October 20th: Noach
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
Though I had heard it hundreds of times, I never really understood the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty until I was a grown-up.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
As we are growing up, lots of things go wrong. We fall. We fail. We try things and don’t get them right. We drop things. We bump into things. We miss. And, so often, to calm our frustration, we heard the words, “Don’t worry. It’s okay.” And many times, it is okay. Things can be fixed. We can get up. We can try again. We may even succeed. Sometimes, it is okay. Sometimes.
But, sometimes, things cannot be fixed. Sometimes, we do not get a second chance. Sometimes, it is not okay.
I remember a friend commenting on her anxiety as her daughter started driving. “Now,” she said, “with that 3000 pound car, she can do some real damage.” As we’ve all learned, some mistakes in driving can be corrected. Some cannot.
I think of these things as I read the story of Noah and the Ark—or, at least, the introductory paragraphs. The story actually begins at the end of last week’s Torah portion.
“The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that He has made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. The Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.’ But Noah found favor with the Lord.” (Genesis 6.5-8)
There is not a lot of specificity in this evaluation, and so my tendency is to wonder what exactly was so bad that humanity deserved destruction.
The explanation in this week’s Torah portion is not much more helpful.
"The earth became corrupt before God: the earth was filled with lawlessness. 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. Make for yourself an ark…’” (Genesis 6.11-14)
We do not know much about the specific crimes—what it takes to incur such Divine wrath, and we also do not know much about Noah’s distinguishing behavior. All the Torah tells us is:
“This is the line of Noah—Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age: Noah walked with God. Noah begot three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. God seems very clear about what constitutes evil and what constitutes a savable life, but, as we try to plot lives that will curry God’s favor and not invoke God’s destructive fury, we are left with an element of mystery. What are we supposed to do? What are we supposed not to do?!
The Torah is full of advice on leading holy lives—teaching us both moral and ritual mitzvot. The moral commandments push us to live lives of integrity and righteousness, and the ritual commandments push us to open our awareness to our place in the cosmos. They can all be very helpful, and we can look forward to the Divine instruction that our yearly Torah cycle offers.
However, beneath all of the advice and commentary, the story of Noah reminds us that the stakes in life can be very serious. There are some mistakes for which there is no remedy. There are some situations in which we simply do not get another chance. There are some mistakes or missed chances or sins that cause real and lasting harm. “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men” cannot remedy or fix or undo some of our misdeeds.
And so, the story of Noah reminds us that we need to approach our lives with careful consideration. Careful consideration!