Torah Reading for Week of October 6-12, 2013
Am I an “Abraham” or a “Noah”?
By Rabbi Toba August, AJRCA Professor of Rabbinics
I wondered what I could do when the government was partially shut down. I felt so helpless, wanting to shake up the Congress and move the politicians away from the impasse. There are times when we yearn for wisdom and a way to end conflict. The early Genesis narratives reflect this desire, and are instructive on how we could respond to a crisis situation. There are two paradigms suggested. We can model ourselves on Abraham or on Noah, both good people but possessing distinctly different traits.
Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion, introduces Abraham, a person that makes a difference and brought healing into the world. Passionately arguing with G-d, Abraham fought for what was right. In contrast, though he saved his family, Noah passively watched as the world was destroyed.
We have insight into these two personalities from the rabbinic midrashim on the qualifier in Genesis 6:9 which says, “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation…”
The rabbis ask whether this is a “true compliment or qualified praise.” One position states that Noah is righteous only “relatively”, in contrast to the wicked people around him. This perspective claims that if Noah lived during the time of Abraham, he would not have been righteous at all.
Going deeper, we can delve into these differences between Noah and Abraham by looking at early Hassidic teachings. In his new book, Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table by Rabbi Arthur Green, we are reminded of the Kabalistic idea that one goal of being human is to ‘awaken G-d by our actions below’.
The Me’or Eynayim, an 18th century Hassidic master, states that, “…the great purpose of Creation is to arouse ourselves from below to walk towards G-d. When this does not happen….G-d Himself has to awaken us…” (p. 87) He explains that this is what happened to Noah. There was no arousal from within Noah himself, and G-d, wanting the world to survive, had to “arouse” Noah from above…awakening in Noah the desire to cleave to G-d”. In other words, Noah was not a “self-starter”. He had potential, but G-d had to ignite the pilot light.
In contrast, Abraham aroused himself, thereby arousing G-d from below. The Kedushat Levi teaches in Gen.12:2, “And you shall be a blessing, “Ve-heyeh berakhah”, that these letters in “Ve-heyeh” allude to the Tetragrammaton: yod heh vav heh. He says,
“Until Abraham, there was no one to arouse the outpouring of Divine blessing from above…In that sense, yod heh -preceded vav heh. But from the time of Abraham there was an arousal of the blessing from below, and –vav heh now preceded yod heh. This is the meaning of Ve-heyeh berakhah.”(p. 98)
What can we learn from these teachings?
According to Rabbi Arthur Green, one reason G-d created us is to do the “heavy lifting” in this relationship. He says, “We are here to raise human energy back to its source in G-d. Only in doing so do “we” –creature and Creator – become truly whole.”(p. 87)
I do not feel ‘truly whole’ when it comes to doing something in response to broken political policy and, unfortunately, feel more like a passive Noah than an Abraham. Big changes can be a challenge. I ask that we continue to be blessed with the desire to arouse ourselves in partnership with Holy One, and be advocates for justice and goodness whenever and wherever we can. May we claim our inner Abraham and say, “AMEN.”