At the beginning of Parashat Noach , it is apparent that the earth and everything living on it are in need of serious transformation. We read: "The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with violence" and ". . . all flesh was acting in a corrupt way upon the earth" (Genesis 6:11-12). Something had to be done.
The account of Noah and the ark is one example of how to bring about change in a system-throw everything out and start all over again. God washes away the world as it existed before the Flood and restarts it with the only person he finds to be righteous in that generation. Some might say that God is successful in bringing about change; yet it might not be the model we want to emulate in our own congregations. Still, there is much we can learn from this biblical text when we need to help our communities move from one "place" to another.
We see that each "character" in the story has a part to play in the change process:
The Change Agent….. Noah
The Congregation…….Noah's Family, the Animals
The Ark…………………Supporting Infrastructure
The transformation process begins with God envisioning a better world-or at least a world without corruption-and then sharing that vision with Noah. Noah then commits himself to God's vision (as if he had a choice) and becomes the main agent for change. Noah turns immediately to building the ark-the infrastructure that will support the transformation.
Noah's so busy with the details of building the ark and collecting the animals that he doesn't take time to ask others to help him with this overwhelming project. Noah doesn't try to convince others to change their evil ways, in order to change God's mind about destroying the world. Noah certainly isn't like Abraham bargaining with God to save the innocent among the wicked in Sodom and Gomorrah. But Noah's out there building this huge ark; someone must have noticed and asked him about it. According to my favorite modern midrash on this text by Bill Cosby, everyone notices and laughs at crazy Noah, but the conversation Noah has with his neighbor exemplifies Noah's lack of interest in spreading the word:
Neighbor: . . . Listen, what is this thing for anyway?
Noah: I can't tell you. Ha, ha, ha!
Neighbor: Well, I mean, can't you give me a little hint?
Noah: You wanna a hint?
Neighbor: Yes, please.
Noah: How long can you tread water? Ha, ha, ha!
(Bill Cosby, Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow Right!, audio CD [Warner Bros., 1995])
Noah does nothing to bring others into this transformation process, to publicize God's vision, or to help others see the need for change. Finally, with or without a following, time has run out. The rain starts falling, and Noah jumps into the sea of change. He doesn't know where he and his family will end up; he only knows that he can't stay where he is.
Well, the world is definitely transformed by the Flood, but it is questionable as to whether anything really changes. Does the world that God envisioned come to be after the Flood? Does the process work? When we look around us, does the world we live in seem so much better than the pre-Flood world? While there is lots of good mixed in with the corruption in our world today, I wouldn't want to be asked for the percentages. So where does the transformation process fail? Let's look at the steps laid out in Genesis and see if we can find the problem:
God envisions a different future.
God convinces Noah to commit to that vision and to be an agent of change.
Noah alone builds an infrastructure to support the process.
Noah jumps into the ark and sets sail.
It seems that the breakdown occurs in step 3. God has already decided that no one was worth saving aside from the representative humans (Noah and his family) and animals. However, Noah as the change agent has the option of bringing others into the process. But he doesn't; he does everything himself. This transformation process was very top-down-there is no grassroots coalition building here.
So what do we learn about changing the world-or our piece of it? What do we need to remember when our congregations are faced with the opportunity to transform some part of communal life? Remember the lessons Torah teaches us through Noah and the ark:
A vision is needed-a picture of what could be.
A change agent is needed-someone who will orchestrate the details of the transformation.
Wholesale change may not work-incremental change may be longer lasting.
But the most important lesson we learn is that even when you have the most glorious vision for the future, the most industrious change agent, and the most meticulous plans, the community must be engaged in and part of bringing that change about in order for it to be successful. May this New Year bring you and your congregation a renewed sense of purpose, vision, and experimentation along with the commitment to building consensus and working together.
At the time of this writing in 2006, Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman was the director of the Department of Worship, Music & Religious Living at the Union for Reform Judaism.