Sunday, November 06, 2005

This is a d'var Torah [word of Torah] I gave at the Hebrew Union College Minyan last Shabbat. I've included links to explain words that may be mysterious to some of my readers. "Noach" is the transliteration of Noah's name in Hebrew -- say "noah" and then put a little gutteral on the end.



D’var Torah given at HUC Minyan, Los Angeles, November 4, 2005

Parashat Noach reads a little differently this year.

We are accustomed to the familiar tale of righteous Noach, best of his generation, building an ark, climbing into it with his family and a vast assortment of animals to become the second Adam, the first man in The World, Part II.

But Parashat Noach reads a little differently this year.

Since the last time we read it, in Marcheshvan of 5765, we have become a generation to see some terrible things, things reminiscent of the death and destruction in Parashat Noach.

We are a generation who have seen the deaths of 289,000 souls in a monster tsunami.

We are a generation who have seen the destruction of a great city by water.

We are a generation still watching as a record series of giant storms batter the beaches of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, claiming over 1500 lives from Florida to Texas to Mexico and Guatemala, in the islands of the Bermuda and the Caribbean.

We are a generation who are witness to the horrific earthquake on the India-Pakistani border in which 73,000 have died already, and as a result of which countless more will die of cold and disease before the winter is done.

We are a generation who have learned more than we wanted to about killer waves and broken levees and about the limits of our impressive technologies.

For us, it is perhaps all too easy to picture the sight outside of Noah’s Ark, as it bobbed on the waters that covered the Earth:

We can photoshop the picture from things we have seen, this year, on CNN.

When God spoke to Noach, God said, “Aseh l’cha tevat atze-gopher,” -- “Make yourself a box of gopher-wood,”and Noach made himself a box. And in that box, Noach and his family and a good sized zoo were safe from the storm that destroyed the world.

Oddly enough, a box figures into the story for us, too: for many of us, the natural disasters have happened “in a box” –in our TVs, on our radios, on our computers.

When God spoke to Noach, God said, “Kinim ta’aseh et-ha-tevah” –“Make nests in the box.” The word is usually translated “rooms,” but a ken, is, literally, a safe little nest. So I can imagine that Noach, taking his orders literally, as Noach was wont to do, made a floating box full of comfy little nests, little rooms of comfort and safety to ride out the storm.

And again, reversing it all, most of us have sat in our safe nests, watching our boxes, which contain the natural disasters of the last year.

Funny thing, boxes.

In Midrash Tanchuma, the rabbis tell us that the safe little box full of nests became a nightmare of its own for Noach and his family. Noach and his sons did not sleep for a year because all the animals needed feeding at odd hours. Imagine the endless feeding, the endless cleaning, the cranky animals.

Some of the animals were dangerous, too: in an angry fit, one lion bit Noach, and he was forever after crippled from that bite. The rabbis quote from Tehillim, “Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks” (Ps 142.8) and they said that the line refers to Noach’s prayer to be let out of the prison the ark had become, because life inside that perfectly made box had become perfectly dreadful.

We, too, can suffer from box-fatigue: the newscasters are calling it “compassion fatigue”: a tiredness that comes because we have seen too many disasters on our little boxes. It is tempting, sometimes, to just turn it off, or to give up completely. It is tempting to surrender to our tiredness and our own daily problems.

The rabbis, however, do not give us that option. One of their criticisms of Noach was that he did not do enough to help his fellow human beings. He followed orders, but did not try to save anyone else, or even warn them of the impending disaster. Noach, the man whose very name means “comfort” was a little too comfortable: He was content to build his box, to feather his nests, to save his own neck and not much else.

What, then are we to do?

Look again in Parashat Noach: God spoke to Noach, saying to him,

Tzeh min-ha-tevah, ata v’ishtecha, u-vanecha, unshe-vanecha itach…” --

“Go out from the box, you and your wife, and your sons, and the wives of your sons, and bring out with you every living thing that is with you.”

Tzeh min ha tevah – get out of the box! Get out of the box and bring everyone with you!

We are called out of the box, out of the prison, out of our comfort zones,out of our safe little havens, out from the easy way, out into the big, muddy world:

Whether it is to raise funds for reliefor to change the policies of governments.

We are commanded to bring ourselves and our fellow human beings out into freedom.

This week we buried a woman who changed the world by refusing to change her seat on a bus.

Rosa Parks, I suggest to you, was the “anti-Noach”: She was uncomfortable and she made others uncomfortable. Rosa Parks dragged us out of our national comfort zone. And I think that we can all agree that her memory is indeed, a blessing.

We read Parashat Noach a little differently this year, as we work to care for one another, to practice compassion and lovingkindness towards those in our daily lives and those we see on our TV boxes, as we step outside our comfort zones, to do what good we can.

May each of us find our way to be a blessing.

May it be God’s will. Ken y’hi ratzon.