Saturday, October 5, 2013

Was Noach a Mean Girl?

            Shabbat Shalom! A wise person once said, “There are two kinds of evil people in this world. Those who do evil stuff and those who see evil stuff being done and don't try to stop it.” And that wise person was Janis Ian, played by Lizzy Caplan in the movie Mean Girls. What would Janis Ian say about Noah, the protagonist of this week’s parasha? He’s clearly not the first kind of evil. The Torah even specifically says he was a righteous man. But he gets special insider information that the world will be destroyed, and unlike what we see from Abraham in a couple weeks (spoiler alert), he does not argue with G-d about that decision. He does not try to warn anybody. He just does exactly as he’s told.
            One of our great medieval commentators, Rashi, says of Noah’s so-called righteousness, “Among our sages, there are those who interpret this as being in praise of Noah: If he was righteous in his generation then certainly he would have been even more righteous if he would have been in a generation of righteous people. And there are those who interpret this as a condemnation: In relation to his generation he was righteous, but had he been in Abraham's generation, he wouldn't have been regarded as anything.” G-dcast, the great animated shorts of the Torah and some commentary, points out that, just as there may be two kinds of “evil” people in the world, there are also two kinds of “righteous” people in the world: Those who follow G-d and do exactly as they’re told, and those you try to go above and beyond to really make the world better. It seems that being the second type of “evil person” – one that sees evil and does nothing – and the first type of “righteous person” – one that follows the word of G-d and minds his or her own business – could be the same person, as we see in Noah. But then, and not to get ahead of ourselves, it seems that one person could be both types of righteous, and do something perceivably evil at the same time as well, as we will see in Abraham. He fights G-d in order to save Sodom and Gomorrah, but is willing to follow G-d’s instruction to sacrifice his own son? Maybe the lessons here are that there are no real “evil” or “righteous” people. There are just people. Sometimes we do good, sometimes we do bad, and sometimes we just do. Eventually in the Torah, we will get to our holiness code, in Leviticus, which teaches that we shouldn’t really “just do,” as Noah did. No longer is it really ok for us, as Jews, to stand idly by the destruction of our neighbor. But, at the same time, none of you should singularly feel that the weight of the world’s problems rest on your shoulders or that you must devote you whole lives to always saving others. That’s a great, noble way to live, but it’s not wholly practical. Sometimes you must take care of yourselves, too. Sometimes we do good, sometimes we do bad, sometimes we just do. That’s human nature, and while Jewish values teach us to be ever striving more toward actively doing good, once in a while, everybody slips us, and no one should feel that that makes them “evil” or strips them of some “righteous” title. There aren’t wholly evil or righteous people, just people.
            For as much great narrative there is in Parashat Noah, Noah himself is kind of a boring character, who just does exactly as he’s told, and I happened to be of the camp that considers him righteous by virtue of not doing evil as his contemporaries were doing, that considers him not righteous by the standard of Abraham’s generation. Let’s not be boring like Noah. May we all come to terms with the complexities of morality and humanity, and just always do the absolute best we can, whatever that may be. Amen, and Shabbat Shalom.

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