Cause and Effect – Parshat Noach 5781

One of the parts of parenting that I struggle with the most is when my children’s actions have negative consequences, and they don’t understand they’ve brought it upon themselves. Because they are not developmentally ready to make that connection, they have no understanding that they played a role in causing those results. Instead, they blame me.

For example, I’ll tell the kids it’s time to go up stairs and get ready for bed. We set a timer, knowing that if it goes off before they’re ready for bed, that means we’re out of time for stories. The idea is to beat the timer to ensure you get a story. But of course they play around, dawdle, complain, do anything but get ready for bed. I gently remind them that the timer has started and if they don’t start listening and moving, there will be no story. In my mind, the expectations are very clearly set, but inevitably the timer goes off without finishing bedtime preparations, and we don’t have time for a book. Cue the tantrum from the children and my “you did this to yourself” conclusion that they can’t quite internalize.

While we may have a better grasp of situations and our roles as we mature, we still do this to ourselves as adults. Yes, sometimes our struggles have outside causes, but sometimes we have no one to blame but ourselves. Parshat Noach, our Torah portion this week, carries this message with it. Parshat Noach details the misbehavior of the people who inhabit the earth in this pre-Judaism time. We read about Noah as a beacon of hope among the despicable people of his town. God instructs Noah to build the ark, put the animals on it, and escape destruction under God’s protection during the flood. Noah’s story is capped off with a covenant between God and humankind to never again destroy the world. Unfortunately, the beauty of the rainbow is quickly tainted as we learn of the misdeeds committed by a new civilization in trying to reach up closer to God. 

As we read the story of the flood, God is very clear about why the flood is necessary: “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them; I am about to destroy them with the earth.” In other words, God reminds Noah that civilization brought this on themselves. Their behavior, the lack of rule following, the unethical, immoral, and nasty actions brought on this flood.

The lesson seems clear: we reap what we sow. Displacement of peoples, pollution, the healthcare crisis – these issues are ones we’ve brought on ourselves, and we have to change them ourselves. While my 4- and 7-year-old may not be able to fully grasp this, Parshat Noach reminds us that as adults, we are responsible for our actions and what happens because of them, positive and negative. 

Too Quiet – Parshat Noach 5780

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If you’ve ever been responsible for a group of children or, let’s be honest, even just a single child, you know that eerie, nervous feeling that comes when their playspace is too quiet. At first, there’s that moment when you think, “Wow, it’s so quiet! How nice that the children are playing so well and aren’t screaming at me or each other.” Then, seconds later, the panic sets in when you suspect that the quiet was the sound of mischief and the kids trying to hide the fact that they were doing things you might not approve of. On the one hand, it’s great that they appear to be working together on something. On the other hand, what if what they’re working on is something they shouldn’t be doing?

This dilemma is what I imagine God feels this week in Parshat Noach. Parshat Noach details the misbehavior of the people who inhabit the earth in this pre-Judaism time. We read about Noah as a beacon of hope among the despicable people of his town. God instructs Noah to build the ark, put the animals on it, and escape destruction under God’s protection during the flood. Noah’s story is capped off with a covenant between God and humankind to never again destroy the world. Unfortunately, the beauty of the rainbow is quickly tainted as we learn of the misdeeds committed by a new civilization in trying to reach up closer to God. 

God has no sooner hit the reset button on humanity than the people get “quiet,” working together to build a tower upwards. On the positive side, this tower, the Tower of Bavel, was the result of the people uniting for a common purpose. However, that purpose was also filled with the wrong intention. Instead of building something that would move them forward as a society, they built upward out of a self-centered need to touch the heavens. 

Consequently, God scrambles the languages of the people so they can’t understand one another, and thus chaos ensues and they can’t really figure out how to work together on the tower or any other project. 

The ability to communicate is critical for productivity, for us as individuals to move forward together. What we learn from Parshat Noach is that it’s not enough simply to work together. The work has to be a common cause for good. When we build together, work to understand each other and communicate clearly we can change the world for good. When we approach these group efforts with the right intentions, we can literally change the world.

Survivor Guilt – Parshat Noach 5779

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Survivor guilt (sometimes called survivor syndrome) is a term that describes feelings of guilt that result from a person believing they have done something wrong by surviving a tragic event which other people did not survive. Survivor guilt is not uncommon among survivors of large scale events like terrorist acts, war, and natural disasters, but it can also work its way into very personal tragedies, affecting the friends and family of those who died by suicide, for example.

There are countless destructive incidents that plague our world and plenty of stories of someone who was supposed to be on that flight or in that building but wasn’t. Sometimes those survivors carry around a tremendous amount of guilt on top of the grief as they continue to live while others perished, and harboring these feelings can lead to alienation or worse.

This week we read the story of Noah in Parshat Noach. This second section of text in the entire Torah takes us through the story of the flood, building the ark, saving his family and the animals, sending out a dove, and God’s promise to never do this again. We learn of the generations of Noah and how humanity moved on to create the next piece of the narrative, the Tower of Bavel. After the Tower of Bavel we see that the nations are scattered, and then the Torah quickly moves us through the 10 generations between Noah and Abraham, where the rest of our narrative history takes off.

Back to Noah, there is an interesting “blip” in Noah’s character in Parshat Noach. The flood is over, Noah and his sons come off the boat, and Noah finds his family alone in the world. The first thing Noah does after they disembark is to plant a vineyard. Chapter 9, verses 20-25 describe his subsequent behavior as a drunken stupor full of acts of impropriety. Apparently Noah and his sons find themselves needing to cope with their loneliness, and they turn to a vice to get them through. The sages imagine that Noah was overwhelmed by the task of rebuilding a destroyed world. This may have been mixed with feelings of isolation and simultaneously feelings of guilt that so many perished while he survived.

When we find ourselves in Noah’s position, feeling alone, angry, or guilty about our own life circumstances, it’s helpful to have coping mechanisms in place ahead of time. It’s challenging to push through a traumatic experience, but finding healthy ways to cope with our emotions is essential.

As a personal note, know that my door and inbox are always open. It’s our job as a community, and as a community we are always here to support one another. That’s how we survive.

A Place to Go – Parshat Noach 5778

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As the parents of two young children, Duncan and I have had our fair share of conversations about the use of space in our house, from the perspectives of safety, storage, and purpose. What areas are safe for the kids? Where do we need to be more careful? How much space is allotted for toys, and how much space might be designated as “parents only”? We try hard to make sure Shiri and Matan know that they each have places to go in our house when they’re ready to play and also when they’re feeling overwhelmed, tired, or just need some downtime. We also try to reserve adult space so Duncan and I can enjoy those few minutes of respite and relaxation when we can get them.

The need for room to spread out, be yourself, and let loose is a basic human desire and one that was felt well before our modern, technology-fueled times. This week we read Parshat Noach, which tells of the evil impulses running rampant in society, Noah’s building of the Ark, a covenant with God through a rainbow, and later the building of a tower to approach God.

Throughout the whole ordeal, Noah is the man in charge. He alone receives God’s call to build the Ark and to put his family and pairs of animals on this vessel. And, when the flood waters have subsided, he is charged with repopulating the earth as part of the covenant with God. If anyone needed a place to retreat, a space to call his own, it was Noah.

However, when you think about it, it’s God who expresses the big emotions here out of frustration with the degenerate society. Needing a space to let loose and simply be free of those God-sized emotions that go along with caring for others, the world becomes God’s room to “scream” into, and the flood is the ultimate temper tantrum.

Creating a place where you can feel both free to let go or safe to go into yourself is part of the framework for a healthy family and even a healthy society. Reading this parshah is always a reminder that it helps to be aware of our emotional responses, or at least aware enough to take a breather for our own sake and for the sake of those around us. It’s during this Torah portion that God goes back to a blank canvas, and in the same way for us, taking away those distractions and simply giving ourselves room to breathe makes all the difference.

 

Noah for President – Parshat Noach 5777

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I’m sure by this point in the election cycle, you’ve heard plenty of people from all political persuasions talking about the dilemma of choosing the “lesser of two evils.” Though the label “evil” might be intended as hyperbole, that doesn’t change the fact that our two major parties nominated candidates who are viewed unfavorably among a significant number of people, even from within their own parties.

Our Torah portion this week is also about a man who, as some scholars suggest, was not necessarily an ideal leader, but was simply the best choice available. This week we read parshat Noach, which tells of the evil impulses running rampant in society, Noah’s building of the ark, a covenant with God through a rainbow, and the building of a tower to approach God. Noah is the man in charge. He receives God’s call to build the ark and the call to put his family and pairs of animals on this vessel. And, when the flood waters have subsided, he is supposed to regenerate the earth and be in covenant with God. One can imagine this to-do list and the weight of responsibility here sitting heavily on Noah’s shoulders.

Even among the great commentators on our Torah text there is debate over who Noah was for his generation, in our story, and in our lives. Noah is referred to as “Ish tzadik b’dorotav,” a righteous person in his generation. The commentators question what exactly that means. Is he righteous compared to others in his generation, thus if he’d been in another time (for example among Abraham or Moshe) he wouldn’t be that great? Or is it suggesting that in spite of his generation he is still a good person? Furthermore, did he do enough to try to save others like Abraham did with S’dom and Gomorrah or like Moshe in response to the golden calf? In both of these cases, our people’s leaders fought to save more people, while Noah doesn’t appear to save anyone but himself and his family.

The question remains is Noah to be lauded for his work or is he simply the best of the worst? While I’m not sure there is ever anything to be gained by making these subjective comparisons, I still wonder what Noah’s place is in our tradition. He is our prime example of at least relative righteousness, standing up when no one else had the courage or conviction to do so. However, he later acts immodestly when he disrobes in front of his sons. He goes to work to save other living beings, but does he go far enough to try to save other humans?

Sometimes the good we are able to do is limited by surrounding factors, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and it doesn’t mean we should resort to a “best of the worst” mindset. The lesson of Noah is to be our best possible selves, no matter the circumstances.