I have a special relationship with today’s Torah portion, Parashat Noach.
I delivered my senior sermon at the Jewish Theological Seminary on Parashat Noach, 39 years ago this Shabbat.
So I have read this parasha many, many times. But, this year, as I was reading through the parasha, I saw something that I had never seen before. That’s not surprising as the experience of finding something in a Torah portion that you didn’t see before makes Torah study a constant source of inspiration.
In the part of the story describing Noah’s sending out of the dover to see if the waters had abated, we read (Genesis 8:9): But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him to the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth; and he put forth his hand, and took her, and brought her in unto him into the ark.
One aspect of this verse stunned me.
Compare it to two other verses in the story.
When Noah’s family enters the ark, we read: “Vayavo-oo el hatayva”, “they came to the ark”. When the animals arrive, we read “ba-oo el Noach”, they came to Noah.
But here, Noah reaches out and brings the dove in to the ark.
I am amazed by this verse. I am amazed because this act could be read as a gesture of compassion. Noah reaches out his hand and tenderly brings the dove back into the ark to him.
Why would this be so remarkable? It is remarkable because Noah shows absolutely no compassion or kindness anywhere else in the story. For many of the rabbis, this was the basis for significant criticism of Noah. How could Noah merely accept God’s decision to destroy the world? Where was his compassion for his fellow human beings? Why didn’t he take up their case? Why didn’t he pray to God to show compassion?
The 16th century commentator, Rav Moshe Alshich gives a commentary which I have loved since I read it in preparation for that senior sermon. The Alshich says that when the Torah describes Noah by saying: et haElohim hithalech Noach, “Noah walked with God”, it should be read as a criticism meaning that Noah only walked with God. He didn’t walk with people. All of his attention and all of his focus was on God. The Alshich imagines that after the flood, Noah complained to God about God’s lack of compassion and God says simply: “Where were you when I threatened to destroy the world? You only thought of yourself”.
And truly, throughout the story, Noah seems devoid of feeling, showing no emotional connection with his family or the animals.
Except, as I read it, this one time.
But maybe it isn’t really there this time either.
Perhaps I read compassion into the verse because I find it so hard to believe that a human being, especially one in a position of vital importance, could possibly show no compassion, no empathy and no emotional connection. It’s so hard for me to believe that that would be the case. Perhaps I wanted desperately to find a glimmer of human sensitivity.
But the truth is that even if this is an act of compassion, it’s not enough. We shouldn’t have to look so hard to find compassion in another human being.
If compassion is important, then it should be evident clearly and continuously. One should regularly see acts and hear words of compassion. There are other qualities that are important in human beings but none more important than compassion.
So, you might ask as some have: why would God choose Noah to do this job? Maybe some would say that God chose Noah because compassion would have gotten in the way of the important work he had to do. I considered that answer but, in the end, I don’t buy it. I’m going to side with the Alshich. I acknowledge that there are certain specific situations where misplaced or excessive compassion can be harmful. But compassion must be considered as a significant factor in every decision we make.
Or, maybe God chose Noah hoping beyond hope he would show compassion when put to the test. If so, Noah failed because bringing in the dove, even if it was an act of compassion was far too little and far too late.
So, in the end I can’t answer that question as to why God chose Noah for this role. I can’t speak for God.
But I can speak as a human being and say that while there are many qualities in a human being that are important, in the end, the ability to act with compassion and live a life of empathy is absolutely essential in order to do our part in protecting our world from chaos and destruction.