Corruption and Lawlessness, Then and Now

This Shabbat, Jewish communities around the world will read Parashat Noach. Although children's books and songs tend to focus on cute pairs of animals on the ark and the beautiful rainbow at the end, the tale this Torah portion tells is actually a very dark one. Parashat Noach is really the story of the complete failure of God's first creation attempt, which results in far-reaching destruction and devastation, followed by an only partially-successful attempt at a do-over.

This Shabbat, Jewish communities around the world will read Parashat Noach. Although children's books and songs tend to focus on cute pairs of animals on the ark and the beautiful rainbow at the end, the tale this Torah portion tells is actually a very dark one. Parashat Noach is really the story of the complete failure of God's first creation attempt, which results in far-reaching destruction and devastation, followed by an only partially-successful attempt at a do-over.

In the opening verses, just after we are introduced to Noah and his sons, we learn of the core problem: "The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness" (Gen. 6:11). Traditional Jewish commentators offer many different takes on what corruption and lawlessness might have meant back in Noah's day. This year, I was struck by one explanation that the d'rash commentary of the Etz Chayim Chumash brings -- it reads:

"The Jerusalem Talmud understands the word translated as "lawlessness" (hamas) to mean that people cheated each other for such small sums that the courts could not prosecute them (JT BM 4:2). This caused people to lose faith in the power of government to provide them with a fair and livable world, and society began to slip into anarchy."

These words feel so incredibly relevant, prescient, and contemporary to me, and I've been mulling them over all week. I know I'm not alone in the Kavana community in harboring some deep fears about the future of our American society and democracy. Wrongs that perhaps began as tiny injustices -- small lies, small seeds of doubt and hatred that were planted -- have indeed grown over a number of years now. We now find ourselves living through a frightening and dangerous time, filled with disinformation and cynicism. Sometimes I shake my head and wonder how we got to this moment, in which our news reports are filled with executive orders banning mask and vaccine mandates (oy!), new school shootings, fights over women’s control of their own bodies, and more. In today’s news headlines alone, there are multiple references to elected officials who have tried in recent years or are trying now to bring down our governmental system, or democracy itself, from within. It sure sounds like we have arrived, once again, at a point where we can say in no uncertain terms that our society is "corrupt before God" and "filled with lawlessness."

Thankfully, we have one important advantage over Noah. The opening verses of the parasha emphasize how very alone Noah was: “Noah was a singular righteous man, blameless in his generation” (Gen. 6:9). In contrast, we have each other. There is tremendous power in numbers. We don't need to wait for God to flood the earth and start human society over anew; we have the power to band together and embark on this work ourselves. The Jerusalem Talmud explains how tiny instances of cheating eventually undermined Noah's entire society. The reverse is also true: we can build and scaffold righteousness and justice, beginning with the smallest of actions. Working together with millions upon millions of like-minded individuals, we can begin to restore faith in the power of government, and build a more just and equitable world for all.

This seems like a perfect opportunity to mention that Election Day 2021 is less than a month away. There are many important local issues and races here, and I encourage you to exercise your civic duty and join me in being a voter in this election! Learning about the issues and casting a single ballot feels like a small act, but cumulatively, our impact can be huge. Now is also the time to encourage voter turnout in other communities and locales (through VoteForward, with whom we worked last year, or any other org you choose), and to keep pushing for voting right laws on a Federal level (while simultaneously working to combat the many new state laws that will make it harder for Americans in at least 19 states to vote). The Since I Been Down program that’s coming up on Oct. 24 (see below) connects to these themes as well: combating systemic racism and mass incarceration are important ways of ensuring that every single voice is heard in our democracy, and this in turn can help restore faith in the power of people to make change for the good.

As each small action snowballs and is amplified, we have the power to turn our society back from the path of Noah's generation. It is not too late for us to step away from the precipice of anarchy, and to restore a belief in the possibility of a fair and livable world. (Maybe this week of Parashat Noach really should be a week of puppies and rainbows after all!)

Kein yehi ratzon - May it come to pass, speedily and in our day.

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum