Parashat Noach (Genesis 6:9 – 11:32) is rich with relevance. The stories of Noah and the Ark and the Tower of Babel teach us about caring for animals, honoring parents, preparing for catastrophe and weathering a storm. They teach us of the dangers of corruption, climate change, and thinking we are greater than God. For any Rabbi, it’s hard to have such a wealth of material, because how in the world do we choose just one thing to talk about?!
Our Torah tells us it takes 10 generations from the Garden of Eden for the world to become corrupt. Depending on how you count the generations, it took the Roman Empire around that amount of time to dissolve into the military anarchy period in the year 235. And it took Classical Greece a little more and Hellenistic Greece a little less. America was founded in 1776. This is between 7 and 10 generations ago. So we are right there. We are in that time period when God threw up God’s hands and said I can’t take these people anymore!
Societal shifts happen when generations move or progress beyond the values and norms of their founders. In the generations since the Civil War, more and more of us have truly begun to confront the worst of our past, the systemic racism and implicit discrimination against people different from us that has been with us for our whole history, as colonies and as a nation, and which still exists in American society. We have realized that the values of many of our founders are not the values we have today. If we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, do we mean all land-owning white men or do we mean every person, regardless of sex, race, religion, country of origin sexual orientation or gender identity? Personally, I believe it means the latter. However, one of the challenges of reaching this point in our development as a country is that different people have different views of what is right, of what these words mean and what these values are.
Often the corruption, of Noah’s generation is thought to be moral corruption or sexual immorality. God says that God will destroy all flesh because they have filled the earth with chamas which means violence, cruelty, injustice, murder. Physical violence as the cause is the easy answer, yet perhaps there is more to it. Could it be that the corruption of the earth happened because the people of the world could not get along? Because they could not compromise with one another? Could they have they fought dirty when they disagreed? Could they have held onto or seized power inappropriately? Could this be the corruption that so frustrated God in Noah’s generation? Maybe God decided that we needed to start over with a single family because we humans could not manage ourselves.
After the flood God made a covenant with Noah never to destroy the living beings of the earth in that way again. But God did not say we would be prevented from destroying ourselves. Sadly, we are good at this. Time and time again throughout history, we have seen that our inability to accept one another and find ways to live peacefully destroys us. It leads to chamas. It leads to violence, to war and to destruction. We have faced this before. And we are facing it again, with greater intensity than most of us have ever experienced.
In a little more than a week, we have our next round of elections. (Please vote if you have not yet already!) We are at a critical juncture in our evolution as a society. Regardless of your choice of candidate, regardless of your political affiliation, we must work together afterward to ensure a just and fair society, nationally and locally. In Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Ancestors, we read that Rabbi Tarfon “used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” We must not allow ourselves to be the generation that has succumbed to corruption, the generation that warrants destruction. It is up to us to act where action is warranted. It is up to us to reverse this human tendency now, in our own age. It is up to us to reach out, to try to understand each other, and to heal our divisions. And it is up to us.
Our world does not need another flood to course correct. We can do this ourselves. And we must.