The other morning, I was listening to National Public Radio, when I heard a story about Charles and Willa Bruce. The Bruce Family used to own a beachside resort in the town of Manhattan Beach, California that was a haven for black Californians who faced endless restrictions under the racist Jim Crow laws of the time. After enduring countless acts of terrorism and racism at the hands of the KKK, in 1924, the California state government exercised eminent domain over the property at the behest of the white neighbors, stripping the Bruce’s of their land, their business, and their fortune—a grievous act of injustice. A week ago, nearly a century after the state took the property, the California state legislature issued an apology and returned the property to the descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce. Certainly, that was the right thing to do even though it took far too long.
This story brought me to a topic of our Torah portion this week, Noach, that we often study. Noach is considered righteous, blameless in his generation, someone who walked with God. At the same time, we read nothing about what he did to earn such accolades. Add to that, we cannot decide how to read “in his generation.” We can’t decide whether Noach’s righteousness is relative to the wickedness of his contemporaries, or if Noach was righteous, blameless, and one who would have walked with God in each and every generation.
Rabbinic commentaries add that Noach was only righteous in his generation, and not others, because he did not extend his efforts to bring greater justice to the world. He focused only on his family and himself. When God told Noach of God’s plans to destroy the world, Noach didn’t object or fight to save anyone, unlike his descendant Abraham who will argue with God to the very end to save even ten people from the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. By comparing Noach and Abraham, we learn the true measure of justice and righteousness. Living a just life for yourself is noteworthy and admirable. However, greater than that is when we extend care and compassion for others, regardless of our relationship to them or their own level of goodness or lack thereof.
The story of the Bruce family is just one in a sea of those who suffered from injustice at the hands of figurative citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. Though we know there were Abrahams in that time, there were not enough. Similarly, today, God’s creatures continue to suffer at the hands of evil and injustice, and though we endeavor to be like Abraham, we constantly work to extend righteousness and goodness beyond our borders. We must take those who would sit contently and safely as Noach did and disturb their peaceful dwelling so that they become like Abraham.
At the end of Noach’s story, we read about a guilt-laden man ashamed of his actions and inactions. Noach turns to alcohol and attempts to drown his shame. Whereas, Abraham, though tormented by injustice in the world, ceaselessly works to take his world from where it is to where it needs to be. May we be a community of Abrahams, living lives of justice, seeking peace in our homes, our streets, and in our world -- or us, all of Israel, and all of God’s creations.