Friday, October 12, 2007

537. Parashat Noah

So much to say, so little time! In the meantime, the result of some of those hours I didn't spend writing for this blog: a d'var Torah. (There were some footnotes, which I've removed here. They attributed commentary quoted below to Nechama Lebowitz, Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, and Ismar Schorsch.)

Every year as we read Parashat Noah I think about my grandfather, after whom I was named and whose yahrzeit is next week. Like Noah, he got off a boat and began afresh in a strange new place. Also like Noah, his goodness shone like a bright light in the darkness. I grew up with stories of his kindness, humor, and compassion; his strength, arriving in New York without a penny and building a successful business while raising a happy, healthy family; his artistry and humility as a master chef. At family gatherings even those relatives who couldn’t stand one another would join in conversation about how much they loved and missed Pops. Early on, I decided I wanted to be just like him when I grew up. My parents were wonderful, but also real, alive, and flawed. But my grandfather—the memory of someone I never met—was perfect.

Then, a few months ago, my cousin made a DVD of a 52-year-old home movie of his own pidyon ha-ben, the ceremony of symbolically redeeming a newborn son with pieces of silver. I clicked “play” and watched my parents dance, younger than I ever knew them, and saw a grey-haired man alone on a sofa in the background, frowning, staring at the floor. With shock I recognized Pops, just a few months before his sudden death from a stroke. I rewound the video again and again, wondering why he looked nothing like the man with the generous smile and twinkling eyes I knew so well from photos. Was he already sick? Why was no one sitting next to him? Was he angry, unhappy, in the middle of an argument? I had never before associated these words with my grandfather, never considered that he was human and so his goodness must have been tempered with other, less pleasant qualities. But in that instant, even as I was saddened to understand this truth, I felt more connected to his story than ever before.

My grandfather had imperfection in common with Noah, as well. Noah was “a righteous man, blameless in his age” (Genesis 6:9), read by many commentators as faint praise; if his generation had been less corrupt, he might not have seemed so great. And although Noah was strong and brave once the storm came and passed, he followed orders blindly in order to get there. He neither acted of his own free will, like Abraham setting off into the wilderness, nor seemed to have the guts to try and save anyone but himself while all other living beings perished. A modern commentator asks:

“Even in the last moments when Noah boards the ark, he is silent. What if instead, Noah, like Abraham, argued with God? Or asked God for mercy? Or refused to board the ark?”

He is vulnerable and insecure. His generation soon grows as evil as their ancestors’; did Noah, I wonder, ever conquer his past weakness and try to stop humanity from repeating its mistakes? Although God promises to keep God’s future wrath under control, I imagine Noah suffering from the ancient equivalent of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Still terrified by the outcome of his inaction, I hear him warning his community over and over that evil can lead to doom. No one listens; he gets frustrated; he drinks to escape his despair. Did Noah ever wish he had perished the first time around rather than witness an ungrateful, unrepentant humankind?

There are also gaps, for me, in the text of my grandfather’s life. I can only imagine what his struggles were, but the look on his face in that video told me there were many. Did he ever regret his decision to start from scratch in a strange country rather than endure predictable hardship in Probuzhna, Russia? On the surface, it seems as if neither man had a choice; you can’t say no to God, just as you can’t watch your family suffer in oppression and poverty. But they did choose—to live good, honorable lives during unbearable times rather than face sure, slow deaths.

The actions of both men merited God’s approval. My grandfather experienced God’s covenant daily through his freedom and safety in America. Noah saw it in the rainbow, which always seemed like a strange symbol of promise to me. Its awesome beauty is temporary, made of air. It has no definite beginning or end, whereas God’s other convenants—brit milah, the commandments etched in stone—are concrete and physical. Popular culture has made the rainbow into a symbol of perfection, but in reality it’s quite the opposite. It comes and goes with the shimmer of the atmosphere; we catch it only in enchanted glances.

But in other ways I think the rainbow is a perfect sign of God’s covenant in the face of our own flaws. The rainbow represents what really keeps us alive: a bridge of stories, memories of both the good and the bad that shine alone like droplets in the sun and then, all together in utter beauty as Torah, span one generation to the next.

My grandfather, a baker by trade, never let his family eat fresh bread. He maintained that it was at its best flavor a day out of the oven—when no longer perfect. I think the same is true of humanity. The parts of us that achieve only fleeting loveliness and, like a rainbow, grow weaker behind clouds, are what compel us to strive to improve and create better lives for generations that follow. Like a potter fashioning a bowl over and over again until it’s smooth and even, God also took a few tries to get us right. I believe this awareness can bring us closer to God, and to each other, as we learn to see our common flaws and struggles. One day we many even save those with whom we share this world, just as Noah and my grandfather did.

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