Parshat Noach 2011
- Shabbat Shalom
- I mentioned last week that one of the problems with the stories of Genesis/Berayshit is that we see them as “merely” children’s stories. We learned about Noah and the flood in elementary school. We may have decorated our own children’s bedrooms with pictures of Noah and the ark or the ark and the rainbow. We make jokes about having all those animals in one place and having to feed and clean up after all of them. This does not seem to be, in our eyes, a serious story. After all, it is just a myth. There is no evidence that the flood really happened anyway.
- I don’t know if there was an historical flood or not. I don’t know if the “whole world” was flooded or just all of Noah’s world. I don’t know if there really was an ark that someone can find buried in the mountains of Ararat or if there was any way all those animals could have fit into one really big ship. I don’t know about any of this and I really don’t care either. This story, like most of the stories of Genesis, are not meant to be historical narratives, but they are lessons in human morality.
- As a morality story, there are some really big problems with the flood. My colleague Rabbi Brad Artson has written about the flood “There is still something disquieting about the whole episode. Even if every single human soul was wicked and cruel, why did God have to kill all those innocent animals? Why did fish survive the deluge just because they know how to swim? Couldn’t some of the people have been given a good scare and then told to do better? Why did there have to be so much death?”
- How do you think our children really feel about a God who gets angry with the world and destroys everything? Does this story teach them to love one another? Does it teach them God will always be there to protect them and comfort them? This is a really hard story for children. It is a hard story for us adults too. And while we can argue over why Noah was so good that he was worth saving, we have a much harder time wondering why some other people, who were good but maybe just not as good as Noah, were also not spared the flood.
- The ancient commentators had a simple solution to the “angry” God. The commentators believed that just as a man who shoots an arrow, can’t bring it back after it has been launched, so too, once God lets loose one of the “divine arrows”, God no longer has the power to alter its course. This means that once the destruction is let loose, it destroys everything, no matter if it is good or bad. If the Israelites in Egypt did not stay in the home protected by the blood of the lamb on their door, then the death that claimed the lives of the first born of Eygpt, would also be the vehicle of the Israelite’s death as well. This means that it is a good thing that God is forgiving, because, when God gets angry, both the good and bad people in the world will feel the sting of God’s wrath.
- This kind of a explanation leaves us feeling bewildered. Is God not omnipotent? Can’t God save the innocent people and animals from destruction? Human beings may not be able to stop the destroyer but we expect that God has the power to turn the destruction both on and off. The Torah, however, seems to be pretty consistent; when God punishes the world, both the good and the evil are swept away together. What moral lesson can we learn from this depressing lesson?
- I hear from many people, online, in this community and in this congregation, a constant demand for biblical justice. We require an eye for an eye. If our enemies would hit us we will hit them back ten times/twenty times harder. Our enemies do not care about us so why should we care about them? They kill women and children and never regret their actions, why should we hesitate to kill their women and children? Let us take off the gloves, just kill them all and let God sort them out.
- Biblical justice is what some people are always demanding. The families of someone murdered want to see the killer die in the electric chair. The killer should suffer just like the murdered suffered. Criminals should be thrown in jail and we should throw away the key. If the courts won’t convict him, then we will take the law into our own hands. Terrorists have no right because they refuse to honor the rights of anyone else. If he destroys my eye, I will take his eye; if he destroys my tooth, then I will knock out his teeth. We don’t believe in “turning the other cheek”; if my enemy hits me, I will hit him back so hard that he will never think about hitting me again. I am not a dyed in the wool pacifist, I know that there are some evil people who only understand violence, but I think it is important that we make sure that we never become one of them.
- The lesson here is that once the destroyer is set loose, it is impossible for there to be a distinction between the good and the bad, the right and the wrong. Everyone is swept up in the destruction. Good people get arrested in crime sweeps through a neighborhood. Innocent people are sometimes used as human shields for terrorists to hide behind when they are attacked. History is filled with those innocent who died trying to save loved ones from unrestrained violence. War is filled with what we now call “collateral damage”, meaning innocent victims whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yes, there are grotesque examples of evil in this world. Only a ruthless dictator like Quadaffi could kill innocent hospital patients, and plant their bodies in the ruins of a recently bombed building and claim that NATO killed “innocent” people. And yet, in every war, there will be atrocities. That is the way of war. Some who died are innocent civilians who were killed by loyalist forces. The freedom fighters of Libya killed foreign mercenary soldiers as well as foreign guest workers just because they all have the same color skin. Once humans descend into the chaos of killing, the good gets swept away with the bad.
- I know that there are many people who disagree with me on this but the flood story is telling us that violence only breeds more violence. Hitting someone back, capital punishment, war and retaliation only breed more hurt and more killing. Revenge sounds sweet but it never changes anything and it only causes a call for more revenge. If we want peace on the streets of our cities, if we want peace in Iraq and Afghanistan, if we want peace in Israel, we will have to find a way to stop the cycle of killing and make peace with our enemies.
- Trading over a thousand killers for one lone Israeli soldier does sound like a really bad deal. Some of those terrorists were welcomed home as heroes and they called to their supporters for more killing and more terror. It violates our sense of justice and fair play to see these killers rewarded for the blood on their hands. But the Israeli government made a stronger point inside Israel and around the world. Bringing home a captured soldier is the most sacred vow a country can make to those who defend her from attack. It is not just Gilad Shalit who is grateful that Israel made this disgusting trade, but every soldier in Israel is happy that their country was prepared to do whatever was needed to bring a soldier home. Last week the world learned that a civilized nation sometimes does hold its collective nose in order to do what is right and just.
- The reason there were a thousand prisoners to exchange for Shalit is because Israel does not have a death penalty. No matter how much blood is on the hands of the terrorists, they are not killed in retaliation by Israel. In spite of the talk of the nationalist parties that the only thing an Arab understands is the point of a gun and an iron fist, there are no shortage of others who are prepared to meet with Palestinian Arabs, learn from each other and who try and see an opposing point of view. It is not easy. It is not always fun. It means being open, candid, articulate and one has to be a really good listener. We all know how easy it is to resort to violence; This week’s parsha is asking us if humanity can overcome its violent nature in order to cultivate understanding and peace? It is really easy to talk tough, but can we talk peace when we need to? It is possible to beat a person into submission. They may fear their attacker but they cannot be forced to love. Love comes with trust and understanding.
- The flood story teaches us that even though God destroyed the world, it was not the end of violence and strife. The newly repopulated world soon was filled again with war and aggression. The flood story is followed by the story of the Tower of Babel, and the strife that project brought into the world. It will be another ten generations until Abraham comes to plead with God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Only then do we learn that there is another way to confront the wickedness of the world. If we wish to be among those who “seek peace and pursue it”, if we want to work to bring peace as hard as others work to bring war, then maybe, someday, perhaps not in our lifetime and perhaps not in the lifetime of our children, but someday there will be a world filled with kindness and peace. That is the messianic promise and that is the mission and goal of all life. It is all too easy to destroy life, but one who saves a life is considered as if he or she has saved the world.
- This is the promise of the Noah and the rainbow. This is the lesson of the flood and the dove. God regrets destroying life, and we should regret it too. Let us do all we can do, this day and every day, in this country and abroad, in Israel and around the world, to let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.
Amen and Shabbat Shalom