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
- Is it important that a leader be compassionate? Which of today's leaders do you consider to be compassionate?
- Who are some truly compassionate people that you know? Why did you choose them?
- 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).