TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on a verse from the weekly parsha
Parsha Noach, Genesis 8:20-22:
“And Noah built an altar to the Lord, and he took of all the clean animals and of all the clean fowl and brought up burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled the pleasant aroma, and the Lord said to Himself, “I will no longer curse the earth because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth, and I will no longer smite all living things as I have done. So long as the earth exists, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”
Rabbi Nicole Guzick, Sinai Temple
I can only begin to imagine the destruction Noah witnesses while living in the ark. The world weeps. Outside, humanity drowns in chaos, and inside the ark, Noah and his family have one choice to make: succumb to the fear of a now unknown world or re-enter the world and rebuild anew. And with the building of an altar, Noah’s choice is clear. Time and time again, in the face of desolation and despair, it is within the human spirit to rebuild and repair. As difficult as it sounds, even as death knocks on the door of the ark, Noah chooses to thank God for the gift of today.
It is God’s reaction that is most astounding. It seems in response to Noah’s courage and resilience, God whispers, “If you’re not running away, I guess I won’t, either.”
Life continuously presents challenges and frustrations. Noah’s choice is the one we make daily: drown or rebuild. Look out at the world and determine that we are no match for the uncertainty and unpredictability of our life’s course, or wholeheartedly remember that our souls have the capacity for constant growth and resurgence. We are meant to get out of the ark and live.
Perhaps the most comforting message is that in life’s tumultuous journey, we are not alone. God is reassured by our willingness to survive. It is a partnership of faith — humanity’s faith that God will guide us through the murky waters and God’s faith that humanity will continue to swim.
Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman, Jewish Mindfulness Network
We are taught that God is all-knowing and constant. Yet, in our verse, we experience a God that changes. The reason God gives for sending the devastating flood in the first place, wiping out humans, is because humans “act in corrupt ways and incline toward evil.” Yet, after the flood, God’s response is different. God recognizes that humans still have evil tendencies but proclaims acceptance and vows to never wipe out humans again! The people are the same. God changes. God’s severe judgment gives way to compassion and commitment. Perhaps God accepts the reality of human nature and decides to love the people, anyway. To cement this new relationship, God confirms the stability of the seasons, and the sure cycle of day and night. Humans participate in this order by planting and harvesting. In these three verses, we can learn two profound lessons. First, if God’s heart can change from harsh damnation and give way to compassion, perhaps so can ours. Second, we can be conscious and grateful each day for the constancy of the natural order that we so often take for granted. In the midst of darkness, it is of great comfort that the sun comes up in the morning. In times of evil, the seasons continue to turn. Where (or against whom) in your life do you harbor judgment that your heart might turn toward compassion? Today, how might you appreciate being held by the rhythm of life itself?
David Brandes, film producer and screenwriter
On the sixth day of creation, God creates man and is pleased. But in the next few chapters of Genesis, it’s all downhill for man. Adam and Eve disobey God and are expelled from the “Garden.” Cain slays Abel. The rebellious generation of the Tower of Babel descends into perversity and evil. God’s cataclysmic response: the flood, in which man, animals and nature are decimated. As the story progresses, Noah leaves the ark and offers sacrifices to God. God accepts the sacrifices but reveals a damning observation: “Man is possessed of an evil nature from youth.”
This bleak story raises troubling questions. If God knew that man was flawed, why save him? Why not destroy everyone and start again? And for us mortals: If we are evil by nature, doesn’t that leave us in a state of hopelessness and despair?
If we look at the Bible as drama, and man as the ultimate flawed hero, a resolve emerges. The first part of the story, man’s ugly history, is the setup presented to explain and justify the Torah given by God to Moses later in the narrative. At its core, the law is about dealing with our fellow man, to make life pleasant for all, to overcome the evil inclination within. For it is in the laws of the Torah that the redemption of man rests. Elegantly put by Hillel, “What is hateful unto you, do not do to your friend. … This is the whole Torah.”
Redemption is hope.
Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, Director of the Sephardic Educational Center
In the beginning, you created heaven, earth and everything else, and you “saw that it was good.” You created me, and you “saw that it was very good.” But just a few chapters later, I went from being “very good” to becoming the source of your deepest regret. I was continuously thinking evil thoughts, so you decided to blot out my existence. Save for one “righteous” person, I wouldn’t be here.
After your destructive deluge, the sole survivor expressed his gratitude by offering a sacrifice. Your reaction was perplexing: You’ll never bring on another destructive flood, because “man’s imagination is evil from his youth.” But is it not you, dear God, who created me this way? Why the sudden epiphany? It took creating and nearly wiping me out to realize that I’m doomed to live with this built-in factory defect?
No wonder the “human condition” is so harsh. It’s not surprising that in the great 2 1/2- year talmudic debate on human existence, Shamai’s pessimistic conclusion — “It would have been better for man not to have been created” — ultimately won the day.
Be that as it may, I’m alive and here, leaving me no choice but to follow Hillel’s optimistic position: “Examine my deeds carefully.” In other words, I’ll try to make morals, ethics and love, as per your commandments, my sole mission on this earth. Despite the defect, dear God, I’ll try to be the best I could be.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, senior editor at Chabad.org
This is amazing. Everyone expects a miracle to be unexpected. It’s gotta break the patterns of nature. The stuff cinematic eye candy is made of.
But here is a divine promise for the greatest of miracles: The innumerable atoms, cells, organisms and celestial bodies that make up this world will harmonize into cyclical seasons so that we can plant and harvest, plan and build, raise our children and tell them to take care of this place.
That is wondrous. The more we understand, the more wondrous it becomes. Why should anything be constant in a world defined by change?
When the sun rises just a little south of where it rose yesterday, when the trees shed their suntime wear and squirrels obsess over hoarding seeds, nobody sees a miracle. Winter comes and goes, life erupts again in green, yellow, purple and red — still, nobody is surprised.
But a Jew makes a blessing in the morning to “He who spreads the earth over the waters.”
Get that? You went to sleep, there was a floor beneath your feet. You wake up, it’s still there. So you say, “Gevalt! What a miracle! God, I love how You do this!”
A Jew grabs a sandwich and makes a blessing for the miracle of “bringing bread out of the earth.” Amazing. Earth to bread! You’re eating a miracle!
So why aren’t we living in constant wonder?
That is the days of Moshiach — when we will be amazed each morning by the rising of the sun.