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Naomi Graetz

To Be or Not to Be: Noah and the Existential Question

To write a blog or not to write a blog, that is the question. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I write the blogs as much for myself as for my readers.  For almost two weeks we have been in an impossible state of mind, ranging from total despair, confusion, anxiety to pride. We watch the news on three Israeli channels and surf the foreign ones and look for any information that will inform us, make some order from this mess, some logic amidst the chaos, anything that will give us peace of mind. But it is impossible. We are all in a state of waiting. Everyone knows someone close to them on the Northern and Southern Fronts. Many are waiting to hear the fate of their loved ones. A heartbreaking story was that of a grandfather who was glad his granddaughter was dead and not suffering as a captive.

Then I read that there are several elderly people my age who are opting to stay in their homes in Otef Azza. Their reasons are, “we’re comfortable here; I was evacuated once as a child and I never again want to be evacuated. I’m self-sufficient, I have everything I need; don’t worry, someone looks in on me every day.” These people survived the attacks and/or fended off their attackers on Saturday. I try and put myself in their place and I realize that I too would rather stay at home and take my chances rather than be uprooted. However, the majority of people are not being given the option to stay. Nor would it be wise for them to do so. The whole area is going to be a war zone and our army should not have to worry about the citizens who choose to stay. It is almost selfish to insist on staying, although I can certainly sympathize with them and if I had a choice, I would do the same.

And what a contrast with Hamas!  We are taking our citizens out of harms’ way; whereas they are stopping their citizens from evacuating. They put their citizens in harms way and then blame us when a failed rocket hits a hospital parking lot and inflate the casualty numbers.  The truth does not really matter. Even when it is proven that it was 100% not Israel’s fault, we are blamed. Did anyone even notice when Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon was hit by a rocket—more than once. Our hospitals have converted parking lots, four floors underground into emergency wards, whereas Hamas use their own citizens as pawns. We will never win the propaganda war. As Dara Horn has written, the world loves dead Jews. And yet, knowing this, we still are trying to behave morally as a nation, at the same time that we are in an existential battle. We do not see things in terms of black and white, and the longer we wait the more excruciating the pain. We are constantly questioning and wondering and there are no good answers.

Imagine a different Noah and a different God

Strangely enough this brings me to parshat Noah. Unlike we mortals, God has no questions and has a clear answer to a land full of evil (which in Hebrew is called Hamas). Destroy the land and its inhabitants (Genesis 6:11-12):

וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס׃  וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְהִנֵּ֣ה נִשְׁחָ֑תָה כִּֽי־הִשְׁחִ֧ית כׇּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר אֶת־דַּרְכּ֖וֹ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ {ס} וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כׇּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם  .את־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

But we are human beings and can imagine what would have happened had Noah said to God, “Isn’t there another option? Surely there must be some good people in the land. Destroying the entire world is a bit extreme. What about the innocent children? The animals? What kind of God are you to do something like this. I’m not going to have any part in this. Find someone else to build an ark.”

PARSHAT NOAH

The background to this story was in last week’s parsha:

When humankind began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, the [males among the] divine beings saw how pleasing the human women were and took wives from among those who delighted them.—God said, “My breath shall not abide in humankind forever, since it too is flesh; let the days allowed them be one hundred and twenty years.”—It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth—when divine beings cohabited with the human women, who bore them offspring. Such were the heroes of old, the men of renown (Genesis 6:4).

Thus, the immediate cause of God’s anger is that it would be possible for humankind to live forever—something which God could not countenance.  Actually, I can sympathize with God! It’s like today, being stuck with the same corrupt leaders forever—God forbid (pun intended)! But God doesn’t say that’s the reason. He simply makes the point that there was:

great human wickedness on earth—how every plan devised by the human mind was nothing but evil all the time (vs.5).

And that was immediate cause for God’s decision to destroy all life on earth:

And God regretted (ינחם) having made humankind on earth. With a sorrowful heart, God said, “I will blot out from the earth humankind whom I created—humans together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret (נחמתי) that I made them” (vss.6-7),

The use of the root נחם  is ironic, because in a different context it is associated with a comforting God (Isaiah 40) –נחמו, נחמו עמי. How sorrowful was God about this decision? He didn’t think twice. It is lip-service on the part of the narrator, for God just went ahead and allowed his anger and fear that the people half-human and half angels would live on forever and present a challenge to his reign. That was the immediate cause. There would be no going back, come what may. And then he found a perfect lackey to execute his plan:

Noah found favor with God (vs.8).

Only in this week’s parsha will we learn something about Noah and understand why God chose him. And perhaps we will learn why Noah did not question God and refuse to obey his commands.

This is the line of Noah.—Noah was a righteous (tzadik) man; he was blameless (tamim) in his generation; Noah walked with  (hithalech) God–אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃

So why did God choose Noah? He was a Tzadik, he was an innocent pure being and he was totally in step with God and his plans.  So much so, that when God lays everything out to him, he is quiet. He does not react; he does not protest; he does not question God:

When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.

There is a glaring gap in the text!! Now is the time for Noah to say something. But he does not. And that’s why God chose him. He was no Abraham, who in the future when God would share plans with him, would ask God, how can you destroy all the good people with the bad:

Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocents within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You (חלילה לך) to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You (חלילה לך)! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18: 23-25).

It’s true that God did not change his mind, but at least Abraham tried. He tried to get God to behave morally and not let his anger rule him. Abraham used the words (חלילה לך). What you are doing would be a desecration of your name, a hilul hashem!

But Noah, who went along with God’s plan, followed orders and did not protest and got his reward:

But I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark, with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives….Noah did so; just as God commanded him, so he did.

To explain the difference between Noah’s reaction and that of Abraham’s the sages emphasized over and over that because it said that Noah was a tzadik in HIS generation, that it is not fair to compare him to Abraham. That may be so. However, we live in a complex world, where journalists are talking about “proportionality”. Are we to follow God’s lead and totally destroy those who are an existential threat to our existence without taking into account the innocent civilians? Are we to allow simple hatred like God’s to guide us, or do we have to ask questions and pause even as we are figuring out how to come to grips with the battle against an enemy whose only interest is to totally destroy us.

To preserve my own personal sanity in the midst of this uncertainty, I have started to teach my zoom classes again. The topic of my modern midrash class was fittingly about Mrs. Noah. And we saw that she did dare to complain and question God’s orders. We also viewed a harrowing film, which I have been showing for years and is not easy viewing (here). And in the morning we spent almost an hour going over only seven verses from Job:

Job again took up his theme and said: By God who has deprived me of justice! By Shaddai who has embittered my life! As long as there is life in me, And God’s breath is in my nostrils, My lips will speak no wrong, Nor my tongue utter deceit. Far be it from me to say you are right; Until I die I will maintain my integrity. I persist in my righteousness and will not yield; I shall be free of reproach as long as I live. May my enemy be as the wicked; My assailant, as the wrongdoer (Job 27:1-7).

Somehow Job is able to keep his faith, while always questioning God’s justice. God never really answers his complaint about why good people have to suffer, but at least God listens to him respectfully and eventually does offer some answers.  Let us all hope that we get answers to our questions as we fight our way out of this horrendous situation.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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