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D'var Torah: Noach

My Torah portion is the story of Noah. In the beginning, God tells Noah that he and his family are the only uncorrupted people on the Earth. God describes what he wants Noah to do: build an ark, take a varying number of animals and bring the family. It takes Noah 120 years to finish the ark. The flood begins and lasts for forty days. Noah sends out a raven and a dove to see if they can find evidence the flood has ended. They come back with nothing. After a while Noah sends the dove out again and it brings back an olive leaf signifying the end of the flood. After the Earth dries, God tells Noah and his family to leave the ark and bring out all of the animals. God says to Noah that the animals should swarm the Earth, be fertile and increase.

Then Noah builds an altar to the Lord and offers God burnt offerings. After smelling the pleasing odor, God says to Noah, “Never again will I doom the Earth because of man since the devisings of man are evil from his youth nor will I ever again destroy every living being as I have done.” God then blesses Noah and his family and tells them, as he told the animals, to be fertile and increase to fill the Earth. God says to Noah that the animals will fear man and every creature will be his to eat. God then says to Noah that people are created in God’s image. Finally, God establishes a covenant with Noah where he promises never to cause another flood to destroy the Earth because of the human race.

After the flood, Noah plants a vineyard, gets drunk and then occurs some sort of incident in the tent after which Noah curses his grandson Canaan.

Next, the parashah details the generations that follow Noah and tells the familiar story of the Tower of Babel. Finally, after more generations pass, the Maftir introduces the Torah's next central character, Abraham.

Noah is a very popular portion not only for the story but for its symbols and images. My little brother’s room was decorated with the Noah’s ark theme when he was a baby; Noah is a popular boy’s name and even Bill Cosby did a routine playing Noah and God, including the famous line, “Noah! How long can you tread water?” Now it’s my turn to “take on” Noah.

What really made me stop and think about my Torah portion was when God told Noah that “...never again will I doom the Earth because of man since the devisings of man are evil from his youth nor will I ever again destroy every living being as I have done.” It made me wonder if God was admitting a mistake, or perhaps two mistakes: First in having created humans as imperfect and second for punishing them anyway for acting on what was by God's design part of man's nature.

Furthermore, when we think about making a mistake, we think of that as a sign of imperfection. For this d’var, I began thinking in terms of God’s imperfection. My original thesis was, “By admitting the mistake of the flood, God was admitting imperfection.” And, I thought, if we are made in God’s image—as God told Noah—we, of course, are imperfect.

I found I had a difficult time thinking of God as “imperfect.” I started thinking about the word “perfect” and what it really means. I decided that maybe the word “perfect” is a human word, not a concept that describes God. Maybe the question of “imperfection” isn’t pertinent to God. Maybe the idea of “perfect” or “imperfect” is an entirely human concept.

Noah, like all the other important people in the Torah, is imperfect, yet is called on to do God's work. Why Noah? Was everyone else corrupted? Or was it that Noah was just the least corrupted of all of the people? Noah is described as a “righteous man and blameless in his age” which means to me that, in a way, he was the best God could do at the time. Noah is described as walking with God. Maybe he wasn’t the best but at least he believed in God’s word. God, after the flood, is also frustrated with Noah. The Zohar, the chief work of the Kabbalah, recounts a conversation between Noah and God which took place after the flood:

What did God answer Noah when he left the Ark and saw the world destroyed? Noah began to cry before God and he said, “Master of the universe, you are called compassionate. You should have been compassionate for Your creation.” God responded and said, “You are a foolish shepherd. Now you say this?! Why did you not say this at the time I told you that I saw that you were righteous among your generation or afterward when I said that I will bring a flood upon the people, or afterward when I said to build an ark? I constantly delayed and I said, ‘When is he [Noah] going to ask for compassion for the world?’”

God is telling Noah that, as the leader of his generation, he had responsibilities toward other people. He was commanded to build the ark, yet he did not save even one person. His leadership may be compared with a shepherd who sees his flock straying from the proper path, wandering near dangerous wolves and concludes that the sheep deserve to be eaten because they have strayed.

I read other opinions that summed up that, while Noah didn’t do evil, he didn’t do any good deeds either. I found a statement that called Noah an “island,” neither hurting people or helping them. Another description called it the greatness of Noah and the tragedy of Noah. I still wonder, why did God choose Noah?

People, created in God's image, are imperfect. The question is not how we can be perfect but how we can best work with God to create a better world where we are one step closer to ultimate perfection. Once we take that step, we have the responsibility to move on to the next step towards ultimate perfection.

As Gunther Plaut notes, God after the flood finally recognizes this imperfection and “...because He has sworn not to eradicate humanity again ... will work with it and within it in order to move it toward ultimate perfection.”

I read an article titled “Loving an Imperfect God” by Dov Taylor. The story he quoted in the article was from Echoes of the Maggid (maggid is a storyteller). The story goes that a man’s son is learning-disabled. This father continually questions where the perfection is in his son? There is a verse in another parashah, Ha’azinu which says, “Ha-tsur tamim po’olo,” The Rock, His work is perfect. Why, then, does a perfect God make a learning-disabled child?

“I believe,” says the father, “that when God brings a child like this into the world, the perfection that He seeks is in the way people react to this child.” His son goes to a softball game with his father where other kids are playing and asks his father “Do you think that you could get me into the game?” Now, the father tells that this child is not athletic and very awkward but the son, Shaya, still asks, “Do you think you could get me into the game?” The father asks a compassionate-looking kid “Do you think my son could play?”

The boy that the father asks looks around for guidance from his teammates and gets none. Perhaps they don’t hear, perhaps they pretend not to notice. So, bravely, he takes matters into his own hands. He says, We’re losing by six runs and it’s already the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we’ll try to put him up to bat in the ninth inning. Shaya smiles and the father is ecstatic. Shaya gets a glove and is sent out to play short center field. There are no protests from the opposing team which is now hitting with an extra man in the outfield.

In the bottom of the eighth, Shaya’s team scores three runs and is now down by three. In the bottom of the ninth they score again. Now with two outs and the bases loaded and the tying and winning runs on base, they are at the bottom of the batting order and it is Shaya’s turn to bat. Are they really going to let him bat and blow their chance to win?

Shaya is told to take a bat and to try to get a hit. Try to get a hit? This kid doesn’t even know how to hold a bat let alone get a hit. But he steps to the plate and, as he steps to the plate, the pitcher moves in a few steps so he can lob it in and so maybe Shaya can at least make contact with the ball. Here’s the pitch. Shaya swings clumsily and misses by a mile. The poor father moans silently. He has been here before. One of Shaya’s teammates comes up behind Shaya, puts his arms around him and together they hold the bat and wait for the next pitch. The pitcher moves in a few more steps and lobs the ball in. Shaya and the teammate swing and hit a slow dribbler back to the mound. An easy third out.

The pitcher fields the ball and throws it, not to first base, but way the hell out to right field. Everyone yells, “Shaya! Run to first! Run to first!” Never in his life has Shaya run to first. He scampers down the first baseline. By the time he reaches first base the right fielder has the ball. Instead of throwing it to second, he throws it way over the third baseman’s head and everyone yells, “Shaya! Run to second! Run to second!”

Shaya runs to second as the runners ahead of him circle the bases towards home. As he reaches second base, the opposing shortstop turns him in the direction of third base and shouts “Shaya! Run to third!” As he rounds third, the boys from both teams run behind him screaming, “Shaya! Run home! Run home!” Shaya runs home, steps on home plate and all eighteen boys lift him on their shoulders and make him the hero who has just hit the grand slam and won the game for his team.

That day, concludes the father, those eighteen boys reach their level of perfection. Here the story ends. “I believe,” says the father, “that when God brings a child likes this into the world, the perfection that he seeks is in the way people react to this child.”

The author of the article states that it was the boy’s uniqueness that brought out the eighteen boys’ humanity, thereby reaching perfection that day.

Maybe “perfect” to us, which we usually think means perfect test scores, perfect looks, etc., isn’t what “perfect” means to God. I don’t think God thinks of perfect in physical terms. Maybe, as the story shows, perfection isn’t winning, losing or anything competitive.

Really, God didn’t create us in His image in terms of how we look.

Noah is described in this portion as “righteous and blameless in his age.” These are the kinds of things that make someone a decent person. A decent person, to me, is someone who acts with consideration of others and tries to help make the world a better place. Maybe the image of a “decent person” is a human thought, it is a thought that is closer to God’s perfection. Was Noah decent in the way he treated others? Was Moses decent in his potential to sacrifice a life of royalty? Was Abraham decent in what he would sacrifice to God? Is this what brings humans closer to God?

I believe being decent is more God-like than the idea of perfection. We perhaps cannot fully understand what God’s perfection is... we simply have to believe that God’s perfection does exist. However, I believe, that by being what we consider a decent human being and in the struggle to be more decent, we can become closer to God. We learn God’s idea of perfection by the examples of Noah, Moses, Abraham and the eighteen boys from the two baseball teams.

I have to add that thinking of things or ideas such as these shows me what is means to be truly Jewish.

These concepts are mind-boggling. To accept my Jewishness means that I need to continually read, think and apply what I learn. Mostly, my obligation is, through it all, to be a good and decent human being.

Now, I would like to thank some people who helped make this bar mitzvah possible. First I would like to thank all of my grandparents for their time and their encouraging thoughts. I would like to thank my cousins, aunts and uncles for coming from out of town and helping share in this day.

I would like to thank Mr. Ken Nadler for working with me to make sure I got the Hebrew and the melodies right. And I would like to thank Joel Sharkey for teaching me how to write a d'var and for his help in this d'var. Also, I want of course to thank Mr. Mishkin and Rabbi Zimmerman for making this service possible, as well as all of the others who participated in the service.

Finally, thank you to all my teachers along the way and of course my parents. Thank you, everybody!

—Jacob Fox-Long
October 2004

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