Friday, October 16, 2015

Parashat Noah and Collective Punishment

            At the end of Parashat Bereshit, there is a listing of genealogies, beginning with Adam and his often forgotten third son, Seth, and ending with Noah and his sons. There is then a break from the genealogies to talk about how corrupt people on Earth had become and establish God’s plan to destroy the whole thing. It ends with “And Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” The next verse of Torah, the beginning of Parashat Noah, states, “Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.” Rashi famously posed the question: was Noah an average man, only righteous by comparison of the evils around him? Or was Noah truly righteous, and all the more so perfect in his generation because he was able to stand against the evils around him? Zeroing in on the verse that precedes it, Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a) suggests that not only was Noah an average man, who happened to just not be as evil as those around him, but his selection for the building of the ark was somewhat random. The Talmud suggests that Noah was not so different from the rest of his generation, but he happened to find favor in the eyes of God and arbitrarily avoid personal calamity. There may well have been others like Noah in his generation, people who were neither all good or all bad, but because Noah was the one who found favor in the eyes of God, and God only needed one family to take care of the animals and rebuild life after the flood, the others were all simply out of luck. Evil or just kind of mean, everyone was washed away together because God couldn’t be bothered to talk to judge them on an individual basis.
            It appears to be a recurring problem for God, although at least God is willing to work on it. Commentaries on a few other verses scattered throughout the Torah illustrate how looming and symbolic the Flood really was. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, when Abraham demands that God not destroy the whole city, both Rashi and the a midrash from the Tanhuma Yashan suggest that Abraham knew of the Flood, and warned God not to wipe everyone away again. Rashi’s Abraham says, “This is a profanation of God – people will be held back by this from returning to You,” meaning that Abraham in Rashi’s commentary is concerned that if God is too wrathful and destroys whole communities regardless of individual guilt, all people who hear of this will not want to worship such a God. They will not care to be good or follow God’s laws, because they will fear being killed in collective punishment anyway. The Tanhuma’s Abraham says, “Let not people say, ‘That is His usual work! He does not change from His usual work!’” So God does change from God’s usual work. God allows Abraham to go in search of righteous people, and allows Abraham to keep lowering the number of righteous people he must find in order for God to spare the cities. In the end, of course, it turns out there is no one worth saving and God destroys the cities anyway, but at least God was willing to try to judge the people as individuals. In the case of the Flood, neither God nor Noah even think to search for anyone else worth saving.
            The Midrash Tanhuma says because of this, when the People of Israel stood at Mount Sinai, part of the Torah was a promise from God that people would be judged as individuals. Punishment and reward for sin or good deeds might carry from generation to generation within the same family, but no longer would whole generations be subject to collective punishment for the crimes of some. Rashi reconciles this hopeful reading of Torah with the reality that bad things still happen to good people by saying it applies in the World to Come. Good people may still be terribly affect by natural disaster but at least their souls will be properly rewarded by God, and the souls of the wicked will be punished.

            That’s fine for God, and that may be a hopeful response for natural disasters, but in the meantime, people still perpetuate collective punishment and have the power to stop. Obviously, no human has the power to wipe out whole generations, though some have tried and come terrifyingly close, but they do have the power to continue to believe and act on harmful stereotypes. They continue to hold onto prejudices and allow acts of violence to be done to people who look or sounds or pray like other people they don’t like. They oppress whole populations to try to control the potential criminals that may exist within those populations. But we know better. We know that whole populations cannot be held responsible or accountable to each other, other than in the broad sense that all humans are responsible to protect one another. We know that some bad people should not reflect badly on everyone who looks or sounds or prays like those bad people. We know that there is good and bad in everyone, and there are some people who are more good and some people who are more bad in each group of individuals. So we should start acting like. Let’s pray for a world in which people really are treated as innocent until proven guilty, where individuals are judged on their own merit and whole groups are not condemned or oppressed based on stereotypes. Let’s pray that there never again be anything like the Flood, that nothing, whether created by man or God, ever again come close to wiping out a whole generation. And may that world come upon us quickly. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

No comments: