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A Little Self-Reflection Goes a Long Way

The term “protagonist,” according to both Webster and Google, comes from the Greek word for “the principal actor in a drama or literary work.” The protagonist drives the story forward by pursuing a goal. The protagonist is often the character that makes key decisions affecting the outcome. The protagonist is also the one beset with many obstacles, overcoming them to save the day. The protagonist of a story is opposed by the antagonist.

This week’s parsha, parshat Noach, reads like one of the great novels of all time, only this story is true. Noach, the protagonist, is the man who literally saved the world. He is first introduced to us toward the end of parshat Bereisheit. He was born to a man named Lamech in the 10th generation from Adam. Lamech named his son Noach saying, “This one will give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands, from the ground which the Lord has cursed.” (Bereisheit 5:29)

Naming his son, Noach, was a hopeful prayer that his son would bring rest in some way to humanity. Talk about today’s parental pressure on children to succeed! From birth, Lamech placed quite a heavy burden and expectation on his son. In fulfillment of this prayer, our rabbis tell us:  “Until Noach came they had no implements for plowing and he prepared for them these implements. Until that time the earth was bringing up thorns and thistles when they sowed wheat due to the curse on the first man, Adam. But in the days of Noach the curse ceased. Noach fashioned agricultural tools relieving mankind from the toil of farming by hand.” (Rashi and S’forno)

Okay, so Noach was an inventor and as most inventions go, they serve to improve the quality of human existence. In that regard, Noach fulfilled the prayer of his father.  For this achievement alone Noach might have been remembered, although outside of the Torah knowledgeable world, he is not given credit for revolutionizing the farming industry.

Aside from this fact, there is only one other thing we learn about Noach before this week’s parsha begins. After the Torah describes Noach’s society, the Torah states, “But Noach found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” (Bereisheit 6:8) How did he manage to find favor in God’s eyes? What did he do? The Torah is mum on this important detail.

In one of the Dirty Harry movies, the character Detective Callahan remarks, “A man has to know his limitations!” Plato, quoting Socrates says something similar, “Know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” Aristotle taught, “To yourself be true.” The Torah’s premise of the mitzvah of תשובה, repentance, is predicated on a person being self-reflective, being honest about one’s innermost feelings and actions,  knowing the depth of their own personality.  In short, we must constantly assess our individual capabilities. What can I do, what about myself can be changed, and what can’t I do?

Our rabbis compare Noach and Avraham. Both were righteous but not in the same way. Avraham was able to go out into society and instruct them about the existence of God and how live a full and productive life. He could do this without being corrupted by the interactions he had with all the societies he came in contact. Although Avraham’s philosophy of life was diametrically opposed to by everyone else, the Torah tells us Avraham was viewed as a prince by the leaders of the world even though he had no country of his own.

Noach, however, did not pursue that course of action. He took stock of his personality. He was a righteous man, a prophet, a person God communicated directly with. But given his internal makeup, he could not go out to the world the way Avraham did. Knowing himself and the nature and level of corruption in the world at his time, he made the self-assessment that were he to go out to the world and interact with them, he would not be able to withstand the societal pressures. Personally, he would be taking a huge chance with his life, perhaps succumbing in the process to the social forces around him . Then, all would be lost.

Noach a the protagonist but not in the typical way we think of heroes. He has a goal to accomplish with severe obstacles in his way. The entire society, as one powerful force, presents itself as his antagonist, opposing him at every turn. He was given a task by God to build an ark. Our rabbis tell us that it took him 120 years to build it. The ark was not only to serve as a place of refuge for him, his family, and the animals if the flood came. First and foremost, it was an instrument or catalyst for instruction, to teach the people to change their ways. The flood could be averted. People would see him building day after day, year after year. Perhaps someone  would ask him, “Noach, what on earth are you doing?” That would be his opportunity to engage them in  discussion and learning, re-examining their ideas of life and God.

Instead, however, the building of the ark became a source of ridicule and derision to Noach. The society was too corrupt by that time. The Ramban says, “You don’t need a prophet to tell you not to steal and commit violence.” Any rational person, even someone chasing their whole life for physical enjoyments and objects knows that without at least the basic notions of ownership and private property, there can be no society. Rabbi Yossi taught, “ Let your friend’s property be as dear to you as your own.” (Ethics of the Fathers, 2:12) Would that that be true!

In his famous “Letter on Martyrdom,” the Rambam discusses the issue of living in a corrupt society. If you cannot leave it, you must minimize as much as possible  your interaction with it. Since the whole of humanity was corrupt, Noach had no place to escape. He did the only thing he could do. Withdraw as much as possible. Save yourself and family first. This was an extremely challenging and daunting hurtle to overcome given the natural human instinct and emotion to be social, to be with other people, to have friends. “Who is strong? A person who conquers his emotions.” (Pirkei Avot, 4:1) He had to go it alone.

Noach’s total recoil from society, as extreme as it was, was a necessary, in-line with the famous teaching of the sage, Hillel,  “If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot, 1:14) The Rambam beautifully explains these statements as an exhortation to look deeply into yourself and do what you need to do to protect your soul.  Furthermore, each of us must start this process as early as we can; It is an ongoing self-evaluation. We can’t help others if we are not first truly aware and knowledgeable as to what makes us tick. What impulses and forces am I susceptible to? Then, I may first have to realign my values, straighten myself out, keep myself in-tow before I can help others. That is why Torah maintains the earlier the training in proper character traits and mitzvot, the better chance that person has in living with correct values.

Noach is true hero, the protagonist opposed by everyone else in the world. His model is an important one, a lesson for us today. While we don’t live in a society as corrupt as his, nevertheless, we need to look at the corrupting influences our culture does present as acceptable and normal, enlightened, and modern. Modern trends have even altered the core of some of our time-honored Jewish values and way of life.

Let us use this coming Shabbat and every Shabbat as a time for learning, self-reflection and reconnecting with our Torah values, eschewing those that are antithetical and alien to them. A little self-reflection can go a long way.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan