Todd Berman

When staring at the gaping abyss, look for the helpers

What do we want from poor Noah? God decides to unleash a horror on the world. He declares that a flood will drown every human besides Noah and his family. Instead, They are responsible for saving all living creatures. Death by drowning may be one of the most dreadful punishments. This part of the story requires the theological ponderings of the book of Job to comprehend.

God chose Noah to save the animals from the deluge because of his righteousness. “Noah was a fully righteous person in his generation, Noah walked with God.” A famous debate broke out regarding the phrase “righteous person in his generation.” (Genesis 4:9). Rabbi Yochanan said that only his generation was Noah considered righteous. Noah wouldn’t have been noticed if he lived in another generation, such as with Abraham. Rabbi Shimon b. Lakish, known as Reish Lakish, disagreed. He suggested that the caveat “in his generation” means that the evil environment dragged Noah down. He was righteous despite his corrupt generation. Had Noah lived in the time of Abraham, the patriarchs would have supported him to reach even greater holiness. (See Sanhedrin 108a)

The one aspect the rabbis seem to agree upon is the evaluation of Noah’s actions. He was not objectively righteous. In a way, he was a failure. According to Rabbi Yochanan, Noah’s shortcomings were part of his personality. Reish Lakish took a more positive view. Although Noah could have done better, obstacles were placed in his path toward holiness.

What do the rabbis want from him? The Torah tells us that God gave Noah specific instructions, and “Everything God told Noah to do, he did.” (Genesis 4:22). Noah doesn’t argue or try to evade; he follows God’s instructions to the absolute letter. What more is there to righteousness than following God’s will?

Noah is often compared to Abraham. When confronted with a similarly terrible divine punishment, Abraham reacted differently. When God informs Abraham that He will rain fire and brimstone upon the evil doers of Sodom and the other cities, Abraham doesn’t take it lying down. “And Abraham approached and said, ‘will You destroy the righteous with the sinner?’” (Genesis 18:22) I always imagine Abraham raising his fist towards heaven and demanding that God not destroy the cities for the sake of the innocent.

While Noah accepted the divine decree to brutally end mankind, Abraham cried out for the miscarriage of justice. “Will the judge of the entire land not do justly?” (Genesis 18:25.) Seemingly, the rabbis of the Talmud understood that accepting God’s will is not enough. One must be prepared to wrestle with God. One must risk offense, demanding the Divine live up to His moral declarations.

In a fascinating passage, the Zohar, the primary book of Jewish mystical midrash, does not accept Abraham as the paradigm of Jewish action either. According to the Zohar, both Noah and Abraham fell short. Noah was not willing to risk his own life arguing with God for the salvation of others. Abraham was willing to demand justice for those without sin but not for mercy.  Another biblical figure was willing to go further.

After the Jews sinned with the Golden Calf, God declared that He would wipe out all the Jews and make Moses the father of the new chosen people. Like Noah, Moses’s family would be the new first Jew and head of the entire nation. (Exodus 32:10) When confronted with the terror of divine genocide, Moses calls out, “Please bear the people’s sin, and if not, erase me from your book.” Moses willingly risks his life, reputation, and legacy to fight for those who sinned. The Zohar declares, “There has never been a leader who defended his generation like Moses. He is the trustworthy shepherd.” Leadership in the face of ultimate horror and adversity requires self-sacrifice. Moses’s selfless action became the ultimate archetype of the Jewish response to catastrophe: to throw oneself into the jowls of the best to protect those in need.

The great philosopher, Mr. Rogers, quoted his mother saying that when tragedy strikes, always look for the helpers. In the past week, many have run into the fires of hell to help others survive the onslaught from the Hamas terrorists. The middle-aged ex-special forces man who spotted the rockets and then helped alert the kibbutz of Nir Am, who subsequently fought off the invaders, the woman walking her dog early who alerted the others to muster the defenses, Rahel Edri, who offered the terrorists food and drink stalling for hours preventing them from other attacks and eventually gaining freedom, the retired general grandfather, Noam Tibon, who drove from Tel Aviv to rescue his and other families, the many soldiers and civilians, like Awad Darawshe, an Israeli Arab paramedic, who lost their lives rescuing at the dessert party. My neighbor, Staff Sgt. Roey Weiser, gave up his own life to create a diversion to save a dozen other soldiers. Paramedic Amit Mann continued to save as many as she could for six hours until the Hamas terrorists took over the clinic on Kibbutz Be’eri.  So many ran to help, kept the marauders at bay, and fought to save lives, giving up their own. The stories of the events will live on forever, even as the holy people didn’t survive the vicious onslaught.

Moses, our teacher, the faithful shepherd, is the model of self-sacrifice beyond the call of duty. He stood up when no one else was in a position to do so. Despite the horrors of Simcha Torah 5784, many gave of themselves far beyond what was required and paid the ultimate price. The entire Jewish people owe them gratitude and should remember their sacrifice.

Many other opportunities present themselves for those of us not confronting hell head-on. My Gap year yeshiva program, Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, like several others, cut vacation short and started the semester early to keep our students together and safe. Faculty members left their homes to sleep in dormitories to raise morale and even cooked for students when catering was unavailable.  

Our yeshiva and many other programs recalibrated our schedule to incorporate volunteer work. Our students worked in hospitals, packing hundreds of meals for soldiers, clearing out and cleaning miklatim for communities, and other things. Students at Midreshet Lindenbaum volunteered to babysit and cook for over fifty families daily to help them cope with parents called up to reserve duty. Despite the tensions and protests of government actions before the attack, people put away their protest signs and put on uniforms. Hundreds of thousands heeded the call to help the army prepare to defend our country. Across the world, Jewish communities and our friends have held vigils, donated vast sums of money, and pushed legislators to support Israel in our time of need. These people have heeded the call beyond the regular call of duty to help. The spirit of Moses is very much alive today.

In the merit of Moses, our teacher, the many who have sacrificed their lives, and the many more who have volunteered to help, may our captives soon return, the injured heal, and families who lost so many loved ones find comfort among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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