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 Parshat Noach 5782        October 9,2021

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom.

During this time of COVID, we have learned how to do many things on the Zoom platform. We have learned how to attend classes on Zoom. Teachers can present material to share with others and there is even a whiteboard feature that a teacher can not only share with students, but students can share their ideas with the teacher.

We learned also how to have meetings on Zoom; speaking up when it is our turn to speak and muting our sound when others are talking to minimize the background noise that often we normally just tune out. Zoom etiquette demands that we mute so as not to interrupt others.

But while there are many things we can do on Zoom, there is one thing that has proven to be impossible on the Zoom platform. Singing. One person can sing. But only one person at a time. The different speeds of computers and the various speeds of different internet equipment, makes singing in time with others impossible. When we see one of those amazing recordings of people and instruments playing in unison on Zoom, we can be sure that the music was all recorded in advance and through good editing, became the recording that we are seeing and hearing.

 

Rabbis in almost every time period in Jewish History, have compared Noah in our Parsha to Abraham in next week’s Parsha. It really is unusual for the Torah to compare one character to another. Each personality in the Bible usually has his or her own list of worthy activities as well as faults and deficiencies. We learn from this that what is important is not how we compare to the figures in the Torah, but how we live up to our own ideals as well as to the teachings of the Bible.

But here, due to a comparison of texts, we have this unusual comparison of two different characters. Noah is the tenth generation since the first human being, Adam, and Abraham is the tenth generation after Noah and twenty generations after Adam. And yet the Rabbis never seem to be bothered by the differences in the time in which each one lived; they focus on a different characteristic.

With Noah, the Torah reads, “Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9) But when it comes to Abraham, the text is slightly different, there it reads “God, before whom I walked” (Gen. 24:40) So which is better? Walking with God or walking before God? In the Midrash, the answer is very clear. Noah walked with God because Noah needed God’s support to walk in the world. Abraham walked before God; Abraham was so righteous that he was the herald of God who walked behind him. Both men are righteous but, in the end, Abraham is considered the more righteous of the two.

How is it possible to compare two righteous men? Both considered a Tzadik, a person holy and righteous? And here we have a comparison that ranks the kind of Tzadik that Abraham was, as greater than Noah, a righteous man in his generation. What was the essence of the difference between them?

Rabbis looked to Noah and while they saw that he was more righteous than any other person in his generation, they found a serious flaw. Noah was commanded to build an ark; it took years to construct it and to get it ready for the flood. But nowhere in the text do we find Noah taking the time to tell other people about the disaster that was about to befall humanity. Never does he ask anyone to repent their evil deeds so that they could be spared the death sentence that God had declared for the world. Noah is wrapped up in his own affairs and not concerned with others.

Abraham, on the other hand, in next week’s parsha, talks about all the “souls” that he and Sarah made when they were in Aram. These “souls,” people who were converted to the idea of Abraham’s one God, went with them when they set out to find the land that God had promised them. Abraham clearly was not concerned only for himself when he walked before God, Abraham taught others about the nature and commandments of God.

Noah, because of his self-focused life, becomes, in later literature a “Tzadik in Peltz” Yiddish for, “A righteous man in a fur coat.” What is this terminology trying to teach us? If a person is cold there are two different ways to get warm. One way is to put on a fur coat. The other way is to build a fire. The difference between the two ways is that a person who puts on a fur coat, only makes himself warm. A person who builds a fire, makes himself and all those with him warm at the same time.

If we read the rest of the literature about these two biblical characters, we see that this is the basis of many thoughts about how Abraham was a “better person” that Noah was. I am not a big fan of such thinking. There are ten generations between these two men. The world of Noah was a vastly different world then the world in which Abraham found himself. The Torah clearly teaches us that both of them were exemplary human beings in a difficult time in human history. But still, there is a lesson for us in the example of these two men. Noah saved humanity from destruction. Abraham didn’t save any lives, but he began, with his concern for others, to save Western Civilization.

In some ways this lesson is like our lesson from Zoom. If we are content with one person speaking at a time, then Zoom is a great platform. But if we want to make music together, we have to either find a different platform for our music or spend the time splicing together the different sounds to get the harmony we desire.

We now live in a very polarized world. Every person is in his or her own fur coat and claiming that they are the warmest of all those who are around them. My coat has to be better or warmer than all the other coats. We yell louder and louder so that by the sheer force of our voice we can “prove” that we are warmer, that we are more correct, than anyone else.

Take the simple example of wearing a mask to stop the spread of a disease. There is no question at all that wearing a mask is annoying, sometimes uncomfortable and makes communicating more difficult. Don’t get me started on singing while wearing a mask. And yet the personal difficulty of mask wearing is not as important as the impact that simply wearing a mask can have on stopping the spread of disease.

Long before COVID, when I was on vacation in many different locations, I would often find families, mostly but not always, from far eastern countries, wearing masks to prevent them from getting sick in crowded vacation locations. It seemed odd but it was a choice they had made. Being in a new location sometimes means that we don’t have all the immunity that local people might have, so it was just a simple precaution.

But in the face of this pandemic (pun intended) wearing a mask became vital to stopping the spread of a disease that nobody had any immunity from. It not only protects us from the virus that spreads so easily by air, but it also protects others. With a possibility that someone could be infected with this virus and not know they are infected, wearing a mask makes sure that others will not breathe in our air, even as we are protected from the air that is exhaled by others.

But some people do not care about their own health nor the health of others; they prefer to be a Tzadik in Peltz. Whatever they do that they think protects them from the Corona virus, they have no concern at all about passing a virus on to others. And it has turned nasty. I saw a video this week of an unmasked person standing outside a school that had a mask mandate for all students, who was yelling at parents who were picking up their children, that wearing a mask is “child abuse.” The news is full of people who refuse to wear a mask because it is a violation of their freedom.

They are not wrong. Under normal circumstances, the choice to wear a mask or not is a matter of personal freedom. But these times are hardly normal circumstances. In a public health emergency, we decide to limit our freedoms so that we can stop the spread of a disease for the sake of our entire society. We stay home when we feel sick. We must not subject others to our bodily fluids if we think that we are carrying a disease that could make others sick.

In the book of Kings, in the Bible, God commands the prophet Elisha to heal a foreign general of his leprosy. The prophet just sends a messenger to the general telling him to dunk seven times in the Jordan River and he will be cured. The general is incensed. There is no magic cure, no incantations, the prophet will not even see him! Surely there are cleaner waters back in my home country. Why should I dunk in the Jordan River? His wise servants calm him down. “Look,” they say, “If he had told you to do some great feat of strength you would have done it. He tells you to go bathe in the Jordan River. At least you should give it a try. The general gives it a try and is cured.

Public health officials are not asking us to sterilize everything we touch. They don’t ask us to buy expensive medications that are hard to administer. They tell us, “We can beat this pandemic by simply wearing a mask in public indoor spaces.” Is this such a violation of our freedom that we can’t do this for enough months to get ahead of this virus?

I don’t fault Noah for trying to save himself and his family, but I do see Abraham as taking the morally better position; his concern is not just for himself, but for others at the same time. The same is true with wearing a mask. It not only prevents us from getting sick, but it helps prevent the spread of this disease to others. Is this such a terrible thing to ask? Is this really more difficult than being in a hospital on a respirator?

To beat this disease, we all need to be in harmony. We need a united front to end this pandemic for all of us. We can’t sing together if we are all in our separate Zoom boxes. We need to wear our masks in public, for our own health and the health of others. We need to support one another, care for each other, show our support, and our desire to live in harmony with each other. We can’t move forward unless we are all moving together. This is what it means to be human, to be a part of society for the betterment of all.

May we find our way to help others as we help ourselves. May we help keep others healthy as we work to keep ourselves healthy. May we live in a world where we all care about what happens to each other, and we work together for everyone’s health and safety. This is the lesson that God teaches us in our Parsha for this week. Let us all work together, as a community, to save our civilization as we say….

Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782