Don’t Shoot the Messenger

NOAH (GENESIS 6:9 – 11:32 )
16 OCTOBER 2017 /  5778

I should really post about this on Facebook:
My relationship with parshat Noah? It’s complicated.

It was the first parsha I ever loved. I was nine when I declared myself a vegetarian, but I was a college student before I discovered that the permission to eat meat given in this parsha pointed to the previous expectation in the Torah that all humans should be vegetarians. I embarked on an exploration of kashrut and a particularly Jewish mindfulness about eating, and redefined my sense of my vegetarian self. 

I was in my mid-20s when I was ever-so-carefully moving the finally sleeping baby from my arms into a crib and looked up at the artwork hanging over her. It was cute. An ark with a giraffe, an alligator, a lion, a sheep, all looking out at me grinning. By this point, familiar with the story, I experienced a moment of horror. When God brought the flood onto the Earth, Noah and his family were the only human inhabitants whom God had spared. The animals on the ark the only land creatures who survived. Noah knew. He couldn’t close the doors to the ark, he couldn’t shut out all of those people, all of those beings. God closed those doors. “And God shut it on his behalf.” (Gen. 35:16) If we only slowed down enough to read it . . . well, our hearts would have to be made of stone to not rip apart. Which is worse, being left to die by another human, or being intentionally wiped out by God? 

A few years later after the stories of Hurricane Katrina started coming out, I thought again of Noah. I thought about all of the people who closed their car doors and drove away from New Orleans with empty back seats. I thought of the kid, too young to have a license, who stole a school bus and opened the doors, and drove a busload of people to safety. Legend or sources cited, all the stories are true. 

It was the Shabbat of parshat Noah that my wife and I, after a hike, a creek walk, and davening together at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, realized we were probably dating. 

It is this parsha in which I find my heart, and it is also this parsha that breaks it. 

This year, I turned to it again, looking for some new truth. Something I could hold onto in a world that is daily confronting me with the which-is-worse-riddle: Death, betrayal, by another human being, or being intentionally wiped out, erased from life, by God? 

I found some balm in a sweet kernel about how we treat messengers taught by Adam Lieberman: After being at sea for several months, Noah needed to know whether or not the flood had ended and if he would be able to return to dry land. To find out, Noah sent a dove from the Ark. . .

But the dove could not find a resting place for the sole of its foot, and it returned to him to the Ark, for the water was upon the surface of all the earth. So he put forth his hand, and took it, and brought him into the Ark. (Genesis 8:8-9)

How often have we asked somene to seek out information for us and then waited expectently for a particular hoped-for response? 

I can think of a few times. I’ve had messengers who had to bring back hard news of lab results, of the job that wouldn’t be offered, of the plan that wouldn’t come to fruition. I can think of the news that arrives, seemingly by the hour some days, without a clear messenger that just leaves me angry and sad and bitter. 

When the dove did return, indicating that it was not yet time, Noah wasn't angry at the dove. He didn’t share with the dove his deep disappointment. He did not yell at or, and I think this is key, in the direction of the messenger about his frustration at not even knowing when he and his family would be able to start again. Rather, when Noah saw the dove on its way back to the ark, Noah reach out. He put forth his hand. He brought the dove to him, and back into the ark. He embraced the messenger. 

It is Noah’s sensitivity, his embrace, that finds my broken heart. 

In our narrative, a week later, the dove was again willing to be sent forth from the ark, and this time, it was time. This time, when the dove didn’t return, the message was the one Noah had hoped for. Let’s be real, though, it still wasn’t an easy message. It was never going to be an easy message. Noah, who had built an ark, would now be tasked with rebuilding the world – a too often painful world in which his would devise seemingly limitless ways to demand a response to the which-is-worse riddle of betrayal – even death – by another human in bombings and shootings or erasure by God in floods and in fires. 

My relationship with this parsha? So complicated. Today, of all of Noah’s good deeds, I am clinging to the moment Noah embraced the messenger. The Torah calls Noah “righteous”, and Rashi explained that the good deeds of the righteous are their offspring. In reference, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein commented that we should love our good deeds way we love our own children. That good deed, that embrace, also has descendants. 

May the descendants of Noah’s embrace of the dove be fruitful and multiply. May they fill the land. May the compassion and love of them be upon every creature of the earth and every bird of the heavens, in everything that moves on earth, and in the sea. And may we, the descendants of Noah, strive to become the ancestors of a multitude. 

Kein yehi ratzon.