This year, more than ever, I really feel for Noah after the flood.
This past weekend, my family celebrated my daughter Yona's bat mitzvah. In her Dvar Torah, she talked about this week's Torah portion, Parashat Noach, comparing our time in Covid quarantine to the experience of Noah and his family on the ark. She honed in on the dove's mission, and the hope that is represented by the olive branch the dove brings back to the ark. And indeed, even now, with the Covid pandemic still raging around us, Yona is correct to assert that we must each work to find our olive branches -- that is, signs of promise and hope -- and use these to anchor ourselves to a firmer future.
That said, if we continue reading Parashat Noach further, we learn of another ending to the story, one that goes beyond the optimistic olive branch and even the rainbow. After Noah and his family disembark from the ark, Genesis 9:20-21 features four verbs in quick succession that together tell a more tragic tale: he plants a vineyard, drinks, becomes drunk, and uncovers himself. There's not a lot of explanation in the text itself as to why the great hero of the flood story takes such a dramatic turn that he ends up passed out and naked on the floor of his tent, but various midrashim are quick to point to the tragedy of the situation, connecting Noah's nakedness with the broader theme of exile (word play: vayitgal = galut), and using the vavs that begin each of these verbs to spell out the word "vey," meaning "oy" or "woe".
This year, more than ever, I really feel for Noah after the flood. Yes, his ordeal on the ark is over once he's back on dry land -- a seemingly happy ending -- and yet the world around him has been completely upended and destroyed. Today, I think we would call Noah's response a manifestation of PTSD, recognizing the trauma of what he's just experienced. I can only imagine the swirl of emotions he must be feeling: grief and loss (having lost absolutely everyone beyond his immediate family in the flood!), survivor's guilt, and a sense of dramatic overwhelm when faced with the daunting task of rebuilding human civilization. Life post-flood is certainly no picnic!
As I read Parashat Noach now - with Covid numbers on the rise once again and a big election now less than two weeks away - this part of the story feels like a cautionary tale addressed to our circumstance. What can we do to prepare ourselves -- and to brace -- for re-entry into a world where we will once again stand on firm ground? When this pandemic passes (and it will, eventually!), how will our lives be forever changed? Many of us have serious concerns about what life will be like on the other side: from the Covid-19 "long haulers" who survived their bout with the virus but may experience debilitating health effects in a long-term way, to the businesses that will never reopen and the industries that will be forever changed, to those of us who worry our children's social abilities and our own hard-wiring (will we all be agoraphobic?!), just to name a few examples. And, whatever the result of the November 3rd election, I harbor some degree of fear about what might happen in the days and weeks that follow the election, and also have a range of potential concerns (depending on the outcome of the election) about what life will look like and what kind of work we will have cut out for us on the other side.
Right now -- while we are still on the ark, very much still floating, and with waters still raging around us -- we have the gift of time to prepare for the uncertain time that lies ahead. When it comes to the election, there are many organizations doing great work to support democracy, seek to ensure a free and fair election, and mitigate against any potential power grab. To name a few, the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah is behind an initiative called Free and Fair, specifically aimed at providing the American Jewish community with informative, non-partisan resources to support conversation, safety and action during this tumultuous election season. I also admire the work of the One American Movement and Choose Democracy, both of which are offering trainings to help individuals and communities prepare. In addition, there is an important spiritual dimension to this moment, and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality has put together some wonderful resources for the election season, which I encourage everyone to spend some time with.
Finally, recognizing that we are still in the midst of the storm, we know that we must care for ourselves and for one another. At our Virtual Candle-lighting tomorrow/Friday night (5:30pm, see below for details), Kavana partner and clinical psychologist Rachel Turow will offer us some tips for navigating the coming weeks - and this promises to be tangible and useful. The bottom line is that this year, as I read Parashat Noach, I am indeed looking for hope and olive branches, and also doing the best I can to brace and prepare for what might come after the flood, in order to avoid the kind of post-traumatic tragedy that befalls Noah.
I am glad to be on this ark with you all, and very much looking forward to regaining our footing on dry land, one of these days (b'karov b'yameinu - may it come speedily and in our time!).
Chodesh tov - wishing us all a month of blessing,
Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum
P.S. - Don't forget to vote!! This is the week to do it, if you haven't already.
The Torah is usually terse and concise, but this week's parasha, Chayei Sarah, centers around a long story that is anything but! All 67 verses of Genesis chapter 24 are devoted to a single narrative: the tale of Abraham sending his servant on a journey to find a wife for his son Isaac, and returning with Rebecca, a woman of great agency, strength and generosity.
We Jews know how to wait. That is, we deeply understand humanity's imperfections, and that the presence of injustice or cruelty in our world cannot undermine our steadfast focus on trying to achieve our vision of a more perfect, more just future. We have lots of historical experience to draw on, and much language for this kind of spiritual resilience. One line that's been swimming through my head this week is from the prayer "Ani Maamin": "v'af al pi she-yitmameah, im kol zeh achakeh lo." Translating loosely here (and transposing what we're waiting for from a messianic figure to a time characterized by messianic ideals), this means: despite the fact that it's taking a long time for the world to change in the ways we believe it should, still, we are undeterred; we will wait - and work - until we arrive at an era of peace and justice.
Yesterday was the second anniversary of the violent attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Its memory casts a long shadow for me, and this year, the anniversary feels like a powerful reminder of the very high stakes of next week’s election.