Voting: A Sacred Responsibility - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Voting: A Sacred Responsibility

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Reb Nahman tells a story of a king who considered himself the greatest marksman in all the land. But one day, he began to hear stories of a marksman who was even greater than him. After hearing multiple reports confirming that there was, in fact, such a person, the king set out to find the one who was an even more skilled marksman than he.

After a long journey, the king came to the home of the supposed marksman.To his shock, the ‘marksmen’ was really just a young boy – not more than 10 or 11 – shooting arrows into the side of a barn. The king watched in amazement as the boy drew his bow and let fly an arrow directly into the barn.

He watched as the boy went to the spot where the arrow had landed and painted a target around it so that his arrow was now a perfect bullseye.

A moral of the story is that everything is relative.

This week’s Parsha, Noah, the second in the book of Genesis, is one of the first Bible stories taught to children. It’s one of the best known, a real classic.

Noah’s magnificent menagerie certainly captured my imagination as a child. The ark and its passengers also fascinated great artists like Hieronymus Bosch and Rembrandt.

The flood itself precipitated interest in many ancient societies. Besides our Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh also features it prominently. But what interests many of our sages – what interests me, and what I hope will interest you – is what Parshat Noah has to teach us about righteousness.

The parsha begins, these are the generations of Noah,

Eileh Toldot Noah

אֵ֚לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ

and then seemingly takes a detour to say “Noah was a righteous person, blameless in his age.”

Rashi explains that this is not a detour but a teaching that the real progeny of the righteous are not their children but rather their good deeds. But the generations (toldot) of Noah are not ‘what’s bothering Rashi.’ He can’t leave his commentary of the first verse of the parsha without saying: “Some of our Rabbis explain ‘righteous in his generation’ (b’dorotav) to his credit: he was righteous even in his generation… Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been accounted as of no importance.

This dispute referenced by Rashi is found in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 108a, between Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakeish.

Begging the question: Was Noah was really righteous? Or just comparatively so?

“These are the generations of Noah; Noah was a righteous man, and blameless in his age” (Genesis 6:9)

Rabbi Yoḥanan says: Relative to the other people of his generation he was righteous and wholehearted, but not relative to those of other generations.

And Reish Lakish says: In his generation, he was righteous and wholehearted despite being surrounded by bad influences; all the more so would he have been considered righteous and wholehearted in other generations.

A millennium of exegesis later, the Hasidic master Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev seems to be of the opinion of Rabbi Yohanan – that Noah was only comparatively righteous. In his commentary on Noah – found in his seminal work – Kedushat Levi, He writes: “There are two types of righteous people, both of whom serve God. The first category does so with enthusiasm and profound devotion, but does so as an individual only, not endeavoring to draw other people, nearer to their Creator. There is a second category of tzaddik, of righteous person, who not only serves God individually, but who also is instrumental in leading others back to their Creator.

Avraham — who makes his first appearance in next week’s parsha — was a prime example of the latter type of tzaddik. He was very much involved in making the society around him awareof the one God.”

Righteousness is not an individual – but rather – a communal pursuit.

It’s not enough to build ourselves an ark to take shelter individually from an impending flood. We have a duty to all the land’s inhabitants, whether we agree with them or not, to throw in our lot with theirs – to commit to weathering the storm together.

The Zohar, the chief work of the Kabbalah, recounts a conversation between Noah and God

which took place after the flood (Zohar Hashmatot, Bereishit 254b):

“What did God answer Noah when he left the Ark and saw the world destroyed? Noah began to cry before God and he said, “Master of the universe, You are called compassionate. You should have been compassionate for Your creation.”

God responded and said, “You are a foolish shepherd. Now you say this?! Why did you not say this at the time I told you that I saw that you were righteous among your generation; or afterward when I said that I will bring a flood upon the people; or afterward when I said to build an ark? I constantly delayed and I said, ‘When is he Noah going to ask for compassion for the world?’ … And now that the world is destroyed, you open your mouth, to cry in front of me, and to ask for supplication?”

God rebukes Noah, because he neglected his sacred responsibility to the collective.

The American manifestation of communal responsibility is assuredly voting. It’s not about whom you vote for but rather that you vote. Because voting is indicative of the belief that this country can and should be better. It is our way of expressing our concern for all the inhabitants of the land.

Voting is the supreme expression of our hope for a better world.

Voting is an articulation of our vision for the future.

Voting is our instrument of righteousness which we wield individually for the sake of the collective.

The tzadik knows this.

The tzadik knows that every one is responsible for the wellbeing of all.

The tzadik knows that his life is an investment in the future.

In another Talmudic Story, (Ta’anit 23a:15) Rabbi Yohanan tells this story about Yoni HaMa’agel – Yoni the circle maker:

“One day, he was walking along the road when he saw a certain man planting a carob tree. Ḥoni said to him: This tree, after how many years will it bear fruit? The man said to him: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed. Ḥoni said to him: ‘Is it obvious to you that you will live seventy years, that you expect to benefit from this tree?’ He said to him: ‘I myself found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.’

David Rosenblutt, Zichrono Livracha, was a tzadik. Even when he knew his time on this plane of existence was coming to an end, he made sure, with one of his last earthy acts that he would cast his ballot in hopes of a better future. Not for his own sake, but for that of the collective.

Midrash Tanchuma 5:1 asks why the opening of parsha mentions Noah’s name 3 times. Teaching that this is because there were 3 Noahs:

(1) Noah before the flood

(2) Noah during the flood

(3) Noah after the flood

It feels like we’re all in a similar moment now.

The flood waters have gathered around us, and we pray that we will all merit to see our 3rd self. It would be easy to get lost in the dark corners of ourselves. But our time in the ark is not necessarily devoid of light.

When God commanded Noah to build his ark, God instructed him to include a Tzohar –

an opening for radiance to shine through.

Your vote is your tzohar – your openness to hope.

It is your expression of the fact that no matter how high the water gets, no matter how dark the world may seem, we leave space for the light to get in.

When that day comes, and the water subside, we will send out a dove.

A dove carrying the message that we still have hope.

And on that day, people as diverse and beautiful – as all the colors of the rainbow – will rebuild the world in love.

The seeds we sow today may not bear fruit in our lifetime, but we sow them for their sake. For the sake of the future: VOTE.

Shabbat Shalom.

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With houses of worship currently closed or restricted across much of the nation, the editors of the Baltimore Post-Examiner are inviting an array of spiritual teachers to share insights from the ages along with words of comfort and encouragement. These timely messages are not exclusive to any particular faith walk and will be included in our ongoing Spirituality series.

About the author

Preston Neimeiser

Preston Neimeiser is a rising 5th-year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. A native of Tallahassee, Florida, Preston serves as the student rabbi of the B’nai Israel Synagogue in High Point, North Carolina and the rabbinic intern at Tamid: The Downtown Synagogue. This summer, Preston will be working with the New Sanctuary Coalition as part of his fellowship at T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. In addition to his love of music and learning, he is dedicated to interfaith endeavors and a more just and peaceful world. Contact the author.

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