VORTIFY YOURSELF

From
Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
e-mail yosil@MNSi.net

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PARSHAT NOACH

B'rayshit (Genesis) 1:1- 6:8
Haftorah Isaiah 54:1-55:5
991016


In our Parsha's account of Hashem's destruction of almost all surface life with the waters of the Great Deluge, we have an important turning point in Hashem's relationship to Creation. Only after the Destruction does it appear that Hashem finally comes to terms with the hard facts of human reality.

A well-known Midrash portrays Hashem as having created several worlds before creating this one. Each one, say the rabbis, was so flawed that Hashem, who demanded perfection, destroyed that world and started once again. But the Midrash suggests that immediately upon creating our world, Hashem decided to leave well enough alone and to charge human beings with the task of Tikkun - perfecting the world. This week's Parsha, contrary to the Midrashic account, portrays Hashem even after the Creation of the world as being uncompromisingly intolerant of imperfection.

In the final verses of last week's Parsha, and the first few of the current one, we read that Hashem was angered, frustrated and saddened by the corruption, wickedness and violence that filled the world. The first two chapters of Genesis made it clear that Hashem originally intended peaceful harmony to reign among all living creatures. In the initial scheme, even humans and snakes co-existed peacefully, until Hashem created animosity between them after the expulsion from Eden (Gen. 3:15).

By now, however, Hashem has realized that there is an innate tendency toward violence in all creatures:
"... all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth."
(Gen. 6:12)

And so, once again, the frustrated Creator decided to destroy it all and start again, using Noah, the most righteous man of the generation, as the raw material for a new and more perfect Creation. The elements of the story of destruction are familiar ones - the ark and its many varied passengers, the devastating torrential rains, the rescue of Noah and his family, and, afterwards, the Divine promise, sealed with a rainbow, never to destroy all life again.

But let us consider more closely the events immediately following the destruction. The waters subside, the ark runs aground, and finally the earth dries up sufficiently to allow the weary refugees to disembark. The moment is an emotional one for all concerned, but perhaps most of all for Hashem with His hopes that from Noah, the righteous one, will flow a world of peace. Hashem watches intently to see what this most blameless of those created in His Divine image will do. Will he sing a hymn of praise?

Dance in joy on the muddy ground? Weep with gratitude? No! Noah's first act, his only way of showing his gratitude and joy at having been saved from the flood waters, is to offer up animal sacrifices.

We are justified in questioning this response. This was not a required sacrifice, an offering demanded by Hashem as are the many offerings of Leviticus. This was an offering from Noah's heart, a voluntary expression of love and joy and thanks. How sad it must have made Hashem! Here was Noah, His favorite, most faithful, most well-meaning creature. Even Noah's impulses, although driven by the noblest intentions, were still violent.

We now understand Hashem's response, immediately after the sacrifices: "The Lord smelled the sweet odor and the Lord said to Himself, `Never again will I doom the world because of man, since the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth'."
(Gen. 8:21).

We also understand, the rest of Hashem's reaction. In the beginning of Chapter 9, Hashem blesses Noah and his sons with a blessing reminiscent of the original blessing given in the twilight moments before the first Shabbat:
"Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth..."
(Gen. 9:1)

But whereas the first humans were made the benevolent masters and guardians of the animal world, Noah and his family are made its dreaded rulers, for Hashem goes on:
"The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth...Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat..." (Gen. 9:2-3)

Is this the tragic end of Hashem's dream of perfection? Perhaps so. But far more importantly, it is the beginning of a new Divine attitude. No longer will the Creator demand perfection of the Creation and destroy it if it does not measure up. Now Hashem exhibits that being All-powerful and Omnipotent means coming to terms with an imperfect creation. Only now can the long, hard struggle back toward the initial dream of perfection begin.

We who are created in G-d's image have much to learn from this Torah text. We, often fall prey to the temptation to set absolute standards for ourselves, our children, our peers or our nation. When the standards are not met, we throw up our hands in disgust, certain that we live in a failed and doomed world. Only when we come to terms with the flaws and imperfections, as did Hashem, and resolve to work with them, are we able to resume our quest for perfection.

Remember the saying that "the only perfect people are six feet under."

As I grow older, I see that there is shortage of perfect people, perfect jobs, perfect organizations, perfect synagogues, perfect husbands, perfect wives, perfect careers or perfect rabbis. I now can honestly say that perfection belongs only to G-d - despite the fact that even His work - the world we inhabit - is also far from perfect.

There is a story told of a woman who was wearing a necklace that had the number "9-3/4" attached to it as a pendant. When she was asked what the number "9-3/4" represented, she responded by saying, "My husband gave it to me as a gift because he felt that I'm not perfect."

Any marriage, any relationship, any job in which each partner is constantly required to meet idealized, romanticized expectations is bound to end up with great disappointment. For no one is perfect, nor is anyone required to be.

Our history reinforces this point eloquently. Jewish leaders and role-models have never been paradigms of perfection. Our most learned teachers, our wisest judges, our prophets and our kings have all been painfully human. We are a flawed and imperfect people dedicated to immersing ourselves in a flawed and incomplete world and doing what we can to improve it.

Some would ask, "But wouldn't it be wonderful if things weren't so imperfect?" Having learned from Hashem, we respond that the question is not relevant to our task, that the purpose of our task is the constant struggle for just a tiny bit of perfection.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig


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