Please enjoy a D’var Torah this week from JAR (Jon Adam Ross), an actor, playwright and Jewish educator extraordinaire. JAR will return in 2016 for his 18th consecutive summer on staff and his third as our Rosh Merkaz – director of informal education and aidah (division) programming. The Ramah Wisconsin community congratulates JAR on embarking on the InHEIRitance Project, a three-year journey to write five plays in five metropolitan areas inspired by the patriarchs and matriarchs of B’reishit/Genesis, generously funded by the Covenant Foundation. After workshopping his play, on Abraham, in a selichot service that brought together eight different synagogue groups from across the Twin Cities and across the spectrum of Jewish observance, JAR will return to the Twin Cities for a premiere run of the fully developed show in December.
Reflections on Parashat Noach
by Jon Adam Ross
There is something about ‘weather’. Not just the concept, the word. I grew up in the south and having ‘weather’ meant having a storm of some kind. “We’re gonna have some weather today” was a common phrase when the skies looked ominous. I always found that a bit funny. Don’t we always have weather? 24 hours a day? Sunshine is weather, and so is sleet. But in the south of my childhood, ‘weather’ meant a storm.
We did get some nasty storms in Memphis. But it wasn’t until my first summer in Conover, Wisconsin that I really experienced what I thought of as ‘weather’. The first half of the summer of 1992 in Conover was not a good time for sunbathing. In three and a half weeks at camp, we only swam in the lake three times. Maybe it’s the lack of tall buildings, maybe it’s the wooden roofs that register every raindrop, maybe it’s the grassy carpet of our outdoor living room bearing evidence of the storm just passed, but at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin we really get ‘weather’.
I think about that quirky phrasing every year when we read this week’s parsha. The story of Noah is the first time in our ancient diary that we get ‘weather’; and it’s a brutal storm, indeed. Forty days it rained, and nights too! The known world flooded completely. If it seemed apocalyptic, that’s because it was. Hard to imagine today, a flood that seems it’s here to destroy the world. That is, unless you live in South Carolina, Bali, Far Rockaway, the Maldives, or Haiti. In fact, “If it seems like the United States is getting more heavy storms and major floods these days, it’s because we are.” (National Wildlife Federation)
But then there’s the second half of this week’s parsha, which deals with the building of the Tower of Babel. I have always found the connection between the two stories tenuous at best, one not having much to do with the other. But this year, a new book came out by an Argentinian theologian (On Care for Our Common Home) that enlightened me and drew a direct line from Noah’s flood to the Tower of Babel. In this book, the theologian writes, “We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.” Have we, knowingly or unknowingly, taken on the task of finishing the job God promised never to finish, of destroying the planet?
There are many lines in תפילה (prayer) that resonate more strongly for me when I say them up at camp. But the one that repeatedly stands out to me is the last line of the first paragraph of the Aleinu: “God is our god in the sky above and the land below…” In most synagogues, even one with windows, it is rare to be able to see both the sky above and the land below in one glance while saying the Aleinu. Typically one sees another building across a courtyard, if even that. But at camp, where we often pray outdoors, this is a common occurrence. The horizon is out there, across the lake. At camp we are given the gift of being more immediately in the presence of God’s creation, less spoiled by the hand of human invention than the communities we inhabit during the rest of the year. And we feel even more strongly the power of the storms that could threaten that creation.
This summer at camp, we had one of those epic storms. Right after that storm, one of our צוות (staff), who was born and raised in Southern California, said that he had never seen so much weather in one day in his life! And then he looked up. The picture he saw of the sky above and the land below, the picture he beheld, that we all beheld with our own eyes, was that of God’s reminder in the story of Noah. The rainbow that arched over camp that evening was the most full and beautiful rainbow many of us had ever seen. It served as a necessary reminder in a time when the world seems to be more beset by ‘weather’ than ever in the history of humanity. It may be too late for us humans to act to stop climate change. But God made a promise and that rainbow stands to remind us that we’re not alone in caring about this planet. That is the lesson we learn in the story of Noah. But it’s not just God’s responsibility either – that is the lesson we learn from the Tower of Babel. Pope Francis’ book, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, shows us we need both stories, together, and now more than ever.