The pristine world of creation had become morally polluted. No wonder God wanted to wash away the wickedness with a flood.
But what could No’ach have done about the unsavoury environment that surrounded him?
Commenting on a passage in the book of Ezekiel 9:4, the Talmud asks whether it is enough in an unfriendly environment to keep oneself pure and not succumb to the standards of one’s contemporaries.
In heaven, says the Talmud, the prosecuting counsel says to God, “Lord, they (the righteous) could have protested at the evil!”
God replies, “But if they had protested they would not have been heeded!”
“Yes, Lord,” says the prosecutor, “You knew they would not have been heeded – but did they know?”
And God concedes the point (Shabbat 55a).
Keeping oneself righteous is good but not enough; a good person must also protest.
Judaism makes it a sin to stand idly by when the blood of a neighbour is being shed (Lev. 19:16). The Rambam explains that whoever is in the position to save a life and fails to do so is as if he personally shed blood (Hilchot Rotze’ach, chapter 1).
The Talmud even says, “Anyone who has the capacity to protest to prevent his household from committing a crime and does not do so is accountable for the sins of his household; if he could do so with his fellow citizens he is accountable for the crimes of his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is accountable for the whole world” (Shabbat 54b).
Will our protests be heeded?
No-one can be sure. Only God knows whether people will to take notice; our duty is to speak out on the basis that our words and actions really will be effective.
And if they are not? At least we have been loyal to our own convictions.
In Jewish ethics, silence in the face of evil might be taken as implying support. Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself”.
We would all prefer a quiet life without getting involved. We dream that if we mind our own business and quietly get on with our own lives that will be enough.
But moral inertia is not only a luxury; it is dangerous to ourselves and encourages the bullies and brigands. We have no choice but to summon up the moral courage to stand up and speak up.
Good conscience allows no other choice.