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Compassion: Innate or Learned?

  • Compassion: Innate or Learned?

    Noach, Genesis 6:9−11:32
D'var Torah By: 

While just last week we read about the creation of the world, this week in Parashat Noach we read about the Flood that destroys it. It is up to Noah and his family to reestablish the world after God promises not to destroy the earth again by flood and creates a rainbow as a sign of that covenant.

This parashah also contains the story of the Tower of Babel. Before they decided to build a tower that would reach the heavens, all of the people on earth spoke one language. As a result of that action, God created different languages so that people could no longer communicate and then scattered them "over the face of the earth." (Genesis 11:19)

There are two main issues that I wish to address. One is Noah's rightful place as a leader in our history and the other is the severity of God's actions in response to the misbehavior of human beings. When trying to determine what Noah's rightful place is, we should keep in mind that there are only six Torah portions named after a person. Consequently, this should make us think about the importance of these people. Neither Abraham nor Moses has a portion named after him, but Noah does. Why? The Torah tells us that "Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age [generation]; "Noah walked with God." (Genesis 6:9) He does what God asks him to do, no questions asked. Noah knows about the suffering and death that would come with the waters of the Flood, yet not only does he not try to talk God out of it—as Abraham later does when God is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah—Noah doesn't even bother to warn his closest friends and relatives. I wonder if he would have even saved the animals had God not specifically told him to do so. In The Voice Still Speaks (Bloch: New York, 1969), Rabbi Morris Adler points out, "A great leader is not only a person of ideas, not only a person of personal integrity and devotion, but also a person of tenderness, a person of compassion."

Oftentimes we compare God's relationship with the people of Israel to that between a parent and a child. Although it is true that a nation was chosen to live by God's commandments only several generations later, starting with Abraham and Sarah, Noah's generation is still God's creation. How could a compassionate Parent and Creator respond so harshly to His/Her children's mistakes? One answer is that while God created human beings in God's image, they are also given free will, the choice to pick between good and evil. Noah's generation chose evil. Did God do anything to help them change their ways? Maybe God was hopeful that by the time Noah was done building the huge ark, the people would repent. The bottom line is that just like human beings who are created b'tzelem Elohim, "in God's image," but still make mistakes, God made a big mistake by destroying all of God's own creation. Although God's punishment of Noah's generation was based on justice and righteousness, we find no mention in the Torah of God's compassion for the infants, animals, trees, and other species that were wiped out by the Flood. But God learns from this mistake and to show that it will never be repeated, God sends the rainbow.

May we always learn from our mistakes, strive to be righteous, pursue justice, and show compassion toward all people and all of God's creation.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Is it important that a leader be compassionate? Which of today's leaders do you consider to be compassionate?
  2. Who are some truly compassionate people that you know? Why did you choose them?
  3. In what ways have you shown compassion toward others?

At the time of this writing in 2000, Elizabeth Bloch was serving as the director of education at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, MI, and on the Board of the National Association of Temple Educators (NATE).

The Rainbow: An Infinite Array of God's Creativity
Davar Acher By: 
Arnold Sleutelberg

Parashat Noach offers us a glimpse into a special world—that of a family whose mission it was to repopulate the earth. It's a fascinating account of separation and divergence, of colonizing every corner of the earth with linguistic and cultural differences. In fact, it's a saga of the development of freedom&mdash:freedom to be the person God created you to be.

Why did God choose a rainbow as the sign of an enduring covenant to never again destroy the world? (Genesis 9:9-17) Why did God introduce the concept of human uniqueness, yea the blessing of diversity? It is no coincidence that group after group has chosen the rainbow as its symbol of freedom—freedom to be who they are and accept others for who they are.

From the Rainbow Coalition to the Rainbow Gathering to the Gay Lesbian Bi and Transgender community, the rainbow, with its spectrum of infinite colors, communicates inclusion, variety, and beauty. Without its infinite variety of color, the rainbow would not be so incredible. In fact, the rainbow tells us that there is a spectrum of possibilities and that God wants us to share the freedom of acceptance and inclusion that the variety of creation brings to the fabric of our lives.

God's world is full of so many colors, shapes, styles, functions, purposes, and textures, and this is precisely what makes the world so amazingly beautiful. We travel the earth to witness for ourselves the great variety of human, animal, and plant species and of landscapes. We crave the familiar and the exotic at the same time. Not all of us, however, value both. In fact, xenophobia is a debilitating disease for many and a nuisance for others. Many live in fear of otherness. They want their world to be uniform, suppressing any type of distinction. In fact, just a few generations after Noah and his children scattered throughout the world bringing about great creative diversity, Nimrod decides that creativity and diversity are a menace. As Rabbi Matis Weinberg shares in his commentary on Genesis called FrameWorks, "Nimrod advocates for the single-mindedness of the straight and narrow Tower,?[which] would have indeed been the end of Creation; it was truly the ultimate evil purpose." For thousands of years, others have adopted Nimrod's myopia and transformed it into evils of their own. Anyone or any tyrant who tries to undermine God's diverse creation by demanding uniformity and suppressing creative expression is clearly violating God's law.

From the knowledge that God required Noah to save all creatures in their infinite diversity (Genesis 7:1-3), we learn that all of God's creatures are precious and have a right to exist. Every culture, every religion, every sexual orientation, every race, every ideology has a right to exist as long as it does not infringe on another's right to do so. May the freedom guaranteed by God through the covenant of the rainbow guide our own sensitivities as we endeavor to be ever more inclusive and appreciative of the variety of God's creations.

Questions for Discussion

  1. The aftermath of the Flood would have been the perfect time for God to unify humankind. However, not only did God choose to separate people into nations and tribes and give them divergent cultures and languages, God also destroyed Nimrod's attempt to unify them. Why do you think that God chose in favor of diversity?

  2. What are the pros and cons of diversity compared with those of unity? In your opinion, does unity lead to more peace or more divisiveness?

  3. Why is the rainbow the perfect symbol for our covenant with God?

At the time of this writing in 2000, Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg was serving as the spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy, MI, and on the staff of Albion College.

Reference Materials: 

Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 57-91; Revised Edition, pp. 57-83; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 35-58