Parashat Noach 5784
Delivered on October 20, 2023
The last two weeks have been filled with conversations about Israel and Gaza, how our friends and family are fairing there, processing trauma and tragedy that continues to unfold, trying to understand our sense of powerlessness in the face of those struggles, and the effects we now are beginning to notice in our own community. There is pain; the emotional impact moves in and through us. There is no lack of analysis; we are inundated with photos and commentary, hot takes and official statements.
Over the last two weeks, it can be hard to figure out which conversation we are having: Is it in the emotional sphere or the political? Are we talking about the experiences of Israelis and Gazans, or are we talking about the experience of American Jews? When we are talking about one aspect of the crisis, are we distracting ourselves from other realities that have become apparent but that are to abhorrent as to be able to focus on them? Reading the news over the last week, there have been times where I have had to turn off my phone and simply cry.
I’ve found it difficult to find the words sometimes. So my reflection tonight is a sort of free-flowing, fractured prayer, really a conversation with God, simply for the ability to find words...
Heavenly Parent, Master of Time of Space, Dear God: Be with me, with my family and friends, with our sacred congregation, with our community, with the vulnerable and the brokenhearted. Be with us in Israel and in Gaza, from Metulah to Eilat. Protect those who serve You, guard those who remain captive, and return them speedily and soon to the safety of their families. Be with us here in this synagogue tonight. You have been with us–before we walked into this sanctuary, and You are with us right now. Skeptical we may be at times; still, grace us with Your presence.
As the Psalmist says: Out of the depths I call to You, Eternal God. Adonai, hear my voice; Let Your ears attend to my pleading voice.1
We Jews are in the depths. We have come into a dark valley, a new yet not unfamiliar wilderness, where we realize that we move without a map. These last thirteen days have not been without fright. These last two weeks have brought terror and heartache to which we have not known what to do. So we call out for comfort. When Jews wander without a map, we call out to You instead. In lieu of solid GPS, guide us. We seek God’s presence, which in the end is what we need.
I am not typically a cryer. I’ve found myself coming to tears regularly. I know I am not alone in that. In that wandering uncertainty, to You God, I pray for Your particular presence. Nachamu, Comfort me, nachamu ami, comfort my people, be with us in this trying time. Because we are feeling it. The ripple effects of this violence reverberate into our lives. Let Your presence calm our nerves.
Sure, at times, we voice doubt about You. We don’t know what to call God. We don’t know how to address God. We don’t know if You’re really there, or in what form. We don’t know if our prayers work in the ways we want them to. But I have confidence that You know how to show up. It is not a matter of faith in You, because I know that God is real. Those small and large moments that speak to being a part of something greater, those experiences are Your fingerprints on humanity. You show up all the time, especially when we put down our questions about You, and simply seek Divine Comfort. So tonight, I encourage all of us to place our doubts aside, and simply pray for God’s consolation.
When our hearts ask for God to appear, God shows up. Because: God is close to the brokenhearted God delivers those crushed in spirit.2
There was the initial shock and pain of so many dead, of so many taken captive, of children harmed. We are still in that. On plaza in front of the Tel Aviv Art Museum there is now a long table. Around it, sit 200 empty chairs. It has a plain white tablecloth. In front of each chair is a simple place setting: an empty wine glass and an empty dinner plate. The installation is called “The Empty Shabbat Table.” Each seat is a seat for someone taken hostage.
We know that many chairs may go to never be filled. And, that image–a set table for Shabbat–is also an expression of hope that one day, speedily and soon, souls will fill that table. I imagine it is that hope that God wants us to embrace, that through our fear, God wants hope.
But for now, we may not be done crying. We live in an in-between time. And in that in-betweenness, I do not think God is done crying, either.
There is a teaching3 from early in the Jewish tradition that after the destruction of the Temple, an angel found God crying mournfully. “Oh what have I done?” God asks the angel, “I brought My presence to Israel, and now with their exile from the Land, I too must retract.”
The angel, stunned at God’s tears, offers to cry in God’s stead.
But God refuses, replying, “If I do not cry now, I will just cry later.”
I am taken with God’s humanity in that story. I often imagine that the way we describe God is really the way we want humanity to be at our best. The things that have brought us to tears bring God to tears too. And if we think we should be tough, repress those feelings, push them aside and ignore them, or hand them off to a well-meaning angel, then, well–they will probably just come later anyway. Apparently, God needs to cry along with us.
That’s because when we feel, God feels. When we act against one another, God feels it. God brings the brokenhearted close, because God too is brokenhearted. Those feelings of betrayal and uncertainty, those are not ours alone to carry. God, will you carry them with us for a while?
God pays attention to the souls on earth, and sometimes God can get angry at humanity. That point was made in last week’s Torah portion, when God voices uncertainty about what Cain has done to his brother Abel. God tells Cain: What have you done? Your brother’s blood is calling out to me from the earth.4
As last week’s Torah portion closes, God witnesses the cascade of wickedness that has emerged ever since that first instance of fratricide: The Eternal saw how great was human wickedness on earth—how every plan devised by the human mind was nothing but evil all the time.5
So instead of compassion, God leans into sorrow that leads to harsh vengeful action: God regretted having made humankind on earth. With a sorrowful heart, God said, “I will blot out from the earth humankind whom I created—humans together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.”6
When wickedness fills the earth, God too responds again with humanlike qualities. God is regretful–some say repentant–for having created humanity. So, with the Flood, God wipes the slate clean. Though after that further commits to never taking such drastic action again.
We do not live in a world in which the slate can be wiped clean. We only have this one world and this one lifetime to make the most of it. And God needs us. God needs us now more than ever to be present for one another, and to be present for God.
In this week’s Haftarah, we read from the prophet Isaiah: Righteousness establishes us, and keeps us safe from oppression and ruin.7
We have every reason right now to be raging. The trauma our Israeli friends and family are suffering is monumental. And we, American Jews, have been going through now a separate though linked set of problems. As Israeli political analyst Michael Kuplow put it earlier this week, “We stand alone amidst a sea of erstwhile allies.” If Week One was about the trauma rippling out from the South of Israel, it is still about that. And, we as American Jews now confront the realities of anti-Israel sentiment turning into antisemitism. That is a scary place to be.
So, what do we do when confronted with fright and tears? We can be like God and choose to rage against the evils we encounter. There is a time and a place for that.
But, there is another aspect of God to whom we pray, and who I believe hears our prayers: the God of compassion, the God of kindness and mercy. The God who gives comfort, because God knows too a need for solace.
In the many conversations I’ve had with congregants and community members over the last two weeks, you have described a sense of powerlessness in the face of all that is swirling around us. In hearing the voice of our tradition when our forebears have come upon hard times, to me, the message is clear: that is when we pray. So if you’ve been feeling alone, I want to invite you to talk to God. When you don’t know who to call, I want to encourage you to invite God into a conversation. There will be a skeptical part of your mind that says hello, no doubt. But God is waiting for us to say hello. God needs us in our times of need. So let us find words by praying. In just a moment, we’ll begin by singing Shalom Rav, and then move into a moment for silent prayer.
In your silent prayer, let’s all try talking to God. A phrase like Dear God is all that you need to get started. And then, in your mind, ask God for what you need. In the face of adversity, prayer like that can give strength.
O God, out of the depths we call to you. For strength and courage, for clear minds and hearts, for connection with others and connection with you, and for a day when peace will be most abundant. We continue singing Shalom Rav.
1: Psalm 103:1-2
2: Psalm 34:19
3: Eicha Rabbah, Petichta 24
4: Genesis 4:10
5: Genesis 6:5
6: Genesis 6:6-7
7: Isaiah 54:14