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Noach: The Blessing of Uncertainty

11/07/2022 10:37:35 AM

Nov7

Rabbi Ezray

These High Holidays our congregants Amy and Harold Keer were in London and attended the New London synagogue. Amy shared with me that the Rabbi, Jeremy Gordon gave a beautiful Kol Nidre sermon that echoes many of the themes I speak about. I read the sermon and loved it; my sermon today weaves in some of his sermon with my thoughts and today’s Torah portion, Noach. 

Rabbi Gordon began with a poem by the famous contemporary Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai of blessed memory: HaMakom ShBo Anu Tzodkim – The Place Where We are Right:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring the place where we are right 
Is hard and trampled
Like a courtyard
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world 
Like a mole, a plough
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where once stood the house
Which was destroyed.

The poem, written decades ago, captures the moment in time in which we live, times when people are so sure they are right, there is no room for any other opinion. Amichai reminds us that flowers can never grow in places where people insist on being right. In those places the ground becomes hard and trampled. He references the Temple, which was destroyed and reminds us that doubts and loves allow whispers to be heard and the hard ground where there was destruction becomes fertile again.

We need to recognize the danger of Makom ShBo Anu Tzodkim, the place where we are certain we are right, and dig up our world like moles and ploughs so whispers can be heard, and flowers can grow. Amichai’s poem calls for the courage to move from certainty to path of complexity, doubt, divergence, and humility.

The story of Noah is one of certainty. The world is evil, and I’m sure it was. God’s solution was to wipe out all the terrible people and rebuild based on the one righteous man, Noah, and his family. It is a simple solution; black and white. Evil must be destroyed; no second chances. No education. No gray area. It is a solution that left subsequent commentators uncomfortable and with questions.

For all that there are moments when there is only one solution, reflection on the story challenges us to reflect upon the problems with certainty. Isn’t certainty good? Sometimes, but it can disconnect us from each other. The world becomes narrow and limited, us and them. With utter certainty, there is no attempt to help those who we might be able to assist, they are evil and must be destroyed. Noah was certain that God’s decree was the only solution. He didn’t try to convince his neighbors to change, nor did he seek to rescue them. He just followed the rules.  About certainty, Rabbi Gordon says that it can create, “A more fractured society.  We fracture our friendships, our work relationships, even our families and we close our own minds to the possibility of growth.”

When you let go of certainty, new options emerge. Religion constantly balances certainty, embrace of uncompromisable truth; with uncertainty, awareness that things must change as new circumstances emerge. When you read the story of Noah carefully, it is really a story of uncertainty embedded in a story seemingly about certainty. It is about the need for evolution and learning anew. God realizes that the certainty of destroying evil is untenable. God turns away from his previous act of intervening with utter destruction and at the end of the story, promises never again to bring floods to destroy the world, even while knowing that we might continue to do terrible things. God comes to embrace the uncertainty, disappointment, and sorrow that humanity will bring. Why? Because the flip side also exists. We can bring light, blessing, care, and transformation. From our doubts and loves, whispers emerge that endure and inspire. God moves from black and white; good or bad; certainty, to patience and possibility; uncertainty.

Rabbi Gordon brings an important book: Subversive Sequels in the Bible by Judy Klitsner. Klitsner argues that for many biblical stories, a later text will often subvert it. The story of Noah is subverted, undermined, and contradicted by the book of Jonah. We are uncertain about our truths and allow new truths to emerge.  It is the power of uncertainty, questions, growth, evolution. Here’s what she explains happens in the Bible, a story will come with certain assumptions, like the story of Noah assuming God will punish all who do evil without the possibility of a second chance to change. The sequel takes enough details from the original story to show that it indeed is referencing the original, a parallel text; but then the sequel shifts our understanding of key concepts. Ideas change and we grow and evolve.

How does this work in the Noah and Jonah stories? They are parallel texts:

Both stories have the hero facing perilous waters on a boat. 
Both stories have the hero sink into a state of self-induced oblivion, Noah gets drunk after exiting the boat; Jonah falls into a coma-like slumber.  
The stories share key words, the name Jonah, Yonah, means dove. That is the bird Noah sent out.
Certain rare words are used in both stories.    
Both stories revolve around 40 day cycles, in Noah the flood lasts for 40 days and in Jonah there is a 40 day warning period.

You are meant to read Jonah and hear the Noah story. The key is how the stories are different. In Noah, there are no second chances for wrongdoers. In Jonah, wrong doers are forgiven if they change. In Jonah, there is no certainty about punishment, if you change ulai, maybe you can avert punishment. God changes from a God who regrets creating humans and destroys to a God who renounces punishment and desires we change.

When you abandon certitude, doors open. The true heroes of the Jonah story get it. Ulai says the Captain of the Ship, let’s try this and maybe it will work. Mi Yodea says the King of Nineveh, let’s try this and who knows, perhaps it will work. Transformation follows their abandonment of certitude.

Transformation, surely, is only ever possible when we abandon the certainty of our current experience of what, and who, is right in the world. Kiltsner suggests, “Ulai maybe/uncertainty [opens up] the potential [of] human beings to imagine [our]selves as other than [we] have always been and to undertake the courageous task of corrective repair that will reverse [our] standing before God.”
Uncertainty opens new possibilities of how to understand God. God does not need to be the God who punishes but can be the God who forgives.

Jonah wants the God of Noah, a God of certainty who punishes those who sin. But in the words of the poet Amicha, HaMakom ShBo Anu Tzodkim; in a place where we are right, flowers cannot grow. 
The alternative to certitude in Amichai’s poem and in the subversive story of Jonah is that Sfeikot, doubts, and Ahavot, loves, dig up the world like a mole, like a plough, bringing fertility and possibility.

We need sfeikot, uncertainty, to find flowers in the spring. Our questions and doubts lead to new understandings. We need Ahavot, literally Loves; staying connected to each other prepares the ground for rebirth. Loves loosen the ground to allow flowers to grow. It’s hard to love when we think we are certainly right. In Amichai’s poem love functions like a mole or a plough churning up the compacted, trampled earth and bringing possibility.

This is our moment. We are living in a time when people are sure they are right and good, and anyone who disagrees with them is wrong and evil. Such certitude results in destruction. 

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring
The place where we are right 
Is hard and trampled

Uncertainty opens the door to fertile soil and renewal. When we doubt and question, as the author of Jonah did with the story of Noah, we come to extraordinary and often new insights about ourselves, our beliefs and God.  

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world 
Like a mole, a plough
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where once stood the house
Which was destroyed.

Let’s embrace the power of uncertainty in the face of a world which cannot tolerate it, holding on to the image of the doubts and loves which will lead the way; flowers growing in the spring and hear whispers emerging in the place where the ruined House once stood. Uncertainty is one of the few certainties we need to embrace.

Wed, December 7 2022 13 Kislev 5783