It is difficult to speak of biblical flood stories when there are those still suffering from literal flooding in Texas, in Florida, in Puerto Rico, in the Caribbean.
It is difficult to speak of a mass natural disaster, when thousands are homeless, ravaged by fires in California and earthquakes in Mexico.
It is difficult to speak of mass human death, when we are still reeling from death in Somalia; in Niger; in Las Vegas.
But here we are this week at parashat Noach – one of the most famous of Torah stories, one that we must acknowledge, is filled with destruction and death.
How are we to work towards repairing the very real death and destruction around us, if we are just up against a God who permits such devastation?
I’m not suggesting that our own generation is as corrupt or lawless as the generation of Noah, but surely, through this story of destruction and ultimate rebirth, the Torah is hinting that the sustaining of existence in every generation is contingent upon our sense of moral responsibility.
But that super-natural flood… the virtual wiping out of humanity. It is a horrific story. That’s a tough vehicle for a moral lesson.
So perhaps we approach the story of Noah with a dose of skepticism… it’s biblical fantasy. A child’s tale. Or with resentment: what need have I of a vengeful God?
In times of destruction and catastrophe, Rabbi Jonathan Slater notes:
“What faith many of us have, is not in a God who seems not to be there (or [not] too interested in preventing disaster), but in the human capacity to work for the good…
Yet, what is it that energizes that human capacity? What sustains it in the face of seemingly intractable problems, confronted by the recurrent outburst of human cruelty and selfishness?
What keeps the spirit afloat when overwhelmed by so much suffering, deluged in disaster?”
The 20th century Hasidic Slonimer Rebbe was similarly perplexed by our parasha and these questions. His answer reveals some of the sublime wisdom bubbling beneath the surface of the story. When facing devastation, he taught, even in our own generations, we can do what Noah did: “Aseh l’cha Teivah” – “Make for yourself an ark.”
Not a massive boat to protect from torrential rains, but an inner ark. A protective spiritual lifeboat.
We need to recognize the moments when we, too, may have sunk to the lowest depths. It is difficult. But, the Rebbe teaches, there is hope in these moments, just as there was hope for Noah and his family.
Just as Noah set about gathering wood and pitch to assemble an ark to protect his family, we need to set about doing work to protect that which is sacred to us.
How loving of God, the Rebbe teaches, that we have implanted within all of us a divine spark. A small bit full of pureness without any wrong (od me’at v’ein rasha). And it is from this spark that – like Noah rebuilding humanity – we can build up a life of goodness. No matter the corruption or evil around us, it is in our power to rise up due to that spark.
The Slonimer Rebbe paints us an intense image of how this looks:
It is like a ship has sunk, and there is someone drowning in the sea, and a plank from the ship floats by, which saves them. If we have even one thing that we keep with all of our might, no matter what, we can be saved from even the worst possible situations… Even in the worst situations – even when “The earth becomes corrupt before God” – we have the power to return to our root-source, which serves as our own “Noah’s Ark.”
That spark, that little bit of goodness, can be a Noah’s Ark to save us from becoming a generation like that of the flood. This is what might energize us, what might sustain us when confronting devastation, cruelty, and selfishness. It is what can keep the spirit afloat against otherwise overwhelming torrents.
If only we would devote ourselves to realizing that piece goodness within us, and fully devote ourselves to a life of practice around it, we could spread so much goodness through the world.
And here’s what’s a stake: in a way, we are like everyone else from the generation of Noah. Ultimately, we only get one chance at getting this life right. This is our only life. We don’t get a dress rehearsal. It is filled with peaks and valleys, moments where we feel tugged down by the undertow, and others where we soar high like the dove of peace.
But to reach those heights, we first need an awareness of when we might be in the depths; when we might be in a moment of flood.
From Rabbi Slater: “We first need to acknowledge how bad things seem: the world is a mess, people can be cruel and self-serving… Speaking the truth in this manner can actually bring relief: we no longer deny what it is that we see…
The second step is to [follow the wisdom of the Slonimer Rebbe; to] sit with our own hearts, to come to know our selves more clearly… [Like we do throughout the High Holidays], we can review our lives and rediscover when and how we were able to act with integrity, care for others, commit to the common good over our selfish interests. In this, we uncover a core of goodness, a spontaneous and natural desire to bring healing and freedom to all beings. Instead of despair, instead of failure, we find connection, aspiration, hope.”
This is what parashat Noach offers us: a vivid symbol of how me can protect the most important parts of our lives, so that we can build the world of the dove of peace.