Parshat Noach

Torah Reading for Week of October 18-24, 2009

“From Generation to Generation”
by Tamar Frankiel, PhD
Dean of Academic Affairs

The early chapters of Genesis show G-d interacting with the “families of the earth,” both in the sense of family lines, like that of Noach, his wife and sons, and in the larger sense of the human social groups. The stories are snapshots of the collective history of humanity, an album of family pages. The Sages speak of “the generation of the flood” and the “generation of the dispersion” (i.e., the Tower of Babel). Modern Americans do this as well; we know of the “Pepsi generation,” “the Me Generation,” and “Gen X.” As Jews, the phrase dor l’dor, “generation to generation,” reminds us of our collective contribution to the future.

Today we don’t think about this very much. Personal concerns dominate our lives: making a living, dealing with our own emotional struggles, raising our children. How can we raise our consciousness about our generations?

Parshat Noach gives us a hint. Noach was “in his generations righteous and wholehearted,” the Torah tells us; “Noach walked with G-d” (Gen 6:9). Indeed his father, Lamech, believed he was the one destined to bring “comfort” after generations of struggle and toil under the curse put on Adam (5:29); his name means “rest.” Noach warned his contemporaries of the troubles to come, then spent 120 years building the ark, giving the generation time to repent.

Generational consciousness requires us to adjust to a slower speed. For 120 years, Noach was building that ark and hoping the others would repent. We, on the other hand, are a fast-food, sound-bite, now-or-never society. We need to develop patience. You may be able to get an upgrade to speed up your computer, but you can’t speed up the growth of a child or the evolution of a community.

We need historical consciousness. We often ignore that the troubles of our decade were actually generated many years – perhaps 120 years? – earlier. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, writing of how the Holocaust could happen, wrote that its roots were not in 1939 or 1933, but generations before, when the word of G-d had been drowned or distorted. Those concerned about human-generated global warming trace its causes to the industrial revolution of the mid-19th century. (This Shabbat, by the way, has been declared Global Climate Healing Shabbat by the Jewish Council on Public Affairs.) We must think long-term, whether we look back or look forward.

Looking forward especially should give us pause. Are our actions and thoughts now seeding events that will come to fruition in 2029? Of course they are. What to do about it? With computer modeling, we are now better able to project quantifiable data like population growth and fossil fuel reserves. But what about the more subtle characteristics that define a “generation”? They may be less visible, but they are the tectonic plates of society that can shift in a positive or negative direction.

We have to ask, are we carefully nurturing positive moral and spiritual developments with the same attention that our scientists give to genetic modification and disease control? Are we honoring and learning from those who “walk with G-d,” who cultivate their own spirits and who are not afraid to speak out on our generations worst ills?

The apocalyptic destruction of this parsha, coming a month after Rosh Hashana, is a wake-up call. Let’s take time this week to discuss what the real “sins of the generation” are, and how we can uproot them. The next 120 years are given to us to correct the collective mistakes of the last 120 years.

Leave a Reply