Parshat Noach | October 17, 2015
This is a difficult week to be giving a sermon. It’s Parashat Noach, the great story of Noah’s Ark, and there are so many interesting, beautiful messages that come out of this reading. I wanted to give a sermon about the image of the rainbow – where it comes from, what it represents, but I can’t. I wanted to compare our own flood story, the similar stories in ancient near-eastern mythology. Why is this same event present in so many cultures? But I can’t. I wanted to discuss the Tower of Babel, the idea of trying to build a tower to the heavens as a way of interacting with God. But I can’t.
I can’t give any of these sermons because in the words of the great poet Yehudah Ha-Levi, “here I am in the uttermost west, but my heart is in the east.” My heart is in the east this week as Israel faces a new wave of terror attacks. Not from an organized military group, but from young men and women, who are encouraged take up their knives and attack whatever Jews they can find. From the young 13-year-old boy who stabbed an Israeli teenager, to the man who drove his car into a bus stop and then took his axe to the nearest person he could find, to the group of protesters who set fire to the tomb of Joseph, the news has been filled with these attacks. Each day this week, I woke up afraid to see what the news would bring.
It seems like there are different reactions people take at a time like this. There are some of us who seek justifications. Those who try to explain why this is happening. From complex analysis of political policies, to false rumors of changes in practices atop the Temple Mount, to simple hatred. But whatever reasons that are given, whether fact or fiction, they don’t seem to justify stabbing innocent pedestrians on the street.
There are some of us who are simply angry. Angry at the attacks, angry at the world for not speaking up, angry at the media for how this crisis is covered. We’re angry and that’s all that matters right now. But in this anger, what comes next? Where does this lead us? Yes it allows us to express our frustration at the moment, but too often the anger does not bring us anywhere.
Anger, sadness, despair. We’re lost amid this swirl of emotions.
My reaction in these situations is a mixture of these feelings, but also a great sense of confusion. I am confused by what is happening, why it is happening, and how it can stop happening. I am confused by what can bring someone to kill another, and I am confused by those who want to kill in return.
To try and help my confusion, I read. I read multiple reports of what is happening, from many different sources. I read people’s analysis of the situation and their best suggestions for how to respond. Sometimes this reading helps me understand a new perspective or consider a new thought, but most often it just helps me feel like I’m doing something. But it also does more. It connects me to part of a larger struggle. It connects me to people both in Israel and around the world, who are also struggling, trying to make sense of these tragedies.
This past week I read many things.
I read Donniel Hartman, president and CEO of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, a great rabbinic scholar and noted advocate for peace, who wrote:
I dream of two peoples living side by side in peace and security. I know that there is much that I and my people have done to undermine this dream. But I also know that too many within Palestinian society have yet to truly accept that this is my home too, and have yet to make the strategic commitment to peaceful coexistence between us. There is no political solution on the near horizon, and whether there will be one in the more distant future at all, will require much work and transformation on both sides. I fear that the current reality will only weaken our will to even explore such fantasies, let alone contemplate steps to even allow it to be put back on the table. I still live with hope and continue my life’s work to create a better future, but until that day comes, sadly and tragically, from time to time, I will carry my gun.
I read the words of Sarah Miller, who grew up here and is now spending a year on the Nativ Leadership Program, living in Jerusalem. Earlier this week, Sarah was on a bus between Hebrew University and the Nativ headquarters, currently the only places she’s allowed to go due to security concerns, and from her bus she saw the aftermath of one of these stabbing attacks. Sarah wrote:
Normally in these situations, people write about how everything happens so fast, but for me everything was happening so slowly when I wanted it to be happening insanely fast. We were stuck for so long that eventually the bus driver got out of his seat and was just strolling up and down the aisle of the bus to observe what was happening. I stopped for a second and just listened. There was music playing on the bus. It was a song sung by little kids singing “Am Yisrael Chai”. To have this image of looking around me and seeing all of this harm and terror, but having this happy music playing in the background was eerie and creepy. I constantly heard more and more sirens in the distance… This post is not to scare everyone, but for me to express now how real the violence just became. Sirens now are not just noise that I hear in the back of my head, or a sound that is normal, or even a sound that I chose to ignore. Sirens now are not just a warning, but a feeling: this violence is real.
As Sarah described, somehow there is always a musical connection in Israel. Either the right song is playing at the right moment, or that so many songs are intrinsically linked to historical events, both celebratory and tragic. You cannot discuss the Six Day War without listening to Yerushalim Shel Zahav. You cannot remember the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin without listening to Shir L’Shalom. For me, the song that I go to most often is Yihiyeh Tov. Written by David Broza during the late 70’s, it’s message is simple. Yihiyeh Tov – it will be good. It’s the song that is persistently optimistic, always saying that in spite of the tragedies, things will get better. It will be good. Most of the time, this song does the trick for me. It gives me that sense of optimism, that way of looking up. But this time feels different. This time, when violence is carried out in the streets, by civilians, by children. This time, as Sarah put it, “this violence is real.” This time, I don’t know if it will all be good. I am hopeful that it will be, but I am very scared that it will not.
There are many aspects of this current situation that are quite fearful. Not knowing where or when an attack may come. Not knowing who might be the next victim. Not knowing if there is an end in sight. In many ways it’s difficult to know what I am most afraid of.
This is a similar thought I have when thinking about the Parashat Hashavua this week. I often wonder what is the most frightening moment in the story of Noah’s Ark. Is it when God tells Noah that all of humanity will be wiped out? Is it the moment when the rains first begin, and Noah can see that God wasn’t kidding? Is it days into the rain, when the mountains, the last bits of land disappear? It’s none of these. To me the most frightening moment is after the rains stop, and Noah and his family are left aboard the ark, floating, on a vast empty sea. Looking out in all directions, where there once was so much, now there is nothing. For 150 days, just nothingness. Not knowing if the waters would recede, not knowing what would be there if they did. Just lost. Floating on the sea.
This is the moment I fear we are in right now. Israel, floating, lost amid a sea of violence. Not knowing if it will ever end, not knowing what will be there if and when it does. Helpless to do much of anything besides sit, and wait, and somehow, to persevere.
But we also remember what happens with Noah. After so long floating on the water, he kept trying to find the end. He sent out a raven in search of land, and it found nothing. Then he sent a dove, and it too returned empty handed. But seven days later he tried again. This time the dove came back holding an olive branch. Our ultimate symbol of peace. It was then that Noah knew there was an end in sight. That there was hope for the future.
So too, do we hold onto that hope. The hope that even as lost as we feel now, if we keep on sending out doves, one day, one will return with an olive branch. The hope that we will see the rainbow after this storm, and the hope that the waters of our metaphorical flood will finally recede.
“This hope is not yet lost, for it has been with us for 2,000 years. To be a free nation, in our land of Zion and Jerusalem.”