This Shabbat we celebrate Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan (the beginning of the new month of Cheshvan) – my Hebrew birthday – and read the story of Noah, that I read twenty years ago for my Bar Mitzvah. That morning, as I remember it, I was beginning the third aliyah with the words “vay’hi hamabul” (and there was the Flood) when the skylight above the Torah reading table in B’nai Amoona’s sanctuary rattled with a large crack of thunder. Auspicious timing.
I spoke that morning about the Tower of Babel and its relevance for us as the internet and globalization were sweeping the world. I am sure its allusions referred to now quaint and anachronistic topics like AOL, Buddy Lists, and dial-up modems.
Twenty years later, the lessons of the Tower of Babel still loom large, as does the Torah’s complicated relationship to humanity’s capacity and penchant for evil. But the most resonant message for me from this parashah is meteorological, deeply rooted in the beginnings of fall.
Archaeologically and historically, we know that many cultures in the near East told stories of a Great Flood. For scholars of religion, many such stories represent a polytheistic clash between the evil god of the sea and the benevolent god of the sun or specific empire. The story of Noah and his ark filled with its animals may have served as a way of explaining how, exactly, the world as we know it matches up with the creation myths and the fauna that populate the earth.
In the Torah, however, the story seems to send an alternative message, one enhanced by its placement just after Sukkot in the early fall. Last week’s creation narrative sets up an ordered universe manufactured by God. This week’s flood narrative consciously mirrors the opening chapter of the Torah to undo that order. As God separates the water above (sky) from the water below (oceans/lakes/seas) in creating the world, this separation is undone as the heavenly water pours unceasingly for forty days and forty nights into the water below. The land that was set aside is once again covered by the water; the overcast gloom of the flood prohibits any knowledge of the sun, moon, and stars and dissolves the distinction between darkness and light; the vegetation and animals created by God are destroyed. And then, after the flood, God assures not just Noah and his family but all of humanity for eternity that the reestablished order of creation will never again be disturbed.
Most dramatically in Mediterranean climates like those of Israel and much of the Middle East, but throughout temperate zones in both hemispheres, our weather has begun to change. Nine days after we pray for rain on Shemini Atzeret, we receive the Torah’s unequivocal reassurance that the rainy season will be followed by another spring and summer, that the falling of the leaves and the chill in the air will be followed by the blooming of trees and the blissful first warm breezes of March, or … June.
The story of Noah remains a cherished safety blanket for us all, a cautionary tale of how bad things can be when the world doesn’t work like it should and an assurance that it will. Twenty years after becoming a Bar Mitzvah, having lost nearly an entire generation of grandparents, great-aunts and -uncles, and cherished friends, while welcoming into my family’s life waves of new friends, life partners for me and my sister, and turning my parents into grandparents three times over, that reassurance is my welcome annual reminder that another year has passed and the world, however scary and new and seemingly off-balance, is working as it should.
And every rainbow I see, over Lake Buckatabon or the Northwoods, Lake Michigan, or on an airplane en route to Columbus, the Twin Cities, St. Louis, and more, reminds me of God’s promise and the relentless turning of the seasons.