Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, October 23, 2020


If we were to make a list of the most famous stories from the Torah, the tale of Noah and his ark is likely to be in the top five. And while a deep dive into its well-expounded waters can feel trite, like a lot of Biblical stories, I’m experiencing it in a more visceral way this year.

It begins with the concept of feeling “emotionally flooded.” Every emotion is exaggerated these days. Each day, each week is an oxymoronic mix of monotony and uncertainty. There’s a deluge of important decisions. Even deciding to attend a small backyard gathering feels daunting. It feels like there are oceans between us and our loved ones. Our own, personal wooden arks of respite and safety – our homes, our personal time, etc. - feel isolating and tenuous at times. A recent article by Jacob Stern in the Atlantic summed it up well:

A pandemic, unlike an earthquake or a fire, is invisible, and that makes it all the more anxiety-inducing. “You can’t see it, you can’t taste it, you just don’t know,” says Charles Benight, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who specializes in post-disaster recovery. “You look outside, and it seems fine”[but it’s not].

…From spatial uncertainty comes temporal uncertainty. If we can’t know where we are safe, then we can’t know when we are safe.

That ambiguity could make it harder for people to be resilient. “It’s sort of like running down a field to score a goal, and every 10 yards they move the goal,” Benight said. “You don’t know what you’re targeting.”

So let’s turn back again to Noah and his story. If ever Torah had a response to trauma, this week’s Torah portion is it.

Quick, what are two images you remember from the story? There are two symbols that most of us quickly conjure: first is the dove and second is the rainbow. Both of these symbols represent hope and resilience. The dove, of course, returns from its scouting mission once with nothing, then with the olive branch and then doesn’t return at all, having found a new life on dry land. It teaches us that rebuilding is a process, but we determinedly hold out hope that a time of peace can come our way.

Then there’s the rainbow – God’s own sign that no matter the tough times, we should always know that our relationship with God and our ability to weather the storm, always remains.

While these two images are encouraging, and Heaven knows we need that encouragement, there is another symbol that feels more manifest for me right now…that’s the altar’s fire.

Never heard of it? Well, we tend skip right to the rainbow when we tell Noah's story. But something happens right before the rainbow that bears a mention.

Noah, his family and the animals disembark from the ark, at which point Noah builds an altar and makes a burnt offering upon it. Burnt offerings serve many purposes in Torah – they can be expressions of petition, of guilt, or symbolic of an important moment in time. In the case of Noah’s offering, it seems to be one of thanksgiving, celebrating deliverance from a life-threatening danger. It’s a reminder that we still have much to be thankful for, even when it feels like the sky has been clouded over and the world is ending.

And we have to express this thankfulness, because the text tells us that Noah’s fire produces a pleasing odor, which eventually reaches God. Experiencing Noah’s thanks, encouraged that humans may actually learn to not take life for granted, God decides at that time to never again mess with the natural cycle and rhythms of life. God proclaims, “So long as the earth endures, Seedtime and harvest, Cold and heat, Summer and winter, Day and night Shall not cease.” Certain things will always remain.

While life may feel topsy-turvy, and while we may have times that we feel like we’re living a shadow-world, coming to the brink of what we believe to be the very worst, Torah begs us to center – to look for signs of certainty and security. The sun went down this evening, it will rise again tomorrow. The leaves are sunsetting too… a fiery rainbow of reds, oranges and yellows…just like they’re supposed to at this time of year. And while we look ahead with nervousness to what I’m calling “COVID-winter,” the natural world around us begs us to take heart – assures us with the echo of God’s ancient promise – our lives have not been permanently uprooted and wind-tossed. There will be an end, we will rebuild.

So in the meantime, as we start to light our own fire pits and turn on our outdoor heaters, we must follow Noah and nature’s lead: we too must doggedly, determinedly carry on and persevere. The fire’s light shines upon the blessings we have discovered during this time: our ability to come together as a synagogue community even while physically apart, daily lunch and dinner with our loved ones when normally we may have gone a whole day without seeing each other, the new skills we’ve learned and shared, the creative muscles we’ve flexed. The Biblical flood was indeed a tragedy, a terrible time of death, regret and re-calibration. But we’ve been promised: these times are NOT that flood – and nor will there be one like that gain. There is no chosen one, no one ark of salvation during these times because each of us is a vessel – we may be waterlogged and battered – but we’re still afloat, and instead of just one, there are many of us out at sea, buoying one another, a catamaran of community, still seeking beauty in our wind-tossed world.