Recently, there was a terrible fire in a home in Israel. Two children, ages 2 and 5, were killed. Three older children in the same family, all girls, escaped. But at what cost?
Can you imagine their lives going forward? How many times will they ask themselves: “what could I have done?” “What if I had…?” “Why didn’t I try ….?” The mere thought of it shakes me to my core. Can you imagine going through your whole life with these kinds of regrets?
The psychological name for this is “survivor guilt,” and it can be crippling enough when you know there was nothing else to be done. But if you even imagine there was some other way you might have saved a life, but did not… it would be crushing.
Survivor guilt is what hammered Noah after the ordeal of the Flood – it led him to drunkenness and disgrace. Because the truth is that he actually should have felt guilt: he dropped the ball.
The Torah tells us that G-d did not merely tell Noah to build an ark. He told Noah why he was building it. More than once. Which means Noah was given an opportunity to protest, to question, to try to talk G-d down.
And then G-d even gave Noah one final opening, “In seven days I will cause it to rain….” (Gen. 7:4). This was Noah’s last chance to try to change G-d’s mind!
What does Noah say to G-d? Nothing. Not a peep. “Noah did according to all that the Lord commanded him.” (Gen. 6: 22 and 7:5)
In other words, Noah did what he was told. He did not argue, or plead or negotiate. He did not go out to other people and try to get them to change their ways. His very name, meaning “repose,” suggests passivity, and so while Noah did what he was told, he did not do anything more.
Noah paid for it with survivor’s guilt – guilt that he had earned. Noah was righteous, in himself. And he saved his family and the animals, as G-d had commanded. But Noah was not willing to take on the responsibility for other people. It was a huge failing.
The great leaders in the Torah argued with G-d. Avraham negotiated to try to save Sodom, and his conversations with G-d were seemingly always pushing for more – asking, querying, and even demanding.
Moshe’s first conversation with G-d started with a divine commandment (“Go talk to Pharoah”), but Moshe was not having it: he rejected G-d’s command outright. Moshe was not prepared to do it. Even more incredibly, Moshe won the argument – and went on to become our greatest prophet. He went one to argue with G-d, on more than one occasion, that G-d’s desire to destroy the Jewish people was an error. He won these arguments, too.
G-d does not want obedience. If we read the Torah carefully, G-d wants engagement. As Rabbis Sacks points out, Torah Hebrew does not even have a word for obedience. G-d wants us to hear, to consider and think – but not to obey.
Avraham and Moshe did not blindly obey. They engaged: they prayed and questioned and tested. This has formed the model for the Jewish people ever since: in the Torah G-d is not primarily a father or a king; as the Torah makes it abundantly clear, the closest analogue is G-d as spouse.
Noah did not see it or act in this way. And he had to live with the guilt, with the “what if?” questions, for the rest of his life.
Our task is to learn, and not make the same mistakes: we are responsible for other people, even if that responsibility means questioning G-d’s plan. G-d Himself does not want us to merely do what we are told: He wants us, as full partners, to pull our own weight in the decisions about how to combat evil, and what to do with the world we inhabit.