By Rabbi Avi Strausberg
Parshat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)
In the beginning, there was nothing. When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth being unformed and void. Except, that’s not exactly true. Because there was something. There was darkness, and there was wind, and there was water. A lot of water.
God separated water from water, creating an expanse in between and God gathered all the lower waters together, and dry land took form. God called the dry land eretz and all of the waters yamim, and God saw that it was good.
And it was good, for a little while at least, until it wasn’t good any more. Enter this week’s parsha, Parshat Noach. God looks at the world created, and the people with all of their corrupt ways, and decides it’s time to bring the rains and begin again. The language in the Torah is beautiful, “on this day, all of the springs of the great deep were split and the windows of the heavens opened up.” But, the effect of those waters was nothing short of devastating. Those waters that had been separated since creation were suddenly released, and the world once again became water, the expanse erased.
The flooding in Asia this past summer and the forces of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma drew our attention once again to the destructive power of water. Millions of people in parts of Asia and Florida and Texas were hurtled from a world of order into the world that preceded creation, a world in which there was nothing but darkness, wind, and water. With the amount of devastation the recent rains have brought, we are left looking for meaning that will help us make sense of these disasters.
My theology isn’t one of reward and punishment nor do I believe in a God that directly intervenes in the world, for better or for worse, to save or to destroy. While I see the vast power and mysterious force of Nature at work in these disasters, while they make me painfully aware of our vulnerability as human beings and our smallness in the face of the events, I do not see God at work in them. I do not believe that the floods that devastated Texas and Florida and much of Asia were brought about by the same disappointed God that wiped humanity clean in this week’s parsha.
Where I do see God is in the interactions of human beings as they reach out to one another. Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber wrote that “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.”
That’s where God is in these rains. God is the force that connects human beings, one to another, as we attempt to make order out of chaos, as we attempt to offer each other solace in the face of devastation.
There was an article in the New York Times recently about the treasures that people managed to salvage from the hurricane in Texas. Amidst the rubble and debris, one woman, Shirley Hines, managed to save a set of mugs, now damaged and cracked, that had once belonged to her mother. Whenever Shirley was feeling down, she’d grab one of those mugs and have a cup of coffee.
When the article in the Times ran about Shirley’s mugs, Ann Dahms of Frederick, Maryland, felt called to help. With all of the loss Shirley was dealing with, Ann hoped she could make this one loss a bit more bearable. Dahms first contacted the manufacturer of the mugs, Fitz and Floyd, only to discover the mugs hadn’t been made since 1979. The employee at Fitz and Floyd also wanted to help and managed to track down a set of three of the same mugs on eBay which Ann promptly bought and sent to the Times reporter who wrote the article. The reporter then hand-delivered these cups to Hines, an act of kindness connecting four strangers, across many states.
In the wake of the devastation brought on by the floods in Asia and the recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida, many people have done both large and small acts of kindness. There is much work to do and these communities will require our consciousness and support for many years to come. This is where I see God in the floods, in the work of organizations like the Red Cross and NECHAMA: the Jewish Response to Disaster. In the many synagogues and churches that have been organizing drives for blankets and clothing for those who have lost everything. In a donation. In a blanket. In a coffee cup.
May we be so lucky as to know a world of order, where there is a separation between the waters above and the waters below. May we be blessed to receive the water we need, rains of blessing, benevolence and generosity. And, may we turn to each other with these same qualities, manifesting the Divine in our interactions with each other.
Rabbi Avi Strausberg, a 2015 alumnus of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, is the Director of Congregational Learning at the Temple of Aaron in St. Paul, Minnesota and the creator of the Daf Yomi haiku blog inhaiku.wordpress.com.
Learn more about the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College on November 6 at Ta Sh’ma (Come & hear), a Fall Open House & Day of Learning for prospective rabbinical, rav-hazzan and cantorial students.