A blog by Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, Rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Being the Earth
It’s hard not to love the character of Noach.He’s always depicted as that dotty little old man who builds the ark, and collects the animals two by two.His ark graces the walls of countless nurseries and preschools.It might come as a surprise the Noach doesn’t quite come off so well in the Jewish tradition.Rashi explains that Noach was only a tzadik bedorotav, which means that, while he is called a Tzadik, it was only in relation to his generation (which, of course was all wanton sinners) that he looked good at all!The midrash (the rabbinic story) in Tanhuma goes even further, and calls Noach a ‘sinner,’ because he did not publicly speak out against the sinners of his generation, and only retreated into the safety of his ark.Pretty harsh words for poor old man Noach!But this is all very strange, because if you look at the literal text of the Torah, it says that Noach was Ish Tzadik Tamim Hayah bedorotav, that he was a righteous and whole-hearted man in his generation.In fact, no other figure in the entire bible is given such a glorious epithet next to his name.Why, indeed, are there so many voices in our tradition who want to denigrade Noach’s accomplishments?
A lot of the trouble comes from the fact that Noach appears very early in the biblical account, and to rabbinic eyes, Noach pales in comparison to a much more central Tzadik to the Jewish people, namely Avraham.Exactly the same descriptive words used for Noach are also used for Avraham:Hithalech lifanai v’heyeh tamim:God says to Avraham, ‘Walk before me, and be tamim, whole-hearted. ‘ (Gen. 17:1).So what’s the difference, our ancient rabbis wondered, between the two men? Obviously, Avraham is a much more active figure than Noach ever was.It was Avraham who set out and walked the land of Israel, who withstood tests of faith, who battled kings, who made a foothold in the land, who stood up even to God for the sake of the potential innocent lives that might be lost in the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah!There isn’t even one instance of Noach standing up for anything in the story.God tells him to build an ark, so he builds an ark.He saves the animals, himself, and his family, at God’s command.And that’s it.Of course, Noach doesn’t come across as well in the rabbinic imagination!
But then again, if you look carefully throughout the ancient rabbinic texts, there are other, less well-known opinions about Noach and his righteousness:In the Talmud (B. Sanhedrin 108a) there’s a dispute between Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish.Rabbi Yohanan makes the standard argument that Noach was only righteous in his own sinful generation, but not any others.And Resh Lakish says, no.You’re reading it incorrectly.When the Torah saysthat Noach was a righteous man bedorotav—in his generation-- it means that even in his own terrible and sinful generation he was righteous, all the more so in later generations!Rabbi Oshaiya then explains:Resh Lakish’s view may be illustrated by a vial of [fragrant] …oil lying [in a foul-smelling place]:if its fragrance is sensed even in such surroundings, how much more so amid spices!
Now it starts to get interesting!Not everybody was convinced that Noach was a self-serving man in a cruel world.Maybe, say the likes of Resh Lakish, Noach was one of the greatest tzadikim, greatest righteous men, we have ever known, even as great, perhaps, as the likes of Avraham himself?!This morning, I would like us to look again at this man Noach, this Ish Tzadik Tamim, this righteous, whole-hearted man, and see if indeed we have had not yet fully learned his particular kind of righteousness.I believe that, in fact, in our world of today, we are finally ready to really understand and to take in the significance of Noach’s greatness and his righteous.Only today, in this world of global warming and ever-increasing environmental catastrophe, can we really grasp the message of Noach’s life.
Let’s think about what happens in this flood story.It is nothing less than de-creation!Quite literally, the process of creation itself that was set up in the Genesis Creation narrative is undone step by step, as the ‘flood gates’ of heaven are literally opened up, and the world is reduced again only to the spirit of God hovering upon the waters.Only this time, of course, there is that ark, a little micro-habitat of that former created world, with Noach and his family, floating in those waters.What can strike us when we consider this story in its broad strokes is that it’s not a Jewish story particularly at all.Our ancient rabbis didn’t like the description of a ‘Tzadik’ for Noach because he predates Avraham and his particular story of a founding a Jewishpeople with a connection to the Land of Israel.This story is way more universal.Noach is not a Jew, in particular.If he is anything, he is a second Adam, founding a whole new line of human beings in the world.There is nothing particularly Jewish about his life or his behavior, save his obedience to God’s command to build an ark.
The Sfat Emet, a great 19th century Hasidic commentary pointed out something very interesting about Noach, that his very mission and role in the world was signified by his name.The name Noach is related to the word ‘menuchah,’ which means ‘rest.’Noach’s role is tocome into the world ultimately, says the Sfat Emet, to bring about menuchah, rest itself, ‘lachzor kol echad leshorsho,’ to bring everything back to its source; to realize that ‘ain lo chiyut me’atzmo klal,”that he has no life-force at all on his own.In other words, Noach teaches us the righteousness NOT of struggling against the course of nature or against God’s plan, but to allow it to be, just as it is.(Sfat Emet 1:67)
Talk about a not-Jewish-sounding idea!When we think about Avraham, he is regularly getting involved, regularly ‘making souls,’ calling people to the service of God, making peace, struggling for holiness.He even accuses God of injustice before the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah and says, ‘hashofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat,”‘The Judge of all the earth shall not mete out justice?!’We all know and love the Jewish brand of righteousness: it’s called chutzpah, it ‘s all about marching alongside the oppressed and starting revolutions!Now suddenly, here is the Sfat Emet , declaring Noach to be righteous BECAUSE he didn’t protest, and just allowed the flood to be!Herein is the deeply troubling core of the Noach story.His apparent passivity, his apparent lack of a moral outcry deeply troubles not just the rabbis, but all of us to this day.How can we possibly abide a ‘righteousnes’ that is all about ‘surrender,’ of just letting things be?If we abide this approach, we fear that this is what allows evil to happen in the world, that allows Nazis to run rampant, that allows all manner of injustice to prevail!
But then again, there is the text, right in front of us, saying that this man Noach was an Ish Tzadik Tamim, a whole-heartedly righteous man—this was the man who allowed the flood to be, ‘et ha’Elohim hithalech Noach,’ who walked right alongside God’s destructive plan without hesitation or question.It’s deeply morally disturbing, this kind of passivity.But the question we must reconsider in our time is:was Noach REALLY passive after all? Let’s take a quick tour of some the midrashic descriptions of Noach’s life and career:
According to one midrash, Noach deliberatelyspent 52 years building that ark ever so slowly because, as the Torah makes perfectly clear, the society of his day was hopelessly corrupt, cruel, and violent.There was no place for him to speak up.No justice.No forum to be listened to.And so, he built that ark slowly so that the wicked people of his generation would take note of his actions and repent of their ways (Pirkei deRabbi Eliezar 22). To no avail, of course, so when the flood came, Noach and his family spent the whole 12 months at sea never sleeping a wink, feeding the animals and birds(Tanhuma 58:9).And it wasn’t just feeding the animals.According to the Talmud (Sanhedren 108b), the ark had three levels:a deck for the family, a middle deck for all the animals, and then a lower deck for all of the animal droppings.Can you imagine?!Noach and his family spent an inordinate amount of time just shoveling that stuff down to the lower deck.And why did they save it all?Rashi explains (Gen. 6:13) that after the flood cleared, the land had lost 12 inches of topsoil from the flood, so when Noach landed, he got right to work using the all the animal compost to work the land, dutifully, tirelessly.He was a true man of the earth, of the soil. Rashi even explains that he invented the plough, and that,“before his time, people would plant wheat and the earth would produce thorns and thistles.”But Noach, ever diligent and hard working, single-handedly regenerated the earth.
The Torah itself tells us that when Noach was born, his father gave him that name, saying “This one will provide us relief [y’nachameinu] from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the Lord placed under a curse.”Of course, he was referring to the curse of Adam when he was expelled from the Garden of Eden, who was now to toil and suffer by the sweat of his brow on the land.Noach is the one who, by his very birth, would point us the way to healing that sense of a cursed relationship with the land, with the earth itself.It is in this way that he is a Tzadik Tamim, a whole-hearted righteous man, because through his life, through his relationship of allowing the world to be, he shows us all how to heal ourselves, how to return to our source, and our relationship to the earth itself!
Rabbi Leib Saras once taught the true meaning of a Tzadik, of a righteous man.He said “A Tzadik is not a person who preaches Torah, but rather lives Torah.Not his words, but his actions should teach Torah to the people.I visit Tzadikim not to listen to their interpretations of Torah, but to observe how they conduct themselves from the time of their arising in the early morning until the time of their lying down to rest at night.”
If we compare Noach to Avraham, yes he will appear to come up short.But it’s not a fair comparison.Avraham’s very role in the Torah is to be a teacher of righteousness through direct action.There was no morality in Noach’s society, and so Noach could only teach righteousness by his example.All he could do was hope that others would listen and follow.Noach’s presence teaches us that there are other kinds of righteousness in life that are also equally important, namely, the righteousness of acceptance, of moving inexorably with the flow of nature itself.No matter how much cruelty and wickedness surrounded him, Noach remained TAMIM, which means ‘whole-hearted,’ but it literally means ‘simple-hearted.’He remained close to the earth and the animals and nature and resisted the corrupting influence of the society around him.In this temimut, in this simplicity, he was righteous and a teacher to us today!No matter what environmental catastrophes resulted from human wickedness, he kept moving forward, creatively finding a way to sustain life despite catastrophe.He never lost his faith, or his faithfulness.He didn’t board the ark until the floodwaters forced him to, always holding out hope that his human bretheren might repent of their ways.When there was nothing left of the world but the ark, he still didn’t lose his faith and resolve to preserve life itself.He gave and he gave and he gave, even when there was no apparent hope of a reward.
When we talk about the modern environmental crisis, we always talk of the need to ‘save the planet earth.’But this isn’t exactly right.No matter what we do to the earth, ultimately, the earth will be fine.The earth has survived countless catastrophes in the past. The earth will survive. The real question is:will we survive?Noach is the perfect teacher for our time because Noach IS the very embodiment of the earth itself.In his survival, he teaches us all how to survive: it can only happen through tzedek and temimut, through righteousness and simple whole-heartedness itself.No matter what terrible things happen to or around Noach, he always finds a way, he always regenerates, and returns himself and the Earth to its source.
When Noach emerges from the ark, God sends a rainbow as the sign of a new covenant, and God promises never again to destroy the world by flood.And on our end of the deal, we are asked ultimately to BE the children of Noach.We are called by that rainbow to Be the ones, like Noach before us to bring the earth back to rest, to repose, to return the earth to its source, to make the world into the Garden of Eden once again.
And we accomplish this by emulating the simple righteousness of Noach.We are to BE the earth itself.We must live our lives in tune with the rhythms of this miraculous world.We must be simple and whole-hearted, working with the world in all its challenges and limitations, always giving and giving for the sake of the earth and for one another, never expecting a reward.Perhaps the environmental crisis about us can remind us to awaken to this deep calling to be a little more Noach—to be simple lovers of this earth, of each other, of all that is.May we all activate this righteousness of temimut, of simplicity within us all, and in so doing, may we regenerate this earth and return it to its source, to peace.