At minyan at religious school this week, we sang Rise and Shine and Give God your glory glory… after all this week we read the story of Noach/Noah and what would be more appropriate?
God said to Noach there’s gonna be a floody floody
So Noach he built them he built them an arky arky
The animals they came on, they came on by twosie twosies
It rained and poured for 40 daysie daysies
The sun came out and dried up the landy landy and
Everything was fine and dandy…
The whole story in 6 verses and a chorus.
I want to talk about two moments in the story that the song doesn’t touch on.
The first – after it rained those forty days, the Torah tells us,
7:24 And when the waters had swelled on the earth one hundred and fifty days, 8:1 God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark, and God caused a wind to blow across the earth, and the waters subsided. 2 The fountains of the deep and the floodgates of the sky were stopped up, and the rain from the sky was held back;
Notice two things about these verses. First, this is the first time we hear the words, “God remembered.” Later the Eternal will remember Rachel and Hannah and cure their infertility, and will remember the covenant made with our ancestors and begin the process of our liberation from slavery. Here, God remembers Noach and ALL living things.
The act of remembering on God’s part seems to be connected with action, just as the commandment to Remember the Sabbath requires more than thinking, “Wow it’s shabbat,” but the actions of doing something – lighting candles, coming here, resting, not creating.
Rashi, the French medieval commentator, explained that God’s remembering was tied to the movement from the middah hadin to the middah harachamim – from the quality of judgment to the quality of mercy. (Din means judgment, as in a beit din, a court, and rachamim is mercy or compassion.) God’s decision to destroy the world so recently created was seen as an act of judgment–or exasperation. Any of you ever felt that way with your kids? Or your spouse? And sometimes, I know I myself, need to remember that I love them or that they have good qualities or that I need to behave better myself… That ever happen to you?
So, after 40 days of rain and 150 days of the waters swelling, God remembered Noach and every living thing. And what did God do? While the Jewish Publication Society translation I read above says that God caused a wind to blow upon the earth, Rashi instead translates va’ya’a’vair Elohim ruach as And God sent a spirit, a spirit of consolation. Ruach Elohim is usually translated as the Spirit of God… and as Rashi notes, if God had sent a wind, well, we all know what wind does to water: it does NOT calm it, that’s for sure, and the next verse says that the waters stopped. So, to Rashi, this means that God sent a spirit of consolation upon the desolate earth, and to every still living thing…
Because after the devastation, we were going to need it, don’t you think? Imagine being pent up for a year in an Ark with your spouse, your kids and their partners, and two of every animal (in sex segregated quarters), with the rain, and the storming, and the rolling of the boat, the cries of death outside, and no books, videos, iPods… a spirit of consolation would be useful, and maybe even a wake up call to be ready to move on…
Because this story is also about how we pick up and start again. According to the Torah, it took ten days short of a year from the day the rains began to the day Noach and the family of living things left the Ark. And indeed, a amazing dance takes place before Noach is ready to leave. He sends first the raven, then a dove, then another dove, and still he waits. Noach keeps taking baby steps, and keeps hesitating, until finally, God has to tell him, “Leave the Ark” already!
Can’t you imagine being afraid of what you would find when you walked out of the Ark? I remember the trepidation I felt when we walked up the stairs to the clinic I ran after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake… And the first time I walked into my mother’s apartment after she died: what would that be like? A spirit of consolation would have been nice. And indeed facing it together with my sisters, in the second case, and my sister coworkers in the first, provided that consolation.
Noach didn’t fare so well: after he made his offerings to God, he planted a vineyard, got drunk and had an unsavory experience with his son. We learn that even a person who was completely righteous can really fumble after trauma.
I am helping an amazing organization in San Francisco develop a Center for Youth Wellness – that is based on new research that shows that adverse childhood experiences: exposure to violence, neglect, abuse, abandonment – the trials of poverty – have a molecular effect on our bodies, so that it’s not just the social context, but a cellular event that shortens life, leads to chronic health problems, academic challenges and is generally not good. I think Noach is a perfect example of this impact: here was a righteous man who did as he was told, saved humanity to start again; but after the trauma of the flood, he slipped. Who wouldn’t?
I suspect the people who have a better chance are those who know how to be mindful, who know how to remember, who know how to get in touch with their middah harachamim, their quality of mercy and compassion. and indeed that’s part of what this Center for Youth Wellness will be doing. And it is indeed what we will be studying in the three week series on Mussar that we are starting next Wednesday, November 2 at 7 pm. Please join me.