By Rabbi George Stern
I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or not, but I can’t help myself: I see vividly in the story of the flood a paradigm for our current social and political situation, as tweets, racist and anti-Semitic marches, and political deadlock flash daily past my sometimes-incredulous eyes. I can only hope it all ends with a beautiful rainbow.
The story of Noah really began in last week’s parshah, the final verses of which say: “When YHWH saw how great was the wickedness of human beings on earth, that the direction of their thoughts was nothing but wicked all the time, YHWH regretted having made human beings on earth, and was heartsick. So YHWH thought, ‘I will wipe the humans whom I have created from off the face — the humans, [and with them] the beasts, the reptiles, the birds of the sky — for I rue the day I made them.’ But Noah found favor in YHWH’s sight.”
In the beginning of this week’s parshah, we learn that the sin of humans was violence (chamas). Commentators have speculated about what chamas means. R. Yohanan (Sanhedrin 108a) says that “the generation of the deluge committed every conceivable transgression, yet their fate was only sealed when they committed robbery.” Tikva Frymer-Krensky summarizes: “In the Bible [chamas] encompasses almost the entire spectrum of evil.” The oncoming destruction is punishment for unethical behavior of all sorts.
According to the midrash, this is not the first time God felt it necessary to destroy the Earth. This time, though, God saves one family as well as an undoubtedly clamorous and malodorous assortment of animals and plants, so that the next world could be built on the ruins of Noah’s. Meanwhile the ark pitched and swirled for months. One reading suggests they were crammed together on it 40 days during which it rained in hurricane-like sheets, followed by 150 days of slow draining.
The good news is, once they all left the ark, God promised through a covenant never to wreak such havoc again. The rainbow would be a symbol of that promise. The not-so-good news is that, after offering a sacrifice to God, Noah planted a vineyard — then got drunk and exposed himself. Living an ethical life would remain challenging, even while memory of the flood was fresh. (According to the Tower of Babel tale at the end of the parashah, sin would likely be a permanent part of the human condition, and punishment inevitable.)
My parents, peers, professors and rabbis have all taught me that Judaism’s core significance is based in its ethical teachings. The trajectory of those teachings — starting with the later books of the Tanach (Hebrew scripture) itself — has been away from concern for Jews alone and negative reinforcement toward a nuanced view of human nature and an expansive view of human potential.
Following the flood, all human beings were related, descended from one family, so that no one could claim superiority. Therefore singling out a group for mistreatment and even death — whether Rohingya in Myanmar, blacks in the United States, Jews in a huge assortment of countries, Palestinian inside and outside the Green Line, or Mexicans and Muslims (even if there are a few bad apples) — is unethical.
So is neglecting individuals and groups: children, the poor and workers displaced by global economic changes. Moreover, unlike in the creation story, females existed in their own right, not afterthoughts taken from a man’s ribs but born just like men. They deserve all the rights and protections of men. Other examples abound. You get the drift.
Inherent in the rainbow itself are several interesting implications.
First, its full-color spectrum is a reminder of the beauty of diversity, very much worth preserving and celebrating.
Second, the rainbow symbolizes God’s promise not to destroy the earth; its presence does not mean that the earth, its flora and fauna — even its humans — can spiral into free fall destruction caused by people themselves. Unbridled nationalism; racial, religious and ethnic prejudice that robs people of their reputations if not their lives; religious fanaticism that has no room for diverse opinions; denial of incontrovertible evidence that human beings are threatening the earth’s very existence — all of these could undo what the rainbow represents.
The rainbow stretches from the Earth to the sky and back down to the Earth. This suggests that fulfillment of its promise depends upon us. When we uplift ourselves and those around us, we reach metaphorically toward God, who will then look down upon us favorably. I even imagine that the rainbow continues beneath the Earth, which, when treated properly by us, will sustain us indefinitely, just as the rainbow reemerges time and again. Ken yehi ratzon: so be God’s will — and ours.
Rabbi George Stern has served as a congregational rabbi, executive director of Neighborhood Interfaith Movement and executive director of Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN). He now volunteers with Indivisible NW Philly, POWER and on Germantown Jewish Centre’s Tikkun Olam Coordinating Team and its refugee and public school projects. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.