Our daughter became a Bat Mitzvah this weekend and she was simply fabulous. As her parent, I was asked to provide a bit of teaching - a dvar - on the parsha (portion) of the Torah that she chanted in becoming a Bat Mitzvah. Here is my lesson regarding Noah.
Noah was told only once to build an Ark and presto! – Noah, his wife, and his three sons and their spouses heard, understood, and took immediate action. No such luck with children, eh? NOW I understand why my parents and grandparents would look at me and say …. “You should be like Noah.” They were not looking for great deeds….they were simply hoping and praying that I would -- finally – simply follow directions ….. The first time they asked.
On a serious note, while watching our daughter prepare and reading through the parsha Noach with her, we did wonder what lessons Noah held for us as parents. What can we – as parents – take away from this ancient text?
Let’s discuss just a few things we might take away as learning from Noah. First – Noah teaches us that there are real absolutes when it comes to right and wrong. When Noah steps out of the Art after the flood, God makes a covenant with him and with all humanity that He will never again destroy every living thing. He also gives Noah a few laws – including the one that holds us – people, humanity – accountable for human life. God says to Noah, “But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man! Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; For in His image did God make man”
Here are two absolutes – the first is a promise from God (clearly an absolute) and the second is an unwavering statement of morals -- ….”God will require a reckoning for human life”. Rabbi Michael Gold observed that while “Moral relativism is popular among young people, it is a dangerous idea. The murder of innocents is wrong. It does not matter if that murder is carried out by people in our Western culture, Arab terrorists, Muslim fundamentalists, White Power Militias, or people on an island carrying out human sacrifice. The deliberate taking of a human life is immoral”.
As a parent, this lesson in Noah is a clear warning that not everything is, or should be, relative. There are absolutes, there are clear rights and wrongs, and it is our duty to teach them to our children.
The second lesson echoes a basic universal truth (another absolute). “We all make mistakes”. Obviously, God thinks he has made a mistake and decides to – as Jeremy Rosen said, “recast mankind in a different mold.”
But perhaps God is admitting TWO mistakes – the second of which is delivering a penalty to humanity that is too harsh – its total destruction. God acknowledges that his punishment was too harsh by subsequently promises to Noah that he will never be that harsh to us again. If God can make a mistake, then surely my children can understand when we make a mistake. If God can recognize his punishment was too harsh, unfair – can we as parents do any less? In Noah, humankind is given a chance to “start over”.
Patricia and I often hang in the balance between letting our children “learn their lesson” and intervening and interceding on their behalf to “make it right”, to give them a chance to “start over”. Truly these situations are close judgment calls and we certainly agonize over which direction to choose. Clearly, a corollary lesson from Noah is that we should cut ourselves a break…..letting a child “start over” has a very powerful precedent in Noah, even if it is just a bit self-serving.
The final lesson we saw in Noah is the one that had the most impact on us. Following the flood, the descendants of Noah build the Tower of Babel – an affront to God. God destroys it, befuddles the speech of mankind, and scatters the people to the four winds. Yet just prior to this, God had destroyed every living thing except that on the Ark because the “world had become corrupt and lawless.” What was this corruption that was so bad that the punishment eclipses the penalties for offending God?
Many Rabbis interpret the word “chamas” meaning “lawlessness” as also meaning violence. Similarly, the word ”shchitoot”, meaning corruption also is interpreted as meaning gross immorality. Violence and immorality – being human upon human crime – is a far greater sin, deserving of far greater punishments than offenses against God.
Adam and Eve broke the rules and were banished from Eden and relegated to scratching out an existence on this earth – but they were not destroyed. Similarly Jonah was punished severely for disobeying God, but was not killed or destroyed. The arrogance of Nimrod and the people who built the Tower of Babel was punished, but they were not destroyed. But violence against other people – that crime is punishable by destruction.
As a parent, while I might be understandably upset if my child disobeys my instructions, I think Noah teaches us to save our most powerful reactions – our most severe punishments, our best teaching, our most heartfelt praise – to ensure that we raise children that honor, respect, and care for family, friends, colleagues and strangers – that they honor other people.
What better lesson can we teach to our children than that of Hillel’s “Golden Rule”…..? ” What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor”. What better lesson than the one from Tractate Sanhedrin 37a (paraphrasing just a bit). “she who saves just one life saves the entire world”.
I find this lesson of Noah to be wonderfully powerful and reassuring. Human life and dignity is of paramount importance in Judaism, more important than blind obedience or unthinking reverence and has been so dating all the way back to Noah. That is comforting.
As a final note, given the choice, there is one way in which I do not want my children to be “like Noah”. Despite its appeal at certain moments in our lives, I do not want my children to just “follow orders”. Now if it is really God talking to them, I might feel differently........
One of the greatest things Patricia and I have learned as parents is the value of listening to our children, accepting the challenge from them and thus discovering – on more than one occasion – what they have to teach us.