Parshat Lech L'cha
Why was it that God commanded Noach Pru U’rvu – be fruitful and multiply three times? Is it not enough to command him once? The answer given is that Hashem must instruct Noach to look beyond his own existence and his own humanity. Noach needs to repopulate after the destruction of practically all of humanity and instill and infuse his values for future generations. God needs to emphasize this commitment to the future to Noach as Noach does not seem to recognize that he must play an active role to ensure a future better than the past. Noach was alone in his perfection. He was practically unaffected by the situation of his generation. That is precisely what was unacceptable. He had no affect on them, but they most certainly had an affect on him. The fact that the generation was not improving that they did not see Noach as their teacher, that they did not see any point in teshuva, affected Noach. He may have been a tzadik in his time. But true tzadikim do not exist independent of their community at large, ignoring the needs of those around him. Noach did not look beyond his own needs. In fact he does not look beyond his own generation’s survival. There are many commentators who have contrasted Noach’s introverted righteousness, focusing on personal religious growth, not praying for the salvation of his generation and rebuking their wrongdoings with Avraham’s extroverted righteousness, convincing others of the truth of monotheism and of living an ethical lifestyle. Avraham, as we read about this week, in Parshat Lech L’cha becomes the Father of our nation and Sarah, our mother. How do Avraham and Sara differ from Noach to the extent that Noach does not receive the title father or even “founder” of monotheism?
Noach was unable to impress the world with his righteous personality. This was Noach’s fault. Rashi makes this point in discussing the verse: “Make an ark of gopher wood…” 6:14. Rashi responds that Noach was instructed to construct the ark alone in order that people would ask, “What use is this to You?” Then Noach would be able to answer that Hashem brought this opportunity for Noach not only to save himself, but also to try and save the world in which he lived. This mission was not a success. And particularly for Rashi, this inability to impact his generation was a clear reflection of deep flaws in Noach’s personality and character. Perhaps a reason why Noach was unable to extend himself to others was because Noach too had some flaw in his faith. Noach believed in God but perhaps did not believe fully that the flood would come. On the verse 7:7 which says that Noach entered the ark mipnei mei hamabul, because of the flood waters, Rashi comments that Noach had some defect in faith. He believed but did not believe fully that the flood would come and did not enter the ark until compelled to by the water.” Until the water rose to his ankles, Noach himself, after the construction of the ark, after years of preparation, after preparing the animals to go into his ark still hesitates to enter until there is tangible physical proof that the waters are rising. If Rashi’s analysis is correct, then we understand even better, why Noach was unable to convince the people around him of the urgency of their situation. They did not repent nor did they offer to help in the construction of the ark. For those individuals, given Noach’s lack of communication with his community, Noach made no sense at all, and there was no reason to join with him. Additionally, they sensed a lack of faith in his ultimate goal. That alone would turn people away from joining. Let us now turn to our focus to Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imainu. Avraham and Sarah’s extroverted righteousness convinced others of the truth of monotheism and of an ethical lifestyle. A striking contrast to Noach, Avraham, we see, prays for S’dom and Amorah. Avraham actively attempts to change God’s decree. Avraham communicates with God, he bargains with God for the sake of humanity. Avraham rebukes Avimelech and others with the goal of changing them for the better.
Of course, we see Avraham, working for pidyon shvuiim, redeeming the captives, when Lot was taken. We see Avraham and Sarah positively influencing those around them where people chose to join their community. Next week’s parsha, during the recovery, after his Brit milah, we see Avraham sitting out in the heat with an open tent. He and Sarah have a home, welcoming individuals to their home, extending themselves outward. Noach closes himself up in an ark, separating himself from humanity.
It is true that there remains a paradox with religious devotion. Do I develop my own personal connection with God or spend more time on offering to be a person involved in the world by helping others. It is clear that taking time away from self contemplation, study and efforts at perfection to help others often leads to greater levels of piety than would have ordinarily been possible. Avraham Avinu establishes the paradigm of G’dola hachnasat orchim mai hakablat p’nai haSh’china – Welcoming guests is greater than greeting the Divine Presence. Reb Levi Yitchak of Berditchev, the Kedushas Levi, explains that there are two types of Zaddikim (righteous people) in the world. -The first serves Hashem just for himself but doesn’t get involved with the people to guide them back to the service of Hashem. The example is Noach. -The second serves Hashem and tries to guide others along to repent and to serve God. The example is Avraham Avinu. This is in keeping with the Talmud Sanhedrin 99b, which states “One who teaches Torah to the son of his fellow is considered as if he had given birth to him.” This refers to Avraham whose name is read as “Av Hamon Goyim”- the father of the masses from every nation. But, with Noach the pasuk reads “These are the offspring (both physical and spiritual) of Noach. Noach had three sons, Shem, Cham and “Yafet”. The meaning is these and only these. This is a marked contrast to Avraham.
We know that Noach walked with Hashem. He did exactly that. But, with Hashem and not with the people of his generation. He did not try to bring them closer to God’s service. Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk speaks of Noach with the Yiddish expression of a “Tzaddik in peltz” – a righteous person in a fur coat. A person who is righteous but makes sure that his needs are taken care of first. He was commanded by Hashem to build an ark which he built board by board and nail by nail for 120 straight years. According to the Kotzker Rebbe, it never occurred to Noach that there might be a way to avert God’s decree and to save the world from destruction.
Avraham Avinu in contrast, prayed for Sodom and Amora. He was active. He teaches Avimelech that he is concerned for a place that is void of recognition of God which results in immorality. Avraham lived in similar times with a similar ordeal. Avraham passed the tests of endurance, not only by surviving, but also by changing those corrupt around him. He overcomes peer pressure in order to become the supreme influencer. He was the first demonstrator, the first objector and the first Jew. This is why Avraham was credited with being the father of monotheism. For the role of a tzadik in every generation is to have the foresight to instruct people how to increase their faith, trust in God and look at humanity beyond one’s own personal life. Even though Noach was not able to save his generation from destruction, he was still able to give humanity another chance. Hashem helps Noach refashion it to some extent as well. God puts into place the sheva mitzvot bnai noach, the 7 noachide laws. These laws certainly demonstrate the importance of monotheism but they also establish ethical behavior and responsibility for others in a community.
The Brit, the covenant of the rainbow, established between God and all living beings differs from that of Avraham since it is a universal Brit for humanity. While Avraham’s Britot with Hashem ensured Avraham the establishment of his nation and place for the future, Noach, still, after the flood learned and agreed to a covenant of for all people. The symbol of the Brit after the flood is that of a rainbow. The multi chromatic symbol of light refracted into bands of different color. This can represent all types of different people. Not black or white, good or bad. This world contains different people with different struggles. The Brit is the attempt to care for and make ourselves responsible for those around us.
A world without good deeds cannot endure. This is Noach’s legacy. His good deeds could not save the world in which he lived, but did save the world of God’s creation. For setting this standard, Noach merits the mention of him as a “righteous person.” It is a blessing. The blessing is existence itself. When we think of Noach, we remember why the world was saved and we are encouraged to, despite those around us, follow in the path of positive action.
Perhaps humanity needed this sociological development. Noach being active by doing the will of God ensures a raised consciousness which moved humankind forward with a renewed sense of moral consciousness. This development facilitated the next stage in human awareness. The Torah counts ten generations from Adam HaRishon to Noach and then ten generations from Noach to Avraham Avinu. When confronted with wrongful behavior, Adam cannot take personal responsibility for his actions and immediately implicates Chava. Ten generations later, Noach takes personal responsibility for his actions but not for others. It is ten generations later that Avraham Avinu can take responsibility for his actions as well as those people around him. We in turn take this new development in the level of moral consciousness and look at it as a directive for ourselves, for our community and our world around us.
In this vein, I think about this past week and consider the words of Democratic Presidential Nominee Secretary Hilary Clinton. She appreciated that her campaign “was never about one person, or even one election. It was about the country we love and building an America that is hopeful, inclusive, and big-hearted.” She said that “I spent a year and a half bringing together millions of people from every corner of our country to say with one voice that we believe that the American dream is big enough for everyone—for people of all races, and religions, for men and women, for immigrants, for LGBT people, and people with disabilities. For everyone. So now, our responsibility as citizens is to keep doing our part to build that better, stronger, fairer America we seek. And I know you will.”
She taught us a great deal. She spent her entire adult life in communal service and demonstrated her desire to develop herself, follow what she sees as the right path, but, fought for a world of inclusion rather than exclusion. Her motto was “Stronger Together”. What an exceptional directive for our country and the world. To advance humanity, we need to appreciate a multi chromatic membership of people. To respect other religions, ideas and differences. To see the infinite value of each person and advocate for them even when no one else will.
We just commemorated the 78th anniversary of Kristalnacht – the night of broken glass and the time when the world was silent and just looked inward. This, being one of the horrific initiations of the Shoah, reminds us that our moral compass and values must remain in check. We cannot retreat into a world where people with differences are not respected. Regardless of our leadership, we use our voices and send the message that each person must be cherished. Each life is worth fighting for.
Which brings me to our celebration of our US Veterans which takes place tomorrow. We thank our Veterans for serving their country. Looking beyond themselves, they fight for human rights, protect US Citizens and those who value that everyone is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As we read Lech L’cha – we actively move forward, with Avraham and Sarah at the foundation, teaching us how advancing humanity is never stagnant. There is always the danger of those who demonstrate improper moral behavior, hatred and horrific leadership: The memory of the 6 million Jews and more innocent lives killed and tortured as a prime example. Yet, we remind ourselves that we have role models and heroes, like our US Veterans, who fight for our people to be safe and those who serve as public servants, working hard for every person, regardless of gender, race or financial standing, to be entitled to basic healthcare, education, dignity and equal pay. May the community we live in and the greater world commit to advancing in caring for each person, have their eyes open even when many cannot see and gain the strength and wisdom to persevere with this message to advance honorable, principled and just behavior. Shabbat Shalom.