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Religious Risk

Our typical analysis of the flood story often focuses on Noah, the protagonist, and what he did or didn’t do. On occasion, we talk about what the antagonists did so wrong to corrupt their world so irredeemably. 

But let’s consider something Noah’s audience notably did not do – listen.

The Midrash suggests that for the hundred and twenty years he spent building the Ark, people would ask Noah what he was doing, and he would reply that God had informed him that God was bringing a great flood, but they would laugh him off as a crazy old man. 

Imagine sitting next to a heart surgeon on a long flight, and after watching you do your thing and getting to know you a little, he warns you that you’re at risk of heart disease if you don’t tighten up your diet and develop a good exercise habit. How arrogant and overconfident would you need to be to ignore the doctor and do nothing different because he’s just some crazy guy on the plane? After all, he’s not the doctor you’ve seen for twenty years! And he didn’t even talk to you that nicely…

If you have that conversation on the plane, the very least you should do is get checked up and consider the weight of the man on the plane’s word and the gravity of the consequences of doing nothing.

But that’s what Noah’s world did – nothing.

On the back of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we have hopefully considered the importance and urgency of Teshuva. We read the story of Jonah, whom God instructs to go to the corrupt city of Ninveh, and the entire Assyrian empire falls in line and makes amends on the back of just one sentence, and the star of Ninveh shines once more. 

In sharp contrast, we read this story, and Noah couldn’t get even one person to see the error in their ways. Sure, Ninveh had a history of prophecy and God’s acts of Biblical destruction to draw on as precedents, and Noah’s people didn’t. But that only reinforces the sense of hubris we ought to see here, and it ought to make us sit up and introspect for a moment.

Is it a good time to buy a house or a stock? People have been saying it’s a bad time for a long time and been wrong, but they’ll also be right eventually, so it’s hard to say one way or the other. But you have to acknowledge the risk inherent to make an informed decision, not ignore it out of hand.

Risk is what’s left over when you think you’ve thought of everything. It can be counterintuitive and easy to ignore, especially when no one else has noticed it either. But the entire world was lost because they wouldn’t listen – not even a little.

The riskiest stuff is always what you don’t see coming, and you won’t see anything coming when your eyes are wide shut.

We organize our lives around taking more or less risk; risk is inextricably linked to being human. There is risk in our career path, who we marry, where we live, how we invest, what we consume, and how active we choose to be. The entire financial industry, insurance industry, and arguably the entire religious world are organized around risk.

These can be more or less obvious at different times in our lives – but they’re always there.

The Flood story highlights another kind of risk – religious risk.

Sure, God promised not to flood the world that way ever again when the world wouldn’t listen. 

But that’s just what God did. Humans still possess the property of not listening, and that ought to make us sit up a little and wonder what we might be ignoring.

The Rambam’s universal prescription for bad things and hard times is Teshuva; it’s always a good time to make amends and resolve to do better and be better – just in case!

There have always been incidences of tragedy – that’s the nature of risk. Who it happens to, and how it happens, is a question of destiny, fate, and providence. But we live in a connected world – there are no local tragedies anymore, and we remember them longer and more clearly. How many times have you seen the World Trade Center footage?

It’s easy and tempting for leaders to blame whatever is culturally in vogue to attack – on a lack of cohesion and unity, on talking in shul, or on women.

And the truth is far scarier. 

It’s that we simply have no idea.

And in the face of that shocking truth, we ought to face the world with a little more humility. As the Mesilas Yesharim explains, self-assessment requires us to accurately gauge where we are and scrutinize where we are going – יְפַשְׁפֵּשׁ בְּמַעֲשָׂיו ויְמַשְׁמֵשׁ בְּמַעֲשָׂיו. If you can’t do that, or worse, think you can but are mistaken, you have a real problem. 

We need to be tuned in to ourselves and our environments, and even in the best case, it’s ideal to have friends and mentors to help guide us along the way – עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר.

We’re probably not a society of corrupt and wicked sinners, and you probably don’t need to listen too closely to anyone with that message. 

But we can all do without excessive pride or self-confidence, and as always, the proper response to everything and at all times is to resolve to do a little better.