10/16/2012 10:47 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Genesis 6:9-11:32: Righteous in Your Generation

Ten generations from creation to the flood; 10 generations from the flood to the creation of a people.

Between Adam and Eve in the beginning of the Torah and Abraham and Sarah who begin the story of the Jewish nation, Noah and his unnamed wife serve as a narrative bridge. It's apt imagery for the individuals responsible for carrying the entire future of humanity (and all life) to the other side of the floodwaters, to safety and dry land.

Adam -- the original, androgynous human whose name means "earthling" -- is, at first, the entirety of humanity. Even after two are created from one, the world shared by ish and isha -- this first man and woman -- is an idealized one, without the complexities of community and the web of human relationships (except their connection with each other).

On the other side of Noah stand Abraham and Sarah. They had a welcoming, open tent and, according to rabbinic tradition, brought many people into the fold of the Jewish people's covenant with God. Abraham -- "father of many" -- is the great embracer of guests and seekers, a connecting kind of guy.

Between them -- 10 generations after Adam and Eve, 10 before Abraham and Sarah -- is Noah and his family. Earthly corruption has caused God to regret ever having created humanity, but somehow Noah has found grace in God's eyes. As this week's portion opens, we read a description of Noah that is meant to explain why he is singled out: Noah ish tzaddik tamim hayah b'dorotahv, "Noah was a righteous man, a pure one, in his time" (literally, "in his generations," Genesis 6:9).

Why "in his time"? Is this phrase praise or qualification? Is it meant, as some commentators propose, to highlight the distance between the depravity of humanity in his era and Noah's outstanding righteousness -- to help us understand just how extraordinary he was? Or is it, as others say, included to help us understand that, while certainly for his time Noah stood out, his merit was only relative to those around him -- that in another era, he would not have been worthy of such a complimentary description?

In our own broken world, any sharp distinction between these two portraits of Noah collapses. Each generation is full of evil and goodness, of violence and peacemaking, of destruction and building -- and often, just going against the tide is its own heroism. At every time, in every moment, there are choices to be made that can mean being of service to life on our planet, or participating -- wittingly or unwittingly -- in the pollution and destruction of worlds, whether ecosystems, worlds of responsible discourse, or simply the worlds contained in individual human lives.

In every generation, we are called to act. Individually and collectively, our lives are an ongoing opportunity to discern a path and do work that is of genuine service, to hold fast to and act on our highest values -- and to resist apathy and lethargy, avoidance and self-justification.

Answering that call is both heroic and human, extraordinary and ordinary. It is holy work -- and it is as simple as the core of what it means to be a human being, an ish or isha, created in God's image.

Noah, the biblical text tells us next, walked with God (Genesis 6:9). Perhaps, paradoxically, that is why he is called ish as part of the description of his exceptionalism. The fullness of his humanity was precisely his alignment with his divine source.

He may have found divine favor not because he was righteous and "pure" in wild contrast to his time, or only relative to those of his time, but for his time -- responsive to the particular demands of his era. That might also be said to describe his subsequent reaction to God's troubling announcement. To paraphrase Genesis 6 verses 13-21: I'm going to destroy the world -- well, except you and your family (and also just enough of the animals to start over again). Build an ark, and save yourselves and pairs of each creature.

Noah's response is neither noble nor avoidant. Unlike Abraham, regarding the inhabitants of Sodom (18:20-19:29), he does not argue or bargain with God over those whom God would destroy. But unlike a reluctant prophet (see, for example, and most notably, the Book of Jonah), he does not flee in fear. Human life -- all life -- on earth is in peril.

He might have advocated for his fellow human beings, or he might have frozen in terror, but he did neither. He says yes to the essential -- and life-preserving -- needs of his day, b'dorotahv. There is no opportunity to remain "comfortable," as Noah's name means. There is only choosing -- to flee, to fight or to build.

In our own time, in our various places, too many of us have too many ways of remaining comfortable. We avoid the call to mindfulness and action that is the heartbeat of the world. How can we hear the voice urging us to move beyond our comfort zones, to use our abilities, our skills and our resources, to serve humanity and all of God's creation, in our great and small moments?

And how far can and should we extend ourselves to transform our lives and the lives of others? When must we, like Abraham, heed the inner call to speak up, with a raised and sustained voice, on behalf of the unheard or the unseen? And when is acting concretely, like Noah, with our hands and bodies and personal resources, itself silently heroic?

In her 1977 poem "Natural Resources", which connects the struggle to protect the environment with feminism, the late poet Adrienne Rich ends with these words:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:

so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those

who age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power,

reconstitute the world.

This is our sacred task: in the big choices of our lives and in our everyday actions, to redeem and repair the world, to collaborate with those who are building the future out of the best of the present. And in doing all that, to do no less than to save ourselves.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.