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09/25/2017 01:53:22 PM


Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman

Rosh Hashanah 5778

In January I had the honor to join over 150 people from Ohev and nearby communities on a trip to Selma, Alabama to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement in honor of MLK weekend. While I was excited for the trip, and so proud that an Orthodox synagogue was going down to really immerse ourselves in not just learning about the Civil Rights Movement but bearing witness to the tremendous struggles that people faced, I have to admit that more than in addition to excitement, I was anxious. Hesitant. And wary.

And the reason that I had these concerns was that so many of the participants on the trip were children - children who, by the way, walked miles and miles on Shabbos with limited snacks and no eruv, and who once again far exceeded what one would expect a child of being capable of handling. But I was worried because I was concerned about how they would be told the story of the events of the Civil Rights Movement - events that happened 40-45 years before they were born. I was worried that they would hear stories from amazing and strong people who marched as teenagers, and that would see them now with their graying hair and think that the story of equality is one that ended long ago. I was worried that they wouldn’t see the ways that racial minorities in the US continue to experience the effects of racism, and in some cases, racism itself, still today in 2017.  I was worried that they would think of the story of the fight for Civil Rights as one that happened 50 years ago, and has since been resolved. 

Because I remember as a child in day school that we (admirably) did a robust unit every year on the Civil Rights Movement and Dr King, but that it wasn’t until many years later that I began to realize that the story is still ongoing - it is not over. And I so desperately didn’t want that to happen to the children in our shul. I didn’t want them to be receivers of the same story that I had been told - that there had been segregation in our country, that some very brave and strong people fought for equal rights, and that they were granted and that was ostensibly the end of the story. I wanted them to know the complexities! I wanted them to know that they themselves are still part of a story that as the events of this past year have shown us, is not yet over. 

I have been thinking of historical narratives a lot this year, and the way that we transmit them to future generations. As Americans, we place enormous value on the stories of our history and how we teach them to our children - a value that brought us to Selma that weekend. 

And we do this all the moreso as Jews.Our religion is basically founded on the premise of collective memory. Our holidays all exist to remember the past. Sometimes we remember the past joyously, as we do on Pesach when we remember the exodus, or Sukkot when we celebrate that God protected us during the wilderness. At other times we remember to mourn, like on Tisha B’av or Yom Hashoah. Even the bikkurim ceremony, in which we bring our first fruits to the temple - what a great celebration of the present, our bounty - involves memory, as we say ארמי אובד אבי and talk about the history of our people. The way that we exist in the present, and make meaning of the present, is inextricably linked to our experiences in the past. We do what we do as Jews as an expression of our ability to remember the past. If we removed memory from Judaism, our religion would cease to exist. There would be no substance left. We would be left with a calendar of empty celebrations devoid of meaning.

Rosh Hashanah is also about memory - we just need to open musaf and see that one of the three extra sections, zichronot, is all about memory. But there is one major difference between memory the rest of the year, and memory on Rosh Hashanah. The rest of the year, we remember God. But on Rosh Hashanah, it is God’s turn to remember us. 

What does it mean for God to remember us? As we see in the text of this section, it means above all else that God knows everything about us, and takes the time to evaluate each of us individually. On Rosh Hashanah we say that we all pass before God individually. And our emphasis is on the fact that God remembers everything about us. God knows us - our actions, our deepest darkest secrets. When we present ourselves to others, or even to ourselves, we sometimes emphasize some areas, while downplaying others. But with God, we don’t have to do any of that. God sees the totality of who we are. And I don’t think his is intended to be frightening so much as it is intended to be awe-inspiring. God’s ability to remember us is one that is completely objective, and clear. God is able to look at us objectively, without the cloudiness with which we often examine ourselves, and each other, and conduct an honest and equitable evaluation of our actions. So we should just be honest with ourselves when we approach Rosh Hashanah because God is going to see us honestly.

Another theme is that God remembers us during times of suffering. God remembers Avraham, whom we just read about this morning, and decides to save Lot before destroying Sodom. God remembers Rachel, whom we referenced in today’s haftarah, in her struggle to conceive a child, another major theme of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. As we see in the verses in zichronot, God remembers the Israelites while they are suffering under Egyptian bondage. God sees our suffering, sometimes visible, and sometimes invisible, and saves us from it.

It is then somewhat surprising to see the first reference to God remembering in zichronot - when God remembers Noach and the animals when they are on the ark.

I have always found this example of God remembering so surprising. First, it is far from the only example of God remembering in the Torah. Wouldn’t the other selections be more fitting? And second, Noach does not play a particularly prominent role in the way that we remember our history as a people and tell our story. We think of his story as a happy, or at least peaceful, one. I imagine that when most of us think about his story, we think of images of a children’s toy ark, with smiling animals on board. We think of doves, with olive branches in their mouths. We think of rainbows, signifying that the world is at peace. We think of beautiful, and peaceful images. We think of a story that started, and then had a happy ending. We don’t think of suffering, and God remembering people in a time of pain. So why is this our first example of God remembering us? What is this supposed to inspire in us as we daven musaf and work to really internalize the message of the day? 

I believe that this selection can teach us a powerful lesson. Because the story of Noach is actually a serious example of the discrepancy between human memory, and God’s memory. 

As I said, I would think that most of us remember Noach as a happy story, or at least one that has a beginning, and an end. The world was a bad and violent place, to the point where God decided to destroy it. God chose Noach, the one righteous person on earth at the time, to build the ark and save the only human lives worth saving, in addition to the animals. Noach doesn’t have any reaction - he just does it - v’ya’as Noach. We see this again when God commands him to board the ark with the animals - v’ya’as Noach - and he did it. And then the rain came, and the water filled the earth, after many days Noach sent out the dove, and it returned with the olive branch. They exited the ark, Noach offered sacrifices to God, God promised never to destroy the world again with the image of the rainbow, and then they went out and rebuilt. A nice, happy story that allows us to then move on to much more complicated story of Avraham and the beginnings of the Jewish people.

But actually, this story is one that is much more complicated, and much darker than how we portray it, and when we miss that we risk losing a lot of the lessons of the story.

I hadn’t thought much about the darker, more complex aspect of the Noach story until I saw the movie Noah in 2014 when it was released. The movie stars Russel Crowe as Noah, and was co-written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, known for his dark psychological thrillers such as Requiem for a Dream, Pi, and Black Swan. His telling of the Noach story was as dark as any of his other films. Aronofsky did not restrain himself from portraying the violence that existed in the world that warranted its destruction and made it unsalvageable. He showed what a society so immersed and evil and bereft of merit must have really looked like, which was context I really appreciated. But by far the biggest contribution he offered was that he really stopped to consider what Noach’s experience must have been like throughout this ordeal. 

As I said, our biggest risk with the Noach story is that we teach it as one of happy images. And I think that one of the main reasons that we present the story in this way is that we know very little about Noach himself. And I think it’s the lack of dimension that the Torah gives to his character that has enabled us to take what is at its core a very dark story and only associate it with happy images. But what Aronofsky, who is the son of Jewish educators and therefore approached the story with the same preconceived notions of it that many of us would share, really did to the story that was so profound is that he stopped to think about what Noach must have felt throughout this ordeal. And a large part of his movie, and the part that really inspired me about it, is that he not only portrayed the darkness of the world around Noach, but also the darkness of Noach himself. He took care to show what it must have felt like for Noach to be the only righteous person amongst a world of sinners. He took care to to portray what it must have felt like to be living in that cramped ark, hearing the screams of the people drowning all around him. He took care to show how Noach must have felt knowing that they were the only survivors in a world that was completely destroyed. And he portrayed this as a psychological unraveling of a man unable to grapple with what all of this meant.

Part of what interests me so much is how the religious community, which the distributors tried to work with, reacted to the film. Many were upset - I saw one comment of how you could take such a happy story and make it such a depressing one. The film was labeled as risky, and daring. But I actually think that to label it as such is a perfect illustration of the way that we as humans remember, or often misremember, stories. 

For while we know very little about Noach, there is one major part of the story that can teach us a lot about what Noach experienced, but one that we often gloss over, or misinterpret. After the flood and after they disembark from the ark, Noach offers sacrifices to God, and God promises never to destroy the world again with the image of a rainbow. God blesses Noach and his children to go forth and multiply and fill the land. To start the world over. The story is seemingly resolved. 

But one more very important thing happens - Noach plants a vineyard, harvests the grapes, makes wine, and gets completely drunk, to the point where he passes out unclothed in his tent. This is something that Noach is often blamed for - certainly our sages see fault in this action, and view it as something degrading to his character. But I wanted to propose another interpretation. To me the fact that Noach seemed singularly focused on making wine and getting so drunk that he passed out is not a sign of fault, but rather a very important lesson for us. For when we tell the story, we see it as being over, and the wine incident as coming after. But really, I believe they are all part of one story. Because while it appears that the external story of the destruction of the world had been resolved, we can see from Noach’s singular focus on making wine that his story was far from over. We can see that he carried with him all of the pain and anguish that Aronofsky portrayed. That he was unable to grapple with everything he had witnessed. That he wasn’t just ready to move on, and build the world anew. Even though his task was to be moving forward and letting the destruction be in the past, he was (understandably) unable to just let it go. The externalities of the story were resolved - the flood was over, and it was time for the world to be rebuilt. The past was in the past, and it was time to move into the future. But internally, Noach’s story was not yet resolved. Even though he was able to get off the ark, offer sacrifices to God and establish a covenant with God about the nature of the world moving forward, Noach was still haunted by the events of the past. He wasn’t actually able to move on. 

As I said, this message resonates with me particularly strongly this year, and speaks to a lot of the same issues that American society is confronting. As a whole, we have often told the story of the fight for Civil Rights and overcoming racism as one that happened in the past, and has since been resolved. And I know that as a Jew I (naively) felt that anti-semitism in America was a story that had also been resolved before I was born, but as we saw tragically in Charlottesville, that narrative is not yet over. Yes, the externalities of the story present themselves as being resolved - we live in an amazing country that guarantees equal rights to all, and I am so so proud to be an American. But as we have seen in events of the past year, we have still brought dark parts of our past into our future. And that when we present the story as being resolved but don’t actually resolve all of the parts of it they will continue to bubble beneath the surface until they burst forth, as we see with Noach and the vineyard, and as we have seen in America this year.

That, I believe, is why Noach is the first and most prominent feature of the zichronot section of musaf. The story of Noach reminds us of the ways that we as human don’t always tell our stories honestly. This is true on a communal level, but also a personal level as well. I would imagine that many of us have experienced times of challenge and struggle in our lives, and tried to tell ourselves that we have gotten over it, and moved on. But sometimes we have probably rushed to tell ourselves that we have recovered when in fact we haven’t fully resolved our experience. We aren’t always honest with ourselves. What we can learn from the story of Noach is that even though human memory can be fault, God IS able to remember honestly. Noach is the first person in the Torah to be remembered by God. The word זכר is used to refer to God remembering us in our times of distress. While our images of the ark are happy ones, it is precisely on the ark that God remembers Noach and the animals. God sees the torment and the suffering that they experienced, even if we do not. It is therefore precisely the story of Noach, the story that illustrates the enormous discrepancy between human memory and God’s memory, that can teach us the most about the importance of looking past the surface and really confronting the entirety of one’s being and being comfortable enough with ourselves to present ourselves honestly before God. Because the more honest that we are willing to be, the sooner we can resolve the issues of the past and move on to build a better and brighter future. Shana tova. 

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780