If there is one lesson that American Presidents have learned over the past 16 years or so it is that when a natural disaster, like a Hurricane, occurs it is absolutely crucial that the public see and feel that the nation’s chief executive officer is involved and on top of marshaling resources to support communities affected by the ravages of a storm. We have witnessed the opposite when the public perception was that the president was not engaged directly with the people impacted by the Hurricane. When that happens rest assured there will be serious political consequences afterwards. The last three American Presidents have had to deal with massive hurricanes and we have seen the results when a President was truly engaged versus those who only appeared to be involved and compassionate with those who have suffered.
The Torah portion is Noah and the sages also have a lot to say in support and in criticism of Noah who had to exercise communal leadership for this catalysmic act of divine retribution. Our commentators have a wide variety of views as to whether Noah was truly a hero or engaged leader for building the ark and following god’s orders. What were some of the criticisms that the sages leveled against Noah and were they legitimate? Staying silent and not appearing to be an advocate for one’s people or community is not a good example for leadership in any age. The same is true in politics as it is religion that if a perception exist in which people think that a leader is not totally engaged on the people’s behalf then that leader will likely confront harsh and adverse repercussions.
One of the most poignant but subtle attacks against Noah was his reaction to the idea that God was going to destroy humanity.
The most important book of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, speaks to Noah as deserving of criticism. The sages like to contrast Noah with Abraham with the intention of saying both were good men but Abraham was unique because he had a degree of compassion that surpassed Noah. How so? In chapter of six of Genesis God says to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come to me”……” and behold I will destroy them from the earth. Now go make an ark of gopher wood” (6:13).
The rabbis say, “Noah held his peace and said nothing, neither did he intercede. Whereas when God was about to destroy the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomarah, Abraham said to God, “ Will you also destroy the righteous and the wicked.”
Now the rabbis add on with further criticism of Noah in comparison to Abraham. Rashi, the most famous of biblical commentators, observed the difference between Abraham and Noah in that Noah needed God’s support to perform his duties but Abraham strengthened himself and walked in his righteousness by himself.”
There are even some scholars who take a more middle of the road approach to Noah in contrast to Abraham. They ask what is the meaning of the verse in Genesis, “Noah was a man righteous and whole hearted in his generation” (6:9). In one Midrash they ask, “what does the phrase “in his generation,” mean? The answer is mixed for some sages say it to his credit and others to his discredit. Was Noah righteous in his generation but not in others? This could be compared to a man who places a silver coin amongst copper coins, then the silver appears attractive. So Noah, therefore, appeared righteous in his generation of the flood. Still others interpret Noah to a jar of balsam placed in a grave which gave off a goodly fragrance. Had it been placed inside the house how much the more so would the fragrance be appreciated. (Tanhuma).
Finally, back to Rashi who commented on verse seven which says “Noah went into the ark before the waters of the flood.” Rashi says, “Noah had little faith, only half believing that the flood would actually come and he did not enter the ark until the waters forced him to go inside.”
Clearly the rabbis do not hold Noah in the highest esteem. Were trying to diminish Noah so that they could build up Abraham? The most important critique we read was that he was silent and said nothing to defend humanity. He did nothing to challenge the justice of God’s decree to vanquish human civilization. And that is contrary to biblical figures like Abraham, Moses and Job who did challenge God when they believed God was being unfair or unjust against the Jewish people. If there is anything that is a distinguishing feature of Jewish theology it is that we do challenge God and even criticize God when we believe God is decreeing a punishment against us which we believe to be unjust.
Indeed why wasn’t Noah a stronger advocate on behalf of humanity before god? Why didn’t he speak out to God to try to intervene and convince God to hold his wrath? Noah is not a bad man but could he not have been a better advocate for humanity? If there is one thing we as a people have learned it is that silence in the face of any injustice is not the Jewish ethos we prize in assessing effective leadership.
As Americans we have, embedded in our societal values, a belief that one should speak out when we feel justice is perverted. Our compassion as a society demands we speak out not only against God but against leadership when we strongly disagree. That ethos stems directly from the Torah.
So when there is a crisis of a natural disaster like a flood, hurricane or earthquake the nation’s leader is expected not to be silent. The leader is expected to be a fierce advocate in bringing compassion and advocacy on behalf of the citizens that leader represents.
Can we go one step further by suggesting God expects us to exhibit compassion in times of travail even if we have brought on our own suffering? In Noah’s case the answer is yes. We have seen the reason why being silent and not advocating is contrary to our belief system. Americans have had to use that advocacy when natural disasters have hit our communities and the people needed the government to get involved in helping our fellow citizens find the resources to rebuild after a devastating hurricane.
The rabbis have opened our eyes to a different dimension of the Noah story where Noah is a good man and righteous but not altogether meeting the standards of other great leaders who would have taken a much more proactive course of action to protect the people. Presidents and other leaders could do well to remember that following orders and staying silent, even if for honorable reasons, may, in fact, send the wrong message about how to be a leader in a time of crisis. Paraphrasing from Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for silence and a time for speaking out.” Noah missed that opportunity and God help any leader who does the same when a natural disaster hits our community.