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Be At Least Moderately Good

Torah Talk on Noach 5780

It’s an old story, and we know it well: God sees that wickedness and corruption have spread throughout the world, and human beings are acting in ways that should have been predictable to an all-knowing deity—lying, cheating, stealing, murdering, slandering, smearing political opponents, the usual. In response, God decides to destroy the world in a great flood, rain falling for 40 days and nights, the whole of humanity drowned in a deluge.

One man is chosen to survive the flood, because, the Torah tells us, he was “righteous in his generation”. Noah—Noach in Hebrew—is chosen to carry the banner of humanity to the next generation. Gathering his family about him and two of each animal (plus seven pairs of each kosher animal so there’s something to eat and something to sacrifice to God if they make it) Noah builds the ark, loads the boat, and goes on not a three-hour cruise, but one long enough to float away every trace of the depravity of humanity. Eventually, he sends out first a raven and finally a dove to see if the world is dry enough to land upon. The dove brings back that famous olive branch, they disembark the ark, and life begins again.

A great covenant is affirmed, the first and most enduring berit in human history. God agrees never again to destroy the earth by flood; unfortunately, we don’t agree to the same provision, an oversight we may be paying for soon. We do agree to abide by certain minimum standards of morality. It is truly a new beginning. In essence, God acknowledges that this new world will not be the Garden of Eden anymore, but it can be both physically and morally good and rich.

Noah, we are told, was a righteous man in his generation, ish tzadik b’dorotav—which doesn’t necessary make him a righteous man in every generation. The Zohar explains that when Noah was told about the destruction of all humanity he complied with God’s command to build the ark and save his family and the animal species, but he did not protest the destruction of humanity. Unlike Abraham or Moses, who argued vigorously with God against similar decress, Noah just goes along with the human destruction divinely decreed. He’s good enough, but not exactly good.

Perhaps, for us, this sets a reasonable standard that we might live up to. If we can’t necessarily succeed in becoming fully righteous for all time, at least we can strive to be righteous in our own turbulent, somewhat degraded times.

All that’s required is that we try to be the best that we, personally, can be, and seek to do what’s right even when it seems easier to choose not to do so. If we can manage that, and be only as good as Noah, we too might end up saving the world—which now, as then, appears to need a good deal of saving.

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