Friday, November 4, 2016

Parashat Noach: Do the Right Thing

So I’ve spent the week probably the way most of you have; furiously updating 538 or the online poll of your choice, combing through the newspaper and otherwise low-key freaking out about the election. Hoo, boy. So as a bit of dark humor found while poking around I found a fun thing to put up on facebook, a little game called “how much is Trump your fault?” It’s one of those silly quizzes but asks questions relevant to Trump’s chances of winning the election. As I didn’t vote in the Republican Primary and am not Vladamir Putin, I am apparently completely innocent! Ha-ha. Ha. What good fun! Now, if only that made me feel better.

It doesn’t help that we read parashat Noach right before the election, a torah portion that contains not one, but two calamities, both familiar to us. The first is the flood of course, and the second the Tower of Babel. The flood is as apocalyptic a vision we can imagine; behind the cute images of a giraffe or elephant poking out of a boat, there is the reality of the entirety of the world being wiped out due to corruption and violence, with only Noah and his family surviving. Why Noah, because he is ish tzadik tamim b’dorotav: he is a righteous and blameless man for his generation. That’s what it says. But what does that mean? We tend to conflate the two, but they really are quite different, aren’t they? Often what appears to be righteousness is really blamelessness: we throw up our hands and say, “I didn’t have anything to do with that. I don’t know anything about it. It’s beyond my pay grade. Not my circus, not my monkeys.” It’s easy to claim righteousness when we can claim no to have no responsibility; we’re just bystanders, after all. And that might make us blameless, but it doesn’t make us righteous. Righteousness means, I think, that we can say, honestly, I’ve done everything I can to fix what’s wrong. I may not have direct ownership, but I still have a role to play by making it better. That is, after all, what our democracy is founded upon; the idea that all of us have a piece of the puzzle, and our obligation to one another and ourselves to put those pieces together. Call it the Common Weal. Call it Civic Responsibility. Call it Mitzvah, it doesn’t matter; as Abraham Joshua Heschel said: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.

So let me ask you: what are you doing to make the world around you better? How are you not only avoiding blame, but taking responsibility? I don’t just mean the election, by the way--because God knows, after the election, no matter who wins, the sense of profound brokenness, the sense that we are speaking totally different civic languages, that our speech is confounded just as it is in the story of the Tower of Babel, will still be with us. How are we helping our city, our children, our community? How are we helping refugees, the homeless, the hungry, the environment? This Tuesday I’m going to vote. I’m also going to get together with a bunch of confirmation class kids and help clean up Brandywine Park. I’m not telling you this to humblebrag, but to remind us that the work is not just to not do bad, it is also to do good. Or, as Rep. John Lewis just said this past week, “Ours is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year--it is the struggle of a lifetime. Be persistent & consistent.” Let us strive to be righteous, not just blameless.