The Simchat Torah attacks on Israeli civilians continue to haunt us two weeks out, and Jews around the world anxiously watch Israel's response unfold. There's no "right answer" to what should come next, but the timeless values of the Torah should be guideposts to moral decision-making.
Like many of you, I’ve spent the past two weeks obsessed with the situation in Israel and Gaza. I’m checking the news constantly, of course; and I’m also checking in with loved ones doing the same. Jessica and I may be unusual in that we have no close friends or family who live in Israel, and still our hearts are strained with worry and sadness. We mourn the dead and are awash with empathy for millions of suffering and fearful Israelis and innocent Palestinians.
I’ve also been focused—as I’m sure many of you have as well—on the experience of Jews here in America and around the world as we struggle to find our place in this horror story. We’re afraid for ourselves in our own communities; but mostly, I think, we’re afraid for what happens next over there. Even though it’s far away, it’s still as if it’s happening to the greater us, the Jewish people united the world over.
I’ve been grateful for the words of kindness and support I’ve received from non-Jewish colleagues and friends, though I admit I wish there were more of them. Mostly, we Jews hold one another as we face the violence that’s been done and brace for what comes next. The podcasts I hear and the articles I read and the personal conversations I have spiral around common questions that have no easy answer: What’s really going on; what should I hope or fear will happen next; what’s my responsibility at home and abroad; and, perhaps most difficult of all, what does it all mean?
Parashat Noach, which tells the story of Noah and the Flood, lays out some fundamental values that speak to many today’s moral problems. The parashah gives us insight into questions of life and death, good and evil, and punishment and restraint.
First and foremost, this is a story about massive death on a global scale. Honestly, I don’t know why this is the classic kids’ Bible story – it’s truly horrific. We read: וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס, “the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). In the face of this unending violence, after ages of silent forbearance, God meets the moment with brutal resolve: “The Eternal said, ‘I will erase from the earth humankind whom I created—humans together with beasts … for I regret that I made them’” (Gen. 6:7). All the animals, including human beings, are prone to unrestrained violence, and God chooses to delete them.
But there is a problem with this plan: וְנֹ֕חַ מָ֥צָא חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֵ֥י יְהֹוָֽה, “Noah found favor with the Eternal … [for] Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (Gen. 6:8-9). Constrained by the divine attribute of justice, God cannot kill the righteous Noah. The innocent—as we will later learn again with Abraham—cannot be punished alongside the guilty. So God provides a lifeline to Noah and with it a possibility of redemption for the rest of Creation.
his story teaches us that evil does not deserve to live forever. God concludes after centuries of violence that enough is enough; if life can’t be good, there shouldn’t be life at all. But on the other hand, the story teaches that life, in fact, can be good, no matter how dark the age: Noah proves to God and to all of us that it’s impossible to condemn an entire population as evil. You can always find those who, like Noah, walk with God.
So God does not so much destroy the world as restart it. And with the new generation, God makes some important changes.
To set up the change, the story first lays out the problem. Its drama reveals that humans, when left to our own devices, descend into wanton violence. Indeed, God observes as if for the first time יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֛ם רַ֖ע, “The inclination of the human heart is [toward] evil” (Gen. 8:21). But this recognition doesn’t lead God to extinguish the human heart; rather, it’s this very realization that prompts God to vow never again to destroy all life (ibid). Instead of wholesale destruction, God introduces new rules, giving Noah and his descendants moral precepts that Adam and Eve and—more importantly—Abel and Cain never knew.
The first change is that human beings are now allowed to eat meat (Gen. 9:2-3) whereas before they had been given only plants for food (Gen. 1:29). This expanded diet comes with a restriction, though: We may not consume flesh that still contains blood (Gen. 9:4). We are given limited license to exercise our violent urges; within acceptable limits, humans may now kill.
This new rule is conjoined with another: The shedding of human blood—the Torah’s idiom for murder—becomes the ultimate sacrilege:
שֹׁפֵךְ֙ דַּ֣ם הָֽאָדָ֔ם
בָּֽאָדָ֖ם דָּמ֣וֹ יִשָּׁפֵ֑ךְ
כִּ֚י בְּצֶ֣לֶם אֱלֹהִ֔ים
Whoever sheds human blood,
By a human shall their blood be shed;
For in the image of God
Was humankind made (Gen. 9:6).
This is the Torah’s first formulation of “life for a life,” and it is based on the foundational notion that every human being is created in the image of God. To murder another person is to erase a part of God, and this cannot be allowed. A minor version of the great Flood must be sent against the murderer: their world is wiped out, for they have wiped out another.
The principle is clear: shedding blood is a desecration, and there is no place for it in our society. How should this tenet be enacted? That’s a bigger question that requires a lot of hard work to answer. Indeed, when the Rabbis teach that God’s new covenant with Noah includes seven basic commandments for all humankind, the first of these laws is to establish of courts of justice (cf. Tosefta Avodah Zarah 9:4 and BT Sanhedrin 56a-56b). In other words, Jewish tradition insists that human society must adjudicate the difficult moral questions not only of how to protect life but also of what to do when life is unjustly taken.
Where does this leave us? The big picture is fairly clear on this point: people may not murder other people. Human courts need to determine what counts as “murder;” and then, in principle, murderers must pay the ultimate price. The big picture is also clear on this: Human beings, like God, possess tremendous power; and yet, we are required to restrain ourselves. We are commanded to curb our violent instincts, suppress our lust for blood, and hold back our power to destroy. In sum, the story teaches us that we require deliberation to execute justice.
On Simchat Torah, Israel suffered 1,400 murders and 200 kidnappings, the largest wave of violence committed against our people since the Holocaust. Hamas—both its military and governmental arms—are responsible for these murders and, in line with this week’s Torah portion, Hamas should rightly be destroyed. With this retribution, though, would inevitably come the deaths of untold numbers of Palestinians living in Gaza, each of whom may be as blameless as Noah in this generation. Israel’s power to destroy is immense; and our parashah demands not only justice but also, somehow, restraint.
I don’t know how to resolve these conflicting values, nor do I know how they factor in to complicated international negotiations. But I do know that whatever path the People of Israel pursue, it should be guided by the morals of our tradition and with the ultimate goal of preserving human life even if the cost is very high.
Of course we pray for peace, but such a prayer is truly a dream. Indeed, the prophet Jeremiah railed against those who clamored falsely שָׁלוֹם שָׁלוֹם וְאֵין שָׁלוֹם, “Peace, peace – yet there is no peace” (Jer. 8:11). It violates the sanctity of those who have been murdered to ignore the violence done to them and to our people. And at the same time, some kind of peace must be our destination—as Rabbi Chananya taught, “Great is peace, as it is equal to all of creation; for it is written, יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ—עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם, I form light and create darkness; I make peace (Isaiah 45:7)” (Sifrei B’midbar on Naso).
Friends, I don’t know whether we’re in the midst of the Flood or if really the rain has just begun. I’m afraid that both justice and peace are still rather far off.
Sermons, like our weekly readings from the Prophets, are supposed to end on a nechemta, on a word of consolation and hope. If there is a nechemta to be found, let us find it in one another, in the way we hold each other through this difficult time, and in the way our tradition can hold us in our grief and our doubt. We question and we mourn, we speak up and we take action when we can; and we do it all as a community dedicated to values that have sustained our people through eras even harder and more harrowing than our own.
May we lean on one another; and may we one day, somehow, find our way to peace.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”