October 2011

“And God spoke to Noah saying, ‘Leave the ark.'” (Gen. 8:15-16)

After the generation of the flood failed to repent, God wiped them out. “And all that remained was Noah in the ark,” says the Midrash Tanhuma. The midrash continues, “Noah said to himself, I entered at God’s will, when God said to me, ‘Come, you and all your household, into the ark.’ And so now I will only leave with God’s permission.” (Tanhuma Noach 8)

There is something striking in this moment. The land is dry. Noah knows all will be okay. And yet, God still has to instruct him to leave. Why?

The midrash goes on to compare this moment of exiting the ark with a verse in Psalms: “Bring my soul out of prison ,that I may praise thy name” (Ps. 142:7). Noah was sagur, shut inside the ark, as we know from the earlier verse, vayisgor adonai ba’ado, “And God shut him in” (Gen. 7:16). Here the midrash reminds us that, as much as the ark saved Noah and his family, it was at the same time a prison. It was full of bad memories (memories which, interestingly enough, we don’t preserve in the written text of the Torah). The midrash relates that for twelve months inside the ark, Noah and his sons did not sleep, since they were constantly feeding the animals. They did not have sexual relations with their wives. They did not have a normal life. This was as far from normal as could be. They were prisoners.

So we can imagine that Noah was in shock when it finally ended. He couldn’t move. And so God had to tell him it was time to go.

The psychological interpretation is hard to miss. The ark can be the shell we crawl into to escape the tribulations of the world, real or metaphorical. Leaving that cocoon is not an easy task, even after the tempest has subsided.

But there is another dimension to this reading. The word teivah, which means ark, also means letter in post-Biblical Hebrew. That is, Noah not only entered the ark, he also entered into a letter. The entire world was balled up into a single letter. The world was silent. All God’s speech acts, which had created the world, were withdrawn. The world of language, like the physical world, was desolate. All that remained was the building block of a word.

And at this moment, Noah needed God’s help to learn to speak again, to be a person again. The world needed God to speak again, and Noah needed to hear God’s voice once more. “Leave the boat, all of you—you and your wife, and your sons and their wives. Release all the animals—the birds, the livestock, and the small animals that scurry along the ground—and be fruitful and multiply throughout the earth” (Gen. 8:16-17). These are God’s first words after the destruction, and they recapitulate God’s words at the moment of creation: “Then God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground'” (Gen. 1:28). God recreates the world, and God renews language and speech. From one tiny letter, one single teivah, the world is reborn.

This too is an overwhelming moment, the moment of re-encountering speech after such a long silence. But it is also a moment we encounter every day. Language is a structure that provides security for many of us. We use words that are familiar. We stick to concepts we know. To leave those words and ideas for new ones requires bravery. Noah, standing at the threshold of the ark, likewise stands at the threshold of language, at the doorway of the world. The ark, the letter, which has been his home, has also been his prison.

Shabbat shalom.

There is an intriguing paradox in the laws of Sukkot. Maimonides, following the Talmud, rules that a stolen Sukkah is nonetheless a kosher sukkah (Laws of Sukkah 5:25). That is, if one used a sukkah without another’s permission, it is nevertheless still usable to fulfill the commandment of dwelling in the sukkah. One may fulfill one’s obligation to eat and sleep in the sukkah, even if it isn’t owned by the person fulfilling the mitzvah. A sukkah, in essence, is communal property.

On the other hand, a lulav and etrog must be owned by the person using them. This is inferred from Leviticus 23:40, which commands that “on the first day” u’lekachtem lachem, “you shall take for yourselves” the four species. On the first day, therefore, we are required to have full possession of the species—we are required to own them. This gives rise to the name of an entire chapter of the Talmud: what happens if the lulav, or any of the four species, is stolen? Can it still be used to fulfill the commandment? Unlike the sukkah, where ownership doesn’t matter, for the four species it does.

The lulav is focused on the individual. The shaking of the lulav, done properly, brings the four species in contact with the heart, extending out and in three times in six directions. The symbolism signifies that the individual is integrating the world into the self, and giving the self to the world. But the emphasis is on the individual, and the demand for ownership reinforces this.

The sukkah, but contrast, is a communal structure. It does not belong to the individual, and it doesn’t need to. The sukkah in a sense reminds us of our fragility, of the reality of bittul, self-nullification: ki li ha-aretz, For the Earth is Mine. Hence it is not necessary to own a sukkah—because ownership is a fiction in the first place.

On Shabbat my colleague Rabbi Michael Balinsky taught a piece of the Sefas Emes in which he says that the movement from one’s house to the sukkah is a sort of re-enactment of the movement of Abraham and Sarah: lech-lecha me’artzecha…, Go out from your land. It is an act of undoing the false sense of security we place in our houses, an annual resetting of our relationship to our property. At the same time, I would say that the lulav sends an additional message: of the necessity of integrating our labor (represented in the fruits of our labor) with the wider world and with community.

These paradoxes are on our minds as we watch the protests unfolding around the world. We are challenged to ask, What is our relationship with our property? What does it mean to own? What does it mean to share? And they are on our mind as we watch a nation, and a people, come together to welcome home one of their own: How are we related? Why do we rejoice for some, but not others? What does it mean to have a home? And what does it mean to share our homes with our neighbors?

Baruch podeh umatzil – blessed is the One who redeems and saves.

Chag sameach.

An audio recording of this sermon is available here.

Tonight I want to talk about fear.

Yom Kippur can be a fearful day. We are afraid of being hungry. We are afraid of being thirsty. How many of us are already counting the hours until we can eat?

We can be very afraid on this day.

What if we’re hungry? What if we’re thirsty? What if after all those words, after all that singing, after all the rabbi’s exhortations to do teshuva–what if, after all that, I feel nothing? What if God doesn’t answer me? What if God doesn’t exist? What if all of this is a load of hooey?

It’s a terrifying thought. It inspires fear in our hearts.

And the roots of this day prompt us to think about fear.

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us a god who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.'”

Moses is on Mount Sinai. He has been gone for nearly 40 days. And finally they can’t take it anymore: “We don’t know what has happened to him,” the Israelites say. Lo yadanu meh haya lo. We don’t know. Not knowing is the root of their fear. They are plagued by doubts: What if he doesn’t come back? What if he fell off the mountain? What if God killed him? What will we do?

And so, to ease their not knowing, they make themselves a pacifier: they build the golden calf.

This is the greatest sin in the Torah. It prompts Moses to seek God’s forgiveness, which establishes the model of teshuva for us here today. That sin, building the Golden Calf, is rooted in fear. The fear of losing control. The fear of not knowing.


To listen to an audio recording of this sermon (made after the holiday), please click here.

You probably remember the story about the elderly Jewish woman listening to a lecture by a famous astronomer. The lecture was about the sun.

At one point the astronomer said, “In around six to seven billion years the Sun will exhaust all its hydrogen fuel and begin the process of stellar death. When that happens, the Sun will grow so large it will engulf planet Earth.”

Distressed, the woman interrupted the lecture, yelling out, “Wait, when will this happen?”

The astronomer replied: “Six to seven billion years from now.”

To which the woman replied, “Whew! I thought you said million.”

The central mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is not dipping apples and honey. It isn’t eating honey cake. It isn’t getting together with your crazy relatives. Those things are all lovely and important. But they’re not what Rosh Hashanah is fundamentally about. No, at its heart, Rosh Hashanah is about listening–about remembering what it means to listen, and about listening closely to the sound of the shofar. (more…)