As children most of us were introduced to the themes of this week’s Sedra and we grew up with the stories of the flood, the rainbow, and the Tower of Babel. We decorate nurseries with rainbows and animals in pairs of two. As adults, we need to look at those themes with an understanding of the real world, our own history, and our own experiences.
Judaism is underwritten by a sense of personal responsibility balanced by collective care for our fellows. As Hillel famously wrote
If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I?
Noah, described as a “righteous man” who “walked with God”, makes no effort to plead for the generations around nor does he make any effort to ask them to change their ways. His obedience is blind. Why do we pray in the name of Abraham Avinu, our father Abraham, and not mention Noah? In the next Sedra, when we hear the story of Abraham, we read
אֲנִי־אֵ֣ל שַׁדַּ֔י הִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ לְפָנַ֖י וֶֽהְיֵ֥ה תָמִֽי
I am the Almighty God; walk before Me and be perfect.
Abraham would find a path and, by lighting the way for God, would become a guide for all. Noah, when the flood had abated, needed to be told to leave the Ark. Even at that time he is still blind. The first thing he does is to plant a vineyard and get drunk. Sustaining the future requires faith in God and positive and compassionate action, each of us understanding and respecting our fellows. None should be left behind.
Rainbows are an illusion. The risk of destruction of our world and society is real. Being righteous requires care for all and not just for self contained groups. Natural disasters abound but man made actions can either light the way forward or contribute to the conflagration. How we survive is dependent on how we choose to live and how we choose to behave.
As for the Tower of Babel, the endeavour to reach upwards can be understood but, in a society where only one voice is heard, it is unstable: it is a two way sword. What is happening in China and in Russia is that suppression of difference. Different voices challenge us to learn from each other despite any barriers.
Noah may have been righteous but he was not perfect. To be perfect and walk before God like Abraham may well appear to be an impossible task. Finding the right path and not being blind is a challenge. We put trust in our leaders and teachers but they must be neither blind nor be deaf to us as we find our way forwards in an uncertain world.