Parshat Noah 2023/5784, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann
“וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס׃” The Torah says God decided to bring the flood when God saw that the earth was filled with “hamas” (a word being painful to say in this context). Ever since that Torah sentence was constructed, Jews have wondered exactly what that word means, and more significantly, they sought to understand what humans could have possibly done at the early generations of Creation to justify such an extreme reaction from the Divine.
Rabbinic commentaries offer varied explanations to justify or at least explain the Divine decision to wipe out all but one family in order to start again. Hamas is translated as “lawlessness” in our humashim (torah books) because that is how the Rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud understood the Noah text: that people would cheat so frequently and in every small and big way, chipping away at trust in society and systems of justice. Medieval Jewish commentators take a direction, seeing God’s decision to bring a flood as a response to acts of violence and rape.
While I appreciate all these interpretations and the question behind them, I believe that to discern the human state of affairs that led to God’s despondency and despair and the decision to destroy life to recreate the world, I think we need only look a few chapters ahead in our parsha.
When Noah and his family exit the ark and land on dry land, God blesses them and tells them to repopulate the earth. Then God gives them instructions as to how to treat creatures, first animals and then humans, specifically prohibiting murder, making such a serious threat against it by saying that murder requires accountability to our fellow human beings and to God.
And then, and then God says these words:
“Ki Tzelem Elohim Asah et HaAdam.” כִּ֚י בְּצֶ֣לֶם אֱלֹהִ֔ים עָשָׂ֖ה אֶת־הָאָדָֽם׃
FOR/Because Human beings are created in the image of the Divine.
There are nearly the exact same words that were spoken in the first Creation story:
וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ. “And God created humankind in the divine image, creating it in the image of God —”
Like a parent who scolds or reprimands a child, punishes them and tells them after what it was they were really upset about, God is here telling us what the flood was really about: human beings had forgotten this fundamental framework.
Truly, I do not believe the repetition of the phrase and idea at the beginning of Creation and at this moment of rebirth of the world is coincidental. For it is not only the actions themselves — the murder and the lawlessness — that makes God believe that it is impossible to keep going with the generations that existed — it is the fundamental violation of the principle that is the heart of the problem.
In Parshat Noah, then, the Torah is warning us about the potential for violence, chaos, terror when human beings dehumanize groups of people and individuals. Of the despair and despondency and desperation that we can feel, just like the Divine did, when we see and experience a world where people purposely forget this mission statement for humanity.
Today, however, we don’t need Parshat Noah as a reminder. We are living in that world. We are living in a world of multiple layers and manifestations of dehumanization, all probably closer to home than most of us have experienced in our lifetimes.
We see it most obviously and most devastatingly in Hamas’ brutal dehumanization of Israel and Israelis, the painting of every single person in Israel whether they are Jewish or Christian or Benduin or Muslim, whether they are old or whether they are young; whether they are long-time advocates for peace who desperately want Palestinians to have self-determination or whether they are genuinely opposed to Palestinian rights. It is the indiscriminate hatred and dehumanization that allows someone to encounter a16 year old girl (whose name was Ruth) who is wheelchair bound, with cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy, to look at her and then to murder her in cold blood. It is the dehumanization of a people that justifies capturing a 9 month old baby as a hostage.
And, we also see it in the dehumanization of Israelis and Jews by some of the people we thought were our friends and allies. Those who within hours or maybe a day after the slaughter of innocent civilians called these heinous acts “self-defense” and glorified them as acts “resistance.” People who cheered on the murder of civilians, making excuses for inexcusable crimes like rape, the separation of children and parents, and kidnapping, including the frail elderly and the very young.
Let’s be loud and clear: People have every right to criticize Israel’s policies, the occupation and its treatment of Palestinians, its move towards religious nationalism (all of which I join in criticizing). But to justify or excuse this horrific behavior is not a reflection of a commitment to a cause; it is a reflection of the dehumanization of Jews and Israelis as individuals and a collective. As Rabbi Sharon Brous stated frankly: “Our humble ask is that people give a damn when we die.”
We witness this kind of insidious dehumanization that was present in Noah’s generation in the acts of hate and Islamophobia that have occurred in the wake of Hamas’ terror. Six year old Wadea Al-Fayoume, a Palestinian-American boy, was brutally murdered in his home by his landlord because he was Muslim. Another man accosted and threatened to shoot two Muslim men in suburban Chicago two days ago. And we brace ourselves for the potential of more acts of violence against Muslims and Jews in the coming weeks, as the conflict abroad rages on.*
And we see it this kind of dehumanization in the demonization of Palestinians by members of our Jewish community in the United States and in Israel. There are those who are calling for wholesale revenge and justifying those calls with verses from our sacred texts. There are two million Palestinian people trapped inside Gaza, nearly half of them under the age of 18. If we do not reject the calls for the destruction of the innocent Palestinian people caught in the crossfire in Gaza, are we any better than those early generations of Creation that refused to see the humanity of their fellow, dimming the presence of the Divine?
Now, we may not need Parshat Noah to teach us about the horrors, lawlessness, terror, fear, and pain that come when humans dehumanize each other.
But we desperately need Parshat Noah’s reminder of the covenant we entered with the Divine and with each other. The reminder that despite the fact that we can shed enough tears to fill the earth with a new flood, there is no wiping everything away to start over. There is no clean slate that comes after a flood. There is only this one messy, complicated world.
And we are called upon “lizkor habrit” (as we do with the rainbow) — to remember the covenant and to ensure that we do what our mythical original ancestors could not: to commit and recommit to seeing the image of the Divine even when it may be hardest to do so, even when violence and evil surround us.
First, to insist on our own dignity and humanity, transcending the silence and ambivalence that surrounds us. To acknowledge our fears and still refuse to let terror stop us from practicing or proclaiming our Judaism. To insist on the dignity of our Muslim neighbors who also fear. And regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum in relationship to Israel/Palestine and no matter how we feel about Israel’s right and might to defend itself, to also pray and speak up, urging Israel’s response to focus on those most urgent priorities and seek to avoid the unnecessary loss of innocent Palestinian lives.
Tzelem Elohim (that all being are created in the Divine image and have worth), Parshat Noah teaches, is the foundation of society. Without it, we are lost. But when we hold tight to this idea and let it guide our actions, we can, and we must, rebuild the world.
*This D’var Torah was written before I heard of the tragic murder of Samantha Woll, President of a Detroit synagogue who was murdered outside her home. While it is not proven that her murder was a hate crime connected to what’s happening in Israel and Gaza, it is possible that her unnecessary and horrific murder is another example of dehumanization related to and exacerbated by this conflict.