Three Approaches to Confronting a Broken World
The Biblical personality, Noah, is a central figure in the month of MarCheshvan. The Torah portion bearing his name is often read at the beginning of this month and according to at least one opinion in the Talmud, the Flood began during MarCheshvan. Noah, along with two other Biblical characters, Abraham and Moses, offers us a broad template for ways of relating to a broken world.
Noah acts like a bureaucrat and does what the boss says. Twice, early in the narrative about building the ark, the Torah tells us that God explained to Noah that the world was going to be destroyed and God gave Noah instructions on how to build the ark. In both cases, the Torah tells us that, “Noah did just as God commanded him.” (Genesis 6:22, 7:5) Several chapters later in Genesis we will see how Abraham negotiates with God not to destroy the wicked city of Sodom even if there are only 10 righteous people there.
Abraham justifies these negotiations by appealing to God’s values, “Will the judge of the entire world not do justice?” Later we see Moses laying down the line with God and saying that he would rather die than have God wipe out the people and start over with him after the Golden Calf incident. Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel, the founder of the Slobodka school of Mussar (d. 1927) and trainer of several generations of Jewish leaders, writes that neither Noah nor Abraham were on the spiritual level of Moshe. Only Moshe actually put his own life on the line for the people. When God said (after the golden calf) that God was going to destroy the people and start again with Moshe, Moshe responded, “if you are not going to forgive them, then take my life also.” This powerful act of solidarity with his community convinced God to back down and forgive the people.
These are three very different responses to a broken world. The first reflects a certain level of despair and passivity in the face of the depth of society's problems. Noah doesn’t argue with God to save the world. The farthest he goes is to model appropriate behavior while following instructions about how to survive the impending disaster. The rabbinic tradition is critical of Noah for not arguing for humanity like his descendant, Abraham.
Abraham’s response is that of an activist. He wants just means used to address the brokenness of the world and will use his voice and power to get this justice. He doesn’t shy away from confronting even the most powerful authorities when he sees injustice.
Moses is what Dr. Bettina Love calls a “co-conspirator.” If you haven’t seen this short clip of her explaining this idea, please take the six minutes to watch it. To paraphrase Love, an ally is someone who has read all the books and shows up to a meeting but when it is time for action they disappear. A co-conspirator is someone who takes a risk and potentially sacrifices something valuable to be in solidarity with those targeted by oppression. Moses’ insistence on giving up his life along with the Israelite people makes him the ultimate co-conspirator.
As we enter the height of the midterm election season and its aftermath this month, these three models offer us a variety of ways of engaging with the brokenness of our world and our Democracy. Each approach may be needed at different times. Noah’s “follow-orders” approach could be useful when embedded in a group geared up for action and needing to work with a high level of synchronicity. Abraham’s approach could be useful to rally people for action and Moses’s approach may be right for when direct harm is threatened. We get to face the reality of our broken world and use clear thinking to choose our response. May we find inspiration and creativity in how our Biblical ancestors faced their broken world.