This week we will be reading from the Torah portion, Parashat Noach (the story of Noah, the Tower of Babel, etc). But right at the end of last week’s portion we read the words from Genesis:
5 The Eternal one saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. 6 And the Eternal One regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. 7 The Eternal One said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created — men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them. 8 But Noah found favour with the Eternal One.”
The language of this section of the Torah is full of word plays. The name Noah is itself a play on the discomfort (regret) that God feels with the world:
נח – וינחם
Noach – Vayinachem
And Noach, which means repose or rest, is also a mirror of the grace/favour that he finds in God who is discomforted:
וינחם – נח – חן
This is of course well known to interpreters and biblical scholars, though not identifiable in the English translation.
However, two things have been grabbing my attention this week as violence once more unfolds between the Palestinians and Israelis, with frightening numbers of terror attacks occurring in recent days (on top of the violence and destruction we’ve been seeing on our televisions in the wider Middle East and the refugee crisis which is looming larger than ever and is successfully being ignored, better than ever).
1- The first is the somewhat childish sense of starting over again. The Noah story is a description of the failed project of creation and God starting all over again. In other words, the Garden of Eden ends in failure due to human nature and so God gets to recycle everything and try again. As a parent it’s one of the strategies to use when your child makes a mistake in an activity and is upset – you can suggest ignoring the mistake, putting a line through it, turning the mistake into something beautiful, throwing the piece of paper away and starting again.
Here’s why I’ve been stuck on this sentiment. We just don’t have the luxury of starting again. Would that we could wind back the clock or scrub out our errors and start again. And would we want to even if we could? The world is certainly a mess at the moment, but Divine intervention is not going to sort us out. We’ve got to figure out a way to make this world inhabitable for all of us. We’re stuck with this little planet, with each other and with human nature. So we’ve got to stop destroying and start repairing. We don’t have the luxury of any other option. Now if only we could convince everyone of that…
2 – The second thing that has been playing on my mind is the verse I quote in the header of this post. “It grieved him in his heart” or alternatively translated, “His heart was saddened”. It took me back to a chassidut class with Rabbi Pesach Schindler at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem where I studied. I was not the best student of the classes of the Rosh HaYeshiva who is an expert on chassidut (Chasidism) and chassidic music. But this class has stuck with me.
We studied a small piece of the Maor VaShemesh on parashat Noach. After a discussion of how the text describes how the quality of sadness or grief diminishes the service of God (which of course, we can debate since grief should not always be viewed negatively) and that one must strive to retain a sense of joy in the face of overwhelming, generational, pessimism or sadness, the text concludes:
וזה פירוש הפסוק איש צדיק תמים היה בדורותיו. רצ”ל שמשבח את הצדיק נח, שאפילו בדורותיו שהיו רשעים ומכעיסים נגד רצונו יתברך-שמו היה מתחזק בצדקתו לעבוד את ה’ יתברך-שמו בשמחה, וזה נרמז במלת היה כדאיתא בכמה מקומות במדרש שכל מקום שנאמר ‘והיה’ הוא לשון שמחה
This is the interpetation of the verse ‘[Noah was] a righteous person and whole hearted in his generation’ (Genesis 6:9). That is to say, Noah the righteous was praiseworthy, for even though his generation was wicked and provocative against the will of God, Noah held on to his righteousness to serve God with joy. This is hinted at in the word ‘hayah’ as demonstrated in countless places in the midrash (see for example Bereshit Rabbah 42:3, etc.). For any place in which it says ‘vehayah’ is the language of joy.
So here we find a sentiment that Noah’s righteousness was, in part, bound up with his commitment to joyfulness – perhaps we might read optimism or hopefulness. In the face of overwhelming generational negativity, he remains committed to the joyous path. Joy is contrasted directly with sadness. What is astounding, if one reads this commentary, is that the sadness or grief is not only a human experience. It is also God who is riven with grief (the same word that the Maor VaShemesh describes as the negative tendency in serving God) – The heart of God is saddened and because of that the world is destroyed. It doesn’t get much more negative than that.
This is not a call to ignore feelings of sadness and grief. They are part of the experience of life, even if we wish we didn’t experience the pain. Rather, I think the Maor VaShemesh here points to something else – he is not talking about one individual’s grief. He is referring to a generational and global experience. In the face of overwhelming adversity, when the world seems filled, in our generation, with wickedness and provocation, we must retain the sense of mission and purpose of our existence. We must shine the light of hope, not bring on the shadow of despair. We must repair not destroy. We must increase and not decrease in joy. May this be humanity’s will.
The video by the group Lola has been going through my mind for the last few days. It is a contemporary Israeli text that weaves images of the story of Noah. The words are translated in subtitles on the video. We long for days of sheket – days of quietness. May they be soon in our days.