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.

 

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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

Do It Myself

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.

The Rainbow Connection – Parshat Noach 5773

“Why are there so many songs about rainbows and what’s on the other side?”  Kermit the Frog, one of my favorite Muppets, is famous for this song that ponders the magic of a rainbow and my good friend, Roy G. Biv.  Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet.  These seven lines come together to create one of the most stunning images in nature.  YouTube videos and countless online photo albums are filled with beautiful pictures of radiant rainbows, single and double.  We are in awe of this splendid display of color and calm after the tumultuous storms that pass. 
Parshat Noach, our Torah portion this week, is made famous for the central two accounts that take place: first, the flood of the earth to drown out those who were not righteous, second the Tower of Bavel and the subsequent spreading out of the nations and languages.  These two narratives are bridged together by the expectations for humankind to behave in an honorable and righteous manner and the covenant established between God and the generations to come, symbolized by the rainbow. 
In our Parshah, chapter 9 verses 12-16, the rainbow officially takes new meaning.  The text states: 
“God further said, “this is the sign that I set for the covenant between Me and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come.  I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.  When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all humankind.  When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth.  That,” God said to Noah, “shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth.” 
Rambam, the great medieval commentator Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, teaches that the rainbow is a sign of God’s covenant not to destroy the world again, a sign of peace.  This sign is the only phenomenon that had already existed in the world that becomes invested with a new symbolic significance.  The rainbow, in Hebrew keshet, represents all of the different shades and colors of our world bound together in a single instance.  It stands as a reminder that while each of us has our differences, those differences should never push us apart.  And just as importantly, it sets an example of how we should keep our promises to each other, as God did to us. 
When we see a rainbow, we are obligated to say the following brachah,
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה אֱ לֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, זוֹכֵר הַבְּרִית, וְנֶאֱמָן בִּבְרִיתוֹ, וְקַיָּם בְּמַאֲמָרוֹ.
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the world, who remembers the covenant and is faithful to it and stands by his word. 
Even today, every rainbow we see is a reminder of God’s relationship with humankind.  More than that, when we take the time to take in the rainbow, to pause and remember that the covenant God made comes with expectations of humanity to treat one another with kavod, respect, we renew our covenant with God and create a kehillah kedosha, a holy community.
So, Kermit, there are so many songs about rainbows because they remind us of unity, understanding, faith and God.  Who knew a felt frog could be such a Torah scholar?
THIS TOO IS TORAH: Certain individual colors also hold special significance in Judaism.  For example, we’re commanded to dye a thread of our tallitot (prayer shawls) with techelet, an indigo/blue color.  This serves as a permanent reminder of the tablets given to Moshe on Sinai, which, it is said, were made of the sapphire stone on which God “stood.”