By Rabbi Steven Bayar
There is a famous rabbinic story (Midrash) about Noah and Abraham: When Noah came off the ark after the flood, he saw devastation, bodies and destruction everywhere. He turned to God and said, “Master of the Universe, how could you destroy everything and everyone? How could you do this to the world?” God replied, “Foolish mortal, how can you question me? Where were you before this happened? In years to come there will be a man called Abraham. When I tell Abraham that I plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah he will argue with me and try to convince me not to destroy them. But you, when I told you I planned to destroy the world, what did you do? You built an ark.”
There are many lessons to learn from this text, not the least of which is that we are encouraged and perhaps even required to be advocates for others who are at risk and less fortunate than we; whether they are members of our community or not. Abraham defended people who were neither Jewish nor members of his community. Noah is being criticized by God for protecting only himself and his family.
This is a foundational part of our religious legacy: Social Justice. That is why when I was sent to the then Soviet Union to meet with refuseniks I carried religious materials for the outlawed Baptist community in Moscow. That is why we support the residents of McRoberts, Kentucky in Appalachia, we house the homeless through the Interfaith Hospitality Network and we provide housing materials for poor people in the Newark community.
The Millburn School Board is currently considering the place of religious holidays in the school calendar. Are we as a Jewish community only concerned with how it affects the Jewish community or should we be concerned about how other communities are affected as well? Put another way, should we be like Noah and build an ark for ourselves or should we model Abraham and work with other communities to affect a process and outcome that is reflective of our common interests.