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Parashat Noach 5775 — 10/22/2014

Parashat Noach 5775 — 10/22/2014

[Noach] walked with Gd.  (6:9)

Abraham was commanded: “Walk before Me.” (17:1)

Israel is commanded: “Walk after the Lord, your Gd.” (Deut 13:5)

What is the significance of the different ways of “walking” vis-à-vis our relationship with Gd?  Rashi to 6:9 brings a famous Midrash which compares Noach unfavorably with Avraham: Noach was like a small child who could only walk “with” Gd – that is, leaning on Gd for support.  Avraham, on the other hand, is more independent and can walk “before” Gd, on his own.  (This is not to imply, of course, that Abraham did not lean on Gd – it’s just an analogy to indicate the varying degrees of independence of the two men.)   I believe that this distinction is related to the teaching that Noach was called righteous “in his generation” – meaning compared to his depraved generation Noach looked pretty good, but had he lived at the same time as Avraham, he would have paled in comparison.  For Avraham prayed and worked for the redemption of the rest of his generation, while Noach did not (according to the Rabbinic tradition) – Noach only took care of his own behavior and his own spiritual development, without trying to influence others.

Rav Kook takes a complementary approach to this issue.  R. Morrison paraphrases:

Before Sinai, there were two paths of spiritual growth.  The first path was to perfect oneself according to the spiritual state appropriate for that generation.  This is called “walking with Gd”: perfecting oneself in accordance with the divine ideals and aspirations that were ordained for that time.

   A higher path was to aspire to a level beyond the normal state for that era.  This was an extraordinary  spiritual effort, in order to prepare for and hasten the highest level of enlightenment – that of the Torah itself.  This striving for the spiritual betterment of future generations is referred to as “walking before Gd,” or walking ahead of Gd. …

   What about the third form of walking, “walking after Gd”?  Once the Torah was given, and Gd revealed the purest divine light, we struggle to merit the pristine light that was revealed and subsequently hidden from us. … All we can hope for is to “walk after Gd” – to strive after the historic level of enlightenment that was revealed at Sinai…

It appears to me that Rav Kook puts more emphasis on the relationship of the individual leader and his generation.  Like any relationship, this one is a two-way street.  The leader certainly influences his generation, but what the leader can accomplish is also modulated by what his generation is equipped to accept.

We see numerous examples of this in the Bible as interpreted by our tradition, beginning with Moshe Rabbeinu himself.  Moshe was able to bring Torah down from heaven and lead the people to the entrance to the Land of Israel, but he was not able to enter the Land himself.  Our Sages explain that had he entered the Land, he would have built the Temple, which then would never have been able to be destroyed, due to his great personal holiness with which he would have endowed the Temple.  Gd would, therefore, have had no choice, as it were, but to take out his anger on the people, instead of the stones and wood of the Temple, when the people would sin in the future.  To save Israel from utter destruction, Moshe Rabbeinu had to die in Moav.  Indeed, when Israel made the golden calf, Gd told Moshe to “go down” from the [spiritual heights] of Mt Sinai because the level of purity of the people could no longer sustain him at that level.

Similarly, we find statements in the Talmud to the effect that “Ezra was worthy of having the Torah revealed through him, but his generation was not worthy.”  “Hezekiah was worthy of being Mashiach, but the generation was not ready.”  “Shmuel was comparable to Moshe and Aharon, but his generation was not worthy.”  In all these cases, the spiritual level of the leader and the spiritual level of the generation appear to interact with one another, reaching a kind of equilibrium where the leader is tuned to the needs and capabilities of the generation.  A great leader, like Moshe Rabbeinu and Avraham Avinu can pull the generation further ahead.  A good leader doesn’t pull so much, but rather is more influenced by his or her surroundings, as in the case of Noach.

This idea that a generation has its own character is sometimes called the “collective consciousness” of a people or a group at a certain point in time.  Just as individual consciousness emerges from, and is supported by, the collective activity of the individual’s nervous system, so too, the collective thinking and activity of a group of people projects a certain kind of consciousness.  If you want to experience this first-hand, simply go to another country.  Even crossing the border between, say, Michigan and Ontario, or between Washington state and British Columbia, will do.  Canada is about as close to the US as a country can be, but you can feel distinctly that it is different as soon as you cross over.  It is the genius of a leader to be able to tap into this collective consciousness and move it forward.

Not all generations are blessed with great leaders, nor do all generations, apparently, deserve great leaders.  The “Greatest Generation” produced Churchill and Roosevelt, Ghandi and ben Gurion; a friend of mine who fought in Israel’s War of Independence once commented to me, “those were heroic times.”  These were generations of people who were willing to sacrifice for principles they held to be of intrinsic and eternal value.  Contrast that with our generation, the “Me” generation, where the quality of seeking the eternal appears to have been replaced with the quality of seeking the material, with a concomitant degradation of the quality of thought and discourse.  Do we have leaders like Roosevelt, let alone like Moshe Rabbeinu or Shmuel haNavi?

What are we to do?  Not everyone is cut out to be a leader of other people, but we certainly can each lead ourselves.  We have a tradition that tells each one of us what is appropriate behavior and what are appropriate ways of thinking and perceiving.  When we act in accordance with our tradition, we make progress towards our own perfection, and we simultaneously exert a positive influence on all the levels of collective consciousness in which we participate.  A great leader once was asked how many followers he had.  He replied, “I have no followers.  Every man follows his own progress.”  If we will all follow our own progress, Gd will surely provide us worthy leaders to bring us to our collective goal.

The Sacks Hagaddah

Essay 2: A Tale of Two Civilizations

The two civilizations of course are Egypt and Israel.  Rabbi Sacks points out that the Egyptians strove for immortality by building a hugely successful material civilization, the artifacts of which of course remain and may be seen today, at least when there is a modicum of political stability in Egypt.  In contrast, the Jewish people have sought and found our immortality in the world of transcendent ideas and values, which can be passed down from generation to generation.  The Seder, of course, is one of the great tools of that transmission.

The emphasis here is on education.  An educated people is a free people.  By contrast, when people are uneducated, unable to think critically, they are easily duped and manipulated by the powers that be.  Perhaps that is why ruling elites rarely place mass education as a priority.  When my mother was a teacher (c. 1960-73), teaching was an honored profession.  Parents taught their children to respect teachers, and students, teachers and society prospered.  Unfortunately that is not the case so much any more.  Schools are popularly labeled as “failures,” teachers and the teaching profession are derided (“those that can, do; those that can’t, teach”) and marginalized, parents are almost encouraged to have an adversarial relationship with the school system, and there are systematic efforts to inject all sorts of extraneous matters into the curriculum.  The result is predictable – a decline in the quality of civil discourse and a disintegration of society as shared values and core ideas are no longer passed on from one generation to the next.

The Jewish community has not been immune to this trend.  As the Pew report indicates, it is only in those sectors of the Jewish community where Jewish education is still valued and practiced, that the rush to assimilate ourselves out of existence is being resisted.  As we prepare for the Seder in a few months, let’s keep in mind that Jewish education is a full-time project, 365 days a year, every year of our lives.