By Rabbi Mitchell M. Hurvitz, of Temple Shalom in Greenwich
Last Shabbat, in the middle of an unexpected storm, we read about Noah. The flood and the fear, and the rainbow and dove are as familiar to us as our own family stories – it is one of the great tales of the Jewish people. But in considering Noah, we realize that in spite of his household name and his key position in the early order of the Torah, we know far less about the man himself. Torah describes Noah as: “A virtuous man, pure in his generation; who walked with God.”
In this week’s Torah portion, Lech-Lecha, Abraham is introduced to us using strikingly similar language. Interestingly, as in the case of Noah, Torah also points to Abraham’s life in relationship to how he walks with God. But instead of walking “with God,” as Noah did, God says to Abraham: “Walk “before” me, and you will be pure.”
Rabbinic commentators note an even greater level of similarity. They point out that both Noah and Abraham are described as being “pure” (tamim.) Thus, they ask and answer the key question that our text poses: If both are pure, and both walk in relationship to God, what is the distinction between the two men?
Noah walked with God; he needed to be supported in his righteousness. Abraham walked before God; thus, his righteousness would stand even if God wasn’t readily present to support him.
When God told Noah he was going to destroy humanity for their evil ways; Noah remained silent. In contrast, when Abraham was told by God that He was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of their evil ways, Abraham, vociferously and without regard for his own life consequences, argues with God. In the end, Abraham saved neither the good nor the evil people of those two cities, but even though he was unable , Torah tells us that he took action — he tried. Noah, whose name means “rest or comfort,” had a spirit that was not moved to action. Like his name, Noah thought only of his own comfort. His silence was his inaction; he didn’t do anything.
Religious life isn’t about what we think to do or not do. We embrace God solely when we speak up and act for God; when we break the silence. As Elie Wiesel taught: “Indifference is the epitome of evil.” As a religious, human, Jewish community, we are not permitted to stand idly by when there are wrongs being committed.
The most grievous sin is murder, and our tradition notes that saving a life takes precedence over all Jewish ritual law because anyone who saves a person has saved a whole world. Likewise, anyone who takes a life has destroyed an entire world. Even in our day, even at this moment: consider the lives, and the worlds, that we have the power to save simply by speaking up.
Noah’s sin was his silence, and as a consequence, the entire world was destroyed. If atrocities are taking place in our time, and we fail to question, speak up, and effectively respond: we are as guilty as Noah. This is not an easy truth to accept, but it is real and right. And when we find the courage to take action, speak out against injustice, and do what is right, others will follow because we will be supported in our righteousness, by our own hearts and souls, and by one another. We will be walking before God.
Noah survived the flood; the world did not. Abraham became our Patriarch because he didn’t settle for merely surviving; he embraced the Divine mission to be a light unto the world. It is this Divine Light that has been bequeathed to us for safekeeping, by Abraham and all of the generations that followed him. It is our duty, and our sacred mission, to ensure that our light continues to shine in the darkness of our world.
God spoke light into darkness, chaos into order, and life into being through the power of language, by breaking the silence that existed before creation. We, too, can find a sacred connection to God’s creative power so that we can bring justice and light our community and our world.
Please consider joining us for as many of our programs this week to combat Genocide as we “Break the Silence.” A full listing of our program calendar can be found by clicking here.