Parsha Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32
The story of Noah is one that most people in North America are familiar with. In Christian circles it is a favourite for Sunday Schools and there is also a musical version of it that has been put on in church settings. The story of Noah’s Ark is one that is often presented in a feel good kind of way that keeps the kids happy. Yes, G-d wiped out creation and started over, but OOH, LOOK, lots of cuddly animals on the ark! Oh, some of them get sacrificed after the flood, but we won’t really talk about that. It’s too depressing and children can’t understand it. Even for adults the story of Noah is often looked at on a surface level. Delving deeper into the story there is much more to talk about. There’s the analysis of the form of the story with strong evidence of two different writers, there is the parallel of the first creation myth found in Genesis 1:1-2:4, and the link to the ark Moses. The chaos and sinful nature of the world being wiped clean and creation starting fresh from those on the ark. A very rich myth or story indeed. What if we take a different look at this story and see it from a perspective of a metaphor relating to our own lives?
At the end of last week’s parsha, Bresheit, The wickedness of the world is such that Adonai was ready to blot out the world, “But Noah found favour with Adonai” and was thus instructed to build the ark so that he and all living things might live. Taking this for a metaphor of our lives, what would this look like? Many, if not most of us have had times in our lives when we have fallen into a place where we have sinned – missed the mark, or engaged in what we or others might perceive as wickedness, wandered away from G-d. My own experience over the past six years of transition to who I am in my identity as a woman, and later who I am in faith as someone who is Jewish resembles this journey from chaos, through the storm, and back onto stable, mostly dry, land. I also find that this parsha coming so soon after Yom Kippur and our annual rituals of seeking forgiveness of our sins that the story of Noah is a reminder of movement through High Holy days. There is also a reminder, for me, of the waters of the mikveh and the ritual cleansing of immersion.
Going back to the beginning of the story, and using it as a metaphor, being at a place of chaos and uncertainty in life is the starting point. One might be at a point of despair, loss, hopelessness. Then a voice comes, in the case of Noah it was the voice of G-d. For us as 21st century Jews we tend not to think of G-d speaking to us directly. Yet if we take the approach of seeing the divine in all of the world, the essence of the divine in each other, we might yet hear a voice that helps direct us toward building our own ark to aid us through the troubled waters of our own personal worlds. Like Noah we do not undertake this journey through the storm without help. Noah had his wife, his children, and his children’s partners. We have our friends, chosen family, and our communities to help us through, but we might not be aware of all that they are doing.
Finally, after the storm abates Noah sees the sun, and the raging waters begin to subside. Noah is able to then start to look outward again. Noah sends out the raven and later the dove to find out what the landscape might look like. Is it bleak and barren, or are there signs of life? The raven does not return to Noah, it goes on its way, presumably finding food to eat and not feeling like it owes anything to Noah. It might even be considered to have abandoned Noah. Even when our dark times, times of falling down, missing the mark, are ending we often find that people whom we thought we could count on for support will, like the raven, abandon us and leave us to our own devices. We also have people around us who will be like the dove. They may go off for a time, but then they return. Sometimes they may come back without being able to help in ways other than just being present with us, listening to us, and supporting us. Other times they come back, like the dove with the olive branch, bringing something that gives us hope and the sign we need to tell us that it is time to move on to the next stage in our lives. Eventually the dove does not return when sent out, yet this is different from the raven. The dove’s work is complete. In the context of our relationships this may be a person that we needed in our lives for a certain period, but the relationship has run its course and we part on friendly terms.
So what happens when we, like Noah, leave the ark? The turbulent waters subside and Noah comes out of the ark along with the people and animals that were in there with him. He builds an altar, and sacrifices some of the clean animals to Adonai. What happens when we come out of the ark that helped shelter us through our journeys through the storms and troubled waters of life? We certainly don’t sacrifice some animals on an altar we build in our yards. For one thing, it would likely upset the neighbours a wee bit and the police might have something to say about it. How do we mark these passages from one stage of life to the next? For many people they move on, and don’t give much thought to the passage from one part of life to another. For those of us who find meaning in rituals, however, we often seek some ritual way of marking the passage.
For myself this comes back to the ritual cleansing of the mikveh. The ritual immersion of purification that I mentioned earlier. My first experience with this was just prior to Rosh Hashana this year. The experience was intense, personal, healing, and, yes, cleansing. It was a ritual that symbolised the two major transitions in my life in a way that I had not been able to mark prior to that occasion. For those who choose to cleanse themselves, and experience the mikveh in a way that is healing and a purification of the mind and spirit, the experience will be unique to each person. We may even want to look at the mikveh as a marking of the sacrifices, many of which may be quite painful, that we have made in our journeys through the chaos and storms of life. After we have come through the storm and into the newness of our lives that result from such experiences, we, like Noah have the opportunity to move forward and build our lives. We can, as is stated toward the end of the book of Deuteronomy, choose to follow a positive life and be blessed, or we can sink back into a path that leads to despair. If we do fall down again, we can always move back toward G-d, the blessings promised in the Torah are there if we choose to seek them out.