We Can Change The World – Parshat Noach – Flood, Felix Baumgartner And One Mitzvah At A Time [Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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For those of us too young to remember the moon landings, and all the passion and excitement that went with it, this past week gave a hint of what it must have been like.

Yes, we are a bit jaded about space exploration, and we hardly pay attention even when we land robots on Mars … but this past Sunday there was a palpable tension and excitement as eight million people tuned in live to watch someone risk life and limb to hurtle through space faster than the speed of sound.

People were silent, focused and hopeful as they saw Felix Baumgartner jump off his capsule, twenty four miles above earth. They held their collective breaths as he tumbled over and over, and began to breathe again only once he regained control.

Baumgartner was only three months old when Armstrong and Aldrin first stepped foot on the moon, but all three men knew that the price of failure was their very lives. To prepare for the grim eventuality that the Apollo mission would fail, President Nixon had a speech drawn up, lauding those who had given their lives for the greater good. (Thankfully, he never got to deliver it.) Here is an excerpt of what he would have said, had they remained stranded on the lunar surface: These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

Whether Baumgartner, a notorious dare devil, skydiver and BASE jumper had the greater good in mind, or whether he just wanted the greatest possible personal achievement we will never know, but the scientific benefits are undeniably good. Every aspect of his jump is being analysed for data which will be used to help raise chances of survival in high altitude accidents.

To believe so strongly in your mission that you are prepared to risk your very life for it, is something which commands respect. The only arena in life where we expect this to take place is in an army, not usually in sport.

So is Felix Baumgartner a modern day hero, or just a daredevil looking for a bigger and better rush of adrenaline? Is the whole thing no more than a huge advertising gimmick for the energy drink manufacturer which sponsors him?

In the parsha this week, we read of  Noach (Noah), a heroic figure who saves a selection of all living creatures to enable the repopulation of the world after the Great Flood. Yet although Noach is described in the Torah as a perfect tzaddik, many of our Sages take a jaundiced view of his righteousness. They understand the description of  Noach as a tzaddik “bedorotav — in his generation” to mean that he was righteous only relative to the evil people around him; had he lived in a better generation he would have hardly stood out.

The obvious question here is: Why the need for negativity? Why can we not be generous, and look at Noach as a consummate tzaddik, regardless of when he would have lived?

The answer may be that when we set ourselves role models, it is important to take a holistic approach. Simply because someone is a good athlete, football player, singer or painter does not necessarily make them suitable to hang on posters in our children’s bedrooms. Before we make heroes of popular figures maybe we should look at their personality and lifestyle apart from the sport or the music they excel at. To call Noach a perfect tzaddik and role model, would be to ignore his failings: He failed to pray for those around him who were to be destroyed in the Flood; he failed to inspire any of those around him to repent; he failed on a personal level, getting drunk and acting inappropriately shortly after exiting the Ark. Was he a tzaddik? Yes. Was he a role model for generations? Possibly not.

Of course we should laud those who are successful in their particular fields of expertise, be that jumping from towers, climbing mountains, memorising Pi or eating the most hot dogs in a minute! We should admire and respect those who contribute to innovation in science and medicine, and other important fields of research — but for our heroes and role models we possibly need to use different criteria. Our role models should be the great people of history who not only made the world around them a better place, but who also lived good and honourable lives themselves. Not everyone can aspire to jump from a space capsule, to run a four minute mile, or to find a cure for cancer … but we can all live our lives being kind, thoughtful and giving; we can all find the time to visit the sick or help the elderly; we can all be small heroes — the kind that never make the news.

When Felix Baumgartner stood outside his capsule, at the top of the world, his thoughts were no longer on the original mission. In his own words: “When I was standing there on top of the world, you become so humble, you do not think about breaking records anymore.”

From that altitude, seeing the curvature of the Earth and the black beyond, our perspective changes to one of humility, our small size compared to the enormity of the Universe.  However, despite our frailties and seeming insignificance, it is important never to forget that we can change the world, one mitzvah at a time, one small hero at a time.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Zalman Lent


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