“In the market, the blind cry out to the one-eyed as clear-sighted.” (Genesis Rabbah 30:9)
Noah’s critics often focus on his apparent silence during his extended preparations for disaster — preparations which fulfill the letter of divine command, but do not reflect any active concern for those beyond his immediate family. To pursue this line of ethical reasoning, it might be helpful to have our own moral “eyes” examined — and bring the focus back to ourselves.
Are our own choices really so different from those of Noah? Faced with multiple environmental, economic, and political disasters in a violent world today, most of us feel overwhelmed by the scope of suffering and turmoil around us. Although any number of worthy requests for our civic participation and support may cry out to us “in the market,” we remain blind to most of them — concentrating our energies on those efforts that we believe will bring greater security and comfort to our own immediate circles of family and friends.
Beyond that, we tend to commiserate privately, with extended analyses of what we think “they” — others beyond ourselves — should be doing. This is especially true as national elections approach: outside the prospect of a brief trip to the polling booth, there is little discussion of our own day-to-day responsibilities as citizens in a troubled world.
In Pirkei Avot 1:17, Shimon ben Gamaliel warns against substituting talk for action, and offers the provocative comment that “all who proliferate words bring sin.” Similarly, in the prophetic reading for Yom Kippur morning, Isaiah (58:9) counsels us to remove from our midst not only oppression, but finger-pointing (sh’lah etzba) — the process of deflecting responsibility away from ourselves.
Faced with this challenge, we might find ourselves feeling greater compassion for Noah, who “elected” to concentrate his efforts on private solutions rather than risk the inconvenient, often frustrating, and sometimes contentious path of citizen action. But we might also take tentative steps toward a more manageable and satisfying integration (or re-integration) of citizen action into our own lives.
A classic blessing from the High Holy Day prayerbook Gates of Repentance offers vital support for this vision: "Cause us to see clearly that the well-being of our nation is in the hands of all its citizens."
I spent the night of the 2004 presidential elections as a volunteer in a local synagogue-based shelter for homeless women. As I watched the election returns together with our shelter guests, it was clear to me how little their lives were likely to be changed by the victory of either presidential candidate.
"Cause us to see clearly that the well-being of our nation is in the hands of all its citizens." May we open our eyes to all of the possibilities — beyond finger-pointing — that make “Election Day” out of every day of our lives.
* An earlier version of this teaching was published by the Academy for Jewish Religion prior to the 2008 presidential elections.