Noah's Missing Lion

One of my greatest fears (and one I am pretty sure will come true) is that people I care about in the future - maybe even the near future - will look back at how I moved through this era and wonder, Why didn’t he do more?

One of my greatest fears (and one I am pretty sure will come true) is that people I care about in the future - maybe even the near future - will look back at how I moved through this era and wonder, Why didn’t he do more?

Why didn’t he do more to save the planet, to champion human dignity, to protect democracy?

If I could be in chevruta (study pair) with anyone on that question, the biblical figure Noah would be my first choice. What a complicated honor to be chosen by God to survive otherwise certain destruction! What was going on in his mind as he slowly built a solitary ark to save only his immediate family and a minimal number of animals? Was he relieved that his terrible neighbors were finally going to get washed away in the flood? Did he wonder if any of them would spend their final moments regretting their violent ways?

Could Noah have done more to save his world and all the people and creatures inhabiting it?

Torah says Noah was chosen to survive because he was “righteous (tzaddik) in his generation” (Genesis 6:9). Later sages pondered this phrase (Talmud Sanhedrin 108a), trying to understand the implication of righteousness in a generation. Reish Lakish suggests that being righteous when all of your peers are violent, deceptive thieves is remarkable, and such a person would be righteous “all the more so in other generations.” But Rabbi Yochanan asserts that righteous is a relative term, and only applied to Noah because the bar was set so low in his generation; Noah wouldn’t have even registered among the righteous in other generations. As 11th century commentator Rashi adds to this Talmudic discussion, why couldn’t Noah have been more like Abraham, willing to challenge God for the sake of justice?

The Chassidic master Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740-1809) helps us understand how Noah could be called a tzaddik while meekly accepting widespread destruction.

There are two types of righteous leaders (tzaddikim) who serve the Creator. There is the tzaddik who serves the Creator and has no other desire than to do so. This one believes that her power can influence the uppermost realms, as our Sages taught… “The Holy Blessed One decrees and the tzaddik transmutes the decree into goodness.”

But there is another type of tzaddik who serves the Holy Creator. This one is exceedingly humble in his own eyes and thinks to himself, “Who am I that I should pray to cancel a divine decree?” And so, he doesn’t… This is as Rashi commented, “Noah was of little faith.” That is to say, Noah was little in his own eyes - he did not have faith in himself that he was a tzaddik who could cancel a decree, for he did not think anything of himself at all. (Translated by Josh Feigelson in his excellent new book Eternal Questions.)

Humility, generally speaking, is highly appreciated in Jewish tradition. In fact, it was the first middah (soul-trait) that our Mussar Jewish virtues class on the book Orchot Tzaddikim studied just last week. “Humility is the root of Divine service, and a small deed of the humble person is a thousand times more acceptable to the Blessed One than a great deed of the arrogant person.” We can see how, if Noah was so humble, God might have chosen him to survive the flood.

But, Orchot Tzaddikim cautions, “one must remove oneself from this trait in order that one not be humble and self-effacing before evil… If you have the ability within your grasp, you must fight evil-doers for God’s sake, and oppose them like a roaring lion to rescue the robbed from the robber.”

Humility at a time when moral courage is required isn’t Godly, it’s deadly.

These past few weeks, the evil of antisemitism has surfaced in clear and painful ways. A former president berated U.S. Jews for not lining up docilely to support him because of his policies on Israel - and issuing a warning that we Jews should get our act together before it is too late.

And a rapper with a large following has made threats against Jews on Twitter. (It is worth noting that in addition to their antisemitic comments, both of these individuals also have a record of misogynistic and racist comments and behaviors.)

While there has been heartening pushback in these cases, we know how much comments like these from public figures will continue to amplify hatred and potential for violence. We have an obligation to not shrink and hide, but to fight hatred and lies with confident love and clear speaking. Some helpful links for keeping ourselves informed and articulate (thank you Rabbi Rachel for directing me to these sources):

In addition to bringing our attention to anti-semitism, Kavana partners are hard at work rousing our inner lions to fight for important environmental policies through Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action (see the photo below of the group that gathered for a legislative phone-a-thon); and a new team is forming to find ways to support immigrant communities and advocate for humane immigration policies. Please reach out if any of these issues of concern align with your energy and capacity to get involved!

I wonder if Noah didn’t challenge God because he and his family were spiritually alone in their generation. He didn’t see anyone around him modeling holy chutzpah (audacity), nor did he have any models of effective activism or ethical teaching. Later in the Talmudic discussion about Noah, he is pictured as going around rebuking people for their violent ways, but they just laugh at him. Even before he gets on the ark, he is isolated. Ultimately he has no muscle memory for togetherness, no deep sense of belonging and interconnectedness.

But in our generation, while it is true there are many things to fear and fight, we understand that the most powerful force that exists isn’t hate or violence, nor is it natural disasters. When we connect deeply with each other - within Kavana or any other communities you may belong to, or between communities - there is nothing we cannot accomplish. As Rabbi Rachel mentioned to me, being righteous in our generation is figuring out how to stand up for ourselves and for others.

The 20th century Rabbi Chaim Friedlander once taught that Noah’s primary task while aboard the ark was to learn and practice chesed, connective kindness. Let’s figure out how to do that now, before we need another ark. Humility - so we can learn from one another. Lovingkindness - so we can weave ourselves into connection. And moral courage - so we can stand up for what matters and do everything we can for ourselves and our world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jay LeVine