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Parashat Noah 5783

October 24, 2022

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Seasonal Changes: “Remembering” to be Merciful to Ourselves
A D’var Torah for Parashat Noah
By Rabbi Mitchell Blank (’21)

Living in southern New York, I love this time of year, especially the changing of the leaves. Our home  backs upon acres of undeveloped woods. About 20 years ago, I built a 1.5 mile loop trail through the forest. The path took six months to complete; it was an embodied labor of love.

Seasonal maintenance proved to be labor intensive as well. After more than a decade of clearing fallen branches, the trail was now also defined by at least 20 lbs. of wood stacked high for its entire length. The ongoing maintenance and care were daily sources of enjoyment and satisfaction. The boundaries of the path, tangible reminders of years of hard work, only heightened the love derived from walking it.

All this suddenly changed four years ago when I was diagnosed with a severe case of Lyme disease. (Not to worry, I am fine now!) In an act of self-preservation, I withdrew from my daily visits to the embodied sanctuary of the forest. A lot of work, spiritual enrichment and my soul were left on the now abandoned trail.

I’m now following a different kind of path that sustains me, it too requiring much hard work and diligent maintenance. Deep immersion into Torah culminated in ordination last year. Serving the Jewish people requires the expenditure of lots of energy and is also an embodied labor of love.

Life presents many forks in the road. Our challenge is to discern when to energetically seek new opportunities and when to withdraw and contemplate. An essential tool in this process of discerning the proper path is the cultivation of boundaries.

In this week’s parashah, God gives us some help with the boundaries: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Gen. 8:22). Our reality is shaped by these natural boundaries. Outside these parameters, our ability to discern the proper course of action depends upon cultivating our own boundaries; deciding when to act and when to sit tight.

Right now, one can feel the transition between the natural boundaries of our reality. A few days ago, the temperature fluctuated some 30 degrees in only 6 hours. The wind knocked many of the beautifully colored leaves to the ground. Some of us, sensing the decrease in light, need to now take the light box out of the closet. In some ways, I hate this time of year. The instinct, based on the seasonal realities, is to hibernate or to withdraw.

How do we best keep in synch with the rhythms of life? We can imitate God by establishing boundaries and remembering to be merciful to ourselves. The boundaries we set allow us to be fully in the moment, seeing and embracing each season for what it truly is, whether our natural inclination is to love it or to hate it. (or both!) Being fully present enables us to be to discern whether now is the time to be present for community or if we need to take a temporary pause to reconnect to ourselves.

“God remembered (vayizkor) Noah…and the waters subsided.” (Gen. 8:1) Of course, God didn’t forget Noah nor the existential peril of all living creatures during the flood. Dr. Ruth Zielenziger (Genesis: A New Teacher’s Guide) notes that “Remembering” in the Bible means “acting for the well being of.” God spent 40 days and nights contemplating the most severe judgment (Gen 7:4) but ultimately chose to be merciful. Forty-day periods in the Bible indicate key turning points (i.e. receipt of both sets of the ten commandments and the spy incident). Significantly, these narratives of 40 also include the invocation of God’s attributes to or by Moses. The attributes themselves reveal God’s dueling aspects of mercy and judgment. Like God, we must “remember” to be kind to ourselves, to act in our best interests as well as those we serve.

God even posts recurring “rainbow reminders” to never again act against the natural boundaries that sustain the planet. “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember (lizkor) the eternal covenant (b’rit olam).” (Gen. 9:16) Imitating God by setting frequent reminders to be merciful are useful tools in drawing upon our life experience to set healthy boundaries and to choose the proper courses of action in our roles as Jewish clergy as well as in our personal lives.

Only twice in the Bible is a covenant accompanied by a sign, (“ot berit”) memorializing the covenant; the rainbow reminders and circumcision. Not accidentally, both covenants are eternal. (berit olam). We fulfill our eternal commitment to the Jewish people as well as to our own well-being by remembering to allow our aspect of mercy to prevail. We are maximally merciful to ourselves as well as most effective as spiritual leaders by fully embracing each season in all its complexities. We pause to “remember” so we can always act for the well being of our community and for ourselves.
Rabbi Mitchell Blank was ordained by AJR in April 2021 and most recently served as the spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El of Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn