Torah portion: Do I have your attention?

It was a heart-stopping photo that flashed through social media and around the world last month: A toddler, Alan Kurdi, face down, dead upon the Turkish shore, the Syrian refugee’s sturdy toddler shoes pointing downward as the shallow waves caressed his still face. 

Death by water? For the many Syrian families attempting to flee the violence of war in the Middle East, the epochal flood had already begun.

In a world awash in violence, we cried out in anguish for this senseless loss. Where is the rainbow set in the clouds to remind us of our responsibility to God, to ourselves and to each other? Are we yet another “Dor Hamabul,” a Generation of the Flood, destined to face extinction because we refuse to read the signs set before us? 

During the last El Nino season, I remember looking up at the sky on Day 33 of constant rain and thinking: “Wow! Maybe this is it, and I have missed the boat.” But the rain stopped, and it took another seven years for me to acknowledge both the fragility of our existence and the damage inflicted by this current “antediluvian” generation. 

In the last seven years, we have seen a cycle of climate extremes — a record drought in the South and West, 100-year hurricanes on the East Coast and the hottest season on record around the globe. “What,” God appears to be asking, “do I have to do to get your attention?”

Today’s headlines seem to be ripped directly from the biblical text: “And the earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawless violence — v’timaleh haaretz hamas” (Genesis 6:11). The midrash aptly sums up the corrupting nature of hamas as “a violence which is capable of demoralizing all that is good in human nature, and acts as an inexorable barrier between humanity and its Creator.” 

We are bombarded with images of hamas — lawless violence — daily. On Oct. 1, there was a mass shooting in Oregon; by the time this article is in print, another mass murder will have grabbed the headlines. 

More than 200,000 people have been slaughtered in Syria over the past four years, and the majority of its remaining citizens are doing everything they can to get out. Their bodies float by yachts in the Mediterranean, reminiscent of those who must have floated by Noah as humankind was destroyed by the Flood. 

From the beginning, God admits that creation, supposedly made in His image, is essentially flawed: “The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on the earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and his heart was saddened. The Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created … But Noah found favor with the Lord … Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:5-9).

For centuries, the sages have been puzzled by Noah’s behavior as a “righteous man, blameless in his age.” Clearly, he did not reach out to others, urging their repentance before the deluge rained from the sky. Was he only blameless by comparison, in an age that was corrupt beyond redemption? 

Often, Noah is compared unfavorably to Abraham, the first Jew, who famously argues with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as lawless violence returns. “Will you also destroy the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham cries. “What if there are 50 righteous in the city? … Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” (Genesis 18:23-5). 

According to Midrash Tanhuma, however, we see that God intended to use the example of Noah to provide a warning to others. Noah is told to plant cedar trees, which take 120 years to mature. God hoped that within that time frame, Noah would be able to alert the world of coming disaster and that humanity would mend its ways. 

Rashi points out that they were given a last chance to repent with the words: “The waters of the Flood came upon the earth” (Genesis 7:10). The idea was that, in the event of their repenting, the rain would be one of blessing. When they did not repent, Rashi says, the rain became a deluge.

One cannot help but think of those who today deny climate change, or the global effect of excessive dependence on fossil fuels. For the first time, humanity now has the power to destroy all of Earth. Will we look up at the skies on Day 34 of this year’s predicted El Nino and realize that the rain has become a deluge, and that we have missed the boat?

When the rains cease in the Bible, God sets a bow in the sky to remind Himself and humanity of a new covenant: “I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be a token for a covenant between me and the earth … The waters will never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:13-15).

So God has made a promise and given us a sign in the skies. But the rainbow arc hanging above us is only half of a circle. As human beings with free will, we must make the choices to prevent Earth’s destruction. Through our actions, we must complete the circle and seal the covenant with our actions.

The signs are there. If only we will pay attention. 

Rabbi Judith HaLevy is the rabbi of the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue and a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Unique Capabilities: Parashat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)

There are places in the Torah where many of us moderns have a hard time relating to our ancestors and the societies in which they lived. Oppression of women, slavery, animal sacrifice, a God that intervenes and directs our lives in a forceful and immediate way, to name a few. This parasha, however, is not really one of these moments. In fact, as I read through Noach again and again this year, I couldn’t help but think how much hasn’t changed since those fateful days, in primordial time, when the first humans brought about the destruction of the Earth.

“The Earth became corrupt before God; the Earth was filled with lawlessness (hamas). When God saw how corrupt the Earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways, God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the Earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the Earth’ ”  (Genesis 6:11-13).

Our ancestors quickly devolved into corruption, violence, greed and anger. Sadly, destruction was the only way to stop them. Rashi, followed by Ramban and others, understands the word “hamas” as “robbery/violence,” and the Talmud teaches us that while humans committed every conceivable transgression, their “fate was only sealed when they put forth their hands to robbery and violence toward one another” (Sanhedrin 108a). I see violence here not only as the physical

manifestation of hate toward one another, but also as the mental and spiritual manifestation of greed and selfishness, both toward other humans and toward animals and the natural world. The human being believed that they were the end-all and be-all of creation, endowed with rights and privileges that permitted any actions, including murder, to advance their evil ways. We see this lesson is not truly learned, even after the flood, for the end of Parashat Noach teaches us about the Tower of Babel, read by commentators old and new, as another physical manifestation of greed and desire for power. We have short memories, even as God has a long, full memory.

And so, as I look at the world in which we live today, a world that is being quickly passed to my children and all of the children soon to be adults, I am both afraid and emboldened. I am afraid because the pace of our world, filled with violence, war, planetary destruction, greed, indifference, poverty, genocide, hatred and intolerance, is moving so fast with the technological advances we celebrate in the life of someone like Steve Jobs, that I fear we will not, we cannot, stop, turn around and repair the massive damage we have done and continue to do on a daily basis, both here in America and the world over. Yet, I am emboldened by the same Parashat Noach that gives us the rainbow, a sign that continues to inspire awe and wonder in the hopefulness of our world and our capacity to do the right thing. The same technology that is speeding us up, blinding us, is also being used to open our eyes, be it with the global satellite pictures of Darfur that we can see firsthand, the capacity to provide enough food to end poverty, the incredible advances in medicine and healing, most of which are emerging from Israel, the social media that helped spawn revolutions in the Arab world and right here in America — all signs that we have the capacity to make good decisions for the betterment of all life. Let’s not forget Deuteronomy, which teaches,

“I place before you a blessing and a

curse … .” While things change, they often stay the same.

Human beings were not given dominion in Genesis in order to dominate, but rather we were given “unique capabilities,” a better translation of the Hebrew word that is usually translated as “dominion.” The midrash teaches that it actually took Noah 120 years to build the ark so that people might ask him what he was doing, hear the answer and repent of their evil ways and change course. It was a long drive to the destruction, with many signs and warnings along the way. Our ancestors didn’t listen. Will we? Shabbat shalom!

Noah’s deadly lack of curiosity

It is a question that has dogged Noah for millennia. When the Torah characterizes him as a tzadik (righteous person) in his generation, is this an objective measure of his character?

Was Noah someone who would have been recognized as a tzadik in any generation? Or was Noah only a tzadik in a relative sense, only in comparison to those around him?

One midrashic teaching, taking the latter route, compares God’s selection of Noah to the story of a lone traveler finding another lone soul on the road, and engaging him in discussion simply because there was no on else to talk to. As Dr. Aviva Zornberg summarized this midrash: “God chooses Noah not because he has achieved significant wisdom or virtue, but because he seeks to convey to someone the knowledge of Himself.”

Walking all by himself on a path that everyone else in the world had abandoned, Noah became the object of God’s attention. The midrash isn’t, I don’t think, being harsh or unfair to Noah. It is just sharing, in candid terms, its read of a Biblical character who is an essentially decent person, but who also possesses some very deep personality flaws.

How might we describe Noah’s most basic personality flaw? Zornberg calls it the flaw of being incurious.

To understand what being “incurious” means, we need only recall that within his biblical story, we never find Noah — not even once — expressing curiosity about why his corrupt neighbors live the terrible way that they do. The Torah doesn’t record one interaction between him and any other human being prior to their all being wiped out in the flood. The rabbis of the midrash presume that some sort of conversation between Noah and his neighbors must invariably have ensued once the ark started going up in his front yard, but in projecting what those conversations may have sounded like, they suggest dialogues consistently characterized by Noah’s lack of curiosity about his fellows.

In one rabbinic passage (Tanchuma 5), the neighbors give Noah the perfect opening for a substantive discussion. “What are all these cedar trees for?” the neighbors ask. This was Noah’s moment to talk about his understanding of Divine expectations of human behavior, and to ask them why they were behaving in ways so displeasing to God. But instead, he simply responds, “God is bringing a flood to the world and told me to build an ark so that my family and I can escape.” Their question to him opens a door, but in his lack of curiosity about them, all Noah comes forward with is a superficial response that dead-ends the conversation.

In a similar text (Sanhedrin 108b), Noah is actually portrayed as rebuking his contemporaries, but his words are described as being “as tough as lightning bolts,” and they wind up eliciting only derision and scorn, and not any self-reflection. This was a generation that lacked any insight into itself, a generation that desperately needed someone to sketch out for them the contours of a moral framework within which to evaluate themselves. But Noah had no interest in really talking with them. He was not curious about what made them tick.

The Zohar provides the most dramatic criticism of all of Noah’s incuriosity: When Noah exited the ark and saw that the world had been destroyed, he began to cry before God and he said,” Master of the universe! You are called ‘the Compassionate One.’ You ought to have had compassion upon Your creations!”

God responded to him, “Stupid shepherd. Now you say this?! Why did you not say this at the time [that I told you to build the ark]?… Now you open your mouth to speak before Me?!”

Had only Noah been curious about the people around him when they were yet alive, the sequence of events might have played out quite differently.

What’s most fascinating about this critique of Noah is that there is something rather counter-cultural about it. One of the values that our environment ingrains in us is that curiosity about others is bad. We are taught that we should rein in our curiosity about others, lest we become nosy and start asking people personal questions that are none of our business — questions that might even prove embarrassing to them. Just say hello to people, smile, and be sure to only ask “how are you?” when it’s clear that no substantial response is expected. Curiosity is just plain impolite.

And yet, curiosity is the fountainhead of human mutual assistance. If I suspend my curiosity, I will never ask what’s going on with you. And if I never ask, you will never tell me. And if you never tell me, I will never understand. And if I do not understand, I can never be of any help to you. There are also times when we must ask, when through our failure to ask we effectively consign people around us to a fate comparable to the fate of Noah’s generation. To be sure, we need to develop enough honesty with ourselves to be able to distinguish between being “desiring-to-be-helpful” curious and “just-plain-nosy” curious. That’s another piece of our internal work. But if we don’t do the work and hone our skills, people will get washed away right from under our noses.

Noah was righteous in his generation. But not sufficiently curious to actually save any of them.

Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai-David Judea (, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood