We’re All in the Same Boat
D'var Torah on Parshat Noach 2011/5772 by Rabbi Maurice Harris from Eugene Oregon
There’s an oft-quoted midrash that tells a simple but powerful tale. A group of travelers are in a boat upon the open waters, when one of them suddenly takes out a hand-drill and begins drilling a hole under his seat. Astonished, the others turn to him and say, “What are you doing?” He responds by saying, “What concern is it of yours? I’m drilling under my own seat!” The others then spell out the obvious truth that he is unable to perceive – that his actions affect them all, and that they are all in the same boat. (Vayikra Rabbah 4:6)
What if the boat this misguided traveler was aboard had been Noah’s ark? If this were the case, then the man drilling a hole under his own seat would cause the entire living world to perish.
Too often, political leaders decide to set human rights aside in this or that case for the sake of some other highly desired political, military, or economic outcome. Some politicians even brag about their support for casting aside human rights in our treatment of prisoners. Even government leaders who support human rights choose to make exceptions.
In addition, our elected officials frequently turn a blind eye to human rights abuses by other nations so that our industries can continue to do brisk business and our consumers continue to get cheap products. Often these officials justify these decisions by saying that the consistent application of human rights is an ideal to be achieved incrementally, whereas economic or short term political concerns are urgent. When we permit our elected officials to do this, we as Americans choose to let others—whether these be politicians, corporations, or military leaders--drill a hole in the boat. If humanity as a whole is to survive its ongoing hatreds and its ever-growing capacity for mass-destruction, we need to uphold human rights with the same vigor as the shocked and worried boat passengers of the midrash. When nations that claim to cherish human rights uphold these rights inconsistently, they lose their ability to persuade others to change their own ways. We can’t drill a few little holes under out own seat and then run up and down the aisle of the boat telling the others drilling big holes to cut it out.
The story of Noah’s ark is a story of renewal and rebirth following the failure of an old social paradigm that the Torah specifically states included an overabundance of violence (Genesis 6:13). Perhaps we carry within our collective human consciousness a memory of what it was like when our world collapsed as a result of our failure to cherish and respect the sanctity of our fellow human beings. Parashat Noach reminds us that we can indeed be our brother’s keeper (and our sister’s too!). We can create a world in which we make sure that here in America we aren’t drilling any holes under our seat, and in which we ally with other nations to form a network of mutual monitoring to ensure that nobody else is either. We’re all, after all, in the same boat.