Warning: another one of my truly random musings. No destination in mind, so it went where it went.
Go ahead. Read it. Read the Haftarah for parashat Noakh, from Isaiah. Here’s a link to the text in Hebrew and English from Sefaria: https://www.sefaria.org/Isaiah.54.1-55.5?lang=bi
Come back here when you’ve finished reading it. I’ll wait.
Okay. what did you think? Did it seem sincere, truthful, uplifting, encouraging? What words would you use to describe it? Did these words make you want to return to G”d?
Here’s my take, and my problem with this haftarah. Our tradition teaches us that we judge a prophet by whether or no their prophecies come true. Now look at all those promises G”d make to us in these verses. Were any of them truly kept?
Some of them were. For a time. Our numbers did increase, and we did indeed spread out over the earth (though some of that spreading out was the result of our being dispossessed of the land of our covenant and inheritance.
Have we been devoid of shame? Again, for brief periods yes. However, losing possession of your ancestral land is sort of shaming in and of itself.
Now, we all know the stock answers to this litany of complaints. Our arrangement with G”d was/is covenantal. When we don’t keep our end of the bargain, G”d doesn’t keep G”d’s end either. Except that Isaiah doesn’t say that.
According to Isaiah, G”d admits to turning G”d’s back on us, to hiding G”d’s face from us. Now G”d is apologizing for doing that, inviting us back, and promising not to do it again, and to be always faithful. Verses 54: 5-11, with the key words coming in verse 10:
כֵּ֥ן נִשְׁבַּ֛עְתִּי מִקְּצֹ֥ף עָלַ֖יִךְ וּמִגְּעָר־בָּֽךְ׃
So I swear that I will not Be angry with you or rebuke you.
Right….(oh, damn you, Bill Cosby! Now I can never use that amusing reference again in good conscience. Teaching about Noah will forever be changed.)
G”d doesn’t say “if you continue to follow My ways, then I will not be angry with you, and my loyalty to you should not be shaken.” No conditions are stated. “But they are implied!” I hear you cry. Are they?
Look, I’ll be up front here. Why this matters to me at all is because it impacts on my understanding of G”d. It impacts on my belief as to whether there really are truths. And at this time and in this place, that matters a lot. Things are not normal. The notions of truths and facts is becoming increasingly hazy. My Judaism, my faith, is one thing that helps me to get through the craziness that is happening all around me. It is, even at the best of times, a tenuous faith. Not for lack of belief. Unlike some, I have no need for the biblical accounts to be factual, or the Talmudic discourses to be based on some mythical oral Torah. The world is not 5,779 years old. There’s little archaeological evidence for anything in the Torah, and not as much as one might think to support the books of Nevi’im and Ketuvim. However, since I don’t think of those works as histories, that doesn’t trouble me.
Accounts of G”d’s behavior are another matter. Torah is replete with accounts of an impetuous, temperamental, jealous G”d with really poor parenting skills. It is also replete with a few accounts of a loving, caring, G”d (though not as many as one might think, if you actually count them.) Here in Noakh we have a G”d who, through inattention or happenstance (or deliberate intent, or even just bad planning) winds up having created really wicked, evil humans. So G”d just wipes them out. Then, regretting that, G”d promises not to wipe humankind out again…by flood. Here we have a G”d that is threatened by humankind and so confounds their speech. Etiologies are useful things, but do we really need to drag G”d into all of them? Ah, but G”d is the explanation for all the things we can’t explain or wonder about, right? So for our ancient ancestors, G”d (or gods) became central characters in etiological stories.
Does G”d need to be the Creator of all things? Couldn’t G”d just be a force for “x” in the universe? I say “x” because I tried a lot of different words in there, and each and every time I found a reason why that word didn’t really work. For example, I tried “good.” But if G”d is only a force for good, what balances that? In a universe that is only good, is there a need for G”d? It seems our ancestors did see how everything seemed to be made of opposing things – dark-light night-day, good-evil, sun-moon, land-sky, etc. Creation in Torah is very much about these categories.
On the other hand, gan eden is paradise – until Adam and Chava eat from the tree “of the knowledge of good and evil.” So knowledge is the root of good and evil? Without this knowledge, what, exactly, where Adam and Chava supposed to do in Gan Eden, besides tend it?
I’ve gone quite far afield, I fear. I’m just trying to assemble the many pieces of our tradition into something that I find reasonably satisfactory as support for getting through crazy times like these. Lately, G”d has become an increasingly troubling part of that process. I’m having difficulty finding support froma G”d that let us suffer centuries of slavery in Egypt. The G”d that sat by during the Shoah. (Yes, I know, I am very much in Eli Wiesel’s camp here in blaming humanity and not G”d, but still…) The rabbis teach us that G”d allowed the destruction of the second Temple and the eventual diaspora due to senseless hatred among the Jewish people.
But where is the G”d that promised to never turn G”d’s face away from us again, to not be angry with us, to be ever faithful to us? If You are out there, I’d love to hear from You. You’ve been awfully quiet these last few millennia. Every so often I hear the faint murmurings of the kol d’mamah daka, the still small voice. These few precious moments had been enough to help me get through. Now, though, things are pretty bad around here, on this planet, G”d. It may be time for the return of the big, loud voice – the one that was more than we could bear at Sinai. The Loud, Large VOICE. I know that many humans are losing their ability to remain calm. If you don’t speak up loudly, G”d, then we may have to do it ourselves. It won’t be pretty. Without Your help, we might not succeed in saving our society and our planet. Are You listening, G”d? Speak up.
(c)2018 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Noach 5778 – Armageddon, Loopholes, and Theisms
Noah 5777 – Tzur Yisrael and Standing Rock
Noakh 5776 – Two Short Thoughts on Noah
Noakh 5775 – To Make a Name For Ourselves (Revisited)
Noakh 5774 – Let’s Rebuild That Tower
Noakh 5773 – Nothing New
Noakh 5772 – The Long Haul
Noakh 5771 – Redux 5765 – A P’shat in the Dark
Noakh 5770 – Don’t Ham It Up
Noah 5768 – Redux 5761 – Getting Noticed
Noakh 5766-What A Nimrod! (Revised)
Noakh 5765-A Pshat In The Dark
Noach 5764-Finding My Rainbow
Noach 5763-Striving to be Human
Noach 5762-To Make a Name for Ourselves
Noach 5761-Getting NoticedNoach 5760-What a Nimrod!