Parashat Noach: The Ends Do not Always Justify the Means
By Rabbi Daniel Chorny
Tell me if you’ve heard this one: A boy is visiting a local farm when he comes across a pig with only three legs. Having never seen such a thing, the boy asked the farmer “why does this pig have only three legs?”
“Oh, that’s no ordinary pig”, replied the farmer, “why, not even five years ago my daughter was having trouble with her math homework and, wouldn’t you know it, I come home and find the pig tutoring her on her multiplication tables.”
“Wow,” said the boy, “that’s amazing! But why does it only have three legs?”
“You don’t understand,” said the farmer, “a year ago our house caught fire while we were all sleeping. The pig smelled the smoke, carried us out on its back, and even went to the trouble of dialing 9-1-1”.
“I can’t believe it!” said the boy, “Is that how it lost its leg?”
“Oh no,” said the farmer, “you see, about a month ago, we were all having a good time around our swimming pool when my wife slipped on the deck and fell in, unconscious. The pig jumped in the water and pulled her out, and even knew to administer CPR!”
The boy looked at the farmer with wonder and shouted: “I get it, the pig is very special, but how did it come to lose one of its legs?”
And to this the farmer answered: “Well, you can’t eat a pig that special all at once!”
Our farmer is decidedly not Jewish (at least in my telling of the joke), yet the irony of his behavior resonates with Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike.
Personally, I like this joke because of the genuine affection that the farmer expresses for his beloved pig, while not losing sight of the reason he owns the pig in the first place. He appreciates that this pig is not like all the rest. He wants to honor his pig for its heroism and superior intellect, and he does it in a way that comes natural to him.
Our rabbis taught that the consumption of the limb of a live animal—אבר מין החי—is one of the foundational prohibitions that all of humanity, not just Jews, must observe as part of the covenant that God struck with Noah after the great flood. The so-called “Seven Noahide Laws”, which include “not blaspheming God’s name”, “not committing murder” and “establishing courts of justice”; are commonly taken as the basic rules for civilization to endure by avoiding the violence (חמס) that drove God to destroy the world at the start of our parashah.
I haven’t seen the new Russell Crowe movie about Noah yet, but I’m 99% sure that the rest of Noah’s generation is not portrayed very positively in that film. If you’ve seen it already, you can tell me if I’m wrong, but its a safe bet to assume that every last individual outside of Noah’s immediate circle behaves like the moral lovechild of all the worst “Bond villains”. That’s how we are conditioned to think about that generation. They were evil because they were evil. They woke up in the morning and, in the same breath that we now say “מודה אני לפנך מלך חי וקיים”, they would ask themselves “what is the most despicable thing I can do today? Who or what can I kill today? Who or what can I steal today? How can I defy God today?”
We picture Noah’s contemporaries doing terrible things because they want to be terrible. And the same is true for our own generation: our enemies conspire to kill us because they are evil, or our political adversaries think of ways to destroy our nation, our city; even our synagogue because it pleases them to do so. In 1920s film, villains wore black hats and handlebar mustaches if they were born with those features marking the darkness within them. Today, our society has replaced one caricature for another: our villains wear turbans and a long beards and, speaking with British accents, plot to destroy us because… well… just because.
But is that really what the “Seven Laws” are about? Remember our farmer. He does’t have any ill-will toward his pig or God or society. On the contrary, his intention is arguably very pure: “What better way to honor my pig than to let it live so I can enjoy it longer?”
The generation of the flood was not actively seeking the end of society. They were like you and me. They struggled each day to put a roof over their heads and food in the bellies. They loved, they fought, they had children and, according to last week’s parasha, even produced art and music. They employed whatever means necessary to ensure their survival, and there was no formal law preventing them from doing so. Would things have gone differently if God had established the covenant with whole of humanity before the flood, even if only to provide a “legal” basis for its inevitable destruction?
The covenant of Noah is a warning to us. Humans are complicated creatures. There are no רשעים גמורים, only people with good intentions who sometimes choose wrong actions. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting the same things that someone else has. But our parashah teaches us that it is wrong to take it from them, or worse, kill them for it. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking justice for being harmed; but God tells us we must not take that justice into our own hands.
Here’s a fun challenge for you next time you watch a horror movie or thriller: Try to imagine the plot from antagonist’s point of view. Quickly you will realize that the premises for such films depend on a degree of malice and precognition on the part of the villain that no real person can possess.
The same is true for the people in our lives who seem to be working against our efforts to do good. Ultra-Conservatives are not actively seeking to destroy the world by denying the reality of climate change. Ultra-Liberals are not seeking to enslave us by requiring all American’s to have health insurance. With very few exceptions, no one is “out to get you” just like you are not out to get anyone else. At every turn we must ask ourselves: “what is really motivating my actions?” how am I going about getting what I really want?”, “am I hurting others or myself?”, “can I find a better way?”