Rabbi Anna Gerrard, 20 October 2017
This month my six-year-old received a new book from the PJ Library called Adam’s Animals. It tells the story of Adam in the garden of Eden, discovering and naming all of the animals in God’s creation. As Adam was faced with an increasingly bizarre array of animals, it took me a while to realize that the book was following an alphabetical order. There was an Aardwolf and a Dik-dik; there was a Tapir and a Xebu. It left me wondering what was wrong with A is for Ant, D is for Dog. But then I realized that a Xebu or a Pudu or a Rhesus may well be common animals to some children in the world.
The book got me thinking about our egocentrism as white Europeans and the way that we transpose it onto our traditions. As Liberal Jews, we may believe in theory in pluralism and universalism and seek to promote a multi cultural understanding of the world. But when we read this week’s Torah portion and tell the story of Noah and his Ark to our children, at home or in Religion School, how many of us will include Pudus or Ocelots in the list of animals going in two by two? Both the creation narrative on the story of Noah are supposed to represent the beginning of all of humanity and yet this book that came through our door was the first time that I have been confronted with what that would really look like.
If we truly want our children to grow up seeing the world through other people’s eyes, then maybe we have to start with our own stories, making sure they reflect the universalism we preach. Let’s start this Shabbat with Noah:
“The animals went in two by two, Hurrah! Hurrah!
The animals went in two by two, Hurrah! Hurrah!
The animals went in two by two,
the Narwhal and the Great Xebu,
and they all went into the ark for to get out of the rain.”
Rabbi Alexandra Wright, 20 October 2017
Ask any child which story they remember best from the Torah and the answer will inevitably be Noah and the Flood, followed closely by a vague memory of Moses bringing some people out of Egypt.
Noah, a righteous man in his generation is married with three sons, Shem, Ham and Japhet. Although God seems to have only just completed the work of creation – a monumental task of great beauty and achievement – within generations, the earth has become corrupt and filled with violence. “I am going to wipe all creation – humanity and all creatures – off the earth. Only you and your family will be saved,” says God to Noah.
And so he instructs him to build an ark, with a roof and a door and three decks. For God is going to bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy everything that lives under the heavens.
Noah and his household and the animals to be saved enter the ark and down comes the rain, for forty days and forty nights, wiping out all that exists from the face of the earth. The rains cover the earth until there is a very great flood, and every mountain and hill is completely covered with water. Nothing can be seen except the vast expanse of grey sky. And everything that has the breath of life in its nostrils is destroyed. But the waters continue to tower over the earth for 150 days and then God remembers Noah and the waters began to subside and the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat. Forty days later, Noah sends out a raven to see if the water has dried up from the earth’s surface, but the raven finds nowhere to rest. So he sends out a dove, but the dove can find nowhere to rest her foot so she returns to the ark until Noah sends her out again. That evening she comes back with a freshly plucked olive branch in her beak and Noah knows that the waters have eased.
And when the water has completely receded, he brings all the animals, birds and beasts who have been in his care out of the ark. He builds an altar to God in thanksgiving and God makes a momentous promise never again to destroy the earth and the creatures that live on earth. And this is the sign of the covenant, this promise – a rainbow appears in the sky – a multi-coloured spectrum of light.
There are two crucial verses in this Torah portion, one at the beginning and one at the end of the story. At the very beginning, the Torah gives us the reason for the Flood. It’s not an argument between the gods or because human noise annoys the gods as we find in ancient Babylonian flood stories. It is because, as the Torah says: Va-tishacheit ha-aretz lifney ha-elohim, va’timalé ha-aretz chamas – “the earth has become corrupt before God and the earth is filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11).
There is trouble in the world: beheadings, burnings, stabbings and shootings. It is a world whose inhabitants are filled with fear. They fear for their own lives and for the lives close to them. Nothing is predictable; human vulnerability is not a strength that calls forth sensitivity and empathy with others, but the terrifying possibility of not knowing from day to day whether one is going to live or die. It is for this reason that we learn at the end of last week’s Torah portion that God regrets having made human beings and is full of sorrow and sick of heart.
It is this divine response to evil that binds human and divine experience, says Tamara Cohn Eskenazi in her commentary to this verse. “The Bible portrays God not as a detached figure but rather as deeply responsive to humankind” (Women’s Torah, page 26). God struggles with us and eventually loses patience with human beings.
The second verse of importance in the Flood story comes at the end as God blesses Noah and his family and commands them, for the second time in the Torah, to be fruitful and multiply. Here God gives Noah and all human beings the law that commands us not to eat any flesh with its ‘lifeblood’ still in it and a law that singles out human life for special care – “Anyone who sheds blood, by another will their blood be shed, for human beings were made in the image of God.” Murder is a crime against God, a diminishing of the divine image.
That is the tragedy of what is happening in parts of the world where there is conflict, war and violence. Human beings are infinitely precious and we can only weep with God and pray that order and peace shall come.
The Torah teaches us that you cannot have a safe and peaceful society without order and without law. Law and justice have the capacity to transform a society from a place of violence and the arbitrary use of weapons to a place of peace, where life has infinite value. The appearance of the rainbow – in Hebrew ‘keshet’ – symbolises that transformation from keshet – a bow, a weapon of war, to the keshet in the sky, a symbol of the covenant and peace. May God guard our comings in and going out and bring peace soon and in our days.
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