Have you ever had to make a difficult moral decision that is life-defining but that doesn't have a clear answer? Usually, two deeply held values are revealed to conflict with each other by their very nature. Those are the most difficult ethical dilemmas. To find the answer, you must search your soul and ask yourself who you really are. What do you stand for? What do you choose, and what do you let go?
Noach, in Parashat Noach, found himself faced with such a dilemma:
"When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noach, 'I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood: make it an ark with compartments and cover it inside and out with pitch.'" (Genesis 6:13-14)
Noach was faced with a choice. He had been warned of the impending flood and given instructions to save his family. Does he warn others? Should he try to change God's mind? Or does he start work right away to save his own family?
The ancient rabbis are critical of Noach because he sought to save his family and all animals instead of pleading for the rest of humanity. Later in the Bible, when Abraham was told that God was going to destroy two cities-just two cities- Abraham negotiated until God agreed that if 10 righteous people could be found, the cities would be spared. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his family but spoke up on behalf of the inhabitants of two doomed cities. It should be noted that Abraham's negotiations did not save the cities from destruction. Only Lot, Abraham's nephew, and his two daughters escaped.
Noach, on the other hand, said nothing: "just as God commanded him, so he did." Would it be fair to Noach to judge him for not pushing back? Truth be told, we need both kinds of leaders.
We need leaders like Abraham, who will speak out for what is right. It takes courage to say something, speak truth to power, and challenge the decree as Abraham did. We would be right to be in awe of Abraham's willingness to negotiate on behalf of those who would be killed, but we also need heroes who quietly build what is needed, take on the responsibilities of continuity, and keep the innocent safe. We would also be right to be impressed by Noach's willingness to work hard, collect the animals, and create a safe shelter for his family.
The Reform movement has a long history of social activism in the spirit of Abraham, speaking truth to power. Rabbi Stephen Wise (who founded the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City, which later merged with Hebrew Union College in 1950), for example, was engaged in a range of progressive causes and started the "free synagogue" movement in the U.S. in 1907, arguing for the freedom to address the burning issues of the day from the pulpit. The Reform Movement's Religious Action Center is the heir to this tradition of social action.
But the other type of leader, the one who quietly builds like Noach, has been a part of our Reform history as well: Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, who founded the Hebrew Union College, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (later renamed the Union for Reform Judaism), focused on creating institutions rather than addressing political questions. Today, we have congregations who see it as their mandate to be deeply involved in addressing social inequalities; we also have congregations who avoid the storms of politics to create a haven of calm for their communities. We need both types of congregations to fully appreciate the depth and breadth of our Movement - may we learn from both Noach and Abraham who balance each other out as we create well-rounded communities of belonging.