The story of the Flood in the Torah is pretty straightforward. One person and, in the ultimate act of nepotism, the rest of his family, are deemed the only ones worthy of being saved from the catastrophic flood to come. Give or take a menagerie of animals.
Noah is not given any impression that his opinions would be welcome nor are we given any indication of what he thinks about the snuffing out of the breath of all humanity outside his own house. If it were not for later rabbinic and traditional commentary, we might not even ask if the man found blameless in his generation should be held to task for not doing something in the face of mass extermination. There are, however, just such interpretations such as the Chasidic master Menachem Mendel of Kotsk who called Noah a tzaddik im peltz, a righteous person in a fur coat. He explained that unlike Abraham, who used his resources to build a bonfire to keep the whole world warm (Kotsk was significantly colder than Canaan), Noah used his only to keep himself warm.
I have always gravitated to this idea, ramping up human responsibility as a value over obedience. I have, however, come to see the other side of Noah.
He was surrounded by the lawlessness and constant violence of a world so evil that its Creator had come to wipe it away. And according to the Torah he found favor and walked with G*d. Perhaps he just held on more to a higher purpose and resisted falling into the murderous rampage around him. Perhaps he only managed to be that much more mindful of the sanctity of life while others did not take it into consideration. Perhaps G*d just liked walking with him.
Whatever the relationship, we will never know what would have resulted from his refusal to allow G*d to seal him in an ark while so many perished or, for that matter, if he did protest and the results were not recorded. The story sits in its silence. The One Who Made Us in the very Divine image, finding the world wicked and irredeemable, proceeded to open the sluice gates and let the world drown.
So why do the Kotsker and other sources take Noah so much to task? The point being made is not the judgment of Noah, who faced an impossible situation, but to make sure that we know that our connection to other human beings is not waived even when circumstances demand actions that lead to terrible loss.
For me and for many of us, the vicious assault and sustained threat to Israel demands actions be taken, primarily in Gaza, that have and will result in a scale of loss of life and cause of misery that I have the blessing of not being able to imagine. There are many reasons to want to ignore or minimize this, perhaps chiefly because there are so many who are unmoved by or even cheer on the slaughter, torture, and abduction and cruel captivity of Israelis. How could we acknowledge that Palestinians are experiencing unbearable losses without lending ourselves to this unconscionable attitude toward Israelis and Jews? Especially as so many of us are or know well those whose families continue to live under threat and whose children are the ones called upon to risk their lives to do the fighting and therefore the killing.
Even deeper than this challenge is an inescapable human dilemma: what makes us capable of recognizing the Divine image in another not only can inspire righteousness but a crippling distress. And, like Noah, this distress may well be in the face of something we can do nothing to change.
Ultimately for me, the story of Noah, under the surface of this account of salvation and destruction, teaches about those times when we are sealed in a box with almost no point of entry for light while others are suffering. We can lean into the wickedness on which the suffering is built, the anguish of knowing that the breath of life is perishing or the numbness of realizing that the storm will rage regardless. Or, like me and I imagine many of us, all three and many more emotions in their turn.
The only takeaway from this for me is that while I stand against those whose hate for us leads them to care nothing about the savage actions of Hamas and I urge that we not become oblivious to the tragedy befalling so many Palestinians, I find room for those who are in the same kind of ark that I am and may feel differently than me. Those who lift up their voice now on behalf of Palestinians and insist that the suffering in Gaza is quite real. Those who can’t hear those voices now because of how focused we must be on Israel’s resolve to remove Hamas and return the hostages home. And those who must find a way to get through this storm, looking for that little light even as the ark shakes mightily and so many drown.
Michael Bernstein, a Rabbi, has served since 2009 as Rabbi of Congregation Gesher L’Torah, a vibrant and dynamic Synagogue community in north Atlanta where each person’s story is embraced and Judaism is personal. He was ordained as a conservative Rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1999. He and his wife Tracie have three children, Ayelet, Yaron and Liana.