Shabbat Shalom! – Parashat Noach

Image: Noah’s ark. He and his sons are loading the animals. (Gellinger/Pixabay)

This week’s Torah portion is Noach. You know – the guy with the Ark? There’s another famous story in there as well, the story of the Tower of Babel. You know the kiddy versions of these stories, but remember those are sanitized! This week’s portion includes some truly strange stories.

The great thing about Torah stories is that even though the words do not change, every year when we come back around to them, we are in a different place in our lives. When I was little, I was fascinated by the thought of all those animals: it seemed wonderful! When I was a young mother, I thought about Mrs. Noah: poor woman, all those animals and children to care for! This year, I think about the Flood itself: after a month of weird sunny hurricane winds, monster fires and displacement, and the Darkness visited upon some of us in California by our own electric utility, natural disaster seems almost, well, natural.

So take a look at these famous stories: read the parashah for yourself! Here are some writers with different points of view on the stories in Parashat Noah:

Is A Rainbow a Good Thing? – Blog: Six Degrees of Kosher Bacon

We have to stop taking the world for granted – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Another Brick in the Wall – Rabbi Dan Moskovitz

“A Tzaddik Knows the Soul of His Beast” – Rabbi Ruth Adar

Noah, the raven, and the dove – Rabbi Kari Hofmeister Tuling, PhD

The Open Invitation – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Righteous In His Time – Rabbi Jordan Parr

The Scary Side of Noah’s Ark – Rabbi Ruth Adar

Advertisements

“A Tzaddik Knows the Soul of His Beast”

Image: Three domesticated alpacas. (Kasjan Farbisz / Pixabay

Parashat Noach (Noah) tells the Biblical version of the story of Noah and the Ark. Makers of children’s storybooks have long focused on a sanitized version of the story to tell a charming tale about a boat full of animals that boarded “two-by-two.” Midrash offers us some hair-raising details – definitely not for kiddos! – about what happened on an ark with lions, tigers, and bears.

This Torah portion also offers an opportunity to talk a little bit about Jewish values regarding our treatment of animals. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out that there are a number of Torah passages that address our behavior and attitudes about the beasts around us:

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.

Exodus 19:9-10

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.

Deuteronomy 22:6

You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together.

Deuteronomy 22:10

You shall not muzzle an ox while it is threshing.

Deuteronomy 25:4

There is a Jewish legal term for these laws and their corollaries, which are developed further in discussions in Talmud and elsewhere. It is tza’ar ba’alei chayyim, the prevention of cruelty to animals. Human beings are permitted to make use of animals to do work, and we are permitted to eat some animals, within limits, but we are not allowed to be cruel.

The laws of kashrut specifically forbid cruelty in slaughter, including frightening the animal. The method of slaughter is a swift severing of trachea, carotid artery, and esophagus by a scalpel-sharp knife in one stroke, so death is very quick and as painless as possible. Some Jews go a step further and eschew eating meat altogether.

Our tradition regards careful attention to animals as the mark of a tzaddik, a truly righteous individual.

יוֹדֵ֣עַ צַ֭דִּיק נֶ֣פֶשׁ בְּהֶמְתּ֑וֹ וְֽרַחֲמֵ֥י רְ֝שָׁעִ֗ים אַכְזָרִֽי׃

A righteous man knows the soul of his beast, But the compassion of the wicked is cruelty.

Proverbs 12:10

Jews by Which Means?

Image: A mikveh – ritual bath for immersion.

In discussions about conversion to Judaism, I’ve read various terms to denote people who have been Jewish all their lives, and people who became Jews as adults. There is considerable disagreement about English terminology for the latter: some of them object to “convert,” and some dislike the euphemism “Jew by Choice.” The Hebrew term is “Ger Tzedek,” or for a woman, “Giyoret Tzedek,” meaning “Righteous Resident.”

For those who have been Jewish all their lives, I generally hear “Born Jew” or simply “Jew.” Conversion is the exception, historically, and as any person who became Jewish as an adult can attest, there are prejudices against them in the modern Jewish community.

Lately I’ve been studying BT Yevamot 46a, a major source in the Talmud about the process of giyur [conversion.] One fascinating part of the discussion involves an implied explanation for our process of conversion: it is intended to be identical to a process the Israelites went through in the book of Exodus, before receiving the Torah at Sinai. It starts:

The Sages taught in a baraita: With regard to a convert who was circumcised but did not immerse, Rabbi Eliezer says that this is a convert, as so we found with our forefathers following the exodus from Egypt that they were circumcised but were not immersed. With regard to one who immersed but was not circumcised, Rabbi Yehoshua says that this is a convert, as so we found with our foremothers that they immersed but were not circumcised.

BT Yevamot 46a

In the verses that follow, the sages reason that many of the Israelites had stopped circumcising their children during the years in Egypt, but that all had to be circumcised before they had the ritual meal of Passover. Then they found verses to support the idea that all of the men and women immersed in living water before they received the Torah at Sinai. Their children would inherit their Jewishness (though children with penises still needed brit milah [ritual circumcision] at eight days.) They did not need immersion in a mikveh to be Jews.

So perhaps instead of saying “Born Jews” or “Jews by Birth” perhaps it is more accurate to say “Jews by Inheritance.”

Why does this matter? I think it is an important distinction, particularly with the racist nonsense circulating about “Jewish blood” and “Jewish DNA.” Judaism is not a biological thing: it is a precious possession, a valuable inheritance, or something that a ger tzedek has striven and made sacrifices to obtain.

Once the rituals are complete, and the conditions are met, there is no distinction between the person who inherited his Judaism, and the one who strove for it:

Once he has immersed and emerged, he is like a Jew in every sense.

BT Yevamot 47b

Update #2: So Far, So Good

Image: The poodles say, “Gosh, the air stinks! What’s burning?”

We have power back here at home, as do both of our sons. Our niece, however, is still in the dark. All of us may lose power again tonight, depending on what PG&E decides. Yet another “wind event” is coming tonight, and PG&E is trying to prevent more fires.

There’s a lot of anger at PG&E these days. There is no doubt that management there has bungled by deferring maintenance and paying themselves bonuses. However, something should be said about the whole business of dividends. Investors, including small investors as well as bigger fish, hold utility stocks because they are known to pay good dividends. (Click link for what those are.) So it isn’t just the PG&E bigwigs who have pocketed money that should have been trimming trees and undergrounding lines – it’s anyone who has invested in PG&E stock in the past decades. That includes many small investors, many funds in which small investors invest, and many funds that benefit people who don’t directly invest in the stock market — foundations that operate charitable funds, etc. (Full disclosure: I’m one of those small investors.)

This is just to say that as usual, Pogo was right: We have met the enemy and he is us. Or as someone once told me, if I point my index finger at someone, notice that three other fingers are pointing back at me.

We are going to have to look at our choices, not only here in California but also in other places where climate change is beginning to shift balances. Things that worked in the past are no longer working. Privately held utilities with stockholder owners may have worked in the past, but do we need a different system now? If we want the state to do more, who is going to pay taxes to make that happen?

Also, as tempting as it is to yell at the PG&E employee who works on the local lines to get the power going, remember that their family is likely in the dark, too, and they are not making a zillion bucks as they climb up utility poles. We can write the corporate offices to tell them how mad we are, and that will be much more effective: here’s their contact info.

I’m grateful for all the first responders. I cannot imagine being a firefighter; the dangers they tackle boggle my mind. I had a roommate for a while who was an EMT, and sometimes he would come home hollow-faced from the horrors he’d witnessed and assisted.

I am also grateful to all the people who have checked on me and Linda, and who have expressed concern. We really are ok, although I am cautious and like to say, “So far, so good.” Fire weather is still all around us, and I don’t like to tempt fate.

Coping With Anti-Semitism

We live in a world in which the hatred of Jews is a growing issue. That’s a fact.

The people who commit most of the vandalism and hate speech do it to unnerve us. They know that they are pushing buttons when they draw a swastika on a wall, or say hateful things. They want to push our buttons. They want to make us feel afraid.

What can we do to fight back? Or — on a very basic level — what can we do to keep our sanity?

  • Some of us may be thinking, “I have always known about anti-Semitism. But this is hitting me very hard.”
  • Some of us may feel afraid to go in a synagogue.
  • Some of us have Gentile relatives who mean well but who do not understand why this shooting is so personal for each of us.
  1. Over the past three years we have seen more and more hate crimes. Many synagogues have suffered vandalism. Twice someone has entered a synagogue with a gun looking for Jews to kill. We remember our dead with reverence, but even those ceremonies remind us of the change in climate. Stress accumulates.
  2. The Anti-Defamation League reports that there were 3023 separate anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017-2018. The ADL reports that online anti-Semitic threats and hate speech have increased dramatically since 2016.
  3. Some born-Jews may be experiencing anxiety from intergenerational trauma. A number of studies suggest that some extreme trauma actually affects the DNA, passing effects to future generations. If one of your parents or grandparents were on the receiving end of Anti-Semitic violence, that may figure in to your reaction now.
  4. Education about anti-Semitism often centers on the Holocaust. It is not surprising that an attack on a synagogue sets off fears of a new Holocaust. The idolization of Nazis and Hitler by many of the alt-right adds to that fear, and some anti-Semites deliberately push those buttons with symbols like swastikas.
  5. The fact that some of our non-Jewish neighbors do not understand our feeling of personal connection to these events, no matter how distant, may heighten our feelings of fear and perhaps even abandonment.

What can we Jews do about our anxiety levels? And how can our non-Jewish friends and neighbors help us?

Here are the things that help me cope:

The ADL studies reveal some very good news: the vast majority of our neighbors do not hate us. A 2017 poll revealed that the majority of Americans are concerned about violence against Jews and Muslims:

The surveys reveal that while anti-Semitic attitudes in the United States have increased slightly to 14 percent, the vast majority of Americans hold respectful opinions of their Jewish neighbors. However, for the first time ADL found a majority of Americans (52 percent) saying that they are concerned about violence in the U.S. directed at Jews, and an even a higher percentage (76 percent) concerned about violence directed at Muslims. More than eight in 10 Americans (84 percent) believe it is important for the government to play a role in combating anti-Semitism, up from 70 percent in 2014. –ADL report, 4/6/17

This is very good news. Yes, there are slightly more people reporting anti-Semitic opinions (16%.) In contrast to that, 84% of those surveyed believe it is important for the government to play a role in combating anti-Semitism, up from 70 percent in 2014.

While there have been in the past periods of anti-Semitic incidents and feelings in United States history, all of those times were followed by an improvement in relations. The General Order #11 incident in 1862 was followed by an increased understanding between General Ulysses Grant and the American Jewish community, who ultimately backed him for the presidency. The lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 led to the founding of the ADL, which from the beginning had as its mission “to put an end to the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment for all.” Jewish participation in fighting WWII, and especially the sacrifice of the Four Chaplains changed attitudes, leading to many years of cordiality between the Jewish and Christian communities in the U.S.

Every congregational rabbi and every synagogue board in the United States is concentrating hard on security at Jewish institutions. We already had a level of security that would surprise our Christian neighbors, but every synagogue and Jewish institution now reviews their security regularly and looks for the best way to make their people safe. It is not possible to make any place in a free society perfectly safe, but I can assure you that this is a top concern for our leadership today. If you want to help with this, it’s a good time for a donation to your local synagogue – cameras and personnel do not come cheap.

Intergenerational trauma is real. PTSD from other traumas in our lives is real. If you are suffering from anxiety or other symptoms, I encourage you to seek a sympathetic therapist. There are new treatments for these sorts of anxieties all the time and not all of them are drug therapies. However, as the saying goes, “Doesn’t ask, doesn’t get.” or as Hillel put it, “A person prone to being ashamed cannot learn.” (Avot 2:5To get help with anxiety, you have to seek it out.

One of the most effective ways to deal with our feelings after news of an anti-Semitic attack is to come together with other Jews. Many Jewish institutions will be offer opportunities to come together – take advantage of those, whether they are services or educational programs. Your presence at those events helps comfort others, too! You do not have to believe in God. You don’t have to belong to the synagogue. You can just show up for services, although as a colleague of mine pointed out, these days it might be good to call ahead and get instructions. Many synagogues have security procedures in place.

Look for ways to increase your Jewish engagement. This may seem counterintuitive, but most of us find that doing things that affirm our Judaism gives us more solace than hiding could ever give. Join that synagogue, or join a Jewish book club. Find a Torah study group, or begin having Shabbat dinners with friends. Take a class and learn more about the Jewish people. These are classic Jewish approaches to healing and strengthening ourselves. Especially if your Jewish education focussed on the Holocaust and not much else, this is the time to learn more about Judaism – to learn about our rich civilization and our strengths.

If Gentile relatives or friends do not understand your upset, you can offer them resources to educate themselves. They do not have a frame of reference for this, other than perhaps Holocaust movies. Send them a link to my article, A Message to My Non-Jewish Readers after Pittsburgh. Also, a more general article like Where Did Anti-Semitism Come From? may give them a better context than pop culture offers.

Fight anti-Semitism and other hatreds. Join ADL, or the Southern Poverty Law Center. For more ideas, read 9 Ways to Fight Anti-SemitismTen Things We Can Do to Fight Hate and Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Resource Guide by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Fighting back in constructive ways will make the world safer for all minorities. We are not alone in this fight, but we need to build our alliances by supporting the struggles of other minority groups in respectful ways.

Our tradition is strong and it has survived troubled times before. Judaism is thousands of years old: we have outlived the Babylonians, the Romans, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Third Reich. We will survive this, too.

Update: The Lucky Ones

We’ve been without power for 24 hours and I must say this is a very strange experience. I’ve never seen anything like this windstorm: there is no rain, no clouds, but the wind comes in ferocious gusts which tumble patio furniture and rip stressed trees to bits. It truly is a storm, only with sunshine.

I titled this “The Lucky Ones” because I have to acknowledge our good luck. So many people around the region are now under evacuation. They won’t know if their homes were spared until they are allowed back. Some know their homes are gone. Some survived only with the clothing on their bodies and maybe a dog or cat.

We’ve tried to make the best of the quiet here at home. I finished a knitting project during the daytime, and tonight, like last night, I’ll go to bed early. I’ve checked in on friends via text message, but had to cancel my afternoon online class. I have no Internet, and trying to teach from an overcrowded Starbucks… no, better to wait!

Such situations as these fires raise theological questions. Why do some people suffer, when others are lucky? Why does God allow these destructive winds? Did we do something bad? Are we being punished?

Jewish tradition has lots of different answers to these questions. The book of Deuteronomy seems to suggest that bad things happen only to people who deserve them — but you and I both know that that can’t be right. Bad things happen to both the innocent and the guilty.

Every human being will experience tragedy sometime in their life. These days every Facebook feed seems full of good luck and virtue, but if you look deeper than the PR, pretty much everyone has troubles. Many people have pain they don’t advertise.

And yes, some people seem to enjoy boundless luck. It isn’t fair. All I know to say is that we never know as much as we think about other people’s lives.

Jewish tradition teaches us that the relief of suffering is OUR job. Waiting around for miracles isn’t likely to succeed – miracles are very, very rare. God does not usually fiddle with the laws of nature.

So if you feel lucky, look for someone to help. If you feel unlucky, look for someone else unlucky and help them. If you feel grateful, express that gratitude by helping someone.

We are God’s hands in this world.

Fire Season

Image: Sunset over San Francisco Bay.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area we are in the midst of another fire and weather emergency. Another fire burns up in Sonoma County, to the north. A dry, hurricane speed wind is lashing us all over the region. Because of that, the utility company has turned off the power to many homes, including mine.

Frankly, I do not begrudge the power outage. It is inconvenient but if it can lower the likelihood of a firestorm in my neighborhood, I am grateful.

Don’t worry about me. My family and I are ok. There are thousands of people displaced by the fire, and a number who have lost their homes. There are firefighters putting their bodies on the line, fighting the Kincade fire. They are the ones who need our support and our prayers.

I’m posting using my smartphone, and I need to conserve power. I will post as I have the power to do so.