One of the miracle workers and paragons of faith in our day was without a doubt Mother Teresa, the Roman Catholic nun who spent her adult life working with the poor and disadvantaged in the world. Fifteen years after her death in 1997, the religious organization that she founded (The Missionaries of Charity) had over 4,500 nuns working for it and was active in over 130 countries. She helped the poorest of the poor, and those suffering from horrible medical conditions. To many people, including myself, during her lifetime she represented the very best of the Catholic Church, selfless service to others in the name of God.
How surprising it was for many people, however, to find out after her death that in her private moments she doubted the existence of God. Even though she wanted her private papers destroyed after her death, the Roman Catholic church would not allow it, probably to help with the process of her becoming a saint (this happened in 2016). What was found in these letters? Throughout her life, Mother Teresa confronted some of the darkest elements of humanity, and during these years, she sometimes felt that God was ‘The Absent One.’
These are her words, “Please pray especially for me that I may not spoil His work and that our Lord may show Himself — for there is such a terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less since I started ‘the work’ (referring to helping the poor on the streets of Calcutta — (now called Kolkatta)).”
Having doubts in God made Mother Teresa human. Continuing her work, helping the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick, made her a saint, decades before the Church made it official. Believe it or not, there is a powerful connection between Mother Teresa and Noach, the biblical character made famous because of this week’s Torah reading.
Many of us know that Parashat Noach is the story where Noach was commanded by God to build an ark and put his family and a large number of animals inside the vessel, in order to save them from the flood that God brought to destroy the world (because of the wickedness of humanity). Months later, Noach emerged from the ark and ‘restarted’ humanity. God, not satisfied with life on earth after the first attempt at creation, had the opportunity to try again.
Noach is held up as a paragon of virtue by some for his building of the ark, while others criticize him for not warning his neighbors or arguing with God about the flood. But one comment by Rashi alerts us to another piece of the Noach story that connects our biblical character to one of the most famous Roman Catholics of the modern age — Mother Teresa. Genesis 7:7 reads as follows, “Noach, his sons, his wife, and their wives, went into the ark because of the waters of the flood.” Rashi (11th century, France) asks why the verse had to state the words “because of the waters of the flood”? Why not just end the verse by stating that Noach and his family “went into the ark”?
Rashi’s answer is that Noach had trouble with his faith, and wasn’t quite sure that the flood was really going to happen. He did not enter the ark until the rains forced him to do so.”
In other words, here is a character who spoke directly to God and even then, Noach wasn’t sure that he should believe what he heard! In the end, of course, Noach felt the rain and knew that the flood was sure to follow. He went into the ark and the story continued, just like we all remember.
Many people today find it difficult to believe in God. They want to believe, and perhaps they even find strength and support within the Jewish community and from our sacred texts, but absolute belief is difficult to find. And you know what? That’s okay. Judaism is not a doctrinal religion, meaning that belief in a certain set of beliefs is not central to Jewish practice. God is obviously at the center of our religion, but so is Torah (meaning all Jewish texts) and Israel (meaning the people of Israel, the Land of Israel, and the State of Israel).
This holy triangle of Jewish identity, coupled with our 613 mitzvot (commandments), helps us understand our place in the world and allows each one of us to situate ourselves with the triangle — which point do we hold closest to us and which point must be held at a bit of a distance?
Mother Teresa and Noach both struggled with their faiths, and for all of those reading this dvar torah who might struggle with theirs, you’re in good company. Judaism does not demand perfect faith. Judaism does demand, however, that while we struggle with our faith, while we do our best to understand how God fits within our lives and what God asks of us, we need to work step by step, person by person, to make this world a better place. May we protect others from harm like Noach did, and may we comfort those who are ill and in need of care, like Mother Teresa. In more ways than one, these two figures remain an inspiration to us all.