Parashat Noach: The rainbow brings together, and is creating a whole

Parashat Noach tells the story of God’s decision to destroy the earth with a flood because of the corruption and wickedness found in the world. Only Noach – the only righteous man on earth – his family, and a pair of every kind of creature on earth were to survive. Noach was told to build a large boat, the Ark, sufficient in size to accommodate the family and all the creatures. After the flood, those aboard the Ark started a new life on earth all over again, and God promised to Noach that never again a flood would be sent to destroy the entire earth.

Having saved Noach and his family, God enters into a new covenant with humanity. This includes the prohibition against eating live flesh (Genesis 9:4), the law against shedding another person’s blood (Genesis 9:6) and the instruction to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 9:7). The rainbow is a reminder of the covenant which God entered into with Noach, not just for us, but also for God, who will see the rainbow: ‘And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh’ (Genesis 9:15).

We often focus on the covenant between God and Abraham (mentioned from Genesis 15:18), as this is our particular birthright as Jews. We often forget that there was first a covenant with all of humanity, and no particular group or religion. In Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 we are told that the entire world was created from Adam so that no person would say my father was greater than yours. Just in case there was any doubt, the story of Noach provides the same function, so that we are all descended from Adam and Eve, through the line of Noach.

The Torah makes a wonderful statement about God’s relationship with all of humanity by asserting a universal covenant before focusing on a specific one. God is in a relationship with all human beings, not one or another specific religious or ethnic group. And the rainbow is the perfect symbol to represent that covenant.

The rainbow, like the flag of South Africa, brings together seven different colours, creating a whole, which is significantly more spectacular and beautiful than the sum of its parts. It is representative of the different elements, which make up the human race. We come in all shapes, sizes, colours, creeds, religions and races. Each group possesses an individual beauty, but it is together that humanity is truly spectacular and awe-inspiring.

Let me end with some short thoughts on the end of the parashah: The Parashah continues with the report of the building of the Tower of Babel. The people decide to build a city, and to create a tower that would reach from earth to heaven. This, too, angered God, who destroyed the tower and scattered the people across the entire planet, each group talking a different language.

We regularly find, either in the news or on TV of another attempt by man to build The World’s Tallest Building. It has become something like a ‘competition’ to construct one skyscraper that beats all skyscrapers, and it seems to me that the builders not only strive for that. It is almost implied that through their building they will gain fame, and make a name for themselves. This Torah portion clearly shows us that the people who populated the earth at the time of the report failed in their quest to construct a city and a tower, but they succeeded in making a name for themselves – or at least for the place where they embarked on this project.

But “Babel” is a name that has been tarnished by this experience; it’s a name that reminds us of confusion and failure. I am not saying it’s not good to strive for and seek perfection – the creation of The World’s Tallest Building, for example – but we need to question the motives behind the creation of such a building, and what purpose such a building would serve, and what will be located in it? The same applies to the concept of ‘making a name for oneself’. We need to be conscious of the association we want to be linked to our name.

In Jewish tradition the aspiration of such an undertaking would be not simply to attain ‘a name’, but to obtain a ‘good’ name, for as Proverbs says: “A good name is more valuable than great riches.” (Proverbs 22:1).

Both parts of our Torah portion teach us an important message: God wants us humans to have an active part in this world, as partners in an eternal covenant, but there are limits and consequences for our acting. We need to be aware of them, and to respect them, if we want to reach our goal, a just society, a repaired world.

(Sources: Fields, A Torah commentary for our times; Burkeman, 2 Minutes of Torah)

Pessach and Sukkoth, two sides of the same coin

Chapter 23 of the Book of Leviticus outlines two mitzvot associated with the festival of Sukkoth. In verse 40 it says

“On the first day [of the festival] you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook…..”.

These are the four species of vegetation that we today know as the etrog, lulav, myrtle and willow. The Rabbis taught that we hold the four species together, and wave them in all of the directions of the compass, as well as upwards and downwards. In this way, we mobilize the winds that blow from all directions to bring rain to Israel for the new season of sowing and harvest.

In Leviticus 23: 42-43 we read,

“He shall live in booths [Sukkoth] seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…..”.

These sukkoth must have a roof (s’khakh) made of natural untreated materials, and through which the rain can penetrate. To carry out this mitzvah, every Jewish household is expected to spend time in a sukkah over course of the week of the festival.

One explanation behind these two mitzvot, waving the lulav and etrog, and dwelling in a sukkah, is, to bring us into a closer relationship with nature than we ordinarily and possibly experience it through the rest of the religious year.

Rabbi Greenberg, provides an interesting theological insight into Sukkoth in his book “The Jewish Way”. Greenberg contrasts Sukkoth with Pessach. As he points out, Pessach celebrates a single, intense moment of freedom in the life of the Jewish people. At the exodus from Egypt, he continues, the divine presence came into human experience. Pessach is therefore a season of miracles. At the exodus the people were required only to take the first step, and God did the rest.

Sukkoth, on the other hand, does not celebrate a moment of miracle, a moment when ordinary time ceased. On the contrary, Sukkoth calls to mind a long period of wandering, a longer period in time. I like this thought. At Sukkoth, God is, as he was back then when our people wandered through the desert, hidden in the everyday, the day-by-day experiences.

Sukkoth reminds us of 40 years during which the people of Israel had to deal with the basic requirements of an everyday existence: water, food, clothing, a roof over the head.

Rabbi Greenberg’s insight is that these two festivals, Pessach and Sukkoth, are two sides of the same coin. As human beings, we seek moments of “divine enthusiasm”, moments taking us out of time, beyond the everyday, in a more uplifted realm. Such moments deepen our spiritual appreciation for life; they give us a sense of God’s grandeur. On the other hand, we spend most of our time while we are alive journeying through uncharted territory, facing the everyday demands and needs life places upon us.

It is an act of faith on our part to believe that life’s road does indeed lead somewhere: That there is indeed a deeper meaning, and a pattern to life. I think this I a remarkable thought.

Just as Pessach and Sukkoth represent two sides of the same coin, so they fall at opposite ends of the Jewish year: Pessach on the 15th day of the first Hebrew month (Nisan), and Sukkoth on the 15th day of the seventh month (Tishrei). Our lives revolve around these two poles of the Jewish year, which represent our longing for the miraculous, on the one hand, and our everyday experience of reality, on the other.

The two mitzvot of Sukkoth focus on the basic needs of everyday life: water (represented by the waving of the four species) and shelter (represented by the sukkah). Ironically, these needs, once met, most quickly distract us from acknowledging the role of God in providing for them.

The Torah itself recognises that once we have water and food, the clothing and the “fine houses” (Deuteronomy 8:12), which we need to keep us secure and warm, we misinterpret their origins and imagine that it is “by the strength of our hands” that we achieved them.

On Pessach, when we recall how the natural world was overturned and we were freed from slavery, it is easy to acknowledge the impact of the divine on the life of our people.

Sukkoth reminds us that even in the absence of such dramatic moments of magnificent miracles, God is still at work in our lives. Remember, all these “small wonders”, whom we have just lost sight of, like the water, the food, the clothing, and the dwellings, none of which is a given, and needs to be sustained.

I would like to think that even more so, as we wander year by year through the wilderness of our lives, even at those times when our journey seems dark and most uncertain, God is there, providing for us.

Chag Sameach

Yom Kippur: A day of hope

And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls [teannu et nafshoteichem]; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before Adonai. It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you afflict your soul [ve-innitem et nafshoteichem]; it is a law for all time. (Leviticus 16:29–31)

Yom Kippur isn’t an easy day. Not because of we are fasting. I agree, fasting is one of the duties of today, as commanded in the Torah, but fasting in itself only needs a bit of physical strength. If, God forbid, we are ill, or get sick, we are even commanded to break our fast.

Parashat Ha’azinu: A divine promise

Parashat „Ha’azinu“ consists of the last prayer Moshe says, in front of the people. In this wonderful composed prayer, he explains once again that God is perfect, and full of mercy. God is never wrong, he is true and „YaShar“, straight. For the last time, Moshe reminds his people to be honest in their dealings towards God, to remember the past, and to teach the lessons, which can be drawn from the story to the next generation.

The Haftarah, which is linked to this Shabbat, and where this Shabbat’s name is actually taken from, starts with a prophetic warning to Israel, to return to God, – la’shuv.

Both texts are here to give this Shabbat a special meaning. This period between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur is very special and unique; our relationship with God reaches a different level. From my understanding, it is intended that we get closer to God. During this period, it becomes easier to address God in reviewing the past year – What was good, what was not so good, what went wrong? We are standing in front of the Eternal, as our own lawyers in a trial, presenting our case, ourselves, to the judge.

A serious move – Rosh HaShanah 5775

Many of you know that I moved a few short weeks ago. Anyone, who has moved, knows that relocation from one place to another isn’t easy. There are so many things to consider. What needs to be put into the packing cases, what needs to be left, to be sold, given away, or maybe stored. Before we can move, we need to write lists, we plan, make arrangements, and try and get organised.

Whenever I looked around my apartment before the move, I was shocked to see how much ….. stuff had found its way onto my shelves. There a book, I once bought because I had always wanted to read it. Here, a gift from a good friend that I had never quite found the right spot for. And so many papers on my desk, papers that needed checking and sorting. There are many little keepsakes and souvenirs all over my shelves, reminders of the many wonderful moments in my life.