Parashat Noach / פרשת נח

Torah Portion: Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

The second reading in the annual cycle of Torah readings, Parashat Noach, which we read this week, contains the stories of Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel and concludes with the genealogy of Abram, who, in next week’s reading, will become the first believer in the one God and have his name changed to Abraham. While the genealogy of Abram might be unknown to people not particularly versed in Torah, the stories of Noah and the Tower of Babel certainly have made their way into popular culture and are generally familiar to people in title, if not also in content. Regardless of where you stand in relation to these three chapters in the Book of Genesis (Bereishit, in Hebrew), I highly recommend that you read the stories (click here: Genesis 6:9 – 11:32) and look at them with fresh eyes.

As I read the story of Noach (Hebrew for Noah) this week, a new question arose for me: Did Noah experience feelings of guilt or regret upon boarding the ark? The Torah describes him as “a righteous man… blameless in his age” (Gen. 6:9). Our sages looked at this description and said he might have been more righteous than others in his day and age, but had he lived in Abraham’s generation, he wouldn’t have stood out at all. He certainly wouldn’t have equaled Abraham in righteousness. (For more on the debate over Noah’s moral stature, check out http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Weekly_Torah_Portion/noach_hillel5762.shtml.)

Our sage’s understanding of Noah’s character leaves me feeling disappointed with Noah. He didn’t argue with God when God announced the coming of the flood. He didn’t appeal to God’s sense of mercy as Abraham and Moses would later do. Noah didn’t… You fill in the blank. Surely, Noah could have done something on behalf of humanity and the created world, but he didn’t. Instead, he simply followed God’s command to build the ark and saved enough people and animals to allow for the repopulation of the Earth.

I’d like to redeem Noah, though. I’d like to imagine Noah had a conscience and that while on the ark for 360 days he reflected on his life before the flood. I’d like to imagine that he asked himself if he could have done things differently, if he could have done more to try to save humanity from near total annihilation. I’d like to imagine that Noah felt something, either guilt or regret: guilt for abandoning his friends and extended family, perhaps, or regret for not having seized an opportunity to do something great. Of these two possibilities, I believe regret would be the most beneficial for Noah and for future generations.

At a funeral today for a beloved rabbi and scholar, I encountered a colleague whom I hadn’t seen since moving to her city. She is very sick and doesn’t get out of her home much, and for whatever reasons, I hadn’t yet gone to visit her. As I greeted her today, she said, “I’m going to take this opportunity to do a guilt trip,” and she proceeded to remind me that she doesn’t leave home much and that she’d appreciate a visit every now and then. My response was to say, “I don’t feel that you’re laying a guilt trip on me. You are advocating for yourself and that’s a good thing.” If my colleague’s goal was to make me feel guilty, she failed. She did, however, leave me with a sense of regret for not having reached out earlier.

This encounter, set amid a funeral of someone I knew by reputation alone, got me to thinking about the difference between guilt and regret. I could have felt guilty about not having reached out to either of the rabbis, the living or the deceased, much earlier. The living colleague certainly thought I should feel guilty. But as I was leaving the funeral, I realized that the feeling I had most about my relationship with both rabbis was that of regret over not having taken the initiative to build a relationship with either. The deceased thrived on teaching Talmud. Might she not have gotten pleasure out of having me as an eager student or, at least, a colleague who wanted to benefit from her teaching? Might I not have learned much from her or discovered someone worthy of great respect? Might not the living colleague feel acknowledged by a visit from me? Might I not discover a new friend in this still unfamiliar city? In the end, I left the funeral with a sense of loss. I had missed opportunities to do mitzvot and to bring joy to others.

It was regret I felt as I drove home from paying my respects, not guilt, and I can live with that. After all, little good comes from guilt. While guilt surely has a role to play in getting us to apologize and repent, guilt is essentially just a form of self-rebuke that leaves us feeling diminished. Regret, on the other hand, comes from a place of loss. Unlike guilt, regret doesn’t make us feel smaller. It measures the amount of growth since we chose a path that left us wanting. It motivates us to seize opportunities for productivity and connection that we’d been blind to previously.

I hope that after the flood Noah regretted that he hadn’t stood up for humanity when given the chance. I hope that as he raised his family, he instilled within them a sense of mercy and justice and taught them to defend their fellow beings against harsh judgment. Of course, we don’t know what happened. All we know is that upon disembarking from the ark he built an altar and offered burnt sacrifices whose smell was pleasing to God and that later he planted a vineyard and got drunk. Still, we can imagine that there’s something more to the story than meets the eye and that Noah went on to become a person whose righteousness was truly outstanding in the eyes of God and humanity.

What we know from the Torah is that God would go from choosing a helper like Noah, who missed an opportunity to show true greatness, to choosing ambassadors like Abraham and Moses, who would stand up to God in the name of mercy and justice and argue on behalf of humanity. We have no reason to believe that God felt guilt for having destroyed creation, but as we look at the unfolding of our mythic history, we do have reason to believe that God felt regret for choosing one such as Noah and was motivated to do things differently, and better, when given another chance.

I think there’s a profound lesson here for us. Though we strive to live our lives free of regret, most of us do make mistakes. We often wish we could have, would have, done some things differently. It is my prayer that, in those moments of regret, we follow God’s model and resolve to do things better the next time. We can only hope that that is what Noah did as well.

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