Shabbat Noakh: What Do you Do with It When It’s Broken?

The parashat hashavua for this week is Noakh, the week on which, as everybody knows, we read of the great Flood. But in year two of the Triennial Cycle, where we find ourselves this year, the flood is over: Noah has opened the window, and the dove has flown in with an olive leaf in its mouth. The Ark has come to rest and Noah and his family have emerged from it.

This year we read the aftermath, and see G-d’s answer to the question: what do you do with it after it’s broken?

In last week’s parashah, at the end of the Creation story, we saw how quickly things got out of hand. Humanity was barely created before we began to break things, make mistakes, and rebel against the idea that we should be obedient to G-d, and follow rules. Already by chapter 6 of Genesis, we are told: “G-d saw how great was human wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by the human mind was nothing but evil all the time. G-d regretted making humans on the earth, and was saddened at heart. (Genesis 6.5-6)

Years ago a computer version of the creation story went around the web, and when it came to this point, it had G-d hitting DELETE – and nothing happened. The human beings kept getting more and more out of control. But in the original version, G-d brought a life-ending flood. Not only sinful humans, but innocent ones, were killed, and not only humans but animals, which were certainly blameless. What kind of G-d would do that, in a fit of anger and regret over the creation of such a terrible error?

It would be easy for an apologist to claim that “G-d had nothing to do with it, it’s just evil human choice”. But that’s no answer for those of us who seek a sense of G-d’s presence everywhere, in everything. What do we do with the innocent lives lost, and what do we do with the idea that G-d regrets. We’ll need a response to that questions, because in our reading for this week, G-d will experience regret again: this time, for destroying the earth in anger over human sinfulness. G-d will denote the rainbow as an eternal reminder – to G-d! – not to do that again.

The G-d of the Torah is not infallible. As my teacher put it in one of his books, the Torah gives us the portrait of the Artist as a young G-d. 

Knowing that even G-d has bad days, makes mistakes, and has regrets is a challenging thing if your theology is predicated on perfection. But there is a weird salvation in the idea of an imperfect G-d, and it has to do with G-d as role model. G-d creates; we, on a smaller level, create. G-d destroys; we, hopefully on a smaller level than world-wide, destroy. And G-d regrets.

Jewish tradition urges us to follow G-d’s example in clothing the naked, as G-d did last week for Adam and Eve; in visiting the sick, as G-d will do for Abraham; and burying the dead, as G-d will do for Moshe. And here is a shred of an even more important teaching: how to regret, as G-d does, and go on. Not to lose hope; not to give up; not to lose faith in oneself and one’s creative potential.

Even G-d has regrets in the early days, realizing the nature of good and evil that G-d has let loose. Even G-d has to get used to it, and choose how to act in the face of possible failure. Being a successful person in G-d’s image is not about being perfect at all.

And then G-d picked up the broken world, soothed and comforted it, made a new promise in rainbow colors, and G-d, and we, went forth. Chastened, more realistic – and still hopeful, just as we remain today. The broken places will never be whole, but after all, as another Jewish poet put it, “there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”. (see a YouTube video of Leonard Cohen performing the complete song here.)

It doesn’t matter how bad it looks – look for the light.

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