5775 – Noah — “Between the Ark and the Tower”

28/10/2014 at 17:38 Leave a comment

“Between the Ark and the Tower”


Parashat Noach

Neil F. Blumofe

25 October 2014


As much as our tradition makes the compelling claim that the stories of Noah and his family are God’s grand experiments in trying to make this created world work – situated between the failed undertaking of the Garden of Eden and the still evolving research and open question of the efficacy and success of the descendants of Abraham – one can make an equally viable claim that as much as the Divine is trying to get it together, so are the creations of the Divine. If we look at the story of Noah’s ark as connected to the episode of the Tower of Babel, we may discover that humanity is trying to articulate a sense of meaning about the purpose of life.

In the command to build and board the ark, Noah is asked to go small – asked to move beyond the dangers of the larger world, and huddle with his people – to create a fragile, floating Garden of Eden that will be sustained, while the rest of the world disappears. All Noah is asked to do is to survive, and then simply regenerate in the proper time. There is no healing, there is no tikkun olam that Noah is able to do – the events in the world are too far gone, and rather than confront the overpowering difficulties of the day, he is asked to essentially go underground, and wait out the storm.

Conversely, the building of the city with a large tower is not so much hubris by the community, as it is confidence in belonging to this world – a contrast to the fleeing of Noah. Here, people want to be rooted to a place – to have a home, and to find meaning in engaging with each other. Here are people who are comfortable in their existence and who want to further their connection and develop their standard of living as well as their technologies.

Perhaps as humans in the scope of God’s creation, we were never meant to get it exactly right. If we sin too much, we are destroyed, and if we all get together and attempt to build a great civilization, we too, are also intimidated and dispersed. We exist eternally within the great vacillating center of ambition and catastrophe – of using our resources for good and also squandering them, immolating ourselves in our own predilections and burning passions. Many times, we overlook the holy to revel in our fright – and over time, we become alienated from our own beauty, in our coarseness.

As we study this Torah portion, we discover that the guardrails that God puts up for both God and for us, are too close to the edge – we don’t have enough space to skid on the neutral ground and come to a full stop, before hitting a wall. As we seek to navigate this world and at the same time, protect our families and ourselves from perishing – both examples offered by our Torah portion should give us pause. All of us in our way are seeking meaning, and a power to live an unobstructed life – and even those who fall, usually try to do the best that they can, at least some of the time, as we take the observation of the 19th century Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky to heart: power is given only to those who dare to lower themselves and pick it up. Only one thing matters, one thing – to be able to dare.

Each of us is Noah, an ish tsadik tamim hayah bidrotav – et haElohim hithalech – each of us, in our better moments, consider ourselves righteous, blameless and walking with God. We do not consider ourselves deviants, outcasts, or fugitives doomed to wander the earth, outside of the rhythms of society. We look to both determine our environment and to blend in, have a good name, be successful and hopefully contribute a bit to the betterment of civilization. When asked to merely survive, to build an ark and survive, we will dare to do so as we comply.

And yet, we know the limits of our accomplishments – if we are too successful, if we all band together, ironically we become estranged from each other. In our own experimentation of how to live in this world, what do we do? For here’s the limit as we study the residents of Babel: it is easy to get frustrated or to find an existence that is filled with absolute certainty. To find a life that is only black and white – to find a reality that pronounces judgment on difference, and criminalizes those who aren’t us, is much easier than living with nuance and doubt. We like to identify our heroes and our villains, feeling secure in knowing that one is different from the other. Yet, this is a false security – for each of us holds the capacity for both.

It makes us feel better to condemn the drowned sinner, left in the water – to draw a distinction between someone who falls short and each of us who is calm and carrying on within the artificial boundaries of what is acceptable – each of us who is still on the ark, waiting for the storm to end. And when we disembark, when we step again onto dry land – what options lie open for us – Noah brings an offering to God and also brings shame on himself and creates dissension in his family in his intoxication. He lives his life too, between a rock and a hard place.

Each of us, in our own way, exists on our ark, hopefully unaffected by the ravages of flood – and at the same time, we are part of the citizenry of Babel, who would like to build a magnificent city in our own happy valley, in concert with each other. We are both looking to escape and to engage – and we’d like the luxury of choosing the time and space for both. We would like to name the time when we board our ark to get away from the difficulty and also when we are productive and contributing members of society. Each is necessary – and one cannot live without the other. After all of this time, we are still tinkering with the balances of our life – with our bass and our treble – with our work and home – with what we choose to present and what we’d like to hide.

God continues to send us back from our blind spots and our dead ends – to not lose ourselves in our work, and not to withdraw from our relationships to the point where we are isolationists, living with distorted or bloated meaning. To live means to strike an uneasy balance – to forge a determined recognition that we are sometimes our own worst enemies, and sometimes that we can’t fix the great difficulties of this world, and that nevertheless we persevere, pick up our broken pieces and move ahead everyday, continuing to dare.

Shabbat Shalom.

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5775 — Bereshit — “Antidiluvian” Lech Lecha (5775) — On the Road

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