Our concerns for human dignity and ecological sustainability have simply become overwhelming. The words of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) "The more knowledge, the more pain." (1:18) remind us that our awareness can increase our burden. The gifts of today offer unprecedented access to information and connection with others, allowing us to show greater care and concern for our shared space in the universe. But all this knowledge aggravates the senses, prompting feelings that there are too many threats for us to handle. How do we go forward knowing our genuine hopes to achieve tranquility of mind and security of spirit are seemingly impossible to attain? Asking good questions and caring to discover the deeper truths behind them is one crucial response.
The Torah teaches us this implicitly in this week's Torah reading, in the portion entitled Noah. (Now, there's an overwhelming situation - navigating a boat filled with two of every creature that ever existed!) The absence of questions in this week's portion, however, is quite surprising. There are many interpretations about the purpose of Noah and the flood story in the Torah. Raising questions about the moral implications of God’s universal condemnation of humanity shockingly isn’t one of them. God’s absolute certainty in the depravity of human beings which prompts a plan to repopulate the Earth is a cautionary tale to demonstrate the power and might of God. We’ll also read the short narrative of the Tower of Babel in these chapters, where the aspirations to conquer Divinity prompts a scattering of humanity throughout the world and leaves people speaking different languages. There is no doubt expressed in either of these narratives. God doesn’t question humanity. Noah doesn’t question God. The people do not question the Divine Presence before building a Tower.
This text is also confirmation that Divine curiosity has its limits. The promise to Noah and the rest of humanity, “Never again will I doom the Earth because of humanity…nor will I ever destroy every living being as I have done.” is a statement of certainty that does not emerge from some conflict or conversation in the narrative. The tower story resolves, “Let us go down and confuse their speech there, so that they will not understand each other.” is a record of Divine thought expressed as certainty. We will not see God’s decisive behavior without human engagement in the rest of the Torah. In fact, we will see the resolution of conflicts in every other episode, in which the disobedience of humanity vexes the deity, includes some form of the interrogative.
A lack of questions here might even raise the concern for how authentic these historical moments truly are. Perhaps this is one great lesson from the Noah story, irrespective of its historical veracity. Without seeking understanding to resolve uncertainty, the world will be destroyed. Noah, the one who is identified as being 'righteous in his own generation' isn't a character trait we will ever aspire to model. Righteous behavior, here amplified by the capacity and responsibility to question, is seen in Abraham. In fact, Abraham's curiosity and courage to question continues to define our faith in every generation. We may learn that God won't destroy the world when we ask good questions.
**These posts are adaptations of the forthcoming book, The Holiness of Doubt, anticipated publication in Spring 2023. Please enjoy the other blogposts found on www.rabbijoshuahoffman.com**