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The challenge of the story of Noah

When God tells Noah of the impending world-wide flood that will destroy humanity, instead of pleading with God to save his generation or undertaking a major campaign to inform his peers, he instead dutifully begins work on the ark that will save him and his family and a small remnant of animals. Throughout the entire flood story, Noah never speaks – not to his family, not to his neighbors, not to God.  

 

When asked by the people what he was constructing he answered truthfully: “I am constructing an ark, for God intends to wipe out the world with a flood.” (Tanhuma Noah, siman 5)

 

Of course those who asked were technically warned by Noah, but no one took him seriously and he did nothing to change the decree or get people to change their ways in order to annul the judgment. The Sages all point out his glaring flaw of not doing enough to save his generation.

 

“The entire flood episode was a direct result of Noah’s behavior. According to the Midrash, he was the one who caused the flood by not protesting against the corrupt actions of the members of his generation. This we see in the verse (Isaiah 54:9, from the haftarah for parashat Noah) “For this to Me is like the waters of Noah” – where the flood is attributed to Noah. (Imrei Shefer by Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, 1785-1869, Croatia) “.

 

After the flood and a year in the ark, the waters began to subside. When Noah finally leaves the ark the Midrash says he was appalled at the destruction. He began crying and said to God: “Lord of the Universe! You are known as the Merciful One. You should have been merciful to Your creatures!” God answered him: “Now you say that! But not when I said ‘For My part, I am about to bring the Flood’ – When you heard that you would be saved in the ark, you never thought about the fate that would befall the world.” (Midrash HaNe’elam by Rabbi Moses ben Shem Tov deLeon, 1240-1305, Spain). To paraphrase – where were you for a hundred and twenty years when I waited for you to one time plead for your generation or make one concerted effort to convince the people to change their ways. And now you protest! . Midrash HaNe’elam attributes Noah’s silence to selfishness, but there are many other possibilities. Perhaps Noah was afraid to challenge God. Perhaps he feared that his neighbors would respond to his criticism with violence. Perhaps he believed that nothing he could say – to God or to his neighbors – would not have any effect. Why was Noah silent? Whatever the reason according to the Midrash, he was ignorant of his power to bring about change.

Only when God pointed out to him his terrible failure as a leader and the possibility that he could have saved the entire world from destruction did Noah become aware of his own responsibility in the debacle.

 

Are we silent when we should speak out ? Are we ignorant of our power to bring about change? Do we have the right to remain silent in the face of evil because we believe that we cannot or need not effect change? Noah reveals his own culpability in the destruction of the world, after he thought he was being so righteous.

 

The challenge of the story of Noah is the reminder to each one of us when bad things happen, believing that we cannot effect changes, we choose to be unaware of the power we have and we feel righteous and smug.

 

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