Noah and Abraham: 2 approaches to humanity

By Rabbi Howard Wolk
Parashat Noah

This week and next we read about two great personalities: Noah and Abraham. A favorite theme of the rabbis is to compare and contrast the two.

Noah repopulates the world after the Flood; Abraham starts the Jewish people. Noah is the new start of mankind, Abraham, the start of a new nation.

Invariably, Noah suffers by comparison.

Noah builds an ark — but never protests the Flood. He does nothing to try to avert the impending doom. He takes no action to try to save his fellow human beings. Noah is concerned with himself and his family only.

In contrast, Abraham is concerned for humanity at large.

Abraham’s tent is open on all four sides for visitors. He pleads with G-d to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

He pleads for a child — only after doing all he could for others.

Even when undergoing his brit milah (circumcision), Abraham is concerned with whether it will separate him too much from others. G-d comforts him and says that he will be the “father of a multitude of nations.” Abraham, you will still be able to care for others.

Isn’t it a paradox?

Noah represents universal man; he is the father of all humanity. Yet, he is the one who cares only for himself and his own.

Abraham — the first Jew — cares for the world ahead of himself.

Shouldn’t it be just the opposite?

No, it should not!

The Torah is providing us with two approaches; the rabbis want us to choose Abraham’s way.

Noah was “easygoing.” He represents a fatalistic approach to the world. “You can’t fight fate.”

Nature is overwhelming. If a flood comes, it is best to save ourselves. Noah — the easygoing one — is ready to comply with any situation.

Abraham, on the other hand, is a spiritual revolutionary. He feels that he can and must change the world. His circumcision symbolizes this — man must perfect himself.

Man must heal, cure, transplant.

Man’s spirit is not perfect, either. People have “uncircumcised hearts.” They can change; teshuvah, repentance, is the path.

Society is not perfect. Strive to make it so.

Abraham is the father of many — to teach all people the lesson that they have the capacity to make themselves and their nations better.

Those people who think that nothing can be done about poverty, famine or disease; people who make peace with the presence of oppression in the world; people who out of fear or panic wish to negotiate with terrorists — all make peace with the philosophy of Noah. Noah is the universal man who cared so little for others and was in fact altogether parochial.

Those who see the potential in the world, who seek to improve it, follow Abraham’s lesson. Those Jews who, against all odds, did not accept defeat, despite staggering losses and sacrifices — they represent Jews and Judaism.

As you are reading this, it is almost two weeks since the massacre and pogrom in Israel. Painful, devastating losses. Beyond description.

Nevertheless, the spirit of Abraham lives and is put into action by our brethren in Israel. People taking others into their homes; reservists returning to Israel in order to serve — even before being called up; a Jewish man at Kennedy Airport paying for 250 airline seats to allow soldiers to return.

These and other inspiring responses are the teachings of Abraham. Our Jewish DNA is to be positive. Losses, yes; pain, yes. But ultimately the IDF, Israel Defense Forces, will be victorious.

The Midrash describes a Roman tyrant who asked Rabbi Akiva: If G-d wanted man to be circumcised why didn’t He create him so? If G-d loves the poor, why doesn’t He feed them?

Rabbi Akiva answered that we become “a partner with G-d in creation.”

We perfect ourselves through brit milah; we perfect society by feeding and clothing the hungry.

The tyrant wanted the status quo. If people were down, it was to his advantage. He ruled. He wanted men to be half-slaves, half-free. He wanted plebeians and aristocrats.

Rabbi Akiva wanted a mighty striving for perfection. The status quo is no good. Like Abraham, Rabbi Akiva wanted to change things.

Bashert is only after the fact. After you’ve given your all — then you can say it was G-d’s will.

Noah — the universal man — represents a universal tendency to accept the world as it is, to submit to fate.

Abraham presents a Jewish message to the world — not to submit but to change fate.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Howard Wolk is community chaplain with Jewish Family Service of Greater Dallas; rabbi emeritus, Congregation Shaare Tefilla; and past president, Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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