Shabbat Noakh: The Fire This Time

On this Shabbat we are confronted with an intense and perplexing narrative. First, the world is overwhelmed with hamas, “lawless violence”, and then flooded unto utter destruction. The few who survive the catastrophic end of their world do not live happily ever after: a son takes advantage of his father’s vulnerability, reckless leaders gather followers for an assault on the ultimate authority – the G*d of Heaven and Earth. The parashah ends with human beings scattered over the face of the earth, driven away from the safety of the communities they have created by a new catastrophe of their own making.

The sense of relevance to us right now is terrifying. And this is not the first time. Why does it so often seem that the poem feels true, that “the center cannot hold / mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (Yeats)? 

Even the most responsible among us wishes to avert our eyes from the view: to wash our hands of the whole affair, to declare plagues on both houses, to drop out. But note that not one of those idioms for abdicating one’s responsibility as a human being is Jewish. Not one.

To repeat the message of my Kol Nidre drash: for Jews, it is only through Jewish identity that we can find our way forward in the current hamas that threatens us. One must know who and what one is before one can act; one must feel oneself grounded and secure in one’s footing as a person before one can pick one’s way forward with clarity. When one is called upon to act, one must be able to say hineni, “here I am,” and know who is speaking.

This week’s parashah offers one explanation for the diversity of human cultures on earth. Regardless of how each became so richly different, each human culture offers the human beings who grow within it a home from which to act, to react, and to find meaning. The Lakota people find great strength for a struggle that might be called merely secular and political by seeing great cultural and spiritual depth within it. The Movement for Black Lives offers those within it a rich and clear sense of purpose drawn from similar deep wells that go all the way down to the same life-giving waters.

We Jews (and the people who love them, and who walk with us, to our great gratitude) stand so close to our own deep wells of meaning and support for our lives. There is deep and rich Jewish cultural and spiritual support to help us know how be a citizen of the U.S. in these days. Don’t let the rising waters knock you off your feet; let the lifeline of Jewish knowledge and connectedness keep you grounded.

It is not in the Jewish idiom to give up, or to divorce ourselves from the common good. Parashat Noakh teaches that we must find the strength not to avert our eyes from the vulnerability of our institutions and authorities, hoping that our own little boat will protect us and those we love. It will not. We must find a way to break these cycles of catastrophe and dispersal – we, especially, who know them too well from our own past.

Justice, justice, you must pursue if you would live. (Devarim 16.20) Jewish tradition interprets this verse as follows: we must pursue justice, not wait for it to come to us. And we must do so justly. Jews also do justice by supporting organizations pursuing justice. Consider supporting these organizations in their leadership work:

Bend the Arc – A Jewish Partnership for Justice

Equal Justice Initiative

The Network of Spiritual Progressives

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Shabbat Noakh 5776: Raging Seas

These are difficult days. The bad news from Israel, and from so many other places of hurting and hatred, seems to come in waves, deep ones. On such a day as this one feels as if one might drown. The imagery of Jonah’s cry is gripping: The waters compassed me about, even unto the soul; the deep was round about me; the weeds were wrapped about my head. (Jonah 2.6)

This is the week of parashat Noakh, the parashah of the Great Flood. We read that human beings have descended into a Hobbesian nightmare of khamas, anarchic, murderous, pointless violence. Regretting the creation of humanity, G-d chooses to erase the work, by eradicating human beings, and tells Noakh that the creation of humanity will then begin again.

Sometimes, reading this story can make one wonder if the khamas we have seen in our own time is not similar. Where do we rate, on a Flood scale? The Rabbis of antiquity had no doubt, and they formed our prayers and taught our myths accordingly: we should all be wiped out, if G-d were to adhere to the strict Divine attribute of Justice. 

Here is the prayer: During Yom Kippur, this is the essence of one of our most powerful prayers, in which we basically say: we know that we don’t deserve this world. We know that we are as guilty as the generation of the Flood, and You should wipe us out – but please don’t. Please forgive us; give us another chance to do better.

Here is the legend: The world would have been wiped out long ago because of our sins, if it were not for the presence of the Thirty-Six righteous ones, the Lamed-Vavniks. They do not know who they are, but it is for their sake that the world is allowed to continue.

Most of us may never meet a lamed-vavnik, and most of us most certainly are not of that number. But the Rabbis elsewhere assert that even if we are unable to complete the work of righteousness, we are nevertheless not free from doing our part. 

So when the days are difficult and the floodwaters of despair rise “even unto your soul”, consider one act which is always within your power, even in the midst of much violence, hatred, and despair:

And G-d said to Noah: “The end of all flesh is come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them” (6:13)

Why was the generation of the Flood utterly destroyed, but not the generation of the Tower? Because the generation of the Flood were consumed by robbery and violence, while amongst the generation of the Tower love prevailed.  – Bereshit Rabbah

Shabbat Noakh: Sometimes It Floods

Sometimes life comes at you faster than you can thoughtfully respond. In our parashat hashavua one person, Noakh, suddenly discovers that his world is going to end in a great flood of water that will cover the earth as far as he knows it to exist. He builds a giant boat as he is directed by G-d, and he and his family are saved from the death that meets the rest of humankind, and also many animals. Our tradition finds fault with him, based upon a close reading of Genesis 6.9: “Noakh was righteous in his generation.” The Rabbis asked of this verse, what kind of compliment is that? His generation is so wicked that G-d blots them out….They point to Abraham, who, when G-d announced the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra, insisted that G-d distinguish between guilty and innocent. Noakh, on the other hand, when news of the flood reaches him, does not ask and does not argue.

But what else is different, if we compare Abraham and Noakh? Abraham is G-d’s chosen, protected and guided toward a blessed future in a land promised to his descendants. Noakh has no such support, at least not as described in the Torah. He lives in a world which is literally going to hell, and he is experiencing the incredible stress of social breakdown, hatred acted upon in ways that empty out all notions of ethics and decency….and he is, after all, only human.

I am in Israel this week, visiting family and in particular meeting my new cousin, Ofri, who was born on Purim. From here the view is strikingly different from that which we experience from our safely distant perspective in the U.S. Here, we heard about Wednesday’s attack in the local hourly news that comes over the radio, and details emerged over the local internet hour by hour. At the same time, Israelis join right now in mourning young people who were taking vacation from their army service, hiking in Nepal, and were killed by a sudden snowstorm and avalanche. And oh, yes, the latest news about the so-called Islamic State conveys information about what is happening not so far from here – although here in the village it is so quiet that it is almost impossible to believe that such upheaval is actually occurring.

Just now the latest news bulletin on the hour came through as we prepare for Shabbat; two young Israeli adults on holiday in Nepal were killed when the bus they were traveling on plunged into a ravine. My cousin Eli got very quiet for a moment, but there was nothing much to say other than what we already know we are thinking: so sad, so very sad. If you had pushed us further, we might have continued with: and so pointless. Oh, and there is news that tension is increasing in Jerusalem: rocks are being thrown, tires and light-rail stations set on fire.

It feels like a flood of terribly bad, sad news, and within it the different kinds of bad news come together in a way that blurs distinctions. Perhaps this is what Noakh was feeling when G-d announced the great flood. Maybe he was so beaten down by one sad experience after another, one horror following upon the next, that in all the attendant stress he simply lost his ability to act according to his highest human potential. It does happen that we can be so brutalized by experience that we are no longer really ourselves.

Whatever we in our faraway quiet America feel justified to judge about life here in Israel, let’s remember to apply the ancient Jewish ethical principle l’khaf zekhut, “benefit of the doubt”. Perhaps people really are doing the best they can in some very stressful, brutalizing circumstances.

Please join me this Shabbat in praying for the peace of Jerusalem, and all places – a Jewish kind of prayer which presupposes action to bring it about.