Divrei Torah

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October 17, 2017 - Parshat Noach

A D’var Torah for Noah

By Rabbi Jill Hammer

Recently in one of my classes at AJR, my students and I noticed an interesting biblical paradox.  In Parashat Noah, once the flood has subsided, Noah makes a thanksgiving offering to YHWH.  YHWH smells the pleasing odor of the offering and offers a commitment: “As long as the earth endures, planting and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease” (Genesis 8:22). In return for Noah’s gratitude for being saved, the Divine promises that the cyclical patterns of nature, the basic foundation upon which human life rests, shall not cease.  Even before making a covenant with Noah or offering commands about human life, YHWH promises not to destroy the earth but to allow its cycles to continue.  This is a great blessing to the human beings who have been tasked with tilling and tending the earth: “l’ovdah uleshomrah”  (Genesis 2:15).  No matter how the relationship between the human and the Divine may shift, the fundamental cycles will not alter.  Qohelet, Ecclesiastes, echoes this view, intoning: Veha’aretz le’olam omadet— “The earth remains the same forever” (Ecclesiastes 1:4).

Yet later in the Bible, in the books of the prophets, there are promises that the natural cycles will one day end, and a new era without natural constraints will begin.  For example, Isaiah 25:8 promises that God will “swallow up death forever.”  This assumes a radical change in the world we know, such that the normal natural cycles will be different.  One can’t have planting and harvest without death (though perhaps Isaiah wasn’t referring to plants).  Amos 9:12 promises that “the one who plows shall meet the reaper, and the grape-treader shall meet the sower.” While this could simply be a poetic metaphor for abundance, it could also mean that the Noah-era limitations on seasonal cycles will no longer exist in the world to come.   Isaiah 66:22 promises “hashamayim hahadashim veha’aretz hahadashah,” a new heaven and a new earth.  In general, the messianic texts of the Jewish tradition assume that the “coming world” will not have the same natural laws as the one we live in now. In the Mishneh Torah, in Hilkhot Teshuvah chapter 8, Maimonides writes “The world to come has no eating and no drinking,” which certainly means there will be no need for planting or harvest.  A midrash on Proverbs 9 states that even the calendrical cycle will one day cease, and only Purim (a non-agricultural festival) will be left.

These two models of the world are radically different.  One places its faith in divine support of the processes of nature, and one places its faith in the overturning of such processes.   Jewish liturgy operates in the tension between these two ways of thinking.  In the Amidah, for example, we pray both for the success of the harvest (mevarekh hashanim) and for the messianic era (matzmiah keren yeshuah).  We pray both for the rain (morid hagashem), and for the resurrection of the dead (mehayei hameitim).  Jewish tradition does not necessarily regard this as a contradiction: prayers for the cycles of nature are for now; prayers for messianic redemption are for later.  Yet there is, in some way, a fundamental difference in perspective.

I am reflecting on this as I, like many of you, witness a world undergoing radical change. The floods in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, the earthquake in Mexico, and the fires in the Northwest, along with many other events, remind me of the events of Parashat Noah.  These painful events contribute to my sense of a world that is transforming faster than my ability to absorb what is happening.  As I go about my days, I, like my ancestors, oscillate between gratitude for the continued blessings of creation, and an awareness that my world could, as history unfolds, become unrecognizable.  My ancestors sometimes understood world cataclysm as preparation for the redemption ahead.  For myself, I am not always certain what the cataclysm heralds.  I can relate to Noah and Naamah sitting in the ark, wondering what on earth they will find when they open the door. Yet I can also relate to their gratitude offering as they find an earth that still contains much blessing.

As we enter Heshvan, the month in which, according to midrash, the Ark set out, I wonder if I can learn something about my relationship to the world from these two conflicting Jewish views: one celebrating the consistency of the world and one envisioning a “paradigm shift.”  Perhaps these two views might visit me as angels during my prayer, one whispering “the earth remains the same forever” and one whispering “a new heaven and a new earth.”  Perhaps these voices will provide me with enough ground on which to stand while I also strive to be part of a new reality amid the forces of change.  May we all find enough stability in the world to ground us as we work toward transformation.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion and the author of a number of books, including The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, and The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership.