Rabbi Ain Sermon Parashat Noah 2019

Lawlessness and Lawfulness – Striving for the Best

This is the line of Noah. Noah was a righteous man. He was blameless in his generation. The earth became corrupt before God and the earth was filled with lawlessness. 

When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them-I am about to destroy them with the earth. 

The beginning of this parasha has always struck me, especially in its language. The earth was filled with lawlessness and it was so bad, God felt, that God decided to destroy the earth. As Felicia already spoke about, we know the ending-God flooded the earth but determined not to do it again, and the floodwaters we encounter today-both real and proverbial, are not of God’s doing, but of our own.

But just because the punishment might not exist the way it did in the time of the torah, this notion of lawlessness is something to ponder. What could it have meant? What was the generation of Noah doing that it resulted in this.

In the JPS Commentary on the book of genesis, written by biblical scholar Nahum Sarna wrote, “The universal corruption, lawlessness, is further defined as hamas and this term parallels the concept of “no justice” in Job 19:7. Elsewhere, it is seen as the synonym of falsehood, deceit, or bloodshed. 

This is fascinating-there is a connection between falsehood and bloodshed. I think this makes sense. While one could try to argue that a “little white lie” isn’t so bad, a “little white lie” generally turns into something much deeper, and where there is falshood, there is often, sadly, bloodshed. If not literal, certainly proverbial. In fact, there is a phrase, Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah-one mitzvah causes another mitzvah. BUT, Aveira Goreret Aveira-One Sin Causes another sin. How often have friendships or families been destroyed because of falsehood and deceit…not to speak of countries or worlds….

Sarna continues:

It means, in general, the flagrant subversion of the ordered processes of law. It may be deduced that hamas here refers predominately to the arrogant disregard for the sanctity and inviolability of human life. 

WOW. Yes, when we don’t value human life (and no, this isn’t a commentary on issues of a women’s right to choose) we are apt to see flood waters rising. 

So we must ask, how do we seek out lawfullness, in a world that might seemed filled with lawlessness.

I want to tell you about an experience I had last Sunday, that I was grateful for. I was invited to a relatively small gathering of rabbis and NYers, through the NY Board of Rabbis, to see Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg receive a humanitarian award from the Board of Rabbis. In this intimate interview, led by Rabbi Joe Potasnik, RBG articulated her sense of justice, especially in the context of her Jewishness.

The afternoon began with the description of her office which led immediately into her philosophy as a lawyer. She shared how, in her office is not only a mezuzah but a piece of art with the words,
“tzedek , tzedek, you shall pursue.” Generally, the repetition of the word tzedek here, is to teach us of the importance of the word. I believe that is the case but there is more and i will come back to it shortly.

Following the description of her office she reminded us that she believes that the law exists to serve all of the people;

that her heritage as a Jew and occupation as a judge fits together:

She said: I am a judge, born and raised and proud of being a Jew-the demand for justice through Jewish history and tradition. She shared that in all her years she wants the strength and courage to remain steadfast in service of that demand. 

She reflected on the challenges of finding a job in 1959 because she automatically had three strikes against her: she was jewish, female, and already a mother. Talk about “lawlessness”-that was a time when job postings could say: Only Men Should Apply. But she persisted and never looked back. 

And as she kept going, she kept her view of the constitution, as a living document, in the forefront of her understanding of how to keep our society, lawful. As she said, Who would want to be governed by a dead document!?!

And why does she believe it is a living document? She said-Just look at how it evolved…

Certainly the people who wrote ‘we the people, in order to form a more perfect union.” weren’t at that time talking about the important, expansive nature of all of americans. No, it was referring to white, male property owners. But as the laws evolved and expanded, it didn’t result in lawlessness or corruption, but in more people engaged in civic life. As she said “ But genius of constitution is that We the People have expanded to include those that were left out at the beginning.”

Similarly in fact, i must add, to how we understand Torah. We know that we read black letters on parchment but it is the white space between the letters where we have added new voices and new interpretations to a living document of Torah. 

We are sadly also seeing a sense of lawlessness in how people are in relaitonship with one another, when they don’t see eye to eye. It was amazing to hear her talk about her relationship with Justice Scalia-She was asked: How can two people who were so different so close? 

She, with a bit of humor and bite, shared that when she would speak with him she entered through a glass ceiling to help him out of dark room..When prodded-”why do you want to help him, he is your enemy?” She responded: He isn’t my enemy…we are different, we are one. Different in approach but one in revenarce for constitution and for institution that they both serve.” This is how we understand lawfulness, in a world of corruption.

Rabbi Shmuel Avidor-HaCohen, z”l, raises an interesting question concerning the character of Noah and the quintessential prayer said at the heart of every service, the Amidah. Why is Noah not counted amongst our forefathers? Because the text qualifies that Noah was righteous “in his generation.” How are we to understand this seemingly superfluous phrase? While some rabbis endeavor to explain this qualifier to the benefit of Noah saying that if he were righteous in his generation of predominantly evil doers, all the more so would he be counted among the righteous in later generations, others profess a radically different reading. Given that people were so abominable and wicked in No·ah’s generation, Noah, comparatively speaking, was a righteous individual. So perhaps he showed an ounce of lovingkindness more than his fellow humans. He may have been considered righteous in his times, but had he lived later, he would have been considered an unexceptional individual. 

Rabbi Matt Berkowitz shared: The Hasidim appropriately teach that “Noah was a righteous individual in a fur coat.” What do they mean? The lesson goes that there are righteous people that kindle fires in their homes to warm the entire home and share that warmth with their community; and then there are those who wrap themselves in a fur coat as others shiver from the cold. Sadly, Noah seems to fall into the latter category. He works slavishly and conscientiously to save himself and his family from impending doom. There is no hint in the Torah that No·ah acted in a prophetic manner — seeking to proclaim a message of repentance. At a minimum, one would expect this tzadik to make some attempt to save his fellow humans. Nothing is done except his silent act of building an ark — for himself and his family.

No·ah is silent; he follows and walks with God. However with regard to Abraham, Torah teaches that God declared, “walk before Me” (Genesis 17:1). That is to say, Abraham was capable of blazing his own path. Far from relying solely on God, he recognized with profound clarity that which is Godly, moral, and ethical in this world. 

So, how appropriate is it that this parasha, noah, ends with the introduction of Abram, the first Jew. What do we learn from this?

First, that out of pain, we might sometimes see glimmers of hope.

Second, that if we are to be truly engaged as Jews, we must understand the essense of what it means to be human, and that means caring for one another, not engaging in falsehood or deceit.

Tzedek Tzedek = Not just for one small group-but for many….It is why the word needs to be recited twice. 

Lawfullness needs to be expansive to help bring people in…

And it needs to be an active approach. 

And that is why, this prayer, written by Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, for our country, is so apt. 

Our God and God of our ancestors, bless this country and all who dwell within it.

Help us to experience the blessings of our lives and circumstances

To be vigilant, compassionate, and brave

Strengthen us when we are afraid

Help us to channel our anger

So that it motivates us to action

Help us to feel our fear

So that we do not become numb

Help us to be generous with others

So that we raise each other up

Help us to be humble in our fear, knowing that as vulnerable as we feel there are those at greater risk,

And that it is our holy work to stand with them

Help us to taste the sweetness of liberty

To not take for granted the freedoms won in generations past or in recent days

To heal and nourish our democracy, that it may be like a tree planted by the water whose roots reach down to the stream

It need not fear drought when it comes, its leaves are always green

Rabbi Ayelet Cohen (https://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/prayer-our-country)