We have said we are all on a journey. Our ancestors were on a journey too.
We know this story.
Noah was a righteous man, in his generation.
G-d got frustrated, and threatened to destroy the world because not everyone was as righteous, not even close to Noah. So G-d told Noah to build an ark. How many of you hear this in the voice of Bill Cosby, doing his own midrash on Noah. Not today.
Or the song, “Rise and Shine,” we sang that last night.
So, Noah he build Him, he build him an arky, arky.
He rescued two of every animal, seven of the kosher ones, so that the world could start again. Maybe that was the original Humane Society or MSPCA.
What if I told you that this wasn’t the first time G-d destroyed the world? It may not be the last. According to the midrash there were 974 worlds. (Midrash Tehilim 90:13 and Bereshit Rabbah 3:7). This number is derived from the verse in Psalms, “remember his covenant, a word He commanded for a thousand generations.” (Psalms 105:8)
How many worlds? The rabbis ask the same thing….
How many worlds? Its unclear, but they added up to a thousand generations of souls, according to one reading, based on Ps. 105:8; 974 according to another. How that latter number? Noah was the 26th Generation of [this] creation, and since the Sages teach that Solomon was referring to Noah when he wrote, Only one man in a thousand have I found… (Eccl. 7:28), they deduct 26 from 1000 and get….974 (Gen. R. 28:4). 974 becomes the working number for prior creations in many subsequent retellings of this legend (Talmud Hag. 13b, Midrash Tehillim 90:13; Shabbat 88b)
I see it like young children who keep making worlds in play dough and then smashing them. Or legos or blocks and then knocking them over. Over and over and over again. G-d seems to never be satisfied with what G-d has created. And maybe there is good reason for that. G-d gave us free will and we keep making questionable decisions. It is not a whole lot different than parenting. Right? We give birth to this creature, our child, who we love so much. And we give her a choice, do you want to wear this dress or that one? And the child picks out the most awful combination. But we gave her the choice, so off she goes with mismatched clothes. Or we ask him to pick a friend to play with and we don’t like the parents. But we gave him a choice, so the play date is secured. Ultimately, we are helping our children become independent adults. Slowly over time. But there are days when we wonder why we gave them a choice at all.
Wouldn’t it be better to just start over? Start from scratch? It might be easier. It might be more perfect.
G-d realizes, again over and over again, that G-d has made a mistake. Maybe G-d should just start over. And then again, maybe not. So G-d makes a covenant, a brit, that G-d will not destroy the world again, at least not by water.
A covenant, a brit, is an agreement, a pact, a promise. If you do x then I will do y.
This is the first covenant G-d makes with people. Later G-d makes a covenant with Abraham and Sarah, later still with Moses and the people of Israel. And in each case there is a sign of the covenant. They are designed to help us remember the terms of these promises.
After the rain. After the raven. After the dove. G-d put a rainbow in the sky,
Sign of the covenant.
- The rainbow. The blessing for seeing a rainbow ends “zochair habrit, to remember the covenant”
- Shabbat, Shabbat is the sign of the covenant between the people of Israel and G-d. In the Shabbat Kiddush and in V’shamru, we say, “Zechair l’ma’aseh v’reishit, to remember the works of creation.”
- Brit milah, the circumcision, which is how we enter 8 day old boys into the covenant, is described as “The bris is a physical symbol of the relationship between G‑d and the Jewish people. It is a constant reminder of what the Jewish mission entails (a reminder which men need more than women). (Chabad, http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/144122/jewish/Brit-Milah-Circumcision.htm ) Now this one interests me for several reasons. That is exactly the way it was taught to me when I was studying in an Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem. We women are on a higher spiritual plane. This rational is included in the movie I think we are showing here at CKI in February. Women’s Balcony. You’ll have to let me know what you think. But I will tell you that today is Rosh Hodesh, a half holiday given to women because we did not give up our gold for the sin of the golden calf.
- Mezuzah and Tefilin, which putt these very words that remind us of the covenant on our doorposts and in front of our eyes. (Deut. 6:9, 11) Rambam, the 12th century rabbinic scholar said, Whenever one enters or leaves a home with the mezuzah on the doorpost, he will be confronted with the declaration of G-d’s unity….and will be aroused from…..his foolish absorption in temporal vanities. He will realize that nothing endures to all eternity save knowledge of the Ruler of the Universe.” (Mishneh Torah, 6:13)
- Tzitzit, the fringes we are commanded on our garments, in Numbers 15:38 are to “remember all of My commandments.” They are literally like tying a string on your finger to help you remember.
- The Torah. The Torah is seen as the marriage contract, the ketubah, the sign between Israel and G-d. Literally it is a signed document. Marriage too is a covenantal relationship. It is a holy relationship. Jeremiah 31 sums this up well: “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my Torah in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
But here is the question. Who needs to be reminded? Us or G-d? If we look carefully at the language of this week’s portion, it would seem to be G-d.
G-d will put “my rainbow” in the sky, “that I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living being of all flesh and the waters shall no more bring a flood to destroy all life. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it and I may remember the everlasting covenant between G0d and every living creature.” (Genesis 9:15-16)
And while those are anthropomorphic images of G-d, it elevates G-d above the level of that toddler playing with playdough or blocks. Those signs help us and G-d to remember that we have an obligation, a responsibility to partners with G-d to make sure that this world is not destroyed. That is the basis of the mystical tradition of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world.
The story goes like this:
When G-d began to create the world, this world, after those 974 other worlds, G-d’s presence filled creation. So G-d needed to make room for this world. G-d took a breath in, contracting. We call that tzimtzum. From that contraction, there was darkness. When G-d said, “Let there be light”, the lightness filled the darkness and ten holy vessels were filled with this primordial light.
Those holy vessels were too fragile to contain that light, so they shattered, sending sparks and shards flying. That is why humanity was created. It is our job to be partners with G-d. It is our job to gather the sparks together wherever they are hidden.
The shattering of the vessels echoes the story about the prior worlds, based on Isaiah, “For behold! I am creating a new heaven and a new earth.” (Isaiah 65:17). One of our mystical rabbis, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira who I studied this summer with Institute for Jewish Spirituality and who I quoted on Yom Kippur, connects this two stories together, “At the time of creation, God created worlds and destroyed them. The worlds that were created and those that were destroyed were the shattered vessels that God had sent forth. Out of those broken vessels God created the present universe.”
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shaira also teaches us to ask G-d directly, “Show me Your path.” It is a journey. Everything is a journey and it is about remembering that we are on that path, tied to G-d with a covenant, reminded of that covenant, that we are each holy vessels, with a sign.
Sometimes, we have a hard time finding that sign. Eli Wiesel of blessed memory tells this story:
“When Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov, the founder of Hasidism, saw that the Jewish people was threatened by tragedyhe would go to a particular place in the forest where he lit a fire, recited a particular prayer, and the miracle was accomplished, averting the tragedy. Later, when the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, the Maggid of Mezrich, had to intervene with heaven for the same reason, he went to the same place in the forest where he told the Master of the Universe that while he did not know how to light the fire, he could still recite the prayer, and again, the miracle was accomplished. Later still, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, in turn a disciple of the Maggid of Mezrich, went into the forest to save his people. “I do not know how to light the fire,” he pleaded with God, “and I do not know the prayer, but I can find the place and this must be sufficient.” Once again, the miracle was accomplished. When it was the turn of Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn, the great-grandson of the Maggid of Mezrich who was named after the Baal Shem Tov, to avert the threat, he sat in his armchair, holding his head in his hands, and said to God: “I am unable to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story.That must be enough.” And, according to Eli Wiesel, “it was sufficient.”
May we each find the sign and the path. And may G-d remember the covenant to never, ever destroy the world again.