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11/01/2022 02:57:54 PM


Rabbi Batsheva Appel

When it comes to gifts for young children, Noah’s ark is a favorite.  We decorate children’s bedrooms with Noah’s ark.  We buy children’s books about Noah’s ark.  We give them play sets of Noah’s ark.  It might be because it is a bible story that everyone knows.  It might be because it is a story that has so many animals in it.  And it is very easy to buy things pertaining to Noah’s ark for children. 

What is it about the story that we want them to know?  If we look at the narrative very closely, it doesn’t seem to be appropriate for small children, after all a story about the destruction of the entire earth by a flood is somewhat more traumatic and violent than say the death of Bambi’s mother.  The presence of all sorts of cute animals doesn’t change that fact.    

It can’t be that Noah’s ark is a warning on what will happen if they don’t behave.  The people in the story are not just naughty, they are corrupt; in fact, they are so awful, they corrupt the earth itself, which is why God decides on a flood.  Besides, at the end of the story, God promises never to flood the earth again, so using the story to teach good behavior seems over-the-top.  Adults definitely need to remember that we can corrupt the earth by our actions, but what do we want children to know?  

It can’t be that we want them to be just like Noah.  Maybe that is the lesson, because we don’t want them to be like Noah. Yes, Noah is considered righteous in his time and is described as someone who “walked with God” [Genesis 6:9].  And even with walking with God, we want more for our children.  We want them to grow up to be people who not only are conscious of their relationship with God but work to help others.  We want them to speak out when they know that something is wrong. Noah does not do that. 

Noah only saves his family and there is no sense that he in any way warns anyone, even his neighbors.  [As portrayed in the movie, Evan Almighty, if one starts building an ark in the yard, it is bound to be noticed.]  We could say that he is only doing exactly what God asks of him, but that is too easy.  If Noah “walks with God”, why doesn’t he challenge God to save more people?   

Commentaries for centuries have struggled with Noah’s silence. The Zohar, compares and contrasts Noah, who is the protagonist at the beginning of this week’s parashah, named for him, and Abram, soon to be Abraham, who we meet at the end of our reading for this week. The Zohar, a mystical interpretation of the Torah, notes that God tells Noah that  

“God said to Noah, “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…”i 

Noah absorbs all the information and begins building, saying nothing. He does not warn his neighbors or his city. He does not challenge God’s judgement against everyone and everything that lives.  

When Abraham hears that God is going to punish Sodom and Gomorrah because their sin is so great, he immediately challenges God, saying:  

Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”ii 

The more closely we look at the text, the worse Noah seems. According to the Radak, and other commentators, Noah spends 120 years building the ark.iii He has 120 years to convince his neighbors to do teshuvah. He has 120 years to convince God to relent. And we know how the story turns out. At the end of 120 years, God shuts Noah and his wife as well as their three sons with their wives and the pairs of all of the animals into the ark for longer than a year. The ark is a vessel that will float, but there is no propulsion and no steering. The ark is going only go where God wants it to go and end up where God wants it to end up. Noah and his family are captive in the space they built with no hope for early release. And if you are thinking, wait a minute what about 40 days and 40 nights of rain, there was a whole lot more water involved than that. The flood was God undoing a part of creation, and the waters took a very, very long time to recede. 

How much different could things have been if Noah had been like Abraham! If he had spoken up, he could have convinced his neighbors to change their ways, he could have convinced God to give them another chance. Noah gave up without even trying. Certainly over 120 years, he could have shifted their behavior for the better, even marginally, to convince God to give them more time to improve, rather than letting things deteriorate even further as some of the commentators suggest. 

We can learn from Noah and speak up in our own time. If we have 12 seconds, we can share an important message about treating people in the image of God with the people who are important to us. If we have 12 minutes, we can read an article about racial inequity or follow people on Instagram who are thought leaders in this area or email or call an elected official to share what we think is important. If we have 12 hours, we can read a book about building racial stamina, or how much systemic racial inequities cost us and our society in real terms. In 12 hours, we can make phone calls or write post cards to encourage people to vote. [By the way, this is my request, as one of your rabbis, that you go and vote on November 8th if you are able to and have not already done so.] In 12 months, we can work to spread a message of inclusion and racial equity. In 12 years, we can teach our children that the Noah’s ark toys that we have given them are not about rainbows and cute animals, but about the importance of speaking up when something needs to be changed. We can give our children the tools to be upstanders rather than bystanders, and to see the work that needs to be done, the work that we hope they take up and finish in their lifetimes. 

Temple Talk is a recap of sermons given from the Bimah for those who missed a Sermon or who wanted to revisit the words spoken at a previous sermon. 

Mon, November 28 2022 4 Kislev 5783