Seeking righteousness in a flood of violence

Seeking righteousness in a flood of violence

Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

Violence, flood, destruction. These are key moments and key themes of Parshat Noach. Not the sweet animal version we teach kids, that resulted in my own 1 1/2-year-old having a stuffed Noah’s Ark animal matching game. Not the nice version, focused on themes of peace and rainbows.

Peace and rainbows. It feels like a far-away dream as I write this d’var, just a few days after the terror attacks on Shabbat. Like you, and like the Jewish world in general, I am still stuck in the flood in the wake of the violence. A flood of emotion, of heartbreak, of terrible empathy — but also a flood of coming together, a flood of support for Israel. And certainly a flood of tears for the horrors committed by Hamas, by violence.

Hamas / violence — a depressing pun. Genesis 6:10 explains the reason God decides to flood the world, destroy humanity, and reset creation is because the “earth was filled with violence.” Or in Hebrew, “vatimale ha’aretz chamas.” The false homonym is often pointed out by Hebrew readers at Torah studies on Parshat Noach. On the one hand, there is Hamas, the Arabic acronym for arakat al-Muqāwamah al-Islāmiyyah, the Islamic Resistance Movement. The other, Chamas, a biblical Hebrew word with translations and connotations of violence, wrongness, injurious language, harsh treatment, and wickedness. So maybe not such a false homonym after all.

Rashi teaches that this phrase, vatimale ha’aretz chamas, means robbery. This rings true as well. Israel and the Jewish world have been robbed of our safety and security, our unabashedly joyful holiday of Simchat Torah, of dignity, and of too much life. From nothing more than a social media statement from a Hamas leader, we have been robbed of having a normal day and beginning of Shabbat as I write on October 13.

And as if the parallels of hamas/chamas could not get more horribly on the nose, Ibn Ezra teaches the phrase to mean the taking of women against their will.

Chamas is why everyone in the primordial world (except Noah; his three sons, Ham, Shem, and Japhet, and their four unnamed wives) is destroyed. As far as the moral of the story goes, it doesn’t get more obvious. Violence leads to destruction. Violence is the opposite of what God wants. People who choose violence, God will destroy. People who choose righteousness, God will save. As the story goes, Noah, the righteous person of his generation, and his family were saved. The rest…were not. If only life were like the stories.

“A righteous person, blameless in his generation.” This description of Noah, from the first verse of the portion, Gen. 6:9, is one of the most commented on verses in Parshat Noach. It comes down to the modifier, “in his generation.” Is this to Noah’s credit or discredit? Was he righteous among a generation of righteousness, or righteous only in comparison to the wicked generation rife with chamas? According to the technique where we use subsequent verses to give understanding, it is traditionally understood to be the latter. Given the description and punishment of his generation, they were less than righteous, to say the least.

Righteousness and violence. Tzakid and Chamas. So much of the world is gray. But this situation in Israel since Saturday, this terror and horrific violence, this chamas and hamas — it is the opposite of righteousness. It is evil. It degrades and devalues and destroys life everywhere. It is a flood of chamas, of violence.

Rabbi Hillel teaches in Avot 5:2, “In a place where there are no human beings, be a human being.” Do not let that apply to these terrorist attacks! Do not remove humanity from the human beings who caused this inexcusable, unforgivable harm. Do not degrade Hamas terrorists to animals. These are people who are choosing to do violence, who are teaching others to do violence, and who are celebrating this violence. Saturday, October 7, was not a flood that was an unavoidable natural accident; it was a flood of violence against innocent people, a flood caused by choice. People chose to do this to other people believing it was not only the right thing to do, but believing that it was worth risking and giving their own lives and the lives of their own families.

And this is where we need to all choose to be the Noah of our generation. Noah didn’t have to be found righteous among the righteous. He just needed to not choose violence, and that was enough to show that “Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9). We need to make the same choice: a choice against violence, a choice for life.

This means standing, without apology, with Israel at this time. Standing against terrorism and in defense of the lives of innocent people. And this means standing against Hamas, whose solution is violence and death to Israel and all who surround it. At this moment, as we can (depressingly) empathize with Noah’s situation, let us take the obvious lesson. The lesson that, in the face of true violence, you don’t have to be a Lamid Vavnik to be righteous. You just have to stand against violence and choose life. And then, maybe, one day, as we hope and pray, we can make it to the peace and rainbows at the end of the story.

read more: