THE FORGOTTEN MAN
Rabbi David Walk
My title became famous in a radio address by Franklin Roosevelt on April 7, 1932, and it described the honest, hard-working people who were crushed by the Great Depression. A recent study of the depression borrowed the phrase for its title. An artistic rendition of the theme was movingly executed by Maynard Dixon in 1934, as the subject slumps forlornly on a city curb ignored by numerous passersby. That work resides in the art collection of Brigham Young University. Not surprisingly, therefore, a modern painter, Jon McNaughton, who graduated from BYU, has cribbed the title for a now controversial painting, which attacks President Obama, and, ironically, in his wake, a robust and athletic looking FDR. My point is that since 1876 (when Yale professor William Graham Sumner coined the phrase) this expression has been used in speech, film (for me, most famously in the 1936 comedy, My Man Godfrey, with William Powell), TV (a 1971 made for TV movie about Viet Nam vets), literature, and art to describe that member of society who is getting passed over for deserved attention. When I look at the pantheon of Biblical heroes, my nominee for The Forgotten Man Award is Noach.
I've written before about the raw deal Noach gets from many traditional commentaries. A large group of rabbis disparage Noach for not being Avraham. Any comparison between the two will always be bad for Noach. Others attack him for getting drunk. Who are we to criticize? None of us went through what he experienced, literally the end of his world. I hope modern commentaries have more compassion, since we now understand Post Traumatic Shock Syndrome. But that's not my focus this week. In this effort, I want to discuss instead the fact that Noach is totally ignored in many discussions of Biblical history. A case in point, Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote a book called The Emergence of Ethical Man. In this fascinating work, The Rav discusses the development of moral society. The basis for the ethical community is the concept of brit or covenant. The first human to ever consummate a brit with God is Noach, but a quick perusal of the index, reveals no mention of Noach, even though his name does appear in a verse quoted in the text. How's that for forgotten? I'm not blaming the Rav because the book was published posthumously, but it does support my thesis. We overlook Noach.
How many platitudes must the Torah heap upon Noach for him to get his due? He was a righteous individual, who functioned effectively under extremely difficult circumstances. He repopulated the world and restarted agriculture. Not to mention established oenology (the art of wine making). We are all his descendants. I know we use the expression b'nei Noach for non-Jews, but honestly, aren't we all? And I haven't even mentioned his contributions to carpentry and ship building. However, the real innovation I want to trumpet is the cutting of the initial covenant apparently in history, and if we want to give credit for the art of the deal, this was a doozy. Basically, for eschewing incest and eating live animals, he elicited a Divine promise to never destroy humanity again. Not bad for someone who never even heard of Wall Street.
Let's take a closer look at this deal. Here is God's promise: I will establish My brit with you, and never again will all flesh be cut off by the flood waters, and there will never again be a cataclysm to destroy the earth. This is the sign of the brit, which I am placing between Me and between you, and between every living soul that is with you, for everlasting generations. My rainbow I have placed in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a brit between Myself and the earth (Genesis 9:11-13). Notice the triple repetition of the word brit, and it appears three more times in the next four verses. What is a brit? Of course, we usually translate it as 'covenant', which means a formal and binding agreement. It comes to us through French, from a Latin word meaning 'fitting'. In Hebrew the connotation is different. The authoritative translation of Onkelos renders it kayam or 'existing' or, perhaps. 'lasting'. In any case the word itself means to be in effect in perpetuity.
Noach did what all his forebears failed to do: make an everlasting agreement with God for the eternal benefit of humanity. A quick perusal of today's headlines makes this promise even more exciting. We read of threats of nuclear exchanges between the United States and various rogue nations, which threaten the continuity of our species. Just days ago, I saw a science article about the super volcano under Yellowstone National Park. It was once thought that this vast caldera couldn't blow for many thousands of years, but recently studies reveal that we could be decades from such an event which would destroy not only Yogi and Booboo, but all of humanity in an ash induced ice age. How can we sleep at night with these headlines screaming 'Doom!' at us? Well, by thinking of Noach and the deal he worked with the Creator of our world. Our species is assured of continued existence through the perseverance and righteousness of one man. Let's not forget him.
In the musaf service of Rosh Hashana every year we recite that 'God remembered Noach in love, and recalled him in words of salvation and mercy'. There was 'mercy' for future generations, deserving or not, but there was 'salvation' for him because he personally deserved to be saved. Noach earned mankind a reprieve, and eternal stay of punishment. Yet, he is never listed in the pantheon of spiritual giants. None of our customs commemorate his deeds and virtue. It's for this reason that I refer to him as 'The Forgotten Man'. Maybe periodically it behooves us to give him his due. Especially, in times of crisis.