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Parashat Noach and Bar Mitzvah of Gabriel O'Neil: October 13, 2018

Rabbi Richard Plavin

Its interesting that the story of Noah and the flood is so often included in children’s books. Isn’t it strange that a story of universal death and destruction would be a popular theme for children’s literature?

In truth, its not that aspect that makes it important for children and all of us, but the lessons that it teaches.

The first lesson is how praiseworthy it is to be able to maintain one’s integrity despite what may be going on around you.

Listen to the first verse:


Eleh toldot Noach – These are the offspring of Noah

Noach eesh tzadik – Noah was a righteous man

Tamim haya bdorotav – perfect in his generations

Et haElohim hithalech Noach – Noah walked with God

At first blush, this opening verse of the parasha gives Noah high praise. He’s not only righteous, he’s perfect. He was so outstanding that he walked with God. Wow! What more could you ask?

But not all the rabbis saw this verse as unadulterated praise for Noah. They zero in on the word “B’dorotav” – in his generations. It appears that the verse would read just as well without “in his generations.” What does that word add?

The rabbis see two possibilities:

            If it is a continuation of praise then it means that despite the corruption and violence of his neighbors, Noah was able to remain righteous.

            If it is to be understood as a negative, it is telling us that in comparison to his evil neighbors, he could be considered righteous. But, had he lived in the generation of Abraham, he would not be anything special.

The take away from this rabbinic lesson is that the influences in your vicinity make a critical difference to the kind of person you will be. For all of us, today, this is an incredibly important message.

We live in a frightening world, and we can no longer say that it is only in less developed countries that bad things happen. The evils in our society are shameful: racism, xenophobia, mass shootings, government corruption, distain for the integrity of the environment – the list goes on and on. Our Congress is so bogged down in partisan politics that nothing of value is accomplished. We have a judicial branch of government that runs a penal system that seems to do more harm than good and many judges at the highest level in whom I cannot feel any confidence. In the executive branch there are officials who speak publically in language I don’t want my grandchildren to hear.

That is our social environment and it is so hard not to be tainted by it. Civility is in such short supply and we have to continually struggle to maintain our own standards of morality.

Children in our schools have this problem on steroids. Unless they are in special classes with a very select student body, they will be affected by the lack of respect for learning all around them. And when they are out of school, what they see on TV is so often inappropriate. The Talmud tells us to keep distant from an evil neighbor, but what is a youngster in school to do about the kids around him in class?

The rabbis tell us that Noah had the same problem. He lived in a society of corruption and violence yet managed to maintain his higher standards.

Gabriel, somehow you have escaped the evil influences of our generation. I don’t want to embarrass you with praise, but you do deserve it. You are such a mentsch!  You are always polite and respectful; dressed so nicely to honor the Shabbat, always going out of your way to greet people with a friendly smile. So often at a Shabbat lunch here at BSBI, you will walk across the entire auditorium to greet me with ‘Shabbat shalom.’ A few weeks ago you came to me at lunch to say that you hoped I would be able to attend your Bar Mitzvah ceremony. Of course, I told you I wouldn’t miss it, and I am so pleased to be able to officiate on this milestone occasion in your life, as I did for your brothers before you. I am sorry I was put in this position for the very sad reason that Rabbi Konigsburg’s mother died. May her memory be a blessing.

How is it that you are so special and maintain a level of respect and civility so much higher than we have come to expect. I think the answer must be found in your home. Your parents have created a special sanctuary of civility for you, Alex, Jacob, Matt and Lilly and they have insisted that each of their children reflect well on them. Mazal tov to all of you, not only on the great job Gabe has done today, but on the great job you have all done in maintaining such a fine family.

Our tradition contains many practices that all of us can use to lift our lives above the mediocrity and sometimes evil that surround us.

We have the sanctity of our homes. In our homes we can set our own standards that reflect our Jewish tradition in so many ways.

We can emphasize the importance of learning by have our shelves full of books. We can set an example of reading books, not just starring into a 2x5 screen.

We can demonstrate our love of God by reaching out to serve our fellow human beings. Gabe, your mom does that in her devotion to the synagogue community, serving on the Board of Directors and volunteering in so many capacities. Your dad demonstrates the importance of Pekuach Nefesh – saving lives through the work he does every day. Your brother Alex sets an example for all of us and we are so grateful to him for protecting our liberty as he serves in the Marines. Your brothers all set an example for you of valuing learning as they continued their Jewish studies following Bar Mitzvah and I am sure you will do the same. We so much look forward to celebrating Lillie’s Bat Mitzvah in just a few years.

But your wonderful family got me off track. I was mentioning the many ways our Jewish tradition can prevent us from being contaminated by the elements in our society to that would push us in the wrong direction.

I mentioned the sanctity of our homes but failed to say that one aspect that Jewish home can be a Kosher kitchen. By observing Kashrut we demonstrate our loyalty to the covenant and we say that mealtime can be a time of holiness for the family. We make our home into a Mikdash Maat – a miniture sanctuary and say that eating isn’t just filling our bellies, but a way of elevating our lives above the animal kingdom.

We can make our homes a sacred place by talking to one another, not just texting or tweeting.

We can make our homes a sanctuary from the rat race of the week by observing Shabbat – by making the Friday night meal an occasion of sanctity, by attending synagogue services which your family does so faithfully, by turning off the electronic devices that pull the outside world into our homes and in doing that get some true respite, some authentic Shabbat shalom. 

I will conclude Gabe by congratulating you, your parents, your siblings and all your family gathered today to celebrate with you. You all have so much to be proud of.

Now want to call on Cantor Bolts who has worked so hard with you in preparing for this day.

 

Sermon given by Rabbi Richard Plavin at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, October 13, 2018.

Fri, July 10 2020 18 Tammuz 5780