Imagine a world in which Noach had a Facebook page. Now, we don’t know enough about Noach to envision his “about” section. In what way was he “righteous” (Genesis 6, 9)? What particular actions or character traits made God favor him? What did he even look like? The Torah doesn’t tell us.
But it does make one thing perfectly clear.
If Noach could have had a Facebook Page, he would have received zero “likes”.
Noach went against the trends and mores of his generation. Such individuality may sound glamorous in theory, but just imagine what it must have cost Noach the man. Imagine the ridicule and disdain of the people around him. Imagine the threats and taunts his family had to endure.
And yet, Noach held true to his beliefs.
The Torah makes a point of saying that Noach was righteous “in his generation”, and many commentators read it as a belittling remark. Noach, they explain, was a mediocre “tzadik” (righteous man). He stood out in comparison to the depravity of his era, but would have been outshined in any other time.
But as other commentators point out, and as anyone who ever went against ruling social trends can testify, it takes a special kind of person to stand against the flow. Noach had to see through what his peers perceived as normal and then dare to break away from it. The fact that he was righteous “in his generation” is, therefore, the highest form of praise.
So how did he do it? And how can we follow in his footsteps, steeped as we are in the echo chamber effect of social media, tempted as we are to “like” what our friends like, pressured as we are to follow PC and political trends and whatever it is our feed is full of?
And perhaps even more urgently, how can we teach our children to withstand the same flood?
In other words, what was Noach’s super power and where can we get some of it?
Traditional Judaism answers this question by guiding us towards objective, unchangeable rules of behavior. This week’s Parsha explains that Noach “walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch focuses on these words as the secret to Noach’s ability to withstand social pressure. Noach was committed to one unchangeable ideal, explains Rabbi Hirsch: a life of obedience to God’s will. His commitment gave him a set of objective standards to follow, no matter what others said or what he subjectively felt in any given situation.
So if we don’t want to be swept in the flow, we need to anchor ourselves to objective, external, and unchangeable truths.
This method is understandably off-putting to the modern ear. But it hides a psychological insight we can agree on regardless of our personal religious paths: When we grow up checking what we encounter against a list of set criteria, we develop the habit of pausing before “liking” a trend. It can be a religious list of criteria or one based on common sense; the point is that we don’t simply act without thought.
I once read a memoir whose writer wanted to start taking drugs. He knew all the reasons not to, but was tempted anyway. However, a lifetime of saying “no” to non kosher candy made him pause in that last fateful second, and somewhere in that pause he found the strength to follow his own better judgment. What made the difference wasn’t his knowledge and judgment. Those would have remained useless if not for the habit of pausing. Knowing we’re supposed to engage in critical thought is all well and good, but it’s the habit of delayed response that gives us the opportunity to apply this knowledge.
In other words, Noach’s super power was the power of the pause.
Enlightenment philosophers in the eighteenth century offered what seems, on the outset, like a very different approach to social pressure. Instead of relying on an external set of perceived truths, they encouraged us to rely on our inner sense of right and wrong. They believed that all humans have the ability to live morally by following their inner compass. Following one’s conscience, however, was not perceived as easy or instinctive. It takes, they warned, a conscious choice and a lifetime of mindfulness.
Even though people like Jefferson and Madison instructed us to look inside, while traditional Judaism (and ancient Western thought in general) sought external ideas to rely on, these approaches share the same educational impulse. In order to withstand the flow of social pressure, people need to check what they see against something else. Whether that “something” is an external truth or an inner sense of rightness, it only helps if we remember to consult it before jumping headlong into the flow.
And so, whether we seek inspiration in Judaism or in liberal thought, the answer to social pressure lies in the power of the pause.
Like every Superhero in training, we need to do more than understand our super power. We need to also exercise it until it becomes second nature to us, or it wouldn’t serve us well in our moments of need.
When we encourage our kids to pause and think before acting or forming opinions – by challenging them to explain why they like or dislike certain movies, by inviting them to discuss what they think of what they learned in school, by teaching them to pause before eating whatever is in front of them, by supplying criteria for what they may or may not watch online – we help them to develop the habits of a Noach. And in our generation of Facebook and Twitter, this is no mean feat.