Joanne Greenaway
Chief Executive of London School of Jewish Studies(LSJS)
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Our ‘flood’ moment: A lesson for the post-COVID age

Once the earth was repopulated, Noah might have overcome his passivity with moral strength and leadership. That he didn't is an object lesson of what not to do
'Noah's Sacrifice after the Deluge,' by il Grechetto, 1650-1655. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
'Noah's Sacrifice after the Deluge,' by il Grechetto, 1650-1655. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

When we read Parshat Noach it is mind-boggling to consider that by the end of the parashah, 20 generations have passed and that takes place over a time span of over 1,500 years. It so happens that only one man in that time becomes the name-bearer for a parashah. In his generation, the 10th since creation, only he (together with his family and many animals), was singled out by God to be saved from impending doom in the great flood, the mabul.

We learn that after the waters subside, Noah built an altar to God (8:20-21), sacrificing one of every pure animal and bird. It was his thanksgiving offering, and the one act was deemed so significant by God that He, on smelling the pleasing odor, אֶת־רֵ֣יחַ הַנִּיחֹ֒חַ֒ , resolved to never again destroy the earth or its inhabitants; He had found something positive in man (8:21). The verse uses a very particular phrase, וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה’ אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ (God said in His heart), indicating that God was particularly emotionally moved and encouraged by Noah.

And yet, we know from the famous Rashi at the beginning of the parashah that righteousness is all relative. The phrase in 6:9 is “נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו” — Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation.

Having emerged from a devastating pandemic that, for many of us, involved long periods of lockdown, we have, with the benefit of hindsight, something of a new perspective on this episode.

What then can we learn from Noah’s responses to the events that befell him and how might God respond to us today, were we to behave like Noah?

When it comes to taking initiative and leading the way, we find little in the character of Noah. Noah does as God commands: he builds the ark, no questions asked. He goes in and he goes out. Where are his attempts to change the ways of those around him who are committing unspeakable sins during the 120 years that he built his ark? Where is his outrage to God, doubting the guilt of the whole of humanity? Where is his challenge to save the people? Where are his attempts to negotiate with God, as Abraham did for the people of Sodom? In fact, he never says a word. We see a man who turns inwards, who is content to be submissive, and accepting his role of saving (only) his own family and their animals.

To the discerning reader, the text makes it clear that there is more we could have expected from Noah. His name indicates that he was meant to bring comfort – noach, pleasant. When he was born, his father Lamech said, “זֶ֞֠ה יְנַחֲמֵ֤נוּ” — May this one comfort us (5:29). However, the same Hebrew root means both comfort and regret. A few verses later, we hear an ironic echo of this same word used again וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם ה’ כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ ׃ — And God regretted having made humankind on earth (6:6). Ultimately, God regrets creating the world and Noah adds no comfort to it, apart from the momentary comfort to God when he brings Him an offering.

Noah stays inside his ark, closed off and oblivious to the suffering in the destruction going on all around him in the world outside. He floats securely, without even having to steer the ark, and spares no thought for the lives of others. Even when the flood ends, after 40 days plus the additional 120 days it took for the waters to recede, Noah seems to lack the drive to emerge and start to build a better world. He eventually leaves the ark when God instructs him to do so directly.

The one action that Noah takes of his own initiative — bringing that sacrifice — was personal, between him and God. He does not reach beyond his relationship with God and his family. One might think that, once the earth was again replenished with people, this time, Noah’s descendants, he had an opportunity to act the leader, to show moral strength, and provide direction. In fact, humanity had to wait another 10 generations for such a leader to emerge — in Abraham.

To the contrary, Noah plants a vineyard, gets drunk and uncovers himself, behaving immorally in some way with his son Ham. The next thing we are told about him is his death, albeit 350 years later. The implication is that, although Noah was saved from the flood, he, in fact, due to his own actions, meets a fate not dissimilar to the rest of his generation — becoming unconscious and effectively drowning himself.

This is a serious critique. What would Abraham have done? What would we have done? During the height of the COVID pandemic, while staying afloat was itself hugely challenging, so many of us did much more than look at our four walls: supporting others, reaching out, creating alternative community, providing virtual opportunities for learning and connecting. And, on emerging from the pandemic, we started to rebuild. We must continue to do so, learning from the example of what Noah should have done, yet did not do.

The parashah of Noah, unlike its main character, gives us a great insight into how to do more to look outside: To see how we can influence. To protest boldly, rather than submit to injustice. To speak out with a moral voice in Israel and beyond, making our voices heard to counter the forces of extremism. To care for the mental, emotional, and spiritual health of others beyond our own family units. To check how people are managing, particularly in these times of financial strain. In this way, we strive to be active partners with God in perfecting His creation and solving the challenges around us, bringing God into the world. Not merely to survive, but to survive for a purpose.

About the Author
Jo leads LSJS, a world-class centre of Jewish learning and teaching, delivering innovative education programmes and training and developing teachers for the Jewish community. Jo has a languages degree from Cambridge University and had a legal career in international arbitration. She has worked with communities and schools across Europe and teaches and lectures widely in the community. Jo is part of Ohr Torah Stone’s 4-year International Halakha Scholars Programme.
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