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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת נח, תש״פ

Parshat Noah, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, November 2nd, 2019

Noah and the Wildfires

For the past week, I’ve been checking my phone every few minutes to see where the California wildfires are raging now. My little brother’s school district is closed, but my family hasn’t been evacuated yet. The seminary from which Rabbi Feivel and I just graduated isn’t holding classes, but students are allowed to stay on campus. Each fire that pops up with each new gust of wind in that area of Southern California seems to just miss my family and my academic community, and yet, others aren’t so lucky. Just a year ago, my parents’ front lawn was charred, and three houses on my family’s street were completely destroyed. Just a year ago, Rabbi Feivel and I started looking for a new wedding venue when the local news mistakenly attributed a video of the burnt down venue next door to our wedding venue. Now, in the past couple of weeks, millions of Northern and Southern Californians have had their power shut off, tens of thousands are currently evacuated from their homes, and hundreds of homes have already been consumed by the flames. And now, we make it to our current Torah portion, Parshat Noah, in which a natural disaster represents a sign of God’s anger about humanity’s lack of compassion. How are we to deal, Jewishly, with this kind of natural tragedy?

I think about that rainbow at the end of our parshah, the promise that God will never destroy the people of the world again. This wildfire, along with the hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes that derail lives every year, cannot be purposeful destruction at the hands of God. God has created a world in which what we experience as natural disasters must happen as forces to balance the atmosphere in which we live.But at the same time, God’s promise to the people of the world is not a one-way street. This week’s parshah establishes the rainbow as the Torah’s first sign of a brit, a covenant between God and humanity. As long as human beings work to protect one another, God works in tandem with us. In our parsha, God tells the people Israel never to shed the blood of another and to p’ruu’r’vu, be fruitful and multiply. Now, as long as we make sure that our fellow human beings have the ability to live healthy, productive lives, as long as we do everything in our power to prevent their deaths, God can be there as our support system in a world that was created with inherent possibility of disaster.

These wildfires are not a message from God, synonymous with our parshah’s flood; rather, these wildfires are devastating but naturally inevitable opportunities to work with God in creating and sustaining this habitable world. Today, these wildfires are not consuming large swaths of humanity because we have hundreds of firefighters working overnight to contain them. Volunteers are cooking meals for our firefighters, and governmental and nonprofit organizations are showing up to provide support for those displaced families who need food, water, and extra clothing. Synagogues, churches, schools, and individuals outside of evacuation zones are offering their spaces for people to eat, sleep, and decompress in such stressful times. By showing love for neighbors of all stripes, by showing material appreciation for those who toil, and by opening hands to those permanently and temporarily in need, we earn Divine wisdom and assistance. Without the assistance we are constantly providing to one another, innumerable lives would be lost. I wonder, then, if so many would have been lost in the great Biblical flood if human beings at that time had only worked together to build more boats, to build an appropriate store of food for everyone when they saw a storm was coming. Through all of the acts of kindness performed by people like California’s firefighters, volunteers, and community members, we have earned the right to cry to God, to beg God and Jewish community for emotional insight and the knowledge to know what to do to prevent wildfires in the future, what to do to clean up the mess from the fires that do happen.

While we cannot completely stop natural disasters from running their course, we can look into the lessons we learn within our Jewish tradition to better know how to provide kindness to those who experience such devastation. From the Mishnah’s insistence that medical services be widely available, to the Torah’s pleas to open hands and homes to individuals in need, to the Rambam’s many lessons about how and when to give charity, we learn from our texts how to build a world that even a great flood couldn’t destroy. Through coming to prayer services, we build relationships with others with whom we can mourn, ask for help, and brainstorm resources for when disaster strikes. And of course, through prayer in this space, we have the opportunity to find words in our siddur for when the world is so damaging that words might be hard to seek otherwise. God set a rainbow in the sky as a reminder to Godself not to be this angry with humankind again and I believe, as a reminder to Godself to be actively present to the humanity that needs God’s comfort and wisdom within the created natural world. Let us seek that comfort from God, all the while remembering our role in the covenant - to ensure the livelihood of our local and global community, even orespecially in times of tragedy.