This week’s Torah portion is easily one of the most famous. Everyone knows the general
outline – God tells Noah that he’s going to destroy the world which has become corrupted
beyond redemption, and Noah needs to build an ark to save himself, his family, and all of
the animals of the world. When learning this story, from a young age on, we’re taught to
identify with Noah, the most righteous of his generation. So what was so wrong with this
generation that a guy like Noah, who didn’t even bother to warn his fellow humans of the
impending doom, was the most righteous?
One of the explanations our ancient sages gave us in the Talmud was that this generation
had become haughty because of the goodness that God showered upon them (Sanhedrin,
108b). Citing the book of Job to describe these wicked people the Talmudic baraita goes
on to say that they enjoyed so much abundance and such great wealth that they came
to believe that they didn’t need God for anything at all. This wicked generation enjoyed
extremely long lives in which they were never lacking in food or pleasures, music was
always readily at hand, and their children danced.
A few years ago, one of my favorite comedians, Louis C.K., was on Conan O’Brien’s
talk show and pointed out some pretty clear truths about today’s generation. The general
theme of his interview was that, today, everything is amazing and nobody is happy. His
most clear elucidation of this theme is the fact that people complain about their cellphone
reception not being strong enough to surf the internet, without considering the fact that
the signal has to go all the way up to outer space and back. Similarly, a few generations
ago, it would have been inconceivable to have a piece of equipment like a modern day
smartphone be available for nearly everyone.
I’ll be the first to admit that I complain about these things; with modern conveniences
come modern inconveniences. I also must admit that in comparison to the early rabbis of
around 1800 years ago who wrote the baraita quoted above, my life has so far matched
their description of the generation of the flood to a tee. I have certainly been quite lucky
in my life, but I would also say that the majority of my friends in the Jewish world
have had similar luck. If we are like Louis C.K. says and absurdly taking the wonders
of our world for granted, are we then mirroring the generation of the flood? Are we
similarly devoid of thanks to God, losing our ability to see the wonders in what is now
our everyday life? In short, should someone start building an ark?
Well, I think an ark might be a bit much, but there’s another clear alternative: Let’s be
more thankful. But thankful to whom? The second problem of the generation of the Flood
according to the baraita, that of casting God off, is another struggle that we face today.
One of the greatest issues in Modern Judaism is with the conception of God. We are so
often confronted with ideas and conceptions of God that are inherently contradictory
to a modern, scientific mindset that it is sometimes quite difficult to conceive of fully
believing in a God. It is especially difficult to believe in one that has the power to flood
the entire earth, but needs a human being to build an ark to save a remnant of inhabitants.
This is not a reason to dismiss the whole concept of a higher power, though, but instead
a challenge to the conception we have of our rational sensibilities to fully understand
our reality. The critique of thanklessness found in both the Talmud and Louis C.K. is a
similar challenge. Although we may have cast aside the idea of a man in the sky pulling
strings and deciding upon punishment and reward, at the very least we can marvel at the
wonders of nature, human ingenuity, and sheer beauty in the world around us. If just that
spark of wonder can be fanned, thankfulness for these phenomena will surely follow.
Luckily our tradition has a built in mechanism for reminding us of the wonders of our
life. The Jewish practice of reciting blessings is designed specifically to orient us towards
acknowledgment of the wondrous goings on around us. The morning prayer sequence in
particular (shaharit) is designed to start our day by thanking God for returning our souls
to a working body, along with giving us all of the things we need, from sight to physical
flexibility to consciousness, to go about our day.
It seems unlikely that we are heading towards another great destruction akin to that of
the story of Noah. Even if we don’t actually face a doom that necessitates an ark, we can
certainly take something away from the commentary of our rabbinic tradition. If mere
haughty thanklessness in a time of great plenty was thought of as enough to warrant utter
destruction, we ought to take this into account. In fact, if we read Noah’s collection of all
of the creatures of creation as an acknowledgment of the many various wonders of the
world, instead of as a literal gathering of the species onto a boat, we even find the answer
to the problem right in the story. Acknowledging the wonders of our daily life, and our
lack of control or full understanding of these wonders, is something we can all benefit
from. It brings a sense of awe to the everyday that can enrich even the most banal of
moments when utilized correctly. If this is the way that Noah became the most righteous
in his generation, let us all strive for such righteousness!