Reflections – Noach
It is God not Noah that offers us a good example of growing and learning.
By Rabbi Paul Arberman
On approaching his 70th birthday, writer and director Woody Allen, commented in Vanity Fair magazine: “I’ve gained no wisdom, no insight, no mellowing. I would make all the same mistakes again, today.”
If true, that’s sad. Life should be about growth and development. All my favourite characters in literature are about change, and in particular, character development.
Parshat Noach has an interesting story of character development. You might think it’s about Noah who gains wisdom and insight – but it’s not. He does little to help the people around him. God chooses to save Noah simply because he wasn’t actively evil like the rest of his generation.
As we read in the midrash: R. Judah said (Gen. Rabbah 30:9) “Only in his generation was he a righteous man [comparatively]; had he flourished in the generation of Moses or Samuel, he would not have been called righteous: in the street of the totally blind, the one-eyed man is called clear sighted, and the child [who can read] is called a scholar…” What about later on in the story? Upon exiting the ark, Noah builds an altar to God, ostensibly to thank God for saving him and his family from the flood – not to ask for forgiveness for not saving more people or getting them to repent. There is no hint, for example, that in another flood he would try to save more people. Noah quietly follows God’s instructions, and even at the end of his story, never worries about anyone but his immediate family.
In contrast, God is following a steep (and surprising) learning curve. Throughout the early chapters of Genesis, God is considering his actions and learning. God at first only creates Adam, and only later concludes: “It is not good that the _adam,_ ‘human’, should be alone.” So God creates a partner for the human. God soon changes his mind about his creation: “God saw that human evil was great…God regretted having made humanity… (Gen 6:5-6). So God sends the flood.
However, in another moment of deep consideration and learning, God then shows regret for having wiped out the earth. The key sentence is: “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of a human being’s heart is evil from his/her youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing, as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21-22.) Humans have an evil inclination, so God basically says, if I don’t want to wipe out everyone – then I will have to learn to accept this truth about humankind.
Perhaps the greatest lesson that God learns – essentially about himself – is that God must guard and prevent himself from acting rashly. We can learn this from the “rainbow _(keshet)_ in the cloud which shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth…” (Gen. 9:13). The Ramban explains that the rainbow is the inverted bow (as in, bow and arrow) of God, now aimed away from the earth. You could say that God is promising not to shoot the earth again. God learns the need to disarm Himself rather than risk a repeat cataclysm.
Noah remains the same simple person throughout his story. However, God offers a good example for us of acting, of making mistakes, and then moving forward, growing and learning. It leaves me thinking, since you are the main character in your own story (myth?) – is your character developing? Are you making the same mistakes as in the past, or are you moving forward? Will you be like the ark that had no rudder to steer – or are you captain of your ship?
Rabbi Paul Arberman, was ordained at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem in 2002. He lives in Israel with his family, and divides his time between working in education and spending one Shabbat per month and the High Holydays as Rabbi of Hatch End Masorti Synagogue.