I am writing this commentary after just returning home from serving as the Master of Ceremonies for the annual “Tree of Life’ award dinner of the Jewish National Fund on Los Angeles. It was a very impressive and moving evening, especially as it brought home that Israel is facing a terrible crisis at the moment that is even more significant and frightening than the crisis of terror, suicide bombers, or the Palestinian rejections of Israel’s right to exist in the Middle East.
The crisis of which I speak, is the crisis water – or rather, the rapid, dramatic, and potentially deadly diminishing amount of it in Israel proper and the region as a whole. Not only has there been a terrible drought for many years in a row, but the rapid growth of Israel’s population coupled with the shrinking of the Sea of Kinneret, Israel’s primary source of water in some places up to 60% means that Israel uses more water than it has each and every year. The result is that year after year there is less and less water for the agricultural sector that needs it to grow food for the population, and less and less drinkable water for everyone else.
If something drastic isn’t done, Israel will quite literally run out of water over the next twenty years, and all the military might in the world won’t help.
The urgency of the message and the importance of the Jewish community responding to this real, dire need with financial support for the JNF (which is the agency that the Israeli government has designated as responsible to solve the water crisis) so that they can build 100 more reservoirs that will recycle water to feed the insatiable thirst of the nation couldn’t have been brought home more powerfully than I experienced tonight.
There was a beautiful video dramatizing the situation in Israel narrated by the actor (and son of a Conservative rabbi) Jonathan Silverman (whose mother is Israeli), and Tony Rubin, the President of JNF for Los Angeles gave a thoughtful, impassioned challenge to the 500 or so people in attendance at the dinner to remind them that they can make a difference in the world and in bringing water to arid land.
But what stuck me most about the evening is what got me thinking about this week’s Torah portion. For in the story of Noah and the flood, a story known to practically every Jewish or Christian child in America, we are taught one of the most important lessons of the Torah.
We are introduced to the hero, Noah with these words: “Noah was a virtuous man. He was unblemished in his generation. Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6:9)
The rabbis of Jewish tradition argued as to what this really meant (how unusual!). Some taught that this meant that to his credit he was able to remain virtuous (some translate “righteous”) even though the rest of his generation were lawless, violent and evil. In this understanding, the supreme credit of Noah lies in the fact that faced with the most overwhelming temptations possible, the worst role models possible, and a social more that ran totally counter to his own ethical instincts, he still remained virtuous.
The other rabbis taught that when it says, “…in his generation,” it is meant to convey that only in his generation where everyone was behaving so badly, so violently, so evilly could Noah stand out as “virtuous.” These rabbis argue that had Noah lived in any other era or age, no one would have noticed him at all. It was only by comparison with how bad everyone else was that Noah got selected in the first place.
Both these arguments being what they are, I believe they both miss the main ethical point of the story. To me, the reason that this story has become such an important part of our Jewish understanding of both God and the nature of human beings among whom we live, is precisely because Noah wasn’t Jewish.
It is a story written and told by Jews, whose point is that Noah who was not Jewish (since Judaism began ten generations later with Abram) was still considered to be righteous or virtuous in God’s eyes. It is the universal message of the story that grabs me the most.
It is from this story that we can derive the ancient rabbinic idea that anyone who saves one life is as if he or she saved the entire world. This is a story in which Noah was saved from death by his virtuousness, and by saving Noah the entire world was saved and allowed to continue to grow and flourish forever.
Perhaps more importantly it is a reminder that all truth and understanding and wisdom and holiness doesn’t now and never has resided only among Jews in the Jewish community. The story of Noah is a direct rebuke of that idea, for Noah is both virtuous and the father of all subsequent humanity.
So tonight at the JNF awards dinner, perhaps the highlight of the evening for me was a three-minute video greeting and conversation with former Vice-President Al Gore. He spoke eloquently about the needs and importance of Israel, the water crisis and how it will affect the entire region, Jew and non Jew alike, and the importance of standing up for the values that matter most.
And then it struck me – it was the fact that Al Gore isn’t Jewish, that in spite of that he stands up for Israel, is a great supporter of the JNF and its remarkable work in Israel, and is a true knowledgeable friend of the Jewish people that made it so important a message.
That is the real story of Noah – that ultimately Jew and non-Jew alike are responsible for bringing holiness, virtue, godliness, character, righteousness and ethics into the world. As I read this portion this week, I will be thinking about all the non-Jews in the world whose virtue is a gift of the sacred to us all. And I will feel blessed.