Minutes of Torah

In this week’s parashat Noah, we are confronted with one of the nagging questions in Torah:Why does Noah seemingly fail to save anyone other than his immediate family from the flood. In contrast to Abraham, who goes to bat for the people of Sodom, Noah seems to have gone about his business building the ark and preparing for the destruction without attempting to save or even engage his neighbors. Why?

The great nineteenth-century Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev offers the explanation that both Noah and Abraham were both righteous leaders. However, Abraham had confidence that he could undo a Divine decree, but that Noah’s humility was so overpowering that he did not think himself qualified to pray to undo the decree of the Flood. Noah seemingly lacked a sufficient sense of security in his own self-worth to believe that his actions could have any effect on others, whether it be his neighbors or God.

Perhaps Noah’s humility comes in reaction to what he sees around him. The generation of the flood became haughty due to the goodness that God bestowed upon them. As Noah looks at the people in the world around him, he perceives an entire generation of supremely self-confident people. They aren’t just secure in themselves, they’re arrogant. This unhealthy sense of self-importance can create a false sense of security often leading to disaster. And just when the generation of the Flood thought they were secure, their world was upended and their vulnerability exposed.

Conversely Noah, who is utterly lacking in self-security, becomes one of just a handful of survivors of a planetary catastrophe, secure inside the Ark.

Most of us live in the space between the two extremes inhabited by Noah and his generation. On the one hand, there are times when we feel a sure sense of security in ourselves that can enable us to take courageous action: When we stand up to a bully, or when we ask for a raise. On the other, sometimes we feel a profound feeling of insecurity that keeps us from speaking: When we fail to say something that might make us feel emotionally vulnerable, or stay silent when we see others being abused.

For our own well-being, we need to spend quite a bit of time reflecting on how we can develop a healthy sense of security — neither overconfident nor undernourished. We want to be self-secure enough to take courageous action, but not so secure that we become arrogant like the generation of the flood.

Judaism offers an interesting approach to this situation amongst the laws pertaining to teaching Torah.  Maimonides describes the ideal relationship of teacher and student in that both share responsibility for maintaining the learning environment. The teacher, of course, has the responsibility not to allow her frustration to get in the way of her patience with the student’s learning ability.  But Maimonides also places responsibility on the student:  The student cannot be so worried about making himself vulnerable that he fails to speak up when he does not understand.

To translate to the Noah story, the student cannot be over-humble and insecure to the point that he doesn’t speak up—to raise a question with his neighbors that Noah should have, such as, “Why are you doing the things you’re doing?” Or with God, as Abraham would raise in defense of the Sodomites, “Will not the Judge of the World do justice?”

When we understand Noah’s failure to arise from a lack of self-confidence, or a lacking a sense of security, we can understand God’s response differently. God seems to fail the test of the teacher — losing patience with the ‘students’ — the generation of the Flood, and becoming angry. God seemingly acknowledges as much after the Flood in making the covenant with Noah:

“And Adonai said to His heart: ‘Never again will I doom the earth because of humans, since the devisings of their minds are evil from their youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.’”

The Torah here gives us the image of the Divine as a learning teacher, responding and adapting to the needs and limitations of the beings with which God seeks to live in relationship — the essence of the Covenant.

So, too, when we are confronted with conditions in which we are called  upon to act, know that we can ‘adapt’ to the state of affairs in order to find the appropriate level of ‘security’ in the situation. And once we correctly assess the level of security afforded us, we can take the suitable action consistent with that sense of security, in moving forward. And by acting in this manner, we find the correct balance between:

–speech and silence

–taking space for ourselves and making space for others,

–a sense of security and sureness in the world and ourselves, and an acknowledgement of our profound limitations.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rav Julius Rabinowitz
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