I came up with this idea to say at my rabbinic ordination. I’m pleased to see that it resonates with me no less today than thirty years ago.
Last week the Torah listed the ten generations between Adam and Noah. This week it lists the ten generations between Noah and Abraham. Now we Rabbis don’t view the Torah as a history book; history is the medium rather than the message. So why are these, seemingly superfluous, lineages included?
The Sages explain: the message is to highlight God’s mercy; each generation mentioned, is progressively more evil than its predecessor. Yet God allows the world to continue for generations, providing opportunity after opportunity for humanity to change for the better before taking drastic action himself.
A lovely idea, but it still leaves a question. If the Torah wanted to show God’s mercy, it could have done so by listing one set of the ten generations. Why does it need to give us the same message a second time?
My answer lies in a contrast that we can clearly see between the two sets of generations. Adam to Noah: generations that only got worse and worse. In the end they were destroyed. Noah to Abraham: generations that only got worse and worse. In the end they were not destroyed. What was the difference?
The difference lies in one man: Abraham. In what must be the greatest indictment in all of history, the Rabbis say that Noah could have saved his generation; but he did not care enough. Abraham did. Whereas Noah was happy to build an ark to save himself – and forget about humanity, Abraham reached out to those around him. He taught everyone he could about monotheistic values. He didn’t do enough to change his generation entirely. But, the Rabbis say, he did enough to save it.
The message is very clear; one individual who cares enough can shape world history. And while we may often tell ourselves, as Marx did, that forces beyond individuals create history, even a glance at the past shows this to be false. For better or for worse, there would almost certainly have been no October revolution without Lenin, no victory at Waterloo without Wellington, no holocaust without Hitler. Who’s to say how the Second World War would have turned out without Churchill, the Civil Rights movement in America without Martin Luther King and South Africa’s transition to equality without Mandela? How different would the world be had Einstein, Freud or Darwin never lived?
Individuals shape history. Abraham was nothing special. He just cared enough to try. Noah was nothing special. He just didn’t.
The question for us all is who are we to be? Abraham or Noah?
Parsha in a Nutshell
Noah is a very decent man – the exception rather than the rule in his generation. The world around him is full of debauchery. They worship idols, murder and are experts in sexual immorality. Not vastly different to the world we live in. God decides to take action and it rains…. and rains….. and rains……and rains. A true British summer. The world is filled with water and everyone drowns – except for Noah, his family and loads of animals who were on his famous Ark.
Noah leaves the Ark and immediately plants a vineyard – preferring the escape of wine to the challenging task of rebuilding humanity. The world is repopulated via Noah’s sons and once again, they slip into immorality and build a tower in a place called Babel in order to ‘fight’ with God. This time, he mixes up their languages and creates 70 nations and the wonderful diversity of the human race is set in place for future generations.