This past year, 5774, my father died alone, suffering severe alcohol withdrawal. My mother, whose mental health has been compromised for years, disappeared. After a police report covering 3 states was filed, she suddenly reappeared, raising more questions than answers. Following routine sinus surgery, a woman with whom I’d experienced a conflicted friendship died suddenly at age 26. Three Israeli teens were kidnapped and slaughtered. Women and children were kidnapped and tortured. Aid workers and journalists were tortured and beheaded. Crucifixions made an alarming comeback, and clergy members advocated violence and brutality. The news this year proved little more than a ceaseless litany of horrors, testament to the unfathomable depravity of human beings.
So perhaps it is not surprising that I approached Yom Kippur with a smoldering sense of resentment. I recognized the immeasurable value of acknowledging the gap between who I am and the woman I want to be. I understood that reconciliation and forgiveness are central to creating a life of meaning and fulfillment. I appreciated the importance of true apology, both individually and as a community. Yet, I found myself increasingly resistant to the concept of a deity dictating who will die, who will live, who will prosper, and who will suffer in the coming year. The idea of my God mandating abuse, sadistic barbarity, disease, displacement, poverty, and hunger seemed downright repellent. I needed a God of infinite compassion and measureless love for us all. Haven’t we human beings endured enough?
While certainly not as sinister as the headlines, Parshah Noach does include several episodes of less than stellar human behavior. Noah, for all his ark-building and animal-whispering skills, is not described as a paragon of virtue, but rather, “…blameless in his age” (Genesis 6:9). Given that in his age, “…the earth was filled with lawlessness,” this is not particularly high praise (Genesis 6:11). After surviving the flood, Noah cultivates a vineyard, ostensibly brews his own wine, and proceeds to get drunk, get naked and pass out. When Noah’s son Ham discovers his father in such a state, he notifies his brothers. Shem and Japheth, in an action routinely described as respectful and discreet, cover their father by backing their way into the room so as to avoid seeing him naked. I have a difficult time reading their actions as anything other than textbook codependency, and as the daughter of an alcoholic I identify with the pain and frustration Ham must have endured following his father’s vitriolic (and perhaps slurred) curse:
“Cursed be Canaan;
The lowest of slaves
Shall be to his brothers,
And he said,
Blessed be the Lord,
The God of Shem;
Let Canaan be a slave to them.
May God enlarge Japheth,
And let him dwell in the tents of Shem;
And let Canaan be a slave to them.”
Additionally, once the world was repopulated, the people as a whole grew arrogant and presumptuous. They planned to build a city and a tower, “…to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world” (Genesis 11:4). Their hubris roused the ire of God, who intervened. “The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that man had built, and the Lord said, ‘If as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:5-7). Bam! A common language is no longer spoken, the city and its tower are abandoned, and the people disperse. So much for asset-based community devolment and collective wellbeing.
The morning of Yom Kippur, I met my personal trainer for a session of deadlifts and conditioning. As I performed rep after rep, it was difficult to swallow the feelings of shame and betrayal I felt, imagining the Shacharit service already underway. I knew if I did not make it for Yizkor, looking in the mirror would be a challenge. I debated with myself, offering strong arguments for shirking services and finding the divine on a long hike instead. But in the end, it was the ancient impetus of obligation that won out. Although my discomfort with a God of harsh judgment did not dissolve that day, the message I heard from the Rabbi lessened my anxiety. Love was included, as was unity and unabashed Jewish pride. Breaking the fast with my partner, I was grateful I’d gone.
When I read the news, I sometimes wonder, “Where is God?” Telling myself that God lives in the goodness of my fellow human beings is not always enough, especially when so much overwhelming evil stems from the same source. Parshah Noach reminds me that addiction, spite, and jealousy are as integral to the human experience as unconditional love, courage, and selflessness. Life is indeed a struggle we all share. More to the point, our Torah illustrates that we human beings have always been what is both wrong and right with our world. These are not God’s messes. They are ours, and we alone are responsible for cleaning them up.
I’ve seen a lot of butterflies lately. My always rational mind supposes some kind of butterfly season here in the desert – a natural cycle I’ve simply failed to notice in previous years. My more mystically-centered heart insists that the butterflies are messengers sent by HaShem, conveying comfort, hope and reassurance. I’ll take those where I can find them, and continue bushwhacking my way towards divinity.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.