It is the time in the Jewish calendar when we read about Noah and the flood, and once again I glance at a myriad of Torah thoughts about Noah, many of which revel in criticizing his lack of intervention on behalf of humanity. Thus, he is unfavorably compared with Abraham who argued with God over the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah, trying to mitigate their fate and elicit God’s forgiveness.
I’ve tried to grasp this dilemma for years and I’ve often wondered what Noah should have done and could he have acted differently. It’s not as if God asked him for his opinion or sealed a covenant with Noah. Yet the criticism mounts and though he is labeled a Tzadik – a righteous person, it is mitigated by the suffix – ‘in his generation’, suggesting that had he lived in Abraham’s time, he might not have been considered as such.
I thought a lot about this recently, after attending a funeral earlier this week for a nineteen-year-young Jewish boy whose life was tragically cut short. Everybody agreed that it was a tragedy. Rabbis spoke, his parents eulogized him, and the accord was clear: God wanted his gift back! No one was angry at God. No one argued with Him and no one blamed God for a cruel and unusual act. The consensus was one of acceptance, repeating some version of the line ‘we cannot understand God’s plan.’
I recently heard the author Dara Horn, deliver a lecture on Eli-talks about what she calls ‘The Eicha Problem,’ arguing that Jews relish in blaming themselves for everything. Her model was the book of Eicha – ‘Lamentation,’ which we read on the Fast Day of Tisha-B’av that commemorates the destruction of our temple. “Why do we blame ourselves for the temple’s destruction?! Why not blame the hatred of Babylonians, their weaponry or their leader’s megalomania?” She argues with the premise of our deserving punishment for our sins. Then she brings up the book of Job, who argues with God over his tribulations. Yet the book of Job is hardly read, and sages claim that Job didn’t really exist but was just a fable. In other words – the model of arguing with God is not part of our Jewish tradition, and our credo as Jews remains one of acceptance and self-blame. The question is ‘why’? Are we afraid that if we challenge God, we’ll get no answer or worst – we’ll be punished?
If so – and if we celebrate acceptance and never argue with God – whose plan is beyond our understanding, then why blame Noah for accepting God’s orders without arguing? Still, the question troubles me! He is definitely a hero for saving humanity, but should he have challenge God to save the world He was determined to destroy?
It reminds me of a story of Jews in a Ghetto, during the second world war, who decided to prosecute God for his cruelty and for the pain He allowed to be inflicted on millions of innocent people. They spent hours putting God on trial, they found him guilty and then proceeded to pray Mincha. The idea being that we can argue with God and still be partners with Him in ordaining the world with His Kedusha –His Holy Spirit. This story portrays a religious life where challenging and arguing with God is permitted and where it doesn’t diminish our faith and observance.
Dara Horn argues the same, where we must find a new model of observance without blinders and self-blame. She suggests that we embrace our role as partners with God and demand from Him more equanimity. It seems reasonable, but the only issue I have with this is that our current model works! Jews still observe and have faith in a just God, just as in the funeral I recently attended. Jewish practice is still prevalent and growing – more than two millennia after Eicha. So why argue with success? If we change one thing, who says that we can guarantee that Judaism will still being here a hundred years from now?
We all wish for a better more just world and we often have the perfect ideas of how to achieve it. But what if our elders, the wise old rabbis – the founders of our tradition, knew something we don’t? It is very possible, that in what we consider a flawed attitude of self-blame and passivity, lies the model for preserving our tradition for the past two millennia?
We all want accountability and symmetry in our relationship, but maybe God is beyond such a relationship! How would the parents of the young boy who died be better served in being angry with God? Maybe having faith and being observant depend on acceptance, patience, some degree of retrospection and the willing of self-sacrifice? It seems that Judaism is the practice of such qualities.
The only question still remains – why is Noah judged differently?
I guess I will have to keep asking. Let’s see what the next year will bring. Maybe a new illumination is waiting just around the corner.
Now we have to move on to Lech-Lecha!