Righteousness and Privilege on Noah’s Ark and Today | Parashat Noach

Weekly D’var Torah Commentary
Parashat Noach (Noah) | Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

This week in the cycle of Torah stories, we meet the infamous character of Noah. You know, the one with the ark. The Torah tells us that Noah was “righteous in his generation” and presumably that’s why God chooses him to build an ark and save every animal species and his own family from a world-devastating flood. But the Rabbis debate how righteous Noah actually was – the kind of righteousness that looks good by comparison or the kind of righteousness that stands the test of time in any generation. Was Noah only worth saving because everybody else in his generation was truly awful and he was the best around? Or, would Noah have been a born leader, blameless and flawless, at any time, even held up to some of Jewish traditions’ greatest like Abraham or Moses?

Personally, I’m not a huge Noah fan. Is it eternally redeeming to be a guy who knows the end of the world is coming and decides to follow God’s precise instructions to build an ark and save his own family, while the rest of humanity drowns? We can understand Noah’s position – when the waters get rough, it’s better to save yourself and a small circle of loved ones. One could argue, how could he possibly have saved everyone? The tiny little ark would have capsized under the weight of so many survivors – so maybe it’s logically better to save only a few, he may have reasoned.

When I watch the news the past few weeks, I feel like Noah on an ark. An ark of liberal New York, an ark of privilege, an ark of preserving the values of decency and the expectations of accountability. I know intellectually there is a flood storming somewhere, but the rain hasn’t actually drenched my own clothes, my own hometown, my own community.

From the dry decks of my own ark, I am wondering: what are my responsibilities to the rest of humanity? What do I owe them? Can my little ark carry them all? What kind of Noah am I – just better by comparison or a true leader that fights the forces of all the floods no matter who else fights alongside me? And furthermore, I could ask – is it enough for all the Noahs in my life, to be blameless and guiltless themselves? To be one of the “good Noahs”? Is there such a thing as a “good Noah”, if people are still drowning?

The Torah ultimately never gives us a definitive verdict on Noah, no matter how much the Rabbis debate. We, the readers and inheritors of his story, can only judge by his actions – he builds the ark, saves a selection of species and goes on to rebuild the human and natural world. I suppose, like any event in human history, his actions can be read and interpreted distinctly by those of different camps: his actions were righteous and enough, his actions were selfish and inadequate.

Much of Jewish tradition would have us believe there is intense beauty and merit in the holding of multiple interpretations at the same time. Perhaps the moral of this story is to balance the preciousness of each human life with the need to preserve something greater for the next generation. Each of us has the chance to be Noah, but how history will view our actions is yet unknown, yet to be written, yet to be interpreted.

Erin Beser is JCP’s Director of Community Learning and Engagement.