Sermon, Shabbat Noach 5780
Congregation Beit Simcha
The joke is nearly as ancient as the Noah story itself.
A new flood is foretold by the world's weather specialists, who say that nothing can be done about it. In three days time, the waters will wipe out the world.
The Dalai Lama appears on television and pleads with everybody to turn to Tibetan Buddhism. That way, they may reach enlightenment before the end.
The Pope goes on television and says that the world must accept Catholicism and the Church in order to attain salvation.
Judaism has always been the most pragmatic of all religions, and the story in this week’s Torah portion reflects. Noach highlights one of the greatest construction heroes of all time, Noah, an unexpected amateur carpenter who created the huge structure that saved the human race from complete destruction. Considering the tools he had to work with, and the challenging time frame his supervisor, God, gave the contractor for delivery, the ark must be considered an extraordinary developer’s accomplishment. From the time the RFP was released until the first drops of rain hit the skylight in the ark, Noah did exactly what he was ordered to do. And this great construction project not only was completed within budget and on time—talk about a fixed deadline!—but succeeded in doing something that had never before been done, ever. This was a project that truly floated high, riding out the storm to reach the mountaintop.
God also gave extremely specific orders on just what Noah was supposed to take on board the ark, the famous two of each species, male and female, plus seven pairs of every kosher species. He got to take his wife—unnamed—and his three sons, Shem, Ham and Japhet and their wives, also unnamed. And that’s about it. This is what he was allowed to save from the destruction of all that he had ever known.
It’s enough to make you wonder: just what would you take if your world was about to change irretrievably, and you could only bring along what would fit onto an ark?
This is not just an abstract question, of course, without practical application. Many of us have had to face moving from one home to another, and from one city to another, and had to decide what to bring and what to leave behind. This is exceptionally difficult to do when we are talking about our things, our possessions, our stuff.
You know, there is nothing like a potential natural disaster to intensify the ability to make such choices rapidly. For example, I have friends in California who live quite close to the latest cataclysmic wildfires destroying forests and homes in that state. When a natural disaster endangers your home and you realize you can rescue only a few items, the pressure to decide what to take immediately clarifies things quite quickly. While I’ve been fortunate enough not to experience any floods, I did once live through a huge fire some years ago, back in 1990. I was then the cantor in Santa Barbara, California, and I vividly remember packing my Mustang convertible with the very few things that fit into it and which seemed to me to be irreplaceable at that moment: my cat, my photographs, a few Jewish ritual items and, in those pre-Cloud days, my computer. I’m not sure if I would make the same choices today that I made back in 1990 about what to save and what to abandon. Still, that proved to be pretty representative of what people who were eventually burned out actually chose to save. I also recall that the next day I stood on the roof of the temple with a hose, watering it down, hoping the fire’s path would lead in another direction, the Torahs already safely spirited away beyond the reach of the conflagration.
Now here in the Torah portion of Noah it’s not fire but water, lots and lots of water, the great deluge, the flood to end all floods and all life, that forces the only humans who will survive to assess what they value most. Who, and what, will they take on board? What’s most important to them?
This Shabbat of the Ark can serve a similar purpose for each of us: what in our lives is most worthy of preservation? When faced with the necessity of leaving everything behind and loading just a few things that you absolutely have to have with you, just what would you put into your own ark?
The great Polish poet Wislawa Symborska, Nobel Laureate for Literature when that award still went to great writers, examined this question in her whimsical, ironic way. She wrote about what goes into her ark, and maybe should be in ours:
An endless rain is just beginning.
Into the ark, for where else can you go:
you poems for a single voice,
short-range sorrows and fears,
eagerness to see things from all sides.
Rivers are swelling and bursting their banks.
Into the ark: all you chiaroscuros and halftones,
you details, ornaments, and whims,
countless shades of the color gray,
play for play's sake,
and tears of mirth.
As far as the eye can see, there's water
and a hazy horizon.
Into the ark: plans for the distant future,
joy in difference,
admiration for the better man,
choice not narrowed down to one of two,
time to think it over,
and the belief that all of this
will still come in handy some day.
[From “Into the Ark,” Wislawa Symborska]
I’m not so sure that I would make the same choices that Symborska suggests so cleverly, although I hope I would. She suggests that we save all those unnecessary arts, talents, emotions and appreciations, the things we so clearly don’t need but which just as clearly are what make us beautifully human. It’s a fascinating way to think about what it is that we really value in our lives and in this world.
So, without being too artificial about it, what would you take on your ark? What would you bring along, and what would you choose to leave behind, a subject nearly as interesting?
My friends, this is also not just an abstract question for our congregation. Here at Beit Simcha, our wonderful collection of unified Wandering Jews, we are moving again in just a month or so, and will have to choose what we really need to keep with us, what we will store away, and what will be discarded. It’s a real, practical issue that some of us—led by Lorie Wolf—have begun to work on. And it forces us to put our priorities in order, to determine just what makes sense to keep and what isn’t really as valuable as we thought.
You know, in a larger sense, I have often seen the Noah story as a metaphor for a synagogue. A temple should be a kind of ark of refuge from the tides and tribulations of the events of the world, a place where we can come to pray and study and find inspiration and holiness. But like Noah in the ark, we too must open the window in order to see just what is going on outside, to see if it’s still raining, to let in air and light and judge whether it is the right time and climate to break free from the ark and export ourselves and our ideas onto the land.
Within the ark it must have been like the inside of a Temple: lots of different species in a confined space requiring special attention from the captain, who actually has very little control over where the whole thing is going but puts his trust in God. A Temple, like an ark, is also supposed to be a safe, protected, nurturing place, in which relationships, ideas, and dreams can grow amid the general cacophony. And like the ark, when we denizens of the Temple finally land we bring out into the world all the great lessons that have germinated in this ship. We celebrate the covenant, the berit between God and ourselves, and share that with the world. Perhaps just as important, we share the relationships, respect, mutual support, caring, humor and love we have created amongst ourselves and try to bring that into a world that sorely needs all of those.
When we land our ark permanently, on a mountaintop or a plain, we will seek to go out and plant on the broader earth the good growth we have engendered in this protected place. If we can continue to successfully nurture in our own shul love, support and care we have the capacity to bring that goodness outside the ark, to export it to the broader world.
On this Shabbat of Noah, may we learn to focus on the things we wish our own arks to contain, and may we continue to build in this congregation an ark that holds our own hopes, dreams and goodness.