, I can trust” said the old man.
This parsha of Noah begs us to evaluate ourselves, to really take stock in who we really are…in what are our actions really say… to know where we really stand in terms of ethical behavior… no matter what our environment or surroundings. Will we succumb to the “norm” and cheat “just a little bit”, or will we be aware of the challenges, and yet still strive to live ethically? Will we look out for others, or will we hide behind a mask of holiness as we really only think of ourselves and pay attention to our own agenda? How will each of us choose to live as this New Year unfolds?
For Allison and myself, as well as for our sons Benjamin and Jonathan, we are grateful to be part of this community, and pray that we may serve each of you ethically and with joy; with strength and compassion; and that we may have the wisdom and courage to act in ways that bring honor to Ami Shalom, and to the traditions of our ancestors.
May this New Year bring each of us closer in relationship with each other, with our families, with our community, with our synagogue, and with God. May we strive to be righteous, whether we are surrounded by good or not; and May we always be blessed to know that God is there to strengthen and support us in our actions of justice, charity, and love.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
October 23rd, 2020
5th of Cheshvan, 5781