Sermon given October 15, 2004, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
I must have been in Elementary School, when my father first told me that he didn’t believe that the stories in the Torah literally happened the way they were written. Specifically, I recall that my parents didn’t endorse the historicity of the story of the flood. My Rabbis and Religious School teachers seemed to agree. Perhaps Noah didn’t even exist. Nevertheless, the message clearly conveyed, both at home and at the Temple, was that the stories were still worth discussing. Each of these narratives from the Bible, whether historical or not, conveys a deep meaning, from which we can all learn.
I’m almost as skeptical as my dad. God knows, I’m no fundamentalist, so I don’t feel compelled to defend the literal accuracy of the biblical text. I am rarely persuaded by books that purport to offer evidence of the Torah’s stories as historical events. At the same time, I see no particular reason to go around insisting that such things never happened. Whether the flood took place or not, whether such a person as Noah ever lived, we are blessed with this story, replete with symbolism, captivating to children, and offering morals that offer meaning to our lives.
Let’s first look at Noah himself. At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Noah is described as “blameless in his generation.” The Rabbis disagree over whether this designation is intended to Noah’s credit or to his discredit. On the one hand, being righteous in an age of rampant sin is a great virtue, as one must stand apart from one’s peers and not behave like everybody else. On the other hand, even a person of mediocre morals could be considered worthy in a generation of scoundrels.
This same dilemma can be said to describe a controversial issue in Texas today. Admission to the University of Texas has become very difficult for young people who graduate from top high schools. The law requires that the top ten percent of any Texas high school’s graduating class be admitted to the university. In other words, admission may be offered to a student who would be mediocre at a high-achieving high school, but who is at the top of the class in a less successful school. On the one hand, we may particularly praise this young person, who has achieved in a disadvantaged environment. On the other, we may emphasize the student’s mediocrity, since he or she has risen above a rather undistinguished lot.
God’s favor for Noah may lead us to hail the controversial state law. Even if Noah is faintly praised as the only acceptable man in a wicked generation, God nevertheless chooses him for divine partnership and sacred tasks. We recall the story of Reb Zusya, told at the beginning of our penitential Selichot service every year. Zusya is crying, and his students ask him why. He explains that he is not as great as Moses, and that God may call him to account. Ultimately, though, Zusya’s real concern is not that God will expect him to have been as righteous as Moses, but that God will demand to know why Zusya was not as great as Zusya could have been! Just as Noah is God’s chosen one, for doing the best he could in his environment, and Zusya is praised for being the best that he could be, the top student in a disadvantaged school is worthy of admission to our state’s highest academic institution, because that student has achieved mightily in his own context. The story of Noah, and its implications, are relevant to our lives today, whether or not Noah ever lived.
The ancient Rabbis are tough on Noah. They remind us that he is not nearly so great as Abraham, patriarch of the Jewish people. Specifically, we may consider Abraham’s response, when God tells him of the divine plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham argues with God, trying to convince God not to destroy the cities, even if only a few righteous people can be found there. By contrast, when God tells Noah of the plan to destroy all life with the flood, Noah doesn’t raise even the slightest concern. He doesn’t warn his neighbors, urge them to repent, or tell them that they should get into ship-building. Noah simply builds an ark. He is obedient, to be sure, but he does not take the leadership stance that we find later, in Abraham.
The story, and the comparison, are relevant to us, even if they never took place. We often wonder whether we should stand up to authority. We teach our children to do what their teachers tell them to do, and yet, there are times when even children should behave more like Abraham, challenging a teacher or administrator, rather than like Noah, who is obedient. A story from my own family is illustrative. From time to time, Robert will come home from the J.C.C., claiming that the only reason he got in trouble was because a teacher asked him to do something he considered unreasonable. Fortunately, Robert is only four, so we can see through his stories, without even needing to hear the “other side.” We know that he should have done what his teacher asked, and we tell him so. One time, though, when he wasn’t yet three, a teaching assistant gave the kids some candy, and specifically told them not to tell their parents. Robert told me about it, begging me not to let anybody know. While Toni and I are not the candy police, we were appalled that an authority figure would tell our child to keep a secret from his parents. We explained to him that even teachers sometimes say and do things that they shouldn’t. Alyssa Levey-Baugh, the school’s director, repeated the same message to him, encouraging him to let her or us know if any adult ever told him not to tell us something.
The same issue raises itself in more consequential arenas for adults. When we are at work, we owe a duty of loyalty to our employers. And yet, recent corporate scandals have reminded us that occasions arise when some have no ethical choice other than to bring illegal or immoral information to light, even in defiance of company policy. Corporate whistle-blowers, when they behave appropriately, do a great service to us all. Obedience, like Noah’s, has its important place, for adults as for children. Questioning and even resisting authority is sometimes absolutely required, in the tradition of Abraham. The stories remain very much alive.
Tomorrow morning, Matthew will read from the section of the story in which Noah sends a raven, and then a dove, out of the ark, in order to determine if the water of the flood has subsided enough for the humans and animals to emerge. Before he reads tomorrow, Matthew will describe the meaning he draws from the actions of those two birds. I won’t spoil it; you’ll have to come back tomorrow; but suffice it to say that Matthew has found an important lesson for his own life from this story of questionable historicity.
The rainbow is the ultimate symbol of the story of the flood. God offers the rainbow as the sign of the covenant God makes with humanity, the promise never again to destroy the world with the waters of a flood.
Even this hopeful message, with its magnificent symbol, is dismissed as a pale promise by some cynics. Noting that God only promises not to destroy with a flood, they insist that God is pointedly reserving the option of utilizing some other force to reverse creation. They will ask us to read our science books, teaching that neither the Earth nor its sun will not last forever. Without disputing science, we may yet affirm that the rainbow is unquestionably intended as a sign of God’s grace.
God knows that humans will never cease to sin. Indeed, the promise of the rainbow does not come with any condition. God does not say that, as long as humans are righteous, life will continue. God promises everlasting love for life, even in the presence of evil.
Some say that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a God of strict justice, even of vengeance. Yes, God is just, but God is also merciful. The rainbow reminds us that, much as God wants us to do what is right, God will be here for us, even when we fail. The rainbow teaches us that, in the darkest moments of life, when we walk in the valley of the shadow of death, God is our friend, the One in Whom we may place our eternal trust. The rainbow is God’s promise of tomorrow: When clouds cover our lives, we may yet look toward a brighter future, in this world, in the world to come, in the Messianic Age. An array of magnificent color awaits us when we emerge from the darkness. This spiritual message remains potent for us, whether or not we take literally the story of the rainbow’s origin.
The word “Torah” means teaching. Torah is our people’s record of every Jewish generation’s attempt to understand what God wants us to learn. Millennia ago, our ancestors told the story of the flood. Ultimately, they wrote it down. They have passed this tremendous narrative to us, a legacy of God’s love from those who came before us. Skeptics we may be, when we consider the historical accuracy of any particular story, but may we never become cynics, imagining that the Torah is merely a collection of fairy tales. Instead, let us always embrace the words of Torah, looking for meaning, and finding it, in each and every one.