Helping the Torah teach a lesson...
October 28, 2022 | 3rd of Cheshvan, Parashat Noach 5783 / פָּרָשַׁת נֹחַ
Dear Beit Rabban Community,
In this week’s parashah we are told that Noach was a “tzadik,” a righteous person. Whether he was righteous by objective standards or just in contrast to his awful generation, he remains the unusual person in the Torah to be described as a “Tzadik.” Ironically, I think of Noach as one of the worst Jewish role models in all of our biblical stories. That’s saying a lot given that the Torah does not shy away from describing moral failures. The reason I find Noach so reprehensible is that he is not proactive in any way, he does what he is told, no more no less, and asks no questions. Our other biblical figures take action. Some argue directly with God like Avraham and Moshe, and some simply take the law into their own hands like Rivka. But, they all take action. Noach, in contrast, remains tunnel vision focused on the technicalities of ark building while standing idly by the blood of his neighbors. His neighbors being the entirety of humanity.
When I learned Parashat Noach as a child it always included the part where Noach spends an eternity building the ark and simultaneously trying to warn his neighbors of the upcoming flood, urging them to join him through repentance. This is the story I would expect from a biblical character who goes on to repopulate the entire world from his progeny. This is a more moral story, in line with the Jewish value to take action… to not stand by idly by the blood of others, to move stumbling blocks from the path of the sightless, to begin the work even if you can’t finish it. However, close readers of the text will not find this narrative at all in the Torah. Noach doesn’t say anything during the entire parashah- not to his neighbors and not to God- until the very end of the story when he blesses and curses his children.
Various commentators step up to add color to the story of the flood. They teach that Noach spent years trying to get the people to join him and be saved. Having not repented, they shook the ark so badly that the animals attacked them and killed them all. As it turns out, Noach tried all he could, and even when they came to join with their evil ways it was not he who turned them away but rather the animals. Other commentators explain that Noach was reluctant to enter the ark even as the water started falling because he believed that God would not destroy humanity as long as he was outside the ark. He stayed out to protect others.
I love these additions, and it is not because they eliminate or minimize the moral issues in the story. Quite the opposite, I love them because they identify the moral issues and then grapple with them. The potential for the reader to come away with the "do as you are told, ask no questions, and save yourself only" lesson is unacceptable to the commentators. That can’t be the lesson the Torah is teaching, and so they help the Torah teach a slightly different lesson.
What a beautiful thing: to help the Torah teach a lesson.
How lucky we are to come from a tradition that models deep respect for our text, the importance of living by it not just studying it, and the responsibility to struggle to keep it moral and true.
This is an incredible pedagogical asset to Jewish educators. We are blessed with an old tradition that engages with our text, its stories, and laws as a living thing- a tradition that fully embraces and even highlights those who identify the moral questions and seek to understand and explain them. As Jewish educators it allows us to affirm our students’ questions from a place of deep authenticity. When they question our texts - even questioning the moral lessons - they are acting on an age-old Jewish tradition and thereby more deeply connecting to our texts. In other traditions this could be understood as an act of rebellion, warranting rebuke or worse. For us, it warrants nachas. And, in turn, the child who questions feels embraced and celebrated for their engagement, for their role in continuing our tradition as the great rabbis did before us.
That’s what we try to do. It is one of the areas in which I consistently see evidence of our values alive and well in our classrooms. And I’m pretty sure it’s one of the pedagogical approaches that is most critical to our people’s continuity.
Wishing all a restful and rejuvenating Shabbat,