The summer between my junior and senior year of high school, my Dad and I spent almost two full weeks on a father-daughter road trip to look at colleges. My mother couldn’t get off work, my brother was away at overnight camp, and so my Dad and I spent twelve days looking at schools all over the Northeast – eating lots of fast food and amassing countless t-shirts and other university bookstore souvenirs along the way. For anyone who has done a similar college rip, you will know that at some fairly early point in the process, all schools sort of begin to look the same and it is hard to remember which one had the brand new athletic facility and which one emphasized distribution requirements over a core curriculum. But one school’s information session in particular stuck out for me that summer, and I find myself thinking about it even until today.
At Dartmouth College, our admissions officer told the story of an old essay question that had since been dropped – Are you more of a leader or a follower? In all the school’s years of using that question, with all of the thousands of students who apply to Dartmouth each season, there was exactly one person who “admitted” to being a follower, said the officer – every other student who had ever applied to the school was a self-proclaimed leader. The admissions officer explained that the lone follower was accepted to Dartmouth immediately, not only because he had had the courage and self-awareness to describe himself accurately but also because he was able to make a compelling case for the merits of “following” well. Being a follower does not necessarily mean being passive, this student argued. Rather, it means being able to take direction as needed and to work well with others to implement a vision not necessarily your own.
I often find myself thinking about this brave Dartmouth student when we come to our Torah portion of the morning, Parashat Noah. In many ways Noah is the quintessential follower – building the ark that God demands without question and filling it with the creatures that God requests. Unlike Abraham or Moses who attempt to change God’s mind when faced with Divine plans for destruction – as when Abraham pleads for Sodom and Gemorrah or Moses intercedes on behalf of the Children of Israel – Noah seems to accept God’s annihilation of the human race without protest, displaying pure obedience and loyalty towards the Divine. He acts without creativity or initiative, performing only those tasks which have been asked of him and nothing more.
The ancient rabbis were deeply divided about Noah’s character and even about the Torah’s description of our protagonist. In the opening verse of our parasha Noah is described as ish tzadik tamim b’dorotav – a righteous and blameless man in his generation. The Talmudic sage Rabbi Yohanan argues that this verse expresses only qualified praise about Noah, explaining that his behavior was seen as righteous in relation to the very wicked people around him but that if he had existed in a more decent age, he would have been no better than average. Resh Lakish, on the other hand, sees the opening verse of our parasha as adding to Noah’s merit. If Noah was able to stay upright even in an age of lawlessness and corruption, how much more so would he have been righteous in a generation of high moral standards!
While there are, to be sure, both exegetes who side with Rabbi Yohanan and those who side with Resh Lakish, a great majority of the commentary surrounding our parasha focuses on Noah’s shortcomings. The medieval commentator Rashi uses the Torah’s seemingly complimentary description et haelohim hithalech Noah – Noah walked with God – to explain that Noah needed God to support him in his righteousness as opposed to Abraham who was able to maintain his righteousness of his own accord. The commentator Alshech condemns Noah for his insularity and selfishness, explaining that he built the ark board by board and nail by nail, the thought never crossing his mind that there might be a way to avert God’s decree and save the world from destruction. A rabbinic midrash even goes so far as to blame Noah for the entire flood episode, explaining that Noah was responsible for humanity’s downfall because he did not stand up against the corrupt actions being perpetrated by members of his community. For a man labeled righteous and blameless, Noah certainly incurs a great deal of criticism and scrutiny!
To me, the rabbinic emphasis on Noah’s failings seems particularly striking not only because of the Torah’s seemingly laudatory description of Noah but also because for a religious people, Divine obedience is generally touted rather than condemned. While Abraham is looked upon favorably for intervening on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gemorrah, he is also praised for his quiet acceptance at the moment of the Akkedah and his willingness, without scruples, to sacrifice his beloved son. Moses, too, is praised for his powers of intercession – as in the aftermath of the Golden Calf – but also for his acquiescence, as when it comes time to accept his own death before entering the Land of Israel. It would seem to me that one of the hallmarks of faith God is obedience – trusting in the Divine plan and being willing to do what God asks of us. Why, then, is Noah condemned for doing precisely this?
The great Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk offers an insightful answer to the above question when he writes of the tzaddik in peltz – a righteous man in a fur coat. He explains that when a person is cold he has two choices: he can heat up his house or he can put on heavier clothing. The difference between these solutions, of course, is that while the first warms the entire house, making everyone within it feel comfortable, the second warms only the be-furred individual, ensuring his comfort but not necessarily that of those around him. While both interventions solve the righteous person’s experience of cold, one solution transcends the individual to care for the greater community while the other does not. The cold man can either look inward and care just for himself or look outward and care for his community. He can be tzaddik in peltz (righteous in a fur coat) or tzaddik ba’olam (righteous in the world).
To me, the Kotzker Rebbe pinpoints the primary difference between Noah versus Abraham or Moses. When presented with cold, Abraham and Moses choose to heat the house – interceding on behalf of the people so as to save the entire community from destruction. It was only when issues of personal interest are at stake – as with Abraham and the Akkedah or Moses preparing for his own death – that they are willing to submit without protest to the Divine word. Noah, on the other hand, is content to put on a coat –building the ark that will save himself and his family while letting the rest of humanity suffer. He acts with moral cowardice – not because he is willing to follow the Divine word but rather because he is willing to do so mindlessly, without attempting to save his fellow human beings along with his own family.
Looking around our world today, we see countless examples which present us with the choice between being a tzaddik in peltz or a tzaddik ba’olam. Do we support policies that make public education strong for all or simply make sure to live in a district where our own children will go to good schools? Do we look to connect unemployed friends to job opportunities or do we just network vigorously when it is our own spouse (or child) who is the one seeking a position? When it comes to public safety, to earning a living wage, to health care – how much are we looking out for others and how much are we making sure that those that we care for most are safe and secure? None of this is easy, of course, and perhaps this is why the rabbinic commentators are so divided about Noah. To care chiefly and most passionately for one’s family certainly does not make one a bad person; Noah should not be blamed for being deeply relieved and perhaps even content that his own wife and children were safe on the ark. Still, Judaism encourages us to strive for just a bit more. While celebrating the security of his own family, Noah might have pushed harder for the security of others.
The name Noah is related to the word menuhah – or rest – and indeed the story of Noah has much to teach about passivity. Following others, whether it is God or our fellow human beings, does not inherently make us “weak” or “lesser” as the Dartmouth student persuasively argued so many years ago. But taking up another’s lead without stopping to challenge it when it harms others is cowardly and irresponsible. Even when the demand comes from none other than God Godself, we must make sure that we are working towards righteousness.
May the story of Noah this week inspire us to warm our homes rather than put on warm clothing and to accept our roles – whether as leader or as follower – conscious of the active responsibilities contained within. Wishing you a week of action and of peace! Shabbat Shalom.
|Oct 5, 2013||The Tzaddik in Peltz – Parashat Noah||Rabbi Annie Tucker|