Parshat Noah 5777
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parshat Noah 5777

Shabbat Shalom

Over the years we have found the Torah to be most inspirational when we are able to see ourselves in the text. I have often spoken to you about this. I love it when kids like Deborah give speeches at their B’nai Mitzvot and they relate the text to themselves and to their own lives. That makes it alive and it makes it most meaningful.

Throughout our lives there are different moments when we have experiences which we can relate to the narratives of the texts of the Torah.

Especially, I think, in the Book of Genesis. For Genesis is first and foremost a story about a family and the challenges of family life. Genesis is about the way brothers treat each other. Genesis is about the way husbands and wives respond to each other and the way parents respond to their children. All of that, of course, is creating a framework for the relationship between people and God.

I have spoken a lot, since my mother died, about personal family experiences and history. I thought about this week in relation to the story of Noah and the great flood. The story which we read earlier this morning is one that we are very familiar with. Because of the imagery of the ark and the animals, it has been the source of great artistic depictures and creativity. It has been a fun story to tell children and perhaps, the most popular of Bible stories. Of course, at the end of the story the appearance of the rainbow is something that also creates a vivid image and one that stays with us as we do see rainbows in our lives.

Well, I have family story of my ancestors. They were refugees from Nazi Germany. Most of them came to this country in the mid-thirties and they were amongst the very fortunate few. But there is a part of that story that is very tragic. It has to do with my great grandparents, who I obviously never knew. In my family, my grandmother was able to obtain visas for twenty-eight members of the extended family to leave Germany and come to America. It was quite an achievement and there are a lot of us alive today because of that. But, the extended family had many more than twenty-eight people. Twenty-eight people represented a generation of adults and their children, but their parents were not part of that group. The story that deeply pains me is the story of my grandmother and grandfather going to visit her parents, my great grandparents, the weekend before they boarded the ship to come to America. They spent Shabbat with my great grandparents and I know, as the story has been recalled, they left in the middle of the night, Motzei Shabbat, between Saturday night and Sunday. They left while it was still dark and they wouldn’t bring themselves to say goodbye, it was too painful for all. But, you see in the family a decision had to be made with twenty-eight visas to get out of Nazi Germany, who would go and who would stay? Who would be included and who not? I guess the thinking was for the future, for younger generations to gain a life.

Although it was a decision that I could not second guess, I wonder about that decision. I wonder how people come to make those decisions. Who shall live and who shall die? Who was to be included? Who was excluded?

You are all familiar “Sophie’s Choice” I am sure. The film was based on the novel by William Styron, an extraordinary story about a Polish immigrant who shared a boarding house in Brooklyn with her lover and a young writer. Sophie was a Polish Catholic whose father was a Nazi sympathizer. However, she had a loved a man whose sister was a leader in the resistance. He was murdered by the Gestapo and she was arrested because of her work with him. She was sent to Auschwitz with her children. As the story unfolds we learn that she had a very tragic choice that she had to make when she was in Auschwitz. Upon arrival she was forced to choose which one of her two children would be given up and sent to the gas chamber and which would proceed to the labor camp. To avoid having both children killed she chose her son to be sent to the children’s camp and her daughter to be sent to her death in a crematorium. The pain of her past and the pain of that choice lead her eventually to commit suicide. Sophie sees an example of her choice, the choice beyond words; so deeply painful that we cannot even imagine or consider.

Today we read about Noah. Noah is defined in the Torah as a righteous man, wholehearted in his generation. The rabbis, we have learned, question this description. Why is it necessary to say “righteous in his generation…ish tzaddik tamim haya b’dorotav.” And there are many different interpretations as to what that means. Why is it necessary to say “b’dorotov”…in his generation? And amongst the interpretations is a comparison that is drawn with Abraham. Abraham learns of the impending deaths of a people, the people of S’dom and he argues with God for every single life. But, Noah, builds an ark, for himself and his family, and walks into it as the waters rise without a protest to God or a call to humanity. The animals came on board seven pairs, two by two…and Noah and his family.

This story is probably a paradigm for many other issues about life. But the question of how we reach out, who we include in our lives is a very important question. Typically, it is not as extreme or dramatic as issues of life and death. But, as you will see later, the rabbis, see inclusivity and exclusivity as having that power.

The choice is about whom we include and who we exclude and how we include and how we exclude are very critical choices in terms of the way that we live our lives. And these choices are ours, both in daily life as well as in the larger questions in the arena of today’s questions and how we respond to immigrants and refugees and others.

Although, not on such a grand scale, we are all faced with choices like this all the time. On a simple level we are forced with choices when we have dinners or go to lunch, guest lists for birthdays and B’nai Mitzvah and weddings. We are faced with choices in terms of who we include in our parties and we exclude or who invite into our circle of friends and who we exclude. All of us have the right to choose our friends, don’t we? And yet in that process, sometimes we can be pretty harsh and inflict pain on those who get left out.

This is a particularly difficult chapter in the lives of children growing up. There are always “in groups” and “out groups.” It is very difficult for children who don’t feel as if they are included to develop the type of self-image that is necessary to create confidence and enter into the world. It used to be that people who were different excluded from so much of public life in this country. But we have made great strides.

We certainly know that the 1990 American with Disabilities Act was legislative success to include people with disabilities into public life in this country. The Civil Rights Act in 1964 proposed that people of different color should be protected along with racial and ethnic minorities.

There has always been a human propensity to exclude people who are different. It affected people with different sexual preferences and it certainly affected people of different races and ethnic groups and creeds. It may be human nature to be exclusive or exclusivity, but I think that Judaism often comes as a counter indicator of human nature. And by doing so…raises our humanity.

Today people can choose to marry the people they love, and exclusion based on gender for marriage has been removed.

There is a wonderful Jewish religious response to all of this. It comes from a Talmudic text about two men; Kamsa and Bar Kamsa. Many of you know it; most of you don’t. The text has traditionally been used to teach how the internal tensions and hatreds amongst the Jewish people is what lead to the destruction of the Temple, the destruction of Israel and the destructive exile of the Jewish people.

The story speaks of a wealthy man who lived in the first century. He was having a party, he sent his servant to deliver an invitation to his friend, a man named Kamsa. However, the servant mistakes the recipient for Bar Kamsa, who is actually his enemy. Upon seeing the hated Bar Kamsa at his party, the host orders him to leave. Bar Kamsa, attempting to save face, offers to make peace with the host, first offering to pay for the food he eats, then for half of the expenses of the party, and then for the entire party, each time rebuffed by the angry host. He would not

Humiliated, Bar Kamsa vows revenge against the rabbis who were present and did not defend him, including him and not allowing him to be publicly embarrassed. What follows is a description of a descent into revenge for exclusion.

We learn that because of this, the Romans overwhelm Jerusalem and the Jews were exiled from the land.

It’s an interesting story. And, the beauty of the story that it lends itself to a lot of conversation and interpretation. And one is that can be read as a description of the unintended consequences of exclusion…Exclusion can destroy the social fabric.

And yet, I can think about how much people value “exclusivity”…and realize the meaning of it. We like to be in exclusive places. Exclusion creates structures that hurt reputations, and destroys people.

As a Jewish people we understand what it means to be excluded. Not long ago hotels and restaurants in this very area excluded Jews and blacks…

This is a major consideration for us…as we live in our neighborhoods in our shtetl here in Boca Raton. But today the sensitivity in the free world is changing. And we begin to realize that the uniqueness and the divine image in every human being demands not exclusion but inclusive.

It may go against our very human nature, and at times may feel threatening to our identity and to our own unique qualities. At times it may even be impossible…but this is an ethical ideal and an aspiration…We need to attempt to be inclusive of each other in what we do and the community we build…able bodied and disabled, young and old, heterosexuals and gay people, women and men, black and white…We will serve our future well as we stand with a strong sense of identity and at the same time an openness to others…

It’s when we see the humanity of the other that we are at our best!

Noah excluded those around him from entry into his ark…and forever will carry that stigma.
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And, as we need boundaries to define who we are, we need them to be pliable and flexible to include other, to allow others in…

Shabbat Shalom