This week’s Torah portion provides an example. Last week, in Parashat B’reisheet, God brings order in six creation-days to the primal scene that is tohu vavohu, unformed and void. Soon God in his infinite wisdom reopens the struggle between order and chaos by giving human beings genuine freedom and responsibility to represent God in this creation—or not. Soon disorder breaks out through the disobedience of Adam and Eve, expands with the violence of Cain, and grows from there until “Hashem saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). Last week’s parasha didn’t end there, however, but on a final note of hope: “But Noah found grace in the eyes of Hashem” (Gen. 6:8).
Now, it sounds odd to say that God was grateful for Noah, but clearly this is a case of hakarat ha-tov, recognizing the good person even amidst the surrounding wickedness.
In this week’s parasha, Torah’s assessment of the pre-flood world is even grimmer than the end of last week’s reading: the earth is filled with lawlessness or violence; all flesh has corrupted its ways; the earth and all flesh upon it are worthy of complete destruction. But God had already recognized the good in Noah and shown him grace, because, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (Gen. 6:9). Rabbi Judah said, however, “Only in his generation was he a righteous man; had he flourished in the generation of Moses or Samuel, he would not have been called righteous: in the street of the totally blind, the one-eyed man is called clear-sighted, and the infant is called a scholar” (Genesis Rabbah 30.9). Rabbi Hanina went even further, saying that Noah possessed less than an ounce of merit, but he found grace in the eyes of Hashem (Genesis Rabbah 29.1). Of course, other sages thought more highly of Noah. Still, the point is not the righteousness of Noah, but God’s grace of recognizing whatever good was in him.
Upon this remnant of good within a completely depraved world, God rebuilds his order. First, he gives Noah detailed instructions on how to construct the ark, on what to bring on board, on when and how to go forth from it after the flood waters recede. Then God makes a covenant with Noah that restates the original purpose and blessing for humankind God gave in Genesis 1.
It’s a big story, which we can apply to our own modest circumstances. When we recognize the good amidst the not-so-good or even bad of the world around us, we create a foothold for God’s order. When we feel overwhelmed by problems—an illness that just won’t get better, an ugly personal conflict that we just can’t get resolved, an unsatisfying job or economic situation, a destructive addiction or disabling sin—life feels out of order and unmanageable. As we learn to recognize the good even within such circumstances, we provide the basis for order.
The Torah says that the Flood came on the seventh day after Noah and his household entered the ark. The Flood was a reversal of the six days of creation, a return to the tohu vavohu of the first day, when the earth was submerged in the waters of the deep. But the Flood also cleared the way for a renewed order, built upon the remnant of good recognized by Hashem. As we learn to recognize the good within our own flood of crazy circumstances, we might be able to get some of God’s order back into our lives.