Don't Give Darkness the Final Word: Parashat Noah

About The Author

Rabbi Stanley M. Davids

a Past President of ARZA and a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel and of the Executive Committee of the World Zionist Organization. In 2015 he was named an Honorary Fellow of the WZO. He has served congregations in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New York, and Georgia. He and his wife Resa made Aliyah in 2004, and reside in Jerusalem and California.

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Parashat Noah, Genesis 6:9-11:32, is read during the week that ends on Shabbat, November 5, 2016.

Note from the author: In this piece, I quote Ari Shavit. I became aware of the extremely serious charges against Ari Shavit after this article was completed. I fully understand the irony of his having written about the need to “see the Other” while he himself stands accused of abusive behavior against women. I still believe that the analysis in his book will stand the test of time and is an accurate perspective on Israeli-Jewish and Israel-Arab relations. 

Read ARZA Staff's Thought Piece on Ari Shavit

It all seems so delightfully innocent when our youngsters sing of Noah and the Flood: “And Noah, he built him, he built him an arky, arky…,” together with that wondrously optimistic conclusion: “Everything is hunky dory, dory, children of the Lord!”

But there is a darkness throughout the Flood account, a darkness to which we willfully blind ourselves, just as we have chosen to blind ourselves to the p’shat (literal) description of the ethical and moral deficiencies of our patriarchs and matriarchs in Genesis.

How could Noah not even raise a word of protest against God’s plans to destroy almost all life on earth?  Furthermore, how could Abraham assent to the deaths of Hagar and Ishmael – and of Isaac?  How could all of the founders of our people be so totally lacking in parenting skills?  How could a brother (Esau) consider killing a brother (Jacob), or a son (Jacob again) cheat so as to pervert his father Isaac’s final intentions? The texts are all there, but we choose not to see them.  We look at transgression, and all we see are saintly deeds.  It feels better to see things that way. At least, it is easier.

Last week we read this passage about Noah: “The Eternal saw how great was humankind’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by their mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Eternal regretted having made humankind on earth, and God’s heart was saddened.  The Eternal said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings whom I created—people together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.’”  (Genesis 6:5-7)

God looks at us and finds us totally lacking in moral rectitude. In our thoughts and in our deeds, we are wicked.  In Midrash Bereishit Rabbah R. Shimon ben Lakish said that God was doing all that could be done to warn humankind as to where their behavior was leading: “Until Noah came, the tides would rise high twice, once in the morning and once in the evening, flushing corpses out of their graves.” These were mini-floods indicating what the future held in store. But these gruesome warnings had no effect on human behavior.

In the face of such warnings, we proved incapable of changing our ways. And God therefore saw no future for us. The Creator looks at Creation – and despairs. 

The darkness of the Flood account extends to Noah himself, though he was “a righteous man, blameless in his age” (Genesis 6:9). Noah seems perfectly willing to protect his own family while allowing all the rest of humankind to perish. A righteous man, indeed! And when the Flood recedes, Noah drowns his angst in wine and passes out. The next scene does not warrant comment here.

The Torah, as elaborated upon by rabbinic sources, posits the existence of a Yetzer, an inclination toward evil, as an inbred aspect of each and every one of us (Yetzer Ha-Ra).  The rabbis seemingly have no trouble in amplifying the Torah references, choosing to disagree only about when (not if) the Evil Inclination begins to exercise control over us. The later, half-hearted ‘invention’ by the rabbis of a Good Inclination as a balancing factor might have been a loving gesture, but this Yetzer Tov cannot be found has little serious status in rabbinic psychology.

And yet. Jewish tradition will not give to darkness the final word.  When Genesis 1:27 proclaims that we are made b’tzelem Elohim/”in the image of God,” Maimonides was quick to emphasize that that image was not corporeal. Rather, it is the inner essence of humankind that reflects the essence of God. The qualities of infinite Godliness can be our qualities; they ARE accessible to us. 

Much more recently, Emmanuel Levinas, in his Totality and Infinity, brilliantly sought to rescue the capacity for human beings to rise beyond our animal core by positing the transformative power of our encounter with the Other. Levinas taught that when we allow ourselves to truly  ‘see’ the Other—in a way that validates the reality of that Other—we can begin to act ”for others, in spite of myself, from myself" (Emmanuel Levinas, 1961).  Contrary to standard moral instruction, we don’t need to struggle to internalize Divine qualities in order to defeat our own darker capacities. What we need to do is to open our eyes in order to see the Other, and by seeing the Other feel the commandment to love.

How liberating it is to be taught that we are not trapped after all by our animal passions, to know that the Yetzer HaRa is not the default victor in the human struggle to be fully human!

It is through the eyes of Levinas that I choose to look at the current struggle in that part of the world known as the Middle East between Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis.

In his seminal volume, My Promised Land, Ari Shavit makes clear how recognizing the Other can be both a blessing and a curse for the Jewish State.  In the days of the First Aliyah (1882-1903), most of the immigrants who came to Israel from Eastern Europe and from Yemen saw no moral complexity in what they were doing. They could not remain under Czarist control; they could not survive the growing anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe; they could not endure any longer the hatred and distrust of their neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula. They needed a home. They needed a place to intermingle traditional Jewish values with challenging new possibilities of an idyllic new society.

They saw Palestine as an empty land, a land awaiting the return of its native children, a land of unfulfilled promise. And that willful blindness was critically important to the success of the Zionist enterprise.  The halutzim (pioneers) literally failed to see the Arabs already living on the land, and that allowed for the clarity of purpose and the purity of motivation that was so important for the earliest stages of Jewish nationalism.

But that same willful blindness, once vitally necessary, continues to this day, and has become a major source of dysfunction and danger for the State of Israel. Far too many Jewish Israelis still fail to see and to recognize the presence of Palestinian Israelis in their midst. Far too many government ministers and Knesset members from all parties refuse to see that a modern Jewish, democratic State is being severely challenged by this willful blindness to see the Other.

Succumbing to the Yetzer HaRa, acceding to a broadly held unwillingness to see the Other in their midst as part of the responsibility of a modern democratic State, Israel denies to its Palestinian citizens full equality on wide-ranging fronts, including health, education, infrastructure and social services, and broad-ranging civil rights.

It is one of the tasks of progressive Zionism to help Jewish Israelis come to see their Palestinian co-citizens as full human beings, as equal partners in the building of Israel.  When we remove our blinders and see the Other in their full humanity, we will feel the command to care for the Other, to love the Other, because of and even despite what might be considered our own best interests.

We liberal Zionists are proud of the relentless demands that we make for our own full recognition by the State. We must also learn to push back the powerful darkness that invaded the story of Noah, to rediscover our capacity first to see and then to feel the command to love.

The existence of the Other cannot be denied.  The Other exists. It is time to throw our blinders away and to respond to the Other’s presence.