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Parashat Bereisheet 5784

After the Flood: Renewing Our Faith in Nature, Humankind, and the Devine

October 16, 2023
by Dr. Yakir Englander

It was morning in the Mount Scopus neighborhood of Jerusalem, near the Hebrew University campus. Up early, I was preparing to make my first presentation as a university student participating in a course on Carl Jung. I was analyzing a Talmud passage in which Rabbi Yohanan is arguing with his disciple, Resh Lakish, about whether knives and swords are considered ritually unclean. I was struggling to comprehend how a simple discussion among scholars, undertaken ostensibly “for the sake of heaven,” could eventually lead – by the end of the chapter – to a rabbi murdering his disciple, then dying violently himself.

Suddenly, my little room was shaken by the roar of an exploding bomb. Moments later, I was racing toward the main road, where I found the charred remains of a municipal bus, with dead bodies and wounded living inside and strewn on the roadway. Memories of those first minutes, before the arrival of the ambulance, are etched like fiery brands in both my body and my soul. I ran from one victim to the next, trying to do something. Mostly, all I could do was encourage, repeating over and over, that just one more moment, just one more breath, and aid would arrive. I remember vividly going back to the dorm from that battleground, my clothes covered in blood and tiny fragments of charred flesh. I gazed at the glorious newly-risen sun, saw Nature in all her beauty, and felt betrayed. To this day I recall the gaping chasm I felt, between the horror of what I had just gone through, and the natural sublimity all around me.

A terrible thunderstorm, perhaps, or a devastating blizzard, or a tornado. Or, a concentration camp, a death squad, or a bloody battle – and then, silence. And Nature is there, powerful, perfect. The stark gap between the din and the terror of violence – whether of the elements or of humanity – crashing down all around us, and the absolute stillness that follows, seems unbearable.

The Ukrainian-Israeli poet, Leah Goldberg, touches on this chasm, in her poem, Denial:

Five minutes of flood, and then,
The innocent sky denies everything;
And stillness,
And green, fragrant earth…
And of the flood –
Not a single witness.

I return to these moments after the Flood, to the end of the forty days and nights the Ark was borne upon the waves, while volleys of fire and water fell from the heavens.

So [G-d] wiped out every creature living on the earth, from human beings and animals to creeping things and birds of the air – all were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah, and his companions in the Ark, remained alive. (Genesis 7:23)

Commenting on this verse, Nahmanides (Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, 1194—1270) traces the repetition of the Hebrew root y.m.h. (“wipe out, blot out”), writing:

“Vayimah: Even the corpses were erased, consumed by the water, and not even a bird’s egg survived, on a tree branch or under the soil: everything was blotted out.”

And then – total silence, like after an artillery barrage.

The raven is sent out first, like a scout sent from the trenches to assess the disaster’s scope. Not even daring to look, the raven flies aimlessly “to and fro” over the water (Genesis 8:7). The dove, however, does gaze upon the divine/natural devastation, but at first cannot find a single foothold anywhere in unfaithful Nature. Only on its second flight, the dove brings back “a freshly plucked olive leaf” (8:11). Divine and natural forces have forsaken us, but something at least remains, even if – as Nahmanides remarks at this verse – it is as insignificant as a leaf. Even then, like the occupants of concentration camps just liberated by Allied forces, the companions in the Ark don’t dare to set foot outside. They know too well, that once beyond the gates of the camp, or the door of the Ark, their broken-hearted search for their lost loved ones will begin. As, too, will begin their awful realization of the catastrophe’s scope, the depth of their betrayal by their furious deity with his storm-troopers – the destructive forces of Nature.

“Then G-d said to Noah: ‘Go forth from the Ark…’” (Genesis 8:15-16). In his commentary, the Holy Alshikh (Rabbi Moshe Alshikh, 1508—1593) stresses that the verb “Go forth!” in the divine command is singular (tzei), not plural (tzu). Only Noah alone, at first, can bear the burden of the new reality; afterwards, bit by bit, his family will venture out, and the animals who are with them.

Noah now reaches a profound understanding concerning the divine choice to use the most basic of natural forces – fire and water – to destroy humans, animals and plants. Human consciousness can grasp the idea that these forces are tools in the hand of a vengeful deity; however, the animal kingdom will experience, from this day onward, the recurring trauma of uncertainty every time the sky clouds over and heavy rain pelts the earth – “Is this rain a blessing, or is it a new Deluge?” Noah’s first act, then, upon exiting the Ark, is to take some of the ritually pure animals, and sacrifice them. This he does as an offering to the divine, by means of the natural element of fire. Thus, Noah forges a sort of “covenant of murderers” between human and divine. The act of sacrifice represents the knowledge, that fire and water can become tools, first in divine hands, now in human. Danger to the natural world is not found in the forces of fire and water themselves, but rather in their manipulation, as they become tools of a divine or human will. It is the human and the divine only who are bonded in this will-full “murderers’ covenant”; plants and animals, for their part, dwell in unconscious freedom, innocent of will and united with the forces of Nature.

In the biblical account, the rainbow is established in the heavens to warn humans of the divine fury. It was only after I had “gone out with a question” from the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, that I learned that all over the world, people who witness a rainbow are filled with awe at the beauty of Nature. For my part, I had always felt and continued to feel a pang of fear at the sight of a rainbow. It bears witness, that a moment of divine judgement has come, and the world stands condemned once again to total destruction because of our sins. The role of the rainbow is to remind the divine of the covenant established in Genesis, and of the promise, that in spite of our, and my, hurtful behavior, G-d will not destroy us, but will have compassion. It took a full two decades of living, until I reached that moment when, standing beside my wife and gazing up at a rainbow emerging after a rainstorm, I experienced pure and natural beauty, and nothing more.

The painful journey that includes our betrayal by divine destruction, our suffering at the hands of human cruelty, and our ongoing trauma while grappling with Jewish and Israeli identities in our world – are all summed up beautifully in a song by Yarden Bar-Kokhba, called “Days of Stillness.” These words sum up also the themes and insights that can come to us, perhaps, only after the Flood:

They’re coming now, the days of stillness.
We’ll go to the window to see
If the waters have gone,
And if, perhaps, there’s land out there,
On our horizon.

Two by two,
We’ll come out two by two;
Gazing up at the sky,
Together, waiting for the dove.

They’re coming now, the days of stillness.
After we’ve lost everything, you and I,
Come sit with me here on the balcony,
Cry with me here for yesterday.

They’re coming now, the days of stillness.
We’re together, you and I, on this mountaintop;
The water is quiet now;
The rainbow’s here as well.
We can stand again now,
For the end of the world has passed.

Dr. Yakir Englander is a senior director of leadership at the Israeli-American Council, and adjunct faculty at AJR. He served as the Jerusalem Director of Kids4Peace, and later as vice-president of the organization. Dr. Englander, who previously taught at The Shalom Hartman Institute, Northwestern University, and Harvard Divinity School, is also the author of The Male Body in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Theology and Sexuality, and The Body in New Religious Zionist Discourse (with Prof. Avi Sagi)