The Torah heading of Noach from Rabbi Zalman Kastel
Seeing and not seeing (through the prism of Noah and the Ark) Reflections on my trip to family in New York – Noach
I’m sitting on a flight back home from New York with my young son. Last night both of us danced the night away at the wedding of my niece. I am still savouring the joy of being with family, and observing the delight of my young child. Yet, my tradition, turns our attention to sadness amid joy. A glass is broken during the Jewish marriage ceremony to remind us of loss 1). Oddly, this sombre gesture is not honoured by a reflective silence, on the contrary, immediately after the crashing noise everyone erupts into joyous exclamations of Mazal Tov! Shifting our awareness away from and almost subverting the touch of sadness. This blog is a reflection on choices relating to seeing and “embracing all that is” 2).
My time in New York has been both happy and sad. I’ve spent time with my parents and siblings and my oldest three sons who are studying away from home. I feel unsatisfied with the short time we had. Our ten days together were cluttered with tasks and competing priorities. In the story of Noah’s ark, a family is in close proximity but they are so busy feeding the animals, including the nocturnal animals that the husbands and wives don’t manage to organise to leave the ark together 3). Yet, it is in the mundane physical domain that love is often expressed, in a meal baked or bought, dishes cooked or cleared.
I was confronted by the importance of the physical dimension of love at a memorial service I attended in New York for Mendel Brickman, a friend and a father who died one year ago in his mid-forties. His spirit was felt strongly in the room in the words of his children and widow, and in a talk by a hospital roommate who was touched by his energetic kindness, and care. His spirit fought courageously against his loss of breath and health. He was always focused on the positive. In a sense, Mendel beat mortality by sheer force of will and his living on in the lives of his family. Still, they miss his physical presence, and so do I and so many others.
In acknowledging our physical humanity, we are confronted by the human imperfections we all have. In the first instance it’s about averting our eyes from the embarrassing aspects of the other person. Two of Noah’s sons covered their father’s nakedness when he was drunk as they chose not to see his disgrace 4). A selective view of others is often appropriate.
However, sometimes we must choose to see and acknowledge disgrace and act. While in the US I learned of the revelations about the abuses of power by a movie mogul that were allowed to go on for too long. Powerful men feeling entitled to women’s bodies is referenced in the Bible as a reason for Noah’s flood. “The sons of the Gods saw the daughters of men, that they were good [looking], so they took any women they chose” 5) even without consent 6). The Torah could not be more emphatic in its condemnation of this behaviour.
In summation. There is merit in an approach that generally emphasises the positive and overlooks some faults and sad parts of life. On the other hand, there are challenges relating to human frailties that need to be noticed and talked about in workplaces, communities or families. Ideally, talk would resolve matters in accordance with the teaching that ‘to be reconciled over a glass of wine is to have an aspect of the mind of God’ 7). In other cases people can show support in a range of ways from taking action to simply being there for each other with care.
Back in my seat on this plane I can see daybreak over the Pacific and I can see my content little son sitting beside me. I feel grateful.
The breaking of the glass is symbolic, particularly of the destroyed temple in Jerusalem, but it represents broader loss.
Bennett, P. In the Cranky Guru
Talmud Sanhedrin 108b Comment on Genesis 8:19 and as explained by Torah Temimah on this verse.
Genesis 9:23, see Rashi commentary
Ramban, Ibn Ezra on Genesis 6:2
Talmud Eruvin 65b