Parshat Noach D’var Torah by Rabbi Ed Gelb
When confronted with a problem, sometimes small adjustments help and sometimes you have to wipe the slate clean and start over. This, in a nutshell, was the dilemma facing God in this week’s parsha, Noach. If we can momentarily put aside the tragic truth that in this case wiping the slate clean meant destroying virtually all of humanity through a flood, we may be able to glean some critical lessons for our times.
From the Torah’s narrative, it seems pretty clear that humanity had been on a downward spiral over a few generations. The concept of “Yirat Hashem,” awe of God, was absent in the world. The Torah tells us that the world was “corrupt” and full of “lawlessness.” Every manner of sin occurred, from theft to violence to immorality to idolatry. No leaders appeared ready to turn things around and the people did not even recognize that they were sinning. There was no reason to believe that things were going to change. Therefore a key question was, how much time to give the people before taking drastic action. In this case, God’s last attempt to spark teshuva (repentance) took the form of having Noah publicly build an ark. God hoped that perhaps the people would wonder what Noah was up to, ask, and realize they needed to change their ways. An important takeaway is that God set a time limit: the amount of time necessary to build the ark. Often, we know we need to make a change, but we put it off with indefinite deadlines. Evaluation does take time, but we often let it drag on longer than necessary. By all means, work through an issue, but also have a clear way to evaluate when it is time to move to the next stage and set a time frame for that decision.
Parshat Noach also illustrates that even God, the creator of the world, messed up. Admitting you made a mistake is often the hardest part of the process of fixing it, so it is comforting to learn that even God makes mistakes. (Of course, on some levels, that is also really troubling, and perhaps a topic for a different d’var Torah). While it is simplistic to assign human characteristics to God, how hard must it have been to admit messing up on a project this big? Often we keep trying to make small adjustments to fix problems when we have invested so much already. Only honest introspection can lead us to realize that sometimes a wholesale change is necessary. Mistakes are common; coming to terms with that and being able to learn from them and move on instead of denying them is critical. As the great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, "Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be."
Sometimes knowing you have to start over is the easy part, but figuring out the future plan is more difficult. God’s plan is to start anew and make a covenant with Noah and his descendants. This covenant should set the behavior standard for humanity. Hereafter, in the Torah, God takes a more active role in establishing a relationship with people, setting the stage for the story of God and Abraham. Thus we learn that making the clean break with the past is often the simplest step to take. It may be painful, but it is clear. Only with good planning can we avoid the mistakes of the past and anticipate new challenges that come our way.
Personal relationships, affairs of state, spiritual journeys, and community responsibility are all areas where we need to evaluate ourselves and our role in the world. Sometimes wholesale changes are needed. Only by carefully considering the situation, admitting our mistakes, having a plan, and being courageous in enacting it can we guarantee ourselves the best chance of being successful. Even God needed a mulligan in creating the world.