Parashat Noach: when we don’t confront catastrophe we enable it; or -we have to stop taking the world for granted if we want it to survive

The stories within parashat Noach are among the most frightening – and the most relevant – ones we could be reading right now.

While the narratives of the Flood and of the Tower of Babel are well known to us, there is another thread we tend to overlook. It is the story of how, when returned to dry land, Noah built a vineyard, made wine and stupefied himself with it so that he exposed himself in his tent, causing one son to see and tell, the other two to carefully cover him without themselves looking at their father in such a humiliating and vulnerable state.

There is a Midrash that is telling about this post diluvian Noah.

“When Noah came out of the ark, he opened his eyes and saw the whole world completely destroyed. He began crying for the world and said, God, how could you have done this? … God replied, Oh Noah, how different you are from the way Abraham … will be. He will argue with me on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah when I tell him that I plan their destruction… But you, Noah, when I told you I would destroy the entire world, I lingered and delayed, so that you would speak on behalf of the world. But when you knew you would be safe in the ark, the evil of the world did not touch you. You thought of no one but your family. And now you complain? Then Noah knew that he had sinned” (Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Noach).

Noah is introduced to us right at the beginning of the story as “a righteous man in his generation”, and quite rightly the rabbis do not see this as a great compliment. The qualifying phrase “in his generation” makes it clear that his righteousness is relative rather than absolute. So this just about good-enough man is enabled to survive in order to begin the world afresh. But as starts to face the future, he realises all that he had not done, that his selfishness and narrow vision had allowed the great destruction to happen, that it didn’t have to be like this.

Noah, facing the new world, cannot actually face the past and his part in it, nor really can he move on into the future. He just gets stupefyingly, paralytically drunk, and his sons are forced to deal with the consequences. The younger one does not know what to do – Midrash suggests that he actually assaults his naked father as he lies dead to the world – but at the very least he does nothing;  the older ones treat him with more respect, but reading the text one has the feeling that they simply cannot bear to see their father lying there, seeing what he has become. By covering him they are also trying to cover up everything that Noah has symbolises – his passivity, his refusal to engage with the situation God tells him of, his lack of compassion for other living beings, his lack of any timely compassion at all and his inability to deal with the consequences of his own inaction.

Upon waking, Noah curses Canaan, the child of his younger son, and blesses God on behalf of the other two, giving them an approximation of a blessing.

Why? Why curse Canaan, the child of Ham who saw him naked? Why not Ham himself? Noah is passing the pain down the generations, to those who are neither present nor responsible for the destruction. His own drunken misery becomes a curse for some of his descendants.

The truth that Noah doesn’t want to face is that he is in a new world now. A world washed clean of the violence and horror of the past, but also washed away – its resources, its people, and its structures all gone. This is no longer the world of miraculous creation, when God walked among the people in the Garden, and oversaw the perfection of the world. We are now in a world that Nechama Leibowitz described as ‘post miraculous’ a world where suddenly there are obligations – the seven mitzvot of the b’nei Noah are given here, … “It was in this renewed world — the world destined to be our world and not in the earlier, miraculous world — that saw the opening of the gate to the conflict between the values of  tikkun olam (perfection of the world) and Humanity .Avraham, who appears at the end of Parashat Noach is the person who takes upon himself the mission of perfecting the world as Kingdom of God, rather than taking the world for granted as Noach had done”

Noach took the world for granted. When warned by God of what was to happen, he took that for granted too. And when the worst had happened and the world was washed away leaving Noah and his family to begin it once again, he failed to do what was necessary, and it took another ten generations – till that of Abraham, for the relationship between God and human beings to flower once more.

It is interesting to me that this parashah began with the phrase, “These are the descendants of Noah,” yet does not go on to list any people, but rather begins a discussion of Noah’s attributes. One commentator suggests that this teaches us that what a person “leaves behind” in the world is not only children, but also the effects of their deeds.

Noah left behind both of course – everyone in the world is a descendant of this man if the flood story is to be believed, and so everyone is obligated to the mitzvot of b’nei Noach. But he also left behind the effect of his behaviours, deeds both committed and omitted.

Noah did not help to perfect the world. He allowed it to be washed away.  He didn’t appreciate the value of the world at all, focussing only on his own family and his own needs. Only after it was gone was he able to understand what was lost, and even then he was not able to deal with this loss. He curses a part of his family into perpetuity, his descendants go on to build the Tower of Babel in order to in some way find a purpose and meaning in their continued existence, and maybe also to challenge the divine using their newly created technology. So they too are forced to confront catastrophe as they are scattered across the world and left unable to communicate with each other. It takes ten generations, with the emergence of Avraham, for the world to begin to heal itself.

Like Noah we too are facing a time when the world seems to be set on a pathway to destruction: climate change, global heating, over fishing, the rainforest which once covered 14% of the earth’s surface now covers less than 8%, with all the consequences of loss of species that involves, years long droughts and famines.  We can see the warnings of destruction, we know the consequences of what is happening now, yet somehow we walk about in a dream, neither warning each other nor challenging what is happening. We spend our time trying to ensure only that we and our families can be safe, that our houses are weatherproofed, that our pantries are stocked. We are behaving no differently than Noah. And if we give it some thought and project our ideas into the near future, we can see than those who survive this environmental tumult will not have the resources to cope.

It is our job to take the story of Noah seriously – not as a good enough man who was saved from cataclysm because he did what God said without question, but as a man who was at least righteous in his generation, someone who hadn’t completely surrendered to the corruption and destructive activities around him. And we should see the consequences of his inactions too – that the world he allowed his children to inherit was damaged and fragile and took generations to heal.

Pirkei Avot reminds us that Rabbi Tarphon said “We are not obligated to complete the task; neither are we free to abstain from it” (2:21). So how do we begin to address the problem? The answer comes from a number of sources – the most clear being that every small step matters. As Maimonides wrote about Teshuvah, “one should consider the entire world as if it were exactly balanced between acts of righteousness and evil. The very next action you take, therefore, can save or condemn the world

Parashat Tetzaveh: the Ner Tamid is not only a symbolic reminder, but one that tells us to tend our relationship with God

Every synagogue has within it a Ner Tamid, a constant and continuously illuminating light that burns above the Ark. There are a variety of ideas about exactly what it symbolises – it is often associated with the menorah, the seven-branched lamp stand which stood in front of the Temple in Jerusalem. Or with the continuously-burning incense altar which stood in front of the Ark. Our sages interpreted the Ner Tamid as a symbol of God’s eternal and imminent Presence in our communities and in our lives – essentially it is a symbol of the eternal nature of our Covenant with God.

In Parashat Tetzaveh, Aaron is charged with the duty of attending the Ner Tamid – Le’ha’alot Ner Tamid – a verb that doesn’t actually mean “to light” (which would, like the Shabbat candle blessing be ‘lehadlik” but instead literally means ‘to cause to rise up’ or ‘to elevate’ the eternal light.  We are told that every evening Aaron goes into the tabernacle and lights the seven lamps of the menorah (candlestick) so that they will burn and illuminate through the night,  and he ‘elevates’ the Ner Tamid too. So does this mean that the light of the Ner Tamid is like that of the menorah, not a perpetual flame but one that burns out each day?

The great medieval commentator Rashi asks about the unusual verb that is used – Le’ha’alot Ner Tamid, and says “one should deal with the flame and tend it so that it rises on its own” So Aaron would not actually have to relight the Ner Tamid, he would have to nurture it (trimming the wick or adding the oil) until the flame rose on its own. So this instruction to Aaron about the raising of the light of the Ner Tamid is nothing to do with illumination or lighting the lamp, it is about the nurturing of an existing flame, about the daily renewal of something profoundly important.

The Ner Tamid symbolises the eternal nature of our covenant with God – the real relationship that is always present – if not always acknowledged – between us and God. And just as the Ner Tamid needs regular and frequent tending, so does our relationship with God need regular and frequent attention if it is to be at its best.

In Pesikta de Rav Kahana – an Aramaic collection of midrashim, we find the story of Rabbi Aha, who says of the Ner Tamid that Israel is the olive tree and God is the lamp. When oil from the olive tree is put into the lamp, then the two together give light as one unity. So the Holy One will say to Israel “My children, since My light is your light and your light is My light, let us go together, you and I, and give light to Zion”.

The purpose of our covenant with God is to work to bring more light into the world, to make the world a better place by collaborating with the creator to bring about justice and righteousness in our world. If we see a Ner Tamid simply as a beautiful artefact hanging in a frequently empty building, then we miss the point that it is making – that each of us must make a daily effort to enlighten and improve our world.

Parashat Terumah: Building the space for a non incarnate God to not dwell – the elevation of giving

In parashat Terumah we are given the instructions for building a sacred place, and a very detailed directive it is. Almost an architect’s blueprint. It seems all the more strange that such a clear and comprehensive picture is drawn for the building in which a totally abstract and absolutely non incarnate God may (or may not) dwell.

The sacred place is described as “mishkan”, the place of dwelling, yet that is decidedly what it is not. It is, instead, a signal to remind the Israelites that God is among them – and God makes this clear in the instructions for the Children of Israel to build the sanctuary – “Make a mishkan so that I will dwell among them.”

The Torah makes clear that this mishkan is to be symbol and metaphor of the relationship between God and the people who are in covenant bond with God. It is to describe, in a variety of different ways, the relationship between them; it will even in some way create the relationship, it will certainly make clear some of the central requirements.

To begin with, God involves and obliges the whole people. “Daber el bnei Yisrael va’yikhu li trumah me’eyt kol ish asher yid’vennu libbo, tikhu li et trumati – Speak to the Israelite people and accept for Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them” (Ex25:2) Because the mishkan is to serve the entire community, it must also be constructed through the involvement of the entire community. But this is not a tax on the people; instead Moses is to accept the free will offerings of the people. The Terumah is specifically something set aside by its owner and dedicated for sacred use.   In other words, the people must be in the habit of thinking of their property not as theirs alone, but as something over which they have current charge – much, I suppose, as we are encouraged to think of our children. The use of this property therefore is to do the best we can with it – it is only a loan to us, not our exclusive asset. For the people to give a portion of their property to a sacred purpose, willingly and with the intention of creating a better world, is an implicit assumption behind the building of the mishkan.

The word Terumah is an interesting one. Its root is from RAM – to lift up, to elevate. Presumably it derives from the physical act of lifting up that which is offered to God, but there are Chasidic teachings that the act of offering a gift to God elevates not so much the gift as the giver. We are told that those who collect for charitable purposes must ensure that they have pure intentions before they start, but those who give to charity don’t have to be so worthy – the act of giving purifies them ( (Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev/ Shalom of Kaminiki).

So the giving must be from everyone, it must be offered willingly with the understanding that God is the source of all, as part of the working construct that we must acknowledge God’s place in our world.

The mishkan is also the demonstrable proof that the agreement at Sinai is working. When Moses repeated to the Children of Israel all the commands of God and all the rules, at the theophany at Mt. Sinai, we are told that they replied “All that the Eternal has spoken, we will faithfully do” (Ex24:3,7etc) The phrase ‘na’aseh v’nishma’ – ‘we will do and we will understand’ – the literal response of the people, is borne out here in the building of a sacred space which is both the dwelling place and emphatically NOT the dwelling place of God. . In building the mishkan they will take the step into putting into material practise what has only now been a verbal agreement.   In building the mishkan they will learn much more about God.

When people built holy places in the ancient world, they were constructed to house the image of the deity to whom they were dedicated. This holy place was different, for there was to be no image at all. It is – if you will pardon the expression – a graphic representation of the non-representation of the Jewish God.

However there was something in the mishkan, and that something was the Ark, the first of the furniture of the mishkan to be described, and lovingly detailed. The Ark and its cover were explicated carefully, and the Torah instructed the people that the ‘Edut’ the witnessing, was to be placed in the Ark. Quite what was it that was to go into the Ark? Edut is an ancient word meaning covenant or treaty – and it seems that what went into the Ark was the physical container of that treaty – the tablets of the brit (covenant), the stones on which were written the ten commandments.

cherubimIn the ancient Near East, there would be boxes placed under the throne of the ruler, and in those boxes would be placed the laws of the land, and the treaties made with other peoples. In effect, the foundation of the throne of the monarch was a box which stored the laws.

The Ark contained the Edut, the treaty of the children of Israel with God. It is, in effect, the box at the base of the throne of the divine monarch. It would have been very clear to the people of the time that the presence of the Ark pointed up the absence of the throne above it – a clear symbol of the abstractness, yet absolute monarchy of God. Above the Ark was the kapporet, the cover made of a flat sheet of gold, from whose two ends rose two cherubim. God told Moses that he would meet Moses there “I will speak to you from above the kapporet, from between the two cherubim” (Ex 25:22). There is no description of the cherubim, though one can safely assume that they were not the chubby figures of gently winged angelic babies we see depicted in religious art. It may be that they are related in some way to the verb karov, to be near, the word which we use to denote the way of prayer (drawing near) implicit in the making of sacrifice. It may be that they are related to the Akkadian word ‘kuribu’ originally meaning ‘to pray’, but also used to describe creatures which were part human, part bird and part beast, and which would guard the entrance to pagan temples and petition the deities on behalf of the worshippers.

Whatever the cherubim were, they were clearly of significance, not the least being that they symbolised the difference of this understanding of God from any other – they could not petition a deity for there was none in the holy place to petition. Instead they highlighted the abstract nature of the Jewish God, the absence of a discernible throne, the absence of a depiction of the deity. The book of psalms (99:1) describes God as one who is yoshev ha kruvim – the one who rests upon the cherubim. The cherubim, like the Edut, represent the base of the throne of God – a throne which is not built, a throne which will remain empty.   When God speaks, it is from above the Ark, from between the cherubim, from a place outside of space.

When all the people willingly bring their offerings to create the place that represents an understanding of God they are still finding difficult (witness the golden calf episode that began this enterprise); when they elevate themselves by giving, when they demonstrate their understanding that God is the source of their wealth and their possessions, when they deliberately build a shrine that is to remain empty, a throne that does not exist, then God dwells among them. The building of the mishkan teaches us so much about Jewish values and Jewish community, and it points out to us the limit of our understanding of God.