Forgiveness and Mercy

The Torah teaches that there were 10 generations between Adam and Eve (the first humans) and Noah (the human God picks to build an ark and save humanity). In only 10 generations, the Torah tells us, the “earth became corrupt before God, the earth was filled with lawlessness.” In response to this corruption and lawlessness, God decides to put an end to the human race and save only Noah and his family along with a select grouping of other species.

The Rabbis are curious as to what kind of corruption and lawlessness provoked God to such an extreme response. Rashi, one of our tradition’s most famous commentators, gives a fairly predictable answer from a scholar and a Rabbi—idolatry, violence and lewdness. The people were acting out in a Biblical fashion—turning their back on monotheism and forgoing modesty and moral, common decency.

Ibn Ezra, another Medieval commentator, gives a different response. He picks up on the Torah’s emphasis on the words “corrupt before God” meaning, in his interpretation of the words “before God”, corruption in private, the kind that only God really knows about because it’s done in secret.

Perhaps this is the kind of corruption we are becoming more and more familiar with in our time. As “truth” and “facts” become slippery, murkier, harder to discern and even harder to prove, we can relate to the kind of corruption that Ibn Ezra understands—the kind that feels impossible to bring to light and hold to account.

But unfortunately, as we marked last week, the one year anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, we also know the kind of corruption that Rashi describes. Overt violence and hatred, behavior of humanity at its worst.

So we are left with a question: when faced with corruption and violence, both insidious and blatant, what should our response be—as Jews, as citizens of the United States, as proud members of the human race? Should it be to build an ark and save ourselves? Or swear off humanity as hopeless and flawed altogether?

I can certainly relate to God’s feelings of both despair that humanity would ever change its ways and also wanting to shake the Etch-a-Sketch clean and start over with a new human population. But even God learns from God’s own mistakes. Just a few weeks ago on Yom Kippur, we read the story of the prophet Jonah, sent to Nineveh to give its population a chance to repent, to learn, to grow and to improve their behavior. And they do. They successfully change their ways. Instead of wiping them out as in the story of the flood, God offers them another path. Forgiveness and mercy.

So perhaps there is for us too a middle path when it comes to thinking about society and humanity as a whole. Yes, there is corruption and violence in our world. And we hope and pray that there will also be justice for the world’s lawlessness. And yet, in the face of corruption and violence, it is also our job to hope and pray that we will be able to maintain our own humanity and be able to forgive and be compassionate and merciful in our own lives. For as our Rabbis teach us from the Noah story, in a place where there are no human beings (or in a place where people aren’t acting like human beings), you should strive to be a human, a mensch.