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.

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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.

Do It Myself – Parshat Noach 5776

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Now that Shiri is reaching the true height of toddlerhood, we have a whole new dynamic going on in our house.  Shiri is Miss Independent and wants to do things all by herself.  This initiative is often helpful. She now feeds the dog regularly, takes off her own coat, puts things in the garbage, and cleans up her toys.  

However, sometimes she comes across a task that is beyond her current mental or physical capabilities.  While it would be lovely for her to open the fridge and take out and pour her own milk, she just isn’t tall or strong enough to do it.  Naturally, I intervene by starting to take the carton out myself. That’s when I hear, “No, no, no!” and screamy Shiri has reemerged.  She has switched on her mode of “I do it.”  

I don’t blame her for wanting to do more. Shiri, like all of us, loves the sense of accomplishment she feels when she successfully completes a task.  And while I don’t love the screaming and complaining, I do love her independence and admire her desire to take ownership of her world.

Taking ownership of our actions is an essential theme throughout the Torah.  We start with Adam and Eve figuring out how to own their actions when they disobey God. We are similarly confronted with ownership of choices as Cain responds to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  The first parshah of the Torah, which we read last week, focuses intently on the importance of owning our actions and decisions.

It is no surprise that in this week’s parshah, Parshat Noach, we are again faced with a society in need of a similar ownership over action.  Parshat Noach details the misbehaviors of the people who inhabit the earth.  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 mankind to never again destroy the world, but the beauty of the rainbow is quickly tainted as we learn of the misdeeds committed by a new mankind in trying to reach up closer to God.

The story of Noah brings to light many questions about God’s actions and innate human behaviors.  Notably, why did God command Noah to build an ark and save himself, when surely our all-powerful God could have intervened directly and saved Noah, his family, and all the animals.  The Tanchuma suggests that perhaps God hoped the construction project would serve as a warning, moving onlookers to contemplate their actions.  Or perhaps Noah needed to participate hands-on in his own salvation in order to help save and rebuild mankind.  After all, doing is often the best way to learn.

Reading this narrative we see a fledgling society, deep in their “toddlerdom” if you will. Like my sweet Shiri, Noah and the people need to do it themselves in order to feel a sense of accomplishment.  As a parent, it’s easy to swoop in and help out our children when they’re frustrated, but perhaps their do-it-myself reaction stands as a reminder that we should act as God did and allow some (safe) trial and error.  

This week, let us consider the ephemeral nature of the rainbow. The sign of the covenant is fleeting, but the rewards from keeping promises and owning up to our actions leave a lasting mark.