Yom Chamishi, 20 AdarI 5781
Thursday, 4 March 2021
Parashat Noach 2012

Parashat Noach by Rabbi Janet Burden
19th October 2012

Between last week's Torah reading and this one, there have been ten generations.· The world has gone from Paradise to corruption so absolute that God essentially decides to begin again.· But it is not just the world that has changed; seemingly, God has changed, too.· Gone is the Creator who imposes order and who breathes life into humanity.· The God who speaks to Noah is the One who will chaos and bring death. ·How do we reconcile these two VERY different images of God?

As I re-read the story again this year, I was reminded of the short passage from the opening verses of Isaiah 45 which says:

אֲנִי יְהֹוָה וְאֵין עֽוֹד: יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע אֲנִי יְהֹוָה עֹשֶׂה כָל־אֵֽלֶּה:
I am the Eternal One; there is none else: I form the light and create darkness;
I make peace and create evil; I am the Eternal One who does all these things.

You will be more familiar with the liturgical variation on this passage, in which we describe God as ‘Maker of light and Creator of darkness, Author of peace and Creator of all things.’· This is no sop to modern sensibilities:· it was the rabbinic sages who changed this verse for liturgical use, centuries ago.· I believe they feared that people might read the verse in its original form and conclude that God, or at least some aspect of God, is cruel.· Certainly, that is what happened to the American novelist, Mark Twain, who watched his young children die.· Long before it was fashionable to question the existence of God, he said, “If there is a God, he is a malicious thug.”

I was thinking a lot about Twain in the past week, which marks the first yahrzeit of a young man, only 25, who died in a para-gliding accident in Spain.· I had known Guy Joseph since he was five years old.· His wonderful, generous mother, Vicky, had invited me to join her family for Pesach Seder when I arrived back in this country in 1991, not knowing a soul in the Jewish community.· I had been advised by a Jewish friend in the States to go to the Sternberg Centre in Finchley.· Due to my interest in Social Action, the office manager there sent me to Vicky, who at that time was co-convenor of the Social Action Forum, a joint project of the Reform and Liberal movements. We hit it off immediately, and less than half an hour after meeting me, she asked, ‘Have you somewhere to go for Seder?”· When I replied that I hadn’t, she simply said, “Well, you do now.”· I was delighted to be included in this warm family circle.· I still remember the fits of giggles when Guy and his two older sisters, Lauren and Alex, regaled us with the song about the frogs in Pharaoh’s bed.· “Frogs here, frogs there, frogs are jumping everywhere.”· Guy’s eyes sparkled and he wore a huge grin.

I watched him grow first into a schoolboy, then into a teen-ager, and finally into a young man of strength and grace.·That grin of his was a constant throughout.· He was vibrantly alive and a source of great joy and pride to his parents.· His abrupt and untimely death has devastated their lives. At the funeral, I marvelled that Vicky found the inner strength to offer the eulogy herself, as a last final tribute to her beautiful son.· He deserved only the best, only the most true…and that is exactly what she, as his mother, could give.

I have no doubt that there are still moments when the reality of this loss feels like a cruel visitation of evil upon the lives of my friends.· It might even feel like some sort of punishment.· The human mind baulks at the randomness of such events and sometimes tries to impose order by positing spurious alternative outcomes.· ‘If only we had… perhaps if he had…· surely if….’· But these are all in vain.· Bad things can, and regularly do, happen to good people.·That is why Rabbi Kenneth Hildebrand commented:

On occasion I hear someone cry out in anguish of soul, “What terrible thing have I done that God should punish me so?”· The answer is – nothing!· Suffering, except through the universal law of cause and effect, does not come as punishment.· Once and for all, we should rid ourselves of the thought that the Creator of Life sends pain as punishment.· This is the basic point in the Bible’s Book of Job.[i]

It is for this reason that I feel so strongly that we should honour our most ancient ancestors’ belief in God without necessarily accepting their particular conception of God’s action in the world.· For the Biblical writer, Noah’s flood comes as a punishment upon the wickedness of humanity, plain and simple.· It is the same kind of thinking we find in the tale of the expulsion from Eden.· And much as I value the moral lessons in these stories, we should not accept simplistically the theology behind them.·· The need for an amended understanding was already recognised by the time of Second Isaiah.· That is why the passage we read for our haftarah this Shabbat is from Isaiah 54, with its glorious promise that suffering will not endure forever.· It is precisely in the hope for healing, and dare I say it, redemption, that I find what I call God.

In honour of Guy, Vicky and Tony Joseph have created a charitable trust that creates educational opportunities for young people in the developing world.·· Please have a look at their website:· http://www.guystrust.org/ and support it if you can.· Zichrono L’vrachah.

[i] Day by Day (NY: CCAR, 1998), p. 188.