The B’dorotav Syndrome

Posted on October 8, 2021 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

What are we to do if we find ourselves in a time or place of declining standards — moral, social, cultural, academic – name the field? Is it appropriate to adjust our expectations of ourselves and others in response to such changes?

When others expect less of themselves, is it right for us to follow suit? If not, is it enough to respond by maintaining our standards? Or should we buck the trend by demanding even more of ourselves?

Unfortunately, the tendency for many is to lower their expectations of themselves when standards around them are dropping.

A few examples:

One summer on our way to Cape Cod we got stuck in huge traffic jam. Cars were backed up for miles because of an accident.

As we were sitting there going nowhere fast, a car whizzed past us in the breakdown lane; then another, and another, and another… until a steady flow of cars was driving by us on the shoulder.

So long as people agreed it was the wrong thing to do, almost no one did it. But the more that others did it, the more the standard of acceptable behavior eroded, and more people followed suit.

Another example that is much less innocuous —

Teens who might never think to humiliate or degrade another person see others mistreating or bullying a peer and join in. The results can be horrific.

The analogies are almost limitless.

Our Torah portion, Noach, suggests to me a name for this phenomenon: I call it the “The B’doratav Syndrome.”

B’dorotav is the Hebrew word for “in his time,” and it is how the Torah describes Noah before the flood. The world had become filled with corruption and violence, but Noah, we are told, was righteous “in his time… b’dorotav.”

Why does Torah qualify the righteousness of Noah? If he was truly a good person, why say: “b’dorotav,” “in his time…?” The rabbis consider Noah’s deeds and conclude: Only in his time – a time of pervasive evil – could he be considered righteous.

When told that all life would be swept away, Noah was silent. He merely followed orders and did nothing to save others from destruction. Had he lived in a time or place where the moral standards were high, he would have been found wanting.

His is the first example of “b’dorotav syndrome.” Sadly, and tragically, it is not the last.

I am quite certain that the Holocaust would never have occurred were it not for this syndrome, this tendency to adjust our sense of propriety to accord with what others allow themselves to do.

Some joined the Nazis to commit murder and other atrocities. Many more were ‘good people,’ like Noah who simply did nothing; nothing to oppose the despicable acts going on around them; nothing to protest what they knew was wrong.

Any time society’s standards are dropping, the conditions are ripe for b’dorotav syndrome, and we are living in such a time. We see people acting with indifference to the needs and troubles of others, so some of us decide it is ok to care less, to do less, and to give less than they are able. We see people lowering their standards of civility and decency, so some of us decide to do likewise.

The story of Noah is a cautionary tale. Noah saved himself and his family, bringing onto the ark only what God required of him. He asked no questions. He showed no concern for the fate of others. And so, all but a few perished in the flood.

Eventually the rain stopped, the waters receded, and Noah emerged from the ark to behold the devastation. At first, he felt only joy for his good fortune and so brought an offering of thanksgiving to God. But soon his mood grew dark. He planted a vineyard, made wine, and drank himself into oblivion to escape the painful reality of his complicity.

The message of the story is: don’t be like Noah. When the commitment to decency and morality is waning around us; when others are taking shortcuts and becoming self-centered, we shouldn’t be tempted to ask less of ourselves. Such is not the time to relax our standards. Quite the opposite, it is time to redouble our commitment to do what we know is right; to have the courage to swim against the tide.

Time and again, throughout our history, faced with a cruel world of violence and immorality our people responded by redoubling their commitment to the highest calling of our faith, a standard of goodness, righteousness and integrity that will stand the test of every time.

May we always live up to those standards, that we may help to redeem this world.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck