October 20, 2023
Unimaginably long ago, our sacred story tells us, God regretted creating humanity. God had second thoughts. The creation, in just ten generations, had come a long way from the perfection of its beginning – the decline notably underway with the first murder as retold in last week’s parashah: the slaying of Abel by his brother Cain.
God makes a remarkable decision – not to destroy the entire world and start over, but rather to save Noah and his family, along with two of each kind of animal. The “righteous one of his generation” will partner with God in the rebirth of the world. The Etz Chayim chumash notes: “God continues with the same creatures human beings, blessed with free will and cursed with the tendency to misuse that free will, who have brought matters to that point. Noah’s capacity for righteousness gives God cause for hope.” (41)
God gives Noah detailed instructions for the construction of the ark that will save them during the flood that will destroy the rest of the world. Included in these directions: “Make an opening (tzohar) for daylight in the ark” (Gen. 6:16)
This week, the darkness, the forces of destruction, swirl around us like an overwhelming flood. Our massacred Jewish brothers and sisters are still being identified and buried; 200 of our brothers and sisters are still in captivity; many individuals and groups, those with whom we have stood up against injustice against other groups, those we thought were our friends – seem to find it impossible to speak out unequivocally against terror when that terror targets Jews, and many are simply silent as our people suffer the greatest horrors since the Shoah. We are hurting, both from the incomprehensible devastation – family after family entirely wiped out, or in the case of some children, left as the only surviving family member – the ungraspable (I keep hearing on the Israeli news the words “bilti nitpas” – ungraspable) brutality of the terrorist group, backed by Iran, rejoicing in the murder, kidnapping, and torture of the most vulnerable.
These forces of darkness, these floodwaters, are unlike anything we have experienced in three generations. What is our ark – what must we build to keep our heads above water – to partner with God, like Noah, in rebuilding the world? I come back to the image of the “tzohar” – this opening for daylight.
First, and perhaps most difficult: We need to tend to our hearts, lest they harden. As we try to protect ourselves from the forces of destruction, we must not remain in the darkness below deck. It is frightening to make an opening through which light can stream through, because it is difficult to notice the light, to identify it as light, when our hearts are in a terrified, defensive state.
I have been hurt by the silence (or the justification, God forbid, by “contextualizing,” giving approval to terrorism as an act of “resistance” against Israel) of individuals and communities that I wish would reach out to us, the Jewish people, in allyship, in support, even simply in condolence, with empathy. I want the world to care about the utter devastation that has been and continues to be suffered by Israelis and by the entire Jewish people. It is easy for me to notice only the silence, or the horrific justifications, whether explicit or implicit. But I want to share a couple of instances when the light has found its way to me, allowing my heart to soften even a bit, to let go of some of the fear, the anger, the profound disappointment and even resignation; some moments in which I was called to remember that as a Jew it is my duty to have hope, to build an opening for daylight in the ark.
Last night, a rabbinic colleague in New York shared a letter which a local church’s youth group had sent to him, signed by the kids and the pastor – which simply stated: “we write to express our deepest condolences for the loss of life suffered in the attack on Israel…we value your presence in our community…we are praying for peace in Israel and your safety and security here.” The simple expression of empathy – the reminder that we need to “look for the helpers” – opened my heart. (To quote Mister Rogers, who said that when our kids see scary things in the world, we must always teach them to “look for the helpers. There are always helpers” – this is like making the opening for the daylight in the ark!)
Last Friday night, at our Shabbat service for comfort and connection, we were joined by our State Representative Tommy Vitolo, who cried with us, embraced us, and expressed such deep empathy, just human to human. It meant so much to have a non-Jew, a leader in our community, simply show up and be present. On Saturday morning, upon returning home from leading a wonderful, life-giving Bat Mitzvah, I found blue and white flowers poking out of my mailbox, with a card from our neighbors, expressing empathy and support.
We learn from this week’s Torah portion of Noach that when faced with seemingly insurmountable, overpowering forces of destruction (today this includes the forces themselves, and those who stand idly by, or tell us that the destruction is justified), we need to do two essential things. 1) We need to build an ark — we need to gather together in order to ride out the storm and survive to build a new world. 2) We need to create an opening for daylight. We cannot stay entirely below deck, with the flood swirling around us, turning inward and focused only on our physical survival. We need the opening not only to allow the daylight to reach us – these rays of hope in the form of empathy – but also to allow us to bring our light outward. We, as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, taught us, are “the people of hope.” There must remain, even in deepest darkness, a point of connection between our hearts and the world. God does not destroy everyone and everything and move on to create a new world by Godself. God makes the remarkable decision that God needs humanity – and that even if there is a single spark – one man who was “righteous in his generation,” that means humanity is worth saving, and can partner with God in the rebuilding of the world, the blossoming of life once again.
The great singer Leonard Cohen was inspired by the Kotzker Rebbe, the Hasidic figure who wrote “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” Cohen helped us understand this teaching when he wrote: “There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” May the cracks in our hearts during this time of shock, horror, mourning, and fear, be as a tzohar, an “opening for daylight,” in the ark we must build out of the unity of our people as we defy the forces of destruction and insist, as we always have, on building a better world.
Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman