D’var Torah – Parashat Noach

This was a d’var I wrote for the organization currently known as T’ruah, but at the time as Rabbis for Human Rights – North America.

There’s an oft-quoted midrash that tells a simple but powerful tale. A group of travelers are in a boat upon the open waters, when one of them suddenly takes out a hand-drill and begins drilling a hole under his seat. Astonished, the others turn to him and say, “What are you doing?” He responds by saying, “What concern is it of yours? I’m drilling under my own seat!” The others then spell out the obvious truth that he is unable to perceive – that his actions affect them all, and that they are all in the same boat.[1]

As I considered the famous story of Noah and the Great Flood in this week’s parashah, I wondered: what if the boat this misguided traveler was aboard had been Noah’s ark? If we transplant the boat midrash to Noah’s ark, then the man drilling a hole under his own seat becomes someone who just might cause the entire living world to perish.

The story of Noah’s ark and the boat midrash both teach about interdependence and shared destiny. The boat midrash particularly reminds us that there are certain destructive actions that imperil all of us even if just one of us is allowed to carry them out. In addition, it teaches that we are all responsible for making sure that everyone in the community (aboard the boat) adheres to certain basic rules so that we don’t all drown. Human rights advocates can draw on both of these stories to illustrate some of our core beliefs: that we human beings are the guarantors of each other’s basic rights, and that our universal human rights only exist when we take them on as universal human responsibilities.

Too often, here in the U.S., our leaders have decided to set human rights aside in this or that case for the sake of some other highly desired political, military, or economic outcome. We live in a moment when some politicians openly brag about their support for casting aside human rights in our treatment of prisoners. And even government leaders who support human rights choose to make exceptions.

In addition, our elected officials frequently turn a blind eye to human rights abuses by other nations so that our industries can continue to do brisk business and our consumers continue to get cheap products. When political leaders do this, their sense of urgency is deeply misplaced. Often they’ll justify these decisions by saying that the consistent application of a commitment to human rights is an ideal to be achieved incrementally, whereas economic or short term political concerns are supposedly urgent. When we permit our elected officials to do this, we as Americans choose to let somebody else drill a hole under their seat in the boat. We usually rationalize that we can’t control what other’s do, or that sometime later we’ll prioritize urging them to stop.

The ancient rabbis taught that a person who has the capacity to object to the harmful actions of others and does not bears some of the responsibility for the harm that’s done.[2] This is not an easy mitzvah to uphold – not in the small worlds of our families and workplaces, nor in the larger world of governments and nations. But it’s an essential mitzvah for humanity to practice if we are ever to rise above the willingness to violate human rights or stand idly by while others do so. For human rights to become deeply rooted worldwide, they need to be upheld in all times and places.

(Note: the video above is of an early ’70s pop song called “Noah,” sung by Matti Caspi. If you want an English translation visit here.) 

If humanity as a whole is to survive its ongoing hatreds and its ever-growing capacity for mass-destruction, we need to pursue the universal upholding of human rights with the same vigor as the shocked and worried boat passengers of the midrash. As we have seen many times over in the news, when societies that claim to cherish human rights uphold them only inconsistently, they lose their ability to persuade others who are drilling holes under their seats to stop. We can’t drill a few little holes under out own seat and then run up and down the aisle of the boat telling the others drilling big holes to cut it out. The entire human rights enterprise sinks if the commitment isn’t airtight. To put it another way, people need to be machmir [this is the Hebrew word for ‘strict’] about the mitzvah of human rights, because establishing and maintaining a global culture of human rights is difficult and easily undone by even minor violations. Like the bodies we inhabit, a true culture of human rights will always be fragile.

Let’s return to the Torah portion for a final thought. The story of Noah’s ark is a story of renewal and rebirth following the failure of an old social paradigm that the Torah specifically states included an overabundance of violence[3]. We can draw a lesson from this part of Torah that we carry within our collective human consciousness a memory of what it was like when our world collapsed as a result of our failure to cherish and respect the sanctity of our fellow human beings. Today more than even in human history, the nations of the world have committed themselves to understand that sanctity in terms of universal human rights – rights which form the planks of the “boat” we’re all in together.

Parashat Noach reminds us that we can indeed be our brother’s keeper (and our sister’s too!). We can create a world in which we make sure that here in America we aren’t drilling any holes under our seat, and in which we ally with other nations to form a network of mutual monitoring to ensure that nobody else is either. We’re all, after all, in the same boat.

[1] Vayikra Rabbah 4:6

[2] BT Shabbat 54b

[3] Genesis 6:13

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