(This is a slightly revised version of the dvar torah I delivered last Friday evening 10/8/10 on Shabbat Noach.)
Thoughts on Noach (2010/5711)
(Gen. 6:9 – 11:12)
In Psalm 29, which we sang as part of Kabbalat Shabbat, the psalmist caps off his ode to God’s power and might with the image of “Adonai lamabul yashav”/ “The Eternal sitting enthroned at the time of the great Flood.” This week, in accordance with the Torah reading cycle, Jews around the world are revisiting the story of the flood, as we’ll do in Torah study tomorrow morning at 9:15 and during our Torah reading that comes in the midst of our 10:00 Shabbat morning service.
What prompts God to get so incensed with humanity that God decides to unleash the destructive force of ha-mabul/ the Flood? The Torah tells us that it’s because “Vatimaley ha’aretz chamas” / “The earth was filled with violence.” (Gen. 6:11) .
At the end of the flood story, with the establishment of the Noachide Covenant and with the appearance of the rainbow as its symbol, God promises never again to bring about such a flood. Sadly, however, that’s not because violence has ceased to plague the earth. Rather, it’s because, given humanity’s violent nature, God decides to set the bar lower for all of us who follow after Noah.
We have surely been reminded in recent weeks about the violence that fouls our society --- in particular, the physical and emotional violence of bullying. And, in particular, the bullying of teens who are or who are perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. This bullying, whether it involve physical assault, name-calling or cyber-bullying, is thought to have been a prime cause in a series of recent suicides including the recent suicide of Rutgers university freshman Tyler Clementi.
Like many of you, I have been very troubled in recent weeks by the story of Tyler Clementi. The exact factual circumstances behind his suicide are still the subject of criminal investigation. His roommate who broadcast Tyler’s intimate encounter with another man might not have been motivated by anti-gay hatred – he could have just been a jerk with a video camera playing a prank that turned deadly. I know that, for me at least, it FEELS different than the deadly physical assault that played out against Matthew Sheppard at this time of year 12 years ago. And it FEELS different to me than back in the 1970’s when I was in middle school and high school and I was called faggot all the time just for loving classical music and not being good at or interested in sports like football, baseball and basketball.
The world of today also FEELS different to me than that of my own high school years in terms of overall acceptance and welcoming of gay people in society. Back in the 1970’s I could never have imagined that I would be admitted to rabbinical school as an openly gay candidate and be ordained in a class in which 50% of us were gay or lesbian. Back in the 1970’s I could never have imagined that I would someday get to have a Jewish wedding to another Jewish man, under a chuppah and officiated by a rabbi -- and that my Jewish marriage would be legally recognized by my then-home state of Vermont. And back in the 1970’s I could never have imagined that I’d be hired to be a rabbi of a congregation so committed to GLBT inclusion that all three finalists for the position I was being hired for were gay or lesbian -- and that the congregation would encourage ME to participate in the local pride festival and parade.
But – I – along with all of the other queer folks in the United States -- am still treated as a second class citizen under the law of the land. And while I believe our own Temple is a true welcoming congregation – voices of intolerance nevertheless still ring out in many school playgrounds, houses of worship and legislative chambers. This can lead to feelings of despair and psychic vulnerability on the part of GLBT youth. And this can lead to feelings of entitlement and permission on the part of their bullies and tormentors.
The Torah says that Noah was a righteous man and above reproach IN HIS GENERATION and that he walked WITH God. “Ish tzadik, tamim hayah bedorotav, et ha’elohim hithalech noach” (Gen. 6:9). But in the midrashic tradition there is an argument about whether this is just faint praise – that maybe Noah could be seen as righteous IN HIS GENERATION because it was such a violent and corrupt generation, whereas in any other time he would not have been seen as being so great. By contrast Torah teaches that Abraham was righteous (without any caveat about being righteous just in his generation) -- and speaks of Abraham walking not WITH God (like Noah) but BEFORE GOD --- as we learn in Gen 17:1 where Torah teaches – God said to Abraham Hithalekh lefanay veheyey tamim. (Walk before me and be above reproach)
Noah is the guy who doesn’t commit violence himself – but still doesn’t step OUT FRONT to argue with God not to destroy the world with a flood.
Abraham is the guy who doesn’t assault and degrade defenseless strangers as do the people of Sodom and Gomorrah but he DOES STEP OUT FRONT to argue with God – to argue against the status quo and plead for compassion on the world and for the God of justice to do justly.
Perhaps in our own time Noah is the decent enough person who yet doesn’t do anything to stand up to bullies -- whereas Abraham is the guy who will.
We can and ought to step up as well -- That’s the subject of an important campaign being waged by a Boston-based organization called Keshet (You can find it on the internet at www.keshetonline.org) . “Keshet” is the Hebrew word for rainbow – like the rainbow at the sort-of-happy ending of the Noah story. Keshet's mission is to ensure that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews are fully included in all parts of the Jewish community. In the Greater Boston area, Keshet offers social and cultural events for GLBT Jews. Nationally, Keshet offers support, training, and resources to create a Jewish community that welcomes and affirms GLBT Jews.
I have joined with many Jewish congregations, clergy and congregants across the country in signing onto to the following initiative:
Do Not Stand Idly By: A Jewish Community Pledge to Save Lives
As members of a tradition that sees each person as created in the divine image, we respond with anguish and outrage at the spate of suicides brought on by homophobic bullying and intolerance. We hereby commit to ending homophobic bullying or harassment of any kind in our synagogues, schools, organizations, and communities. As a signatory, I pledge to speak out when I witness anyone being demeaned for their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. I commit myself to do whatever I can to ensure that each and every person in my community is treated with dignity and respect.
I encourage you to sign up as well by visiting www.keshetonline.org.
The bow in the cloud was a sign from God that God would never destroy the world again. Rather, it’s humanity which has the power to wreak violence, havoc and destruction. But it’s also humanity that has the power to eliminate violence from the earth. In the Jewish community in particular – we seek to work for Tikkun Olam (“repair of the world”) – when the world will be one and God’s name will be one and the promise of the rainbow will be fulfilled.