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Noach 5783             October 25, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom 

     The stories at the beginning of the book of Genesis are all well known. These are some of the first stories we teach our children from the bible. Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, and who has not put up a picture of Noah, the ark, and the rainbow in their child’s room at one point or another? These stories we consider as children’s stories.

     Oddly, Jewish tradition teaches that children learning Torah should first learn the text of the book of Leviticus, especially the beginning where it talks about sacrifices. That way “blameless” children should learn how to remain “blameless” all their lives by knowing the right sacrifice for all the issues that might come up in life. I can only say that the Sages had strange pedagogic theories that may need to be updated in our times.

     But Noah and the ark is not a children’s story; so just what kind of story is it? Because there are parallel stories from other cultures, it may indicate that there is a historical fact hiding in the telling of this tale. Clearly the way this story is told, it is not to inform us of what happened so long ago at the dawn of human history.

     And I can’t say I am happy with the explanation that God regrets creating human beings and so wipes them all off the earth and starts over with Noah. It puts our relationship with God into a place of fear and trepidation, rather than one of love for our Creator. I believe that there is something else going on in this story that is looking for us to pay attention to, as we navigate this world.

     God has created a world, where in nature, it is defined by the survival of the fittest. Smaller animals are eaten by larger ones. But that is not the way human beings are supposed to act. We are social animals; we are supposed to support each other, help each other, and work together on projects that are much bigger than what we can accomplish by ourselves. Noah is considered by the Rabbis as the inventor of the plow, the device that can easily cut through the earth to make planting easier; a model for us. We are supposed to be doing great things to benefit humanity and all creation.

     But the world the Noah lives in is one of robbery and violence. It is everyone for him or herself. Only the strong survive. We know what this looks like. We need only look at the countries of Haiti or Afghanistan to see what happens when countries are taken over by gangs and militias. Africa is fighting many wars against warlords and wannabe despots. But successful countries build societies where people are safe and cared for so they can go out and create new things to help others and to build a better world.

     So, what is God’s role in all of this? Where does religion fit in? When God sees human beings flailing, unable to work together, living by the laws of nature where only the strong survive, what is God supposed to do? The issue is not about destroying the world; it is about teaching human beings to care for the other animals on the planet, and for each other. All life may die outside the ark (except, maybe the fish) but inside the ark, care and cooperation are the key to survival until the water recedes. 

     Throughout history, human beings have tried to live without religion and without God. Religion has been co-opted by humans to rule over other people. It has been used to let one group know that my group is better, more spiritual, and closer to God than your group is. Religions have gone to war to prove that God is on their side. And yet … and yet … after thousands of years, religion is still with us. God is still with us. No matter how religion may be abused, underneath it all, the love, care, and kindness of God is still the measure of what being a human being is all about.

     Krista Tippett, reporter, radio host, and podcast host, in her book, “Speaking of Faith,” at the very beginning of the book asks some very good questions: “Why are we all now - believers as well as atheist, in public and in private – talking about religion? Why is spirituality suddenly everywhere? Why has faith become so passionate – and so dangerous? Some say, I know, that religion is the cause of our worst divisions, and a threat to democracy and civilization here and abroad. The truth is more broadly and deeply rooted in the human psyche and spirit. The great traditions have survived across millennia because they express insights that human beings have repeatedly found to be true. But they are containers for those insights – fashioned and carried forward by human beings, and therefore prone to every passion and frailty of the human condition. Religions become entangled with human identity, and there is nothing more intimate and volatile than that, especially in an age of global transition like ours. Our sacred traditions should help us live more thoughtfully, generously, and hopefully with the tensions of our age. But to grasp that we must look anew at the very nature of faith, and at what it might really mean to take religion seriously in human life and in the world.”

     Human beings have taken the “containers” of religion, the many different forms of religion, Jewish, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist; Moslem, Sunni, and Shia, modern and fundamentalist, Christian, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, and Puritanical, Hindu, Buddhist, as well as a host of pagan religions that always seem to attract a certain amount of attention. And each group struggles to win admirers in the open market of thought. But underneath it all, there is God. A loving kind and caring God who only wants to help us through the transitions of history and to give us the tools we need to thrive in this world. 

     What we learn from the story of Noah and the ark is that when everything around us is being washed away, there is a deep storehouse of faith that gives us the strength and wisdom to get through the trauma. We are hardwired to care for those who are suffering. We rush to the side of a friend to hold them in their hour of need. We remain appalled by the senseless killings that are reported every day in the news. We may be overwhelmed by the slaughter of others, and we know, deep inside, that we should find a way to stop the killing.

     Even without the senseless murders, there is still plenty of death in this world. Some of it by our own carelessness; auto accidents, refusal of health care, smoking tobacco, accidental gun deaths. And some of death is just natural, the result of disease, disasters, and death by old age. Death is its own category of trauma, and it is our faith in God that we turn to in the end. It is the deep resources in our soul that hearken back to a time when God was more present in the world and in human life. “I look to the mountains, from where will come my help? My help comes from the Lord our God, Creator of heaven and earth.” The Psalmist knows our trauma and pain. The Psalmist knows that we can hope that there will be a calvary that will come to our rescue. But when nobody else is there to hold us, we still find that we are safe within the ark, safe in the hug of God. We may be adrift in life, but God never forgets us. When our foundations have all been washed away, there is still a lifeline that connects us to life. Faith is our constant connection to God.

     No matter how crazy the world becomes, it is acts of kindness that bring sense to what makes no sense. When Noah and his family are on the Ark, they don’t huddle in fear of what may come next in the storm; they feed the other animals, they bring whatever normality they can to their impossible situation. When all else fails, we can call for help, and from the mountains, God will be our help. All we need to do is ask. We have nothing to fear, as we sing at the end of Adon Olam “Adonai Li V’lo Ira” “God is with me, I have no fear.”

     It is not easy to live life. There are the serious operations, the scary close calls, sudden near disasters; sometimes we feel that we are just lost in the woods. Oftentimes, there are problems with only bad solutions. The future looks dark and grey, Storm clouds are gathering. There seems to be no way out. We see that what looks like a mountain of trouble. But when we let our faith in God into the picture, when we hold hands with each other and trust in God and begin our climb, we discover that what once frightened us so much because of its steep sides, turns out to be just a speed bump, a soon to be forgotten abnormality in the road of life. All we need is a bit of courage, a helping hand, and faith in God. That faith in God carried Noah for forty days and forty nights. It can carry us through all of life as well.

     The story of Noah and the ark is not a children’s story at all. It is a story of faith, courage, kindness, and success. Noah rides out his storm. He and his family find their way back to dry land. God not only remembers Noah but lights up the sky with a rainbow that speaks of the possibilities ahead. It is a story not just of Noah’s love for God, but of God’s love for us.

     And as long as God is with us, as a living part of our life, we will never have a reason to fear.

     May God always be present in our lives to protect us from every storm as we say … Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Tue, February 7 2023 16 Shevat 5783