By: Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman
[When Noah came out of the ark]
he opened his eyes and saw the whole world completely destroyed.
He began crying for the world and said
“Master of the world!
If you destroyed Your world because of human sin or human fools,
then why did You create them?
One of the other You should do:
either do not create the human being
or do not destroy the world!”
How did the Blessed Holy One respond? “Foolish shepherd!”…
[Before the flood] I lingered with you and spoke to you at length
so that you would ask for mercy for the world!
But as soon as you heard that you would be safe in the ark,
the evil of the world did not touch your heart.
You built the ark and saved yourself.
Now that the world has been destroyed,
you open your mouth to utter questions and pleas?
(Zohar, translation by Daniel Matt)
The Torah describes Noah as a tzaddik, a righteous man. Yet, how righteous could he be if he watches the destruction of his entire generation in silence, without a word of protest.
Rabbi Yochanan argues that Noah may have been righteous in his generation, but had he lived at a less corrupt period, he would not have been considered righteous at all. In the Hasidic tradition, Noah is accused of being a tzadik im pelz – a righteous man in a fur coat. Surrounded by others who are freezing, he warms himself without thought to their needs.
What could Noah have done? A midrash explains that it took Noah 120 years to build the ark so that the people surrounding him would see what he was doing and change their ways. Yet in all that time not one person does so, and Noah simply boards the ark with his family and the chosen animals. Perhaps the people did not change their ways because Noah never spoke up, never challenged the injustice around him.
Even in the last moments when Noah boards the ark, he is silent. What if, instead, Noah had been more like Abraham who argued with God on the people’s behalf? What if he had asked God for mercy? What if he had refused to board the ark?
As we look at our world we see unbearable suffering. We witness war and occupation, poverty and environmental destruction.
If there is anything we can learn from Noah, it is that our silence will not protect us. Noah may have been saved by the flood, but he, along with his family, witnessed the destruction of the entire world. When Noah emerged from the ark, he immediately planted a vineyard, made wine, and became drunk. Perhaps he could not handle the barrenness of a destroyed world. Perhaps he could not handle knowing that he was complicit in its destruction.
Let’s use the story of Noah as a cautionary tale, as a reminder that our silence will not protect us. Let’s do better than Noah and find the courage to speak up, act justly, and work for real change in our own generation.