Bill Cosby portrayed Noah as a suburban father who spent weekends mowing the lawn. One Saturday afternoon, Noah heard a voice calling his name. He looked around, saw no one, and continued sawing wood. The voice called again and again until Noah(Bill Cosby) responds with a “who is this”?. In the Cosby version, Noah debates and argues with God about building the ark. God wins out and Noah goes searching at Home Depot for Gopher wood and a cubit measure. The humor is in the interactions, as each party has no idea what the other is talking about from God to Noah to those around Noah. And in the end, God is so frustrated with Noah’s ramshackle, crooked, water- leaking ark that God decides to ask the neighbor to build the ark.
It’s a great Midrash. We hear the voice of Noah which is silent during the Biblical narrative and glimpse another side of God, one who tries to communicate, but is not understood. God gets so frustrated with the lack of connection with Noah that God decides to bring the message to another. God spoke, Noah couldn’t hear the message.
In the beginning of our parashah, we are told that Noah is an ish tamim b’dorotam.- a righteous man in his generation. That is why he merits God’s command. Yet the rabbis look closely at the words- and the message. Noah was a righteous man in his generation, the generation that was destroyed because of their behavior. So Noah was perhaps the best of the worst. His neighbors were killers and robbers and adulterers and Noah just engaged in petty crimes. Maybe he was unkind to those around him, perhaps he stole a pack of gum every now and again, and yet he heard the voice of God. The question that arises from the story of Noah, is just how good do we have to be to hear the voice of God?
One of the most asked questions from children in religious schools the world over is :“How come God doesn’t speak to us like God did to Abraham- or Isaac- or Noah? How come we don’t hear God’s voice?” When I try to explain how I think God speaks to us Jews, the kids find understanding hearing God an incredible challenge. One child inevitably says that God is the small voice inside that reminds us to do the right thing- Jiminny Cricket. And then other questions arise- if that is God, than what are we? If children who are more open, have great struggle with the concept of hearing God, then imagine the conflict this raises with practical, modern adults.
Why is acknowledging God’s voice a tension for us? Why do we yearn to hear God, while judging that those who say that they hear God need psychological help? If those we love and respect were to say, “I was talking to God last week, and God wants me to ---------------(fill in the blank), we would suggest that the person take a vacation or schedule another visit to the psychoanalyst. For us, hearing God’s voice is not the activity of a rational mind.
We Jews are the children of modernity. We worship at the altars of rationalism and science. Hearing the voice of God does not factor into that equation. It’s embarrassing. It’s too religious. It’s something of the past. We all know that God is amorphous. And yet we are willing to speak of feeling God or experiencing God without a great deal of discomfort. Why does hearing kol Adonai- the voice of God differ?
I would like to suggest that it doesn’t. We do not experience hearing God in the way we would hear another person. The voice is not a disembodied deep growl coming from the darkness. Rather the voice of God comes from deep inside of us, or from experiencing the world, or in the form of another human being. Its there if we would only listen to silence with spiritual attentiveness.
Hearing God’s voice is not incumbent upon our tzedakah- our righteousness. After all Noah heard God, Abraham- who would have sacrificed his son- heard God, Isaac the nebesh heard God and Jacob, the thief heard God. If they, our ancestors, not pillars of moral and ethical behavior heard God, than we too can be open to the Divine message.
The immediate obstacle to listening is our refusal to grow quiet. Even within our prayer service, the silent Amidah is not recited silently and the soft notes of the organ interrupt silent prayer. We have trouble with silence. For most of us silence implies something to be filled. And yet when something is filled there is no room for anything else. To hear God, we need to make space for silence. God may be crying out, and still drowned out by the television, the radio, the computer, the telephone, and even other people. As Avot D’Rebbe Natan says, the ear is given to hear only what it can hear.
One of my favorite movies is Pay it Forward. It’s a bit schmaltzy, incredibly sad, but the major theme deserves attention. A seventh grade class is encouraged to take action to make the world a better place. Only a boy named Trevor really hears the assignment, and he takes it upon himself to help three people, who in turn will help three people… and so on and so on until arms are linked around the world. Although this initial plan is utopian- Trevor does help people to change. God spoke to him through a social studies assignment and the young boy responds. There is a lesson here for us all: That lesson- listen and respond. Make a difference. We are all capable of doing what we can. Noah was called righteous in his generation because he walked with God. He was the most human in a world where others acted like animals. We can be the righteous of our generation through listening to the prophetic voices of our ancestors and fighting for justice, truth and peace. It does not take perfection rather patience.
Vayomer Adonai el Noach- And God spoke to Noah. Vayomer Adonai el Rachel, vayomer Adonai el Avraham, Vayomer Adonai aleynu- and God spoke to us. God speaks to each of us in our own way, at our own time. And when we are ready, we will be able to hear, adding our own names to the narrative. God never stopped speaking, we just stopped listening. It is time once again, for us to listen and to react to the voice of God. The world needs us.