Rabbi Baruch Oberlander holds up a Torah scroll.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The central theme of the Noah Torah portion which we read this Shabbat is the story of the Flood, that worldwide, tremendous tragedy that wiped out all human beings from earth in one gigantic flood, with only one family surviving: Noah’s family – he, his wife and three sons – along with representatives of all living creatures.
This story is one of the most familiar ones in the ancient world. The story of the Flood is told in 217 cultures in various ways. But the uniqueness of the story as it appears in the Torah is that, as opposed to the other versions in which the flood takes place following the uncontrolled anger of various gods, the Torah presents a story with a moral message.
In light of this description, it is surprising to read the words of the Prophet Isaiah who used the odd term “the waters of Noah” (Isaiah 54:9). Noah, the lone righteous man, the only man of that entire generation who acted honestly and righteously, the only one who survived the Flood – why would the Flood be named for him? Were the waters of the Flood “the waters of Noah”? On the contrary, had everyone behaved like Noah, the entire story of the Flood would never have occurred! This question puzzled Jewish sages, but there is a unique answer in the book Zohar that we can learn a lot from. This is how Zohar answers the question: Since Noah was warned by G-d about the flood and was instructed to build an ark to save himself, he should have prayed that the punishment of the flood would not materialize. And if he would have prayed for this, his prayers would have been accepted. But being that he did not pray, therefore, Noah was the cause of the flood – albeit indirectly.
This answer, which adds a twist, raises a different question: How could it be that Noah’s prayers would have been answered? His generation sinned in robbery, and stealing became its legitimate lifestyle.
Is it conceivable that after his prayer, G-d would have left everything as is and allowed humanity to remain corrupt? Seemingly, this answer has a deeper level not immediately discernible when read superficially. To get to the profound message, we must assume that somehow, Noah’s prayer would have influenced his generation and they would have changed their ways, and therefore would have been saved from the flood.
But how? How could Noah’s prayer have changed the corrupt lifestyle that enveloped all of humanity of that generation? At the basis of all injustice lies a simple principle, one that when man is influenced by it, he can behave unjustly. This principle is lack of recognition of the other. Man who sees and recognizes only his own needs, and does not recognize the other as a being who is also worthy of respect, only such a man is capable of sinking into a life of moral corruption.
The turning point at which that man becomes a moral being is that moment when he understands that there are other beings in the world who are worthy of respect.
Noah’s generation which was “full of robbery,” as the Torah describes, suffered from this. A person who lived in this generation got used to seeing only himself, to thinking only of his own needs, and to respecting only himself. This was the backdrop for the flourishing of a corrupt culture of robbery and theft. Noah was the only man of that generation who remained faithful to the moral compass which exists in the heart of every man. He was the loneliest man, but also the only man who recognized the other, who recognized the needs and honor of the other.
If Noah had prayed for his neighbors, his acquaintances, all of humanity, they would have noticed that he was praying for them. Anyone who would have heard of it would have asked himself, “Why is Noah praying for me?” This question would have caused everyone to draw the conclusion that, surprisingly, Noah was a caring person who was interested in benefiting others. Anyone who would have understood this insight that “someone cares about me” could not have remained apathetic to the existence of others.
Noah’s prayer would have seeped into the hearts of each and every person of his generation. It would have caused them to understand that a person exists who cares, who thinks about others, who wants good things for them. When a man feels that someone else care about this fate, “robbery” no longer naturally fits in with his worldview. When someone cares about me, I care about him. If Noah had shown that he cared about other people, it would have influenced all of humanity; the robbery and corruption would have slowly disappeared, and justice would have burst forth on its own.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and the holy sites.