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Parashat Noach

October 25, 2011

By Rabbi Alan Abraham Kay

As I write this D’var Torah, “The falling leaves drift by my window, the autumn leaves of red and gold” and I hum the Frank Sinatra song and thank God for giving us daylight and nightlight and four seasons. I re-read the verse from Parashat Noah, “So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22) and I smile in gratitude. God turned away from further destruction after The Flood and, in choosing life, gave Noah and his family and generations to follow the turning of day into night and into day and night again and the autumn leaves of red and gold. No more precious gift has been given to humankind than sunrise and sunset and the turning of one season into another.

I am living the second cycle of seasons since my metastatic lung cancer diagnosis in June 2010. I have completed another summer of what has become seasons of chemotherapy and I am now in my second autumn.

I am often asked, “How long will you continue your chemotherapy?” My answer has been, “So long as my body endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night – my therapy shall not cease.”

The turn of the seasons ordained by God has been good to me, as it has been for humankind from time immemorial; the seasons have warmed me when my body has felt cold and cooled me when my body has felt heat; they have painted trees and flowers, beasts of the field, birds of the sky and fish of the deep with shapes and textures and colors to stimulate my imagination, and they have consoled me. “So long as the earth endures … day and night shall not cease.” Each season, each daylight and each nightlight, is a reminder to me that God continues to create the world in which I – in which we – all live. I do not need to see a rainbow to remind me of God’s promise to Noah: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man…” (Genesis 8:21). I need only to see daylight and nightlight and see the seasons turn. And when I do, I thank God I’m alive.

After The Flood, Noah thanked God with “burnt offerings on the altar” (Genesis 8:20) and blessed by God, Noah and his family began the task of rebuilding a world in ruins (Hertz, 32). After the flood – the tsunami – of my cancer diagnosis, I, too, have thanked God by trying to live each day to overflowing, not only to “administer justice every morning…” (Jeremiah 21:12); not only “to not wrong a stranger or oppress him … to not mistreat any widow or orphan” (Exodus 22: 21-22), but by doing small kindnesses for family, friends, neighbors and strangers, my way of rebuilding. “Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi used to say: ‘Be careful about how you do a small mitzvah, just as if it were a big one…'” (Pirke Avot 2:1).

When I am about to walk through the doorway of a building or restaurant with my wife, Jo, and others, family or friends, I usually find myself the one to hold the door open. When it comes my turn to enter and there is someone waiting to exit, I step aside, continuing to hold the door open and say, “It’s your turn.” A smiling response is sometimes followed by, “It’s okay, you can go in,” to which I reply, “We all have to take our turn” and the person steps past me with “Thank you.”

How many smiles would be created if we held the door open for the person exiting to take his or her turn; or, if we held the door open for the person behind us? How much safer would our streets be if we gave the other driver a turn at the intersection? How much calmer would we be if we waited patiently for our turn on line? These are the small mitzvot to which we can turn that will change our world.

We can think of God’s punishment of The Flood in these terms as well. We are told the reasons for God sending The Flood are twofold: “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with violence (hamas)” (Genesis 6:11). According to Nehama Leibowitz, “In the opinion of our Sages cited in Rashi, the first sentence refers to sexual corruption, whilst the second refers to social crimes. Hamas, ‘violence’ refers to gezel ‘robbery'” (Studies in Bereshit/Genesis, 69). J.H. Hertz, in his Torah commentary, defines hamas as “ruthless outrage of the rights of the weak by the strong.” It would be interesting to think about “robbery” as robbing another person of is or her “turn.” What would it mean if we approached “robbery” as taking away someone’s “turn”? Turning to positive actions is a choice we can make.

The seasons have their turn, so must we. And as autumn turns to winter and winter to spring and spring to summer, I turn to God in praise, adapting the words of the blessing traditionally said upon seeing a rainbow: Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha’olam, zokher habrit, vene’eman bivrito vekayam bema’amaro, Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who remembers the covenant, is faithful to an Eternal pledge and keeps an Eternal word.


Rabbi Alan Abraham Kay, Ed.D., AJR 2001, is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Emeth of Mount Sinai (Suffolk County, New York). He is author of A Jewish Book of Comfort, co-author with his wife, Jo, of Make Your Own Passover Seder and Technical Editor of Torah for Dummies by Arthur Kurzweil.