Seeing the Faces of Noah’s Neighbors
I am a farmer, I love my wife,
My sons are many and strong, my land is green.
—from “Flood” by Irving Feldman (Collected Poems 1954-2004)
With these words, the narrator of Feldman’s poem characterizes himself as a hardworking family man—not perfect, but not a sinner. Of Noah he says, “Just like the drunk, the fool, that slut- / Chaser to think of no one else.”
By imagining this character—a farmer and Noah’s neighbor—to tell the story of the Flood, Feldman puts a face on those who perished, adding another dimension to the opening verse of this week’s Torah reading: “This is the line of Noah—Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9).
What does the phrase “in his generation” add? A midrash records a rabbinic disagreement. Some argue that the competition for the “blameless” crown was not really stiff in Noah’s time. Others note that when all about you are losing their moral compasses and you follow yours, you deserve credit (Genesis Rabbah 30:9).
Feldman pushes us to think about the story from the perspective of those killed by the Flood. Surely there were righteous among them. Noah, secure in God’s promise that he and his family will survive, does not challenge God’s plan. As the text repeats four times, Noah did everything that God commanded him. Perhaps his post-Flood fall from grace can be traced to his unquestioning obedience and his inability to see the humanity of others.
As human beings, we all suffer from global warming, we all are possibly victims of nuclear warfare, we are all potential refugees. We ought not stand idly by, secure in our individual, communal, or even national arks while permitting others to suffer.