It’s the end of the world. Violence is everywhere. Hearts are full of hate. Waters are rising.
The story of Noah is a challenging text to read — especially when we imagine God looking at our world today, with waters rising, forests burning, violence and hatred. We might wonder if God again “regrets” making humanity as we read in Genesis 6:6: “… and God’s heart was grieved.” Rabbi Mary Brett Koplen writes, “God is heartbroken. The people whom God formed with such care, the people into whom God exhaled God’s own divine spark, the people God loved — had chosen a path of corruption and crime. God sees this corruption, is filled with regret over having ever created humans in the first place, and is overcome by grief.”
Yes, I can imagine God feeling that way today. I can imagine God crying alongside us as we mourn the world that could have been, the world we hoped would be.
So what does God do with God’s grief? God chooses a leader to begin rebuilding. God chooses Noah. “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation.” But with these words, our Torah portion opens the door on another central challenge of the text. Was Noah actually righteous? Why include the caveat “in his generation”?
On one hand, explains Rashi, it could mean that “he was righteous even in his generation; it follows that had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous … ” But on the other hand, it could mean that it was only “in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous.” If he had lived in another time, he would never have risen to this position. He’s no Abraham, or Moses, or Esther. His actions prove this, as he fails to argue with God’s decision, or protest in any way, or to fight for his people.
Noah is adequate, not exemplary, and this gives me hope. As I write these words, our country is in the midst of an important leadership decision, arguably the most important in recent history. We, like God, find ourselves with the opportunity to choose a leader. So yes, the idea that this leader need not be perfect is comforting. Had God found a flawless leader, we might think that we too should look for leaders without flaws. Instead, we get to practice imitatio dei by choosing leaders who are humans, who overcome challenges, who are flawed.
While I can not find the origin of the quote, I am moved by the analogy of voting to public transportation. Buses move in every direction, but rarely to the exact destination we hope to be. We shouldn’t give up, remaining where we are, but rather look for the bus that moves us in the right direction.
Judaism has always placed importance on engaging with the work, even when the task is too big to accomplish on our own. We are commanded to pursue justice, even when we might not see its fruition. We are commanded to perform mitzvot, sacred opportunities, to bring about the world to come, eventually. We are inspired by Honi, who plants a carob tree that will not bear fruit until long after his death. It is not upon us to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.
And the same is true of our leaders. We should choose a leader who will bring us in the direction of our values, one step closer to tikkun olam, repairing the world. We will not be so heartbroken by the state of the world that we will fail to make a choice — rather, we must vote. Make a plan, tell five friends, and, to paraphrase Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel, pray with your vote. PJC
Rabbi Emily Meyer lives in Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.