Friday, December 2, 2022

November, The Darkest Month: A brief look at Jewish History of the 20th Century

 November, The Darkest Month: A brief look at Jewish History of the 20th Century

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

December 2, 2022

Notwithstanding the fact that my birthday—which I share with several family members and good friends—is in November, November is probably my least favorite month. Granted, it also has the holiday of Thanksgiving, but that hardly stands up to the shorter days and frigid temperatures that set in—seemingly with no end in sight.

Yet, for better or for worse, November is one of the most important months in Jewish history. Some have even suggested that it be designated Jewish History Month. Here, in order of appearance in the calendar, are just some of the dates we need to remember.

November 2, 1917: The Balfour Declaration. Written by Lord Alfred Balfour of Great Britain, the declaration states that “His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Hoping to gain Jewish support for the war against the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which had ruled over the Middle East for 500 years, the declaration fell short of Zionist hopes (and was summarily rejected by the Arabs) but following the conclusion of World War One it was accepted by the League of Nations and is an important step toward the founding of the modern State of Israel. 

November 4, 1995: Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister of Israel, is assassinated. This murder sealed the deep rift between the right and left wings of Israel’s society. More than a quarter century later, the bitterness and accusations remain, symptomatic of a nation profoundly divided along ideological, political, cultural, religious and economic lines.

November 9, 1938: Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, a pogrom perpetrated by Nazi forces along with members of the Hitlerjugend, the Hitler Youth. In total, 267 synagogues were destroyed, over 7,000 Jewish businesses were damaged or destroyed and some 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps . And oh yes, the Jews were forced to pay for the damage and cleanup. In the eyes of many, Kristallnacht signifies the starting point of the Holocaust. 

37 years to a day after Kristallnacht, on November 10, 1975, the United Nations General Assembly issued Resolution 3379, declaring that Zionism is racism. Though repealed 16 years later, this despicable falsehood became a mantra among the so-called political Progressives, and is still repeated on every possible occasion by them as well as by other groups. By the way, speaking of anti-Zionism in the United Nations, on November 30—only 2 days ago—the UN General Assembly condemned Israel in five separate resolutions, for a total of 15 so far this year targeting Israel, “compared to 13 on the rest of the world combined.”    

But I digress. There are three other November dates that are more important for us to note: November 21, 29 and 30.

On the 21st day of November 1984, Israel began a covert rescue mission that lasted seven weeks and involved 30 clandestine flights. Known as “Operation Moses,” Israel secretly airlifted over 8,000 Ethiopian Jews, victims of persecution, civil war and famine, transporting them via Sudan and Belgium to new homes in Israel. Operation Moses reminds us of one of the most important reasons the State of Israel was founded to begin with: To provide shelter for persecuted Jews from anywhere in the world.

Now, the 29th day of November is a complex date. In 1947, on that date, the United Nations adopted Resolution 181, also known as the Partition Plan, dividing the Land of Israel into two states, one Jewish and the other Arab. This two-state solution didn’t sit well with Arab countries, which immediately began expelling their Jewish citizens. Over 850,000 men, women and children were forced to leave lands they had lived in for hundreds and even thousands of years. Permitted to take almost nothing with them but the clothes on their backs, they came to Israel from Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. In memory of this modern-day Exodus, in 2014 Israel’s legislature, the Knesset, designated November 30 as a day of remembrance of the collective trauma suffered by Mizrahi Jews, Jewish refugees from Iran and Arab lands.

But November 29 has yet another meaning for me, on a more personal level. This story goes back to the Holocaust and the Zionist youth group—Ha-No’ar Ha-Tziyoni—of which my mother, of blessed memory, was a member. Formed for the purpose of defense and escape, one of the actions that this youth group undertook was to seek revenge on Nazi collaborators. One unit comprising two men, Olek Guttman and Emil Brigg, and one woman, Danusha Firstenberg, set out to hunt down a notorious kapo, a Nazi collaborator who betrayed Jewish refugees to the Nazi murderers. The group accomplished their goal. Soon afterwards however they were caught. Interrogated and tortured for days, they somehow found the strength not to give up names and addresses the Nazis demanded. On November 28 they were told that the following day they would be executed. 

It didn’t happen.

As luck would have it, the jail where they were held was liberated by the Russians on the following day—you guessed it, November 29, 1944, two hours before the planned execution. Coincidentally, that was also Danusha’s birthday. All three later played important roles in the establishment and defense of the State of Israel. In honor of their miraculous escape, November 29 was chosen for the annual reunion of survivors of the group, known as Nasha Gruppa. My mother, who was unit leader for many of the group’s rescue missions, attended most of these gatherings and I got to know many of its members. Now, with few survivors left, 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation survivors are the ones who attend to tell and retell the stories of tragedy, heroism and survival. 

November 29 is thus embedded in my memory and soul as deeply as my own birthday. This day, more than almost any other, has defined my entire life and personal mission.

Should November be designated Jewish History Month, as some have proposed? If it leads us to learn more about the saga of Jewish heroism and survival, then the answer is yes. But for some of us it isn’t history. It’s the ongoing present, and it lasts much longer than 30 days.

Still, I’m glad that this month is over. Without a doubt, every day in the calendar holds its special moments and memories—some joyous, others less so. But there’s just too much darkness in November, and even the few rays of hope that shine through are tinged with sadness. I’ll take December, thank you! December’s eight-day Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, is a joyous celebration that helps us cross the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year—and sets us on course to the warmer, longer days of spring and summer. Now that’s something to look forward to!

And so, with November finally behind us, let’s dress warmer, light our candles, embrace the joyous season and, while yet recalling the past, always also look ahead to days and nights filled with awe, hope and wonder.

Happy December to one and all!

© 2022 by Boaz D. Heilman

A Ladder to Heaven: Vayeitzei.22

 A Ladder to Heaven

D’var Torah for Parashat Vayeitzei

November 29, 2022

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And [Jacob] Left,” Genesis 28:10—32:3) covers the middle part of Jacob’s life, from the time he leaves home until he begins his journey back again.

As with many of the stories of Genesis, this one too is structured beautifully. Vayeitzei contains symmetry of form, heroic deeds, love and jealousy (even elements of early anti-Semitism) and, at the end, reconciliation. 

Fleeing from his twin brother Esau, on Jacob’s first night away from the comforts of home, Jacob faces the grim reality of his new life. That night, however, sleeping with a rock for a pillow, he dreams of angels. It is the famous scene of Jacob’s Ladder, where God appears to Jacob, promising to be there for him throughout his journeys.

Jacob, however, is only partially impressed. “If,” he responds, “If God will be with me… then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of God” (Gen. 28:20-22). 

Unlike his father and grandfather before him, Jacob’s faith in God is riddled with doubt. He relies more on his own cunning and self-sufficiency. It will be a long time before he realizes the full meaning of God’s promise. 

In Laban’s house, despite being family and despite being given Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel (along with their two maids) as wives, Jacob is treated as a servant. The competition between the two sisters for Jacob’s love will result in the birth of twelve children, and—not unexpectedly—quite a bit of family drama. Jacob’s success as shepherd for his father-in-law’s herds will make him rich, but it will also arouse jealousy and hatred. Realizing that he has overstayed his welcome, Jacob—urged by yet another vision of angels—decides to return home. Without telling Laban, Jacob tells Rachel and Leah that God has instructed him to leave. They agree, and the journey homeward begins. 

Jacob’s Ladder has become a familiar metaphor for finding meaning and purpose in life. In Jacob’s dream, the ladder extends from “the place” (Ha-Makom, a concept that in the Torah stands for God’s Presence) where he sleeps all the way up to the heavens. Representing hope as well as aspiration and ambition, for Jacob, it is about his growing relationship with God.  

For many of us, Jacob’s Ladder is symbolic of life itself. We progress, step by step, rung by rung; we grow from innocent childhood to adulthood and—hopefully—to wisdom and maturity. We make our way toward our goals, often stumbling and then rising again, relying on our cunning and self-sufficiency. But at some point, like Jacob, we learn just how important faith is. It’s faith that gives us the hope and strength we need to overcome the constant challenges of life. 

Without faith, we are nothing but a speck of dust in a meaningless universe. Allowing God’s Presence into our life gives us purpose and meaning. and imbues our fleeting time on Earth with eternal holiness.

© 2022 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, November 25, 2022

Moral Math: Toldot.22

 Moral Math: Toldot.22

Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

November 23, 2022

This week’s Torah portion, Toldot (“Generations,” Genesis 25:19-28:9) begins the account of the third Patriarch of the Jewish People, Jacob.

Of the three Patriarchs, Jacob is the most approachable, the one we can identify with best. Abraham exemplifies unmatched faith in God; Isaac is the silent hero, accepting his fate with both courage and resignation. Unlike them, however, Jacob is self-sufficient, relying on himself and his cleverness more than on the noble ideals taught him by his father and grandfather. 

In this portion we learn of the birth of Isaac and Rebecca’s two sons, the twins Esau and Jacob. From the start, it is not an easy pregnancy, and when Rebecca seeks the meaning of her condition, she is told by God that she is carrying twins. “One will become mightier than the other, [yet] the elder will serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23). It is a struggle that will continue beyond their birth. The Edomites—descendants of Esau, also called Edom (“the red one”), though brothers in relationship to Jacob/Israel, become allies of the Babylonians as they destroy Jerusalem, capturing, killing and selling into slavery hundreds of Judean refugees. Later, the Edomites become the figurative representatives of the cruel Roman Empire, and centuries after that, of the oppressive Roman Catholic Church.

In the Torah portion, Isaac, blind and feeble in his old age, asks Esau to bring him a meal made from the flesh of a hunted animal. In return, Isaac intends to give Esau the blessing of the firstborn. Rebecca, overhearing the conversation, employs Jacob in tricking Isaac. She dresses Jacob in a hairy garment meant to fool Isaac into believing he is Esau. Rebecca then hurries and cooks the dish that Isaac has requested. Isaac, however, is not easily fooled.  “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau,” he exclaims (Gen. 27:22). Yet he allows the masquerade to continue and bestows his blessing on Jacob, the younger of the two twin brothers.

Esau swears to kill Jacob for tricking him (even though Jacob had “bought” the right to the blessing from his brother for a bowl of red lentil soup), and Rebecca arranges for Jacob to flee to her family in her country of origin. Isaac, now understanding what has happened but refusing to take back his words, lets Jacob go with yet another blessing.

The scenario is a troubling one. A question recently raised by students in one of our Religious School classes addresses this issue. Is it OK to cheat in order to make someone do the right thing, they asked.

That is exactly the moral issue that this portion raises. Were Rebecca and Jacob right in deceiving Isaac and Esau? Are one’s integrity and honesty a fair price to pay—even for the sake of survival?

The easy answer, of course, is a firm “no.” A person’s word should be unassailable. It is their bond.

Yet Rebecca and Jacob—and later, Isaac—know that this ideal works only in a perfect world. For various reasons, Esau could not be trusted to take care of his brother, let alone be a Patriarch of the Jewish People. The recognition of this fact impels them to proceed with their ruse.

Yet Jacob will not get off so easily. For the rest of his life he will pay for this act of deception. As he has cheated, so will he be cheated, over and over again. His entire life will be full of trouble, sorrow and tragedy. His children will squabble among themselves. His beloved wife, Rachel, will die before her time. Joseph, the eldest of Rachel and Jacob’s two sons, will be sold into slavery by his own brothers, and Jacob will mourn the loss for many years.

Jacob’s innocence (Gen. 25:27 ish tam reflects simplicity, wholeness, a quiet character, but also innocence) is forever gone, and he will have to learn to live with the consequences of his actions.

Morals aren’t always perfect or simple. Throughout life we often need to make allowances, do the “moral math.” In a perfect world, this would never be necessary. In the real world in which we live, however, perfection is unrealistic. Sometimes, for the sake survival (and at times, not even then), we must make allowances. It’s a slippery slope and a fatal trap for many of us.

The moral of this story is that sometimes we must make difficult choices. Without a doubt, however, there will always be consequences. We will never be whole or perfect again. We will always have to live with the guilt and burden of our choices.

© 2022 by Boaz D. Heilman

Thursday, November 17, 2022

The Silent Hero: Chayei Sarah.22

 The Silent Hero

D’var Torah for Chayei Sarah

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

November 16, 2022

This week’s Torah portion is Chayei Sarah (“The Life of Sarah,” Genesis 23:1—25:18). It’s a neatly put together portion, featuring symmetry, a love story and some of the most beautiful imagery one could hope for in an ancient scroll.

Chayei Sarah begins and ends with a death and a funeral. As the portion begins, Sarah dies and is buried by Abraham in the Machpelah Cave in Hebron. At the end of the portion, Abraham dies and is also buried in the same sacred burial space.

There are two detailed business negotiations in Chayei Sarah. In the first, Abraham purchases the plot of land that would serve as the final resting place for three generations of his family. The second is the negotiation not for land, but for a wife for Isaac.

The love story features Isaac and Rebecca—the first example of romantic love in the Torah. Their first meeting takes place as Isaac is taking a walk on a late afternoon, enjoying the cooling breeze as the sun is setting behind him. Lifting his eyes, he sees a far-off camel caravan and recognizes that it is bearing a beautiful woman. At the same instant, Rebecca sees Isaac and is informed that he is indeed her intended groom. Veiling herself—as was the custom at the time—Rebecca glides gracefully down from the camel’s back. When the couple finally meet, it is love at first sight. For the first time since his mother Sarah’s death, Isaac finds comfort and consolation, and he brings Rebecca home to his mother’s tent, where they live out their lives as a married couple.

There is a missing piece, however, in this otherwise beautifully constructed and told story. There’s a lot of talking in this portion: Abraham negotiates for the burial plot; then he gives specific and detailed instructions to his servant, Eliezer regarding finding the right person for Isaac. The servant negotiates at some length with Rebecca’s family. And finally Rebecca is asked whether she is willing to part with her family and marry Isaac. But through the entire portion, we don’t hear even one word from Isaac himself.

In fact, Isaac is a silent hero in his own story. The last words we heard from him were when he and his father, Abraham, were walking up the mountain where Isaac realizes that he, and not some lamb, is the intended sacrifice. The next words we hear from him will be spoken towards the end of his life—the blessing he had intended to give Esau but is tricked into giving to Jacob (next week’s portion, Toldot). 

Isaac’s silence is mystifying. Is it anger? Resentment? The trauma he must have suffered at the top of the mountain, seeing the glinting knife poised above his chest? And later, why is he silent as Abraham instructs his servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for Isaac? Unlike Rebecca, Isaac was never asked. His approval was taken for granted.

Throughout his life, Isaac was a willing accomplice to whatever befell him, never complaining, never asking why. Perhaps he had the same kind of faith that characterized his father, Abraham. Even when Isaac is tricked by Rebecca and Jacob, he accepts his fate and does not withdraw his blessing. Deep in his heart, he must have known all along that there were greater forces at play than he could perceive or argue with.

This acceptance of his fate became Isaac’s trademark. For some, the faith he demonstrated throughout his life was even greater than that of his father. Isaac becomes the model of the suffering servant, willing to undergo whatever God had intended for him.

His silence in the face of trauma and tragedy are not the signs not of a timid or oppressed spirit, but rather of his heroism and courage. It’s a trait that not many of us are blessed with, but one which proves Isaac worthy of being a patriarch of a long-suffering nation. With his silence, he earns the respect of people, angels and even God.

© 2022 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, November 11, 2022

Turning Ordinary into Holy: Vayeira.22

 Turning Ordinary into Holy: Vayeira.22

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

November 8, 2022

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And He Saw,” Genesis 18:1—22:24) is filled with miracles and wonders. First, three angels appear to Abraham; they foretell the birth, in exactly one year’s time, of Abraham and Sarah’s child, Isaac. Then they tell him of God’s intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. And finally we read about that ram, the one that famously gets its horns entangled in a bush just in time to stop Abraham from sacrificing his beloved son, Isaac.

There’s enough in this portion to spend an entire lifetime learning and discussing. Take that famous story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, known in Hebrew as the Akeida (“the binding” of Isaac). How to understand this breathtaking, yet also tremendously disturbing story? Does God make a horrible mistake in commanding Abraham to do the unthinkable? Is Abraham wrong in not arguing with God—particularly after vigorously trying to defend Sodom and Gomorrah, despite the evil that is rampant in those two doomed cities? And where is Sarah’s voice in all this?

And what about that poor ram? How does a ram, intimately familiar with every rock, stone and bush within his grazing territory, get so terribly enmeshed and allows itself to be bound up and sacrificed?

The dozen or so verses that comprise the Akeida story have inspired countless books, articles, midrashim and rabbinic commentaries. This story, a traditional reading on Rosh Ha-Shanah, is one of the foundation stones of the Jewish Faith. 

None of the events described in this portion can be considered “everyday.” And yet for Abraham, arguably the ultimate Man of Faith who ever lived, that is exactly what they were. When Abraham first lifts up his eyes and sees the three angels, all he sees is human beings. No wings, no halos, no golden harps. Just tired, dusty, hungry and thirsty men—and an opportunity for Abraham to practice his beloved mitzvah of hospitality.

Arguing with God, for Abraham is “everyday.” Knowing when not to, is a sign of his constant faith.

What Abraham learns from the turn of these events—and through him, we too, Abraham’s descendants—is that “ordinary” isn’t necessarily right or correct.

In Abraham’s day, the destruction of entire cities was not extraordinary. Empires and conquerors striving for power and riches engaged in wholesale destruction; men enslaved one another; blood-thirsty gods and goddesses demanded the impossible of their human subjects. All these were considered “ordinary” in those horrible times.

The stories that we find in this portion are larger than life. They’re meant to be. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah makes wonderful fodder for Hollywood and evangelical television. Abraham looms impossibly huge in our culture both for at times standing up to God’s bloody intentions and at other times for not standing up. Everything in this portion is told the way it is because its lessons are meant to help us see the world in a different way. That to which we are accustomed, that which too often we see as “ordinary” simply because that’s the way it’s always been—isn’t necessarily the way it ought to be. 

The rampant immorality, injustice and cruelty of those days are not, and should never be, “ordinary.” We must never think of them as such. The lesson Abraham teaches us in this portion is to see the potential for “ordinary” to become “holy.” From Abraham we also learn that we must never think of ourselves as powerless before seemingly enormous forces. We must do whatever we can to root out evil from wherever we see it.

We can be better. We can do better. We, like Abraham, can transform the world by striving to make things better, by turning “ordinary” into “holy.”  

Such is the power of faith.

© 2022 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, November 4, 2022

Standing Up to Hatred: Lech Lecha.22

 Standing Up to Hatred

Sermon on Shabbat Lech Lecha

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

November 2, 2022

In legends and myths, a hero’s character is judged by the tests they are expected to endure and overcome. Every epic follows this theme, the tests usually being of strength or courage. The twelve labors of Hercules are designed to prove his physical strength. Abraham, the first Patriarch of the Jewish People, is presented with ten tests. However, at the age of 75, these aren’t meant to gauge his physical stamina, but rather his moral courage and faith in God.

There is—not unexpectedly—some disagreement among Rabbinic commentators about what constitutes the first of these ten tests. Some say that it is in in this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha (“Go Forth,” Genesis 12:1—17:27), as God commands Abraham to “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

Other commentators go further back. The Midrash, a collection of rabbinic stories from the second and third centuries C.E., addresses the question of what happened before that, what prompted God to issue his command in the first place. It interprets the name of Abraham’s home town, Ur of the Chaldeans, as “fire of the Chaldeans,” [in an early Semitic language ur also means “light” or “fire,” related to the Hebrew word for light, ‘or] and thus proposes that Abraham’s first test was actually an auto-da-fe, a trial by fire. For his defiant belief in the one supreme God, Abraham is condemned by the Chaldean king Nimrod to be cast into a fiery furnace.

For his constancy (in this Midrash, the first test of his faith), Abraham is saved by God, who promptly instructs him to leave and find blessing in another land.

This famous story is obviously rooted in a cultural experience the early Rabbis were already well aware of: Anti-Semitism. 

Anti-Semitism is not a new phenomenon. It was prevalent already in ancient days, centuries before it found its way into the New Testament and the Quran.

Founded on ignorance and prejudice and spread by folklore and through religious and social rituals, anti-Semitism is the oldest and deadliest hate in existence. 

Now, more and more, again, Jews are finding themselves under attack. Excluded from public debate, accused of undue force in defending ourselves, of owning the media, manipulating governments, or—as in the latest tweets by Kanye West—controlling the music industry, the anti-Semitic tropes are always the same. The same reasoning forms the basis of Pharoah’s rationale in enslaving the Hebrews and ordering the murder of all newborn males. It is behind Haman’s plot to murder all Jews in ancient Persia. The same libels and lies are behind the anti-Jewish attacks in ancient Alexandria and Syria, and—later—the pogroms in Russia, Poland and Ukraine. When they couldn’t kill the Jews, various factions tried exile and forced conversions. 

For a while, in a world shocked not by the horrors of the Holocaust but rather by its magnitude, anti-Semitism seemed to disappear. Now we realize that it has only temporarily faded, gone underground for a few decades. It is now soaring again, and no one should be surprised. 

It is true that the music industry—as with any industry—is profit-oriented. In this fiercely competitive field, only a tiny percentage of artists find the fame and fortune they seek. Many others are kept—like so many concubines in a harem—bound by legal contracts, just in case one of their songs catches on and becomes a hit. But that doesn’t mean that “the Jews” control the industry. Only in spheres where conspiracy theorists inhale fantasies and outright lies do “the Jews,” exclusive of anyone else, have this kind of power. To claim this in public is anti-Semitic fodder. To say that Jews have “Congress in their pocket,” as past-President Trump recently stated, is to accuse Jews of manipulating government to their own—and only their own—benefit. It is anti-Semitism.

There is no cabal, no mysterious organization conspiring to take over the world. 

Anti-Semitic beliefs are deeply entrenched in the human mind. Key phrases serve as code for those who would use these beliefs to gain power and control over vast segments of the population. In America, anti-Semitism does not come from the left or right wing of American politics. It comes from both. And ignoring it will not make it disappear. 

Like wildfire, hate spreads, causing destruction and loss of life. Kanye West’s deranged mind is no excuse. Political expediency is no excuse. Disagreement with Israel’s politics is no excuse. Nor is our current dependence on social media, the most prevalent venue today of hatred and ignorance. There are no innocent statements posing as truths—they all emerge from, and feed into, subconscious streams of hate and prejudice that—seemingly spontaneously—turn into violence of the kind we saw in the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre four years ago; at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, only last year; and even in the vicious attack on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 82-year-old husband one week ago. 

We need to fight anti-Semitism in every form and venue in which it appears. The people who use it must be publicly exposed and their vile motives revealed. For this to happen, we as individuals must raise our voices in every public forum. Entire communities must organize and unite to tell perpetrators that there is absolutely no room for hate amongst us, not yesterday, not today, not ever. 

Abraham passed his first test of faith and survived, but not before God interfered and extricated him from the burning furnace. While, on the one hand, we must follow Abraham’s example and that of tens of thousands of generations of his descendants, who consistently and stubbornly refused to abandon our faith, we must never, ever, let our guard down. Our survival cannot be left to faith alone. “Never again” must not become an empty slogan. Jewish lives matter, and it is up to each of us—Jew or Gentile alike—to ensure that this hatred is not afforded free speech or given free reign. 

Let those individuals and groups that promote this hatred, understand this lesson well. 

Am Yisrael Chai—the Jewish People lives, and we are—and must continue to be—proof of this eternal truth.

© 2022 by Boaz D. Heilman

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Remembering the Rainbow: Noah.22

 Remembering the Rainbow

D’var Torah for Parashat Noah

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

October 26, 2022

Every season has its beauty, often expressed through colors. But the most wondrous of all natural phenomena is undoubtedly the rainbow. The rainbow is more than beautiful colors, however. It awakens in us a sense of awe and wonder. It stirs feelings of hope and gratitude. Yet at the same time, rainbows also bring up memories of dark clouds and storms. In the story of Noah and the flood (this week’s Torah portion, Noah, Genesis 6:9—11:32), the rainbow assumes yet another meaning: it stands for God’s promise never again to destroy all life. 

God establishes a covenant (b’rit) with Noah, the first of three that the Torah speaks of. The second covenant will be with Abraham, the third with Moses.

For God’s part in this covenant, God reaffirms Creation, establishing it forever. In our text, this is symbolized by the use of the number seven. Just as this number appears in the first story of creation, so it reappears in this portion to reinstate existence following its near annihilation. It is on “the seventh day” that the flood begins; on the 17th day of the 7th month does Noah’s ark come to a rest on top of Mount Ararat. Seven days Noah waits for the return of the dove with the olive branch in its beak. And then there are the seven (visible) colors of the rainbow. 

Throughout the Torah, the number seven symbolizes God’s Presence and involvement in all that exists. The story of Noah’s Flood is more than about God’s anger—it is also about the possibility of forgiveness and redemption

But in return for God’s promise, God expects something back from us. Grace is not a one-way street. For the first time, God establishes a moral code for all humanity, with the expectation that, as our role in the covenant, we live by it. The early rabbis deduced seven commandments from the blessings that were given to Noah and his descendants. Known as the Noahide Laws, these are:

    1. Establish courts of law.

    2. Do not practice idolatry.

    3. Do not curse God.

    4. Do not engage in forbidden sexual relations.

    5. Do not murder.

    6. Do not rob.

    7. Do not eat flesh from a living animal.

The rainbow that appears at the end of the flood signifies more than God’s oath: It reminds us of our moral obligations. Extending from one end of infinity to the other, it signifies the eternal bond that exists between us and the Creator, recalling to us not only the fear of the storm, but also of our sacred role in the ongoing process of Creation.

In the Jewish tradition, it is customary to say a blessing upon seeing a rainbow: Baruch ata Adoani, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, zocheir ha-brit v’ne’eman bivrito v’kayam b’ma-amarav: “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Eternal Sovereign of the Universe, who remembers the Covenant, is faithful to the Covenant, and keeps His promise.” It’s our way of saying, “Thank you for this message of hope; just as you remember, so do we, too, remember to follow your path and observe your commandments.”

© 2022 by Boaz D. Heilman