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Noah 5771-2010

“Man’s Struggle with Evil”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Noah, we learn much about man’s ongoing struggle with evil.

As the parasha opens, the Torah describes Noah, the story’s hero, in a very unusual way. In Genesis 6:9, the Torah states that Noah was an, “Ish tzaddik, tah’meem haya b’doh’roh’tahv,” a righteous man, perfect in his generations.

Rashi immediately notes that the seemingly extraneous word “b’doh’roh’tahv,” in his generations, comes to teach something more about Noah that can be viewed as either praise or scorn of Noah. Some would argue that the fact that Noah was righteous in his wicked generation implies that he would have been even more righteous in a righteous generation. Others, however, view Noah as righteous only when compared to others in his wicked generation. In fact, had he lived in a righteous generation he would not have been considered righteous at all.

This difference of opinion is recorded in the Talmud Sanhedrin 108a. Rabbi Yochanan sees Noah as righteous only in contrast to the wicked people of his generation, while Resh Lakish sees Noah as outstanding, despite the evil of his generation. This dispute between Reb Yochanan and Resh Lakish is not merely a difference of opinion regarding the manner in which the two scholars interpret the words “in his generations,” but is rather a fundamental dispute about the nature of man. Rabbi Yochanan sees the supremacy of the environment over the individual. No matter how righteous, pious or moral the individual is, the blandishments of a corrupt environment will eventually prevail. Resh Lakish, on the other hand, deems that individuals have the power to fight back, and that people of great moral fiber can indeed influence their societies, no matter how wicked, and change the course of human nature. (It’s interesting to note that Resh Lakish himself started as a brigand and became a great rabbi!)

As the story of Noah evolves, the bible informs us (Genesis 6:11), “Va’tee’sha’chayt hah’ah’retz lif’nay ha’Eh’lo’kim,” And the earth became corrupt before G-d.  Here the bible provides us with a great insight into human nature. True, the people became corrupt before G-d in G-d’s eyes, but in their own eyes, they always saw themselves as righteous. They were certain that nothing that they were doing was wrong or immoral. As immorality and corruption increased, it became increasingly acceptable, until it became impossible for anybody to speak up on behalf of morality. Indeed, this may very well be the first allusion in recorded literature to the human’s capacity for self-justification and rationalization.

The Torah (Genesis 6:11) continues to describe the progressive evil of humankind in those days, by saying, “va’tee’mah’lay hah’ah’retz chamas,” And the earth became filled with violence. Rashi identifies chamas as theft. In a fascinating observation, the Jerusalem Talmud (Bava Metzia 4:2) understands chamas as lawlessness, and maintains that people cheated each other of very small sums, making it impossible for the courts of law to charge those who were corrupt. As a result, the people saw the courts as ineffective. Slowly, more people challenged the authority of the courts, until anarchy reigned.

As sin and immorality began to prevail, all existence, even the inanimate elements of the surroundings, became tainted. That is why Rashi (Genesis 6:12) notes, that even the animals began to cohabit with other species. By providing a corrupt human model, the rest of creation was corrupted.

The story of Noah should frighten those who read it. Learning of the constant escalation of corruption in the time of Noah should give us pause to consider our own reality.

We had hoped that with the astonishing advances of technology, the world would become a more equitable and moral place. Now that so many have access to electricity, running water, telephones and internet, we might think that many of the problems of the world have been solved, and that all that is needed for peace to prevail is to eliminate the small pockets of evil and violence.

Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. It seems as if those who seek good in this world are in the distinct minority, and that even this minority is being rapidly corrupted by the evolving societal values that increasingly promote sex and violence as the most elevated forms of entertainment.

Noah was the person whom G-d chose to serve as an exemplar to the world. He and his family were selected to convey the message that no one need die and that future floods could be avoided if only people would heed G-d’s message. Not only did Noah fail as a messenger to the world, he was a failed messenger to his own family as well. His own son, Ham, betrays him, and reintroduces many destructive elements to the world that the flood was intended to eliminate.

Elie Weisel tells the story of the prophet who came to Sodom and began to call to the people to repent. At first, the people were amused that any prophet would dare enter the gates of Sodom and rebuke them for their actions. After a while, they tired of the prophet’s ranting and raving, and began to pelt him with garbage and curses.

After a year of prophesying, the prophet, covered with wounds from head to foot, bruised and battered, wandered aimlessly through the streets of Sodom, when a little boy approached him and said: “Mr. Prophet, of all the places on earth, why did you come to Sodom?” The prophet meekly told the child that at first he had truly hoped that his words and his pleading would impact upon the residents of Sodom and that they would repent. “But you see that your words haven’t made any impact at all. Why do you continue to prophesy?” The prophet replied: “When I first came to Sodom I hoped that my words would have impact on the people and that the people would change. Now I continue to prophesy so that the actions of the people of Sodom will not change me!”

Perhaps this is the role that we modern-day Noahs must play. Rather than seeking to aggressively stop corruption and immorality, we need to circle the wagons and maintain our own sense of morality and sanctity. Only then can we hope to influence others.

The jury is still out on the debate between Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish. Will the environment impact on us and overwhelm us, or can the individual impact on the environment? But at least one message is clear: we need to maintain our own personal morality in order for the rest of the world to be impacted by our example.

May you be blessed.