By Shaul Janes
The story of Noach is sandwiched in between two stories of creation. The first story – Bereshit, is the story of the creation of the world. It was last week’s parsha. Next week, is the story of the creation of the Jewish people – the story of Abram becoming Abraham. In between these two we have the story of Noach, a story of destruction that also leads to rebirth and creation of a new world. So really, the beginning of the Torah is filled with stories of creation. So, when we think of Bereshit as being the beginning, the story of creation, it was really just one of the many beginnings, the many times that G-d reinvented the way the world should begin.
That was then and this is now. It’s the 21st century, and as we are all aware, technology is always finding ways of compressing things, making things smaller. From cell phones and computers to iPods. And the amount of music that the iPod can store is staggering. I think you can have 1000 songs plus ready-to-be-broadcast to your earbuds in concert hall quality sound.
The world is becoming compressed. Aren’t we always saying “It’s a small world – it’s a small Big Island ??” We compress time, we compress air and sound, we compress our conversations according to the number of minutes in our phone plans, we text message in code, not even using full words anymore. We get “reality” compressed into a weekly television show.
So think about this, the story of Noach, as the first reality show – Extreme Make Over – The World! The Season Premiere is Noach building, through the architectural direction of G-d, a what? an ark, which was used to hold and preserve life. Well, let’s look at our reality. Here we are in this room facing our Aron Kodesh, which is also referred to as an — ark. It, too, is the keeper of life. Instead of flesh and blood, and vital organs and bones … this ark holds the book of life, the tree of life, the Eitz Chaim, our Torah. For the Jews, the Torah contains everything that we need to know, about how to live our lives. The Torah is the iPod for the Jews, everything is compressed into the Torah, 304,805 letters — if only we read it, we listen to it, and we live by it.
Here are the dimensions of the ark that Noach built: 300 cubits in length, 50 cubits across and 30 cubits in height. Will someone please ask me what is a cubit? … A cubit is approximately 18 inches, measured from your elbow to your finger tips. So, that’s approximately 450 feet by 75 feet by 45 feet high. For all the builders and architects in the room today, that’s more than ten times the length and twice the width of this room, in case you want to build one yourself. This room is a lot like Noach’s ark, full of life right now, without windows, without distractions from the outside world. With the addition of this ark and this Torah, this room becomes more than an ark, it becomes a sanctuary. By studying Torah, by clinging to the Tree of Life, we take this precious slot of time – Shabbat – from our busy, compressed lives, and experience what it is like to live by the Torah.
As we just learned from the recent high holidays – one cycle of Jewish life finishes and we start all over again! The day after Yom Kippur we are commanded to start building a sukkah, the booth for the harvest festival. This is the cycle of Jewish life.
Just three weeks ago, Kona Beth Shalom congregants got together on a quiet, Sunday morning and built a sukkah at the home of our friends Erwin and Helen Myhre. The lesson that I learned was that everybody’s role was vital. Some people lashed bamboo poles together, some plumbed walls, others brought flowers and trimmed bushes for roofing material and still others helped decorate the sukkah with ornaments. As we completed the building process, we all ended up inside the sukkah together. We each said a blessing, we each shook the lulav and we each felt connected with one another by being part of the process. I learned that by building a sukkah, we build community. This is not what Noach did, he built his ark all by himself. He was literally “shut in” to the ark by G-d. I learned from the story of Noach that we should not be “shut in” – that we should each participate to strengthen our community by contributing whatever it is we have to offer. Each one of us brings something unique to the process, but it will be a small piece that will become part of something bigger.
Noach’s community didn’t have much to offer him. As the world was filling with chamas (which is Hebrew for lawlessness), Noach decided to go in another direction and in fact Noach walked with G-D (gen.6.9). This is at the beginning of my torah portion, Noach ish tzadeek … et ha elocheem heetalech Noach.
Noach was G-D’s silent partner. If you think about it, all Noach did was listen to G-D and hear – SH’MA. In fact, throughout most of the Torah portion, Noach doesn’t speak at all, unlike other righteous characters such as Abraham, Joseph, even Moses, who had a speech impediment.
Noach doesn’t say a word until Genesis 9 line 25, when he curses his son. Is it the fact that Noach is mute that makes him righteous? Is it His silence?
Let’s move forward, back to the 20th century. I can think of many people who, by today’s standards, are considered righteous. Martin Luther King, Jr, Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Raoul Wallenberg, Walter Suskind. None of them could have achieved the status of righteous if they remained quiet. Can you imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. standing in front of the masses in Washington DC and not saying anything? So, perhaps Noach was silent because he did not have masses of people to listen to him, after all he was surrounded by lawlessness. Perhaps he couldn’t find the words to convey to G-d why the world deserved to be saved instead of destroyed.
Perhaps the only way that Noach could remain righteous was to be silent against the lawless ways of his fellow people and to listen – SH’MA – to G-d’s instructions.
When you think about it, the story of Noach is about second chances. So is the story of our Torah scroll, which I read from today.
This Torah was rescued from the Nazis’ determined will to extinguish the Jewish race. This Torah was given a second chance to live and to bring life to all of us here today. I’ll never forget the first time my newly found friend Erwin (our Torah’s shomer) asked me to carry the Torah to his car after services one Shabbat afternoon shortly after Judi and I moved here. That was the beginning of my personal relationship with our Torah. Needless to say I was inspired to read from our Torah someday.
The obvious parallel is that both the ark in the story of Noach and the ark right here today was and is used to preserve humanity. However, there are subtle differences as well. While the ark in the story of Noach represented the depths to which human beings had sunk (pun intended), this ark is used to hold our Torah scroll, which when used, can give us the knowledge to soar to tremendous heights and achieve the status of righteous individuals.
I recall this past summer when we here at KBS had the great fortune of fulfilling the 613th mitzvah, which is to write a Torah in one’s lifetime. It seems bashert, meant to be, that when Rabbi Druin opened our Sefer Torah for KBS to complete the restoration process, that he had chosen Noach as the final portion to complete.
At one of the Letter Writing Sessions, Joel, our resident violin virtuoso, was about to complete the word tzadik. When Rabbi Druin asked him if he considered himself righteous, his response was “I don’t know.” What Rabbi Druin conveyed to Joel was that by performing the 613th mitzvah, right there and then, he was righteous. I learned from this that we all have the opportunity to uncover our righteous soul and strive to one day be referred to as a tzadik.
Of course, humility is an essential ingredient. Remember the story that I read to you before about Yoseleh? The possible irony was that Yoseleh was only referred to as a tzadik posthumously and he missed out on witnessing his inspiration to others. Yoseleh knew that what he was doing was righteous, but he chose to keep this mitzvah to himself. Although he performed righteous acts, he was despised by the very recipients of his generosity because he did it anonymously. Fortunately, we all receive second chances. When my beautiful wife Judi and I wrote a letter together in the Torah at Erwin and Helen’s house, we wrote the yud in the word, v’yosef. Rabbi Druin explained
to us that the word means “second chance,” from the part of Noach when the dove was sent out for the second time to find land. Yoseleh Tzadik, received his second chance when the community realized that he had done so many mitzvot anonymously. Our Sefer Torah, which survived the efforts of the Nazi’s to destroy all that was Jewish, received yet a second chance when the Kona Beth Shalom community chose to restore it for this generation and for future generations.
And finally, I will tell you about my personal v’yosef, my personal second chance. Traditionally a Jewish boy becomes a man at the age of 13. As many of you know I tend not to follow tradition. Noach also was a man who did not follow tradition. Also like Noach, it took me a while to get where I am today, maybe a little longer than the traditional 13 years it takes most men. According to Talmud, it took Noach 120 years to build the ark and according to the book of MY life, it took me 44 years to step up here today. Noach and I are in good company. Rabbi Akiba was 40 years old when he began to study Hebrew. Safta Selma Plaut was 89 years old when she enrolled in college and received her B.A. at the age of 100.
What a terrific chapter of my life … my Bar Mitzvah. I’m 31 years late, but so what. Sometimes the most direct course is not a straight line but a circuitous path and there may be detours along the way. Like Noach, I was distracted by the vineyard, so to speak, but through the support and chesed – loving kindness – of my family and friends, I found my second chance.
So here’s my interpretation of what v’yosef means. Realize that you have a second chance and use it, run with it, don’t look back at what you may have missed the first time.