Marc Swatez, The ARK’s Executive Director, offers his thoughts on Parashat Noach (this week’s Torah portion) and encourages each of us to Be Like Noah.
The Torah portion this week is Noach and contains what is almost certainly the best-known story in the Bible, Noah’s Ark. In it, G-d tells Noah that he is going to cause an otherwise natural disaster so great that all of creation will be wiped away, and assigns Noah and his immediate family the awesome responsibility to be not only the first responders, but the only responders to the catastrophe.
We learn about Noah’s preparations for the flood, how he builds the world’s first crisis center that caters exclusively to animals. There are stories, midrashim, about all the miracles that took place on the ark as the refugees battled to survive the storm. And we recount with great detail the immediate aftermath leading to the dove, the olive branch, and the rainbow.
There are a couple of lines of epilogue to the story. Noah plants a vineyard and passes out drunk and naked. But that’s about it. Basically, once dry land appears, the story is over. G-d blesses Noah, he lives another 350 years, and he dies.
As we wrap up the High Holiday season and read about Noah, it’s almost impossible not to see a correlation between this story and the long series of mostly natural disasters that have taken place in our country over the past seven weeks. The hurricane in Texas followed immediately by the hurricane that swept across Florida. The destruction of Puerto Rico. The wildfires in California. And, of course, the massacre in Las Vegas. All of that since August 25 when Harvey first hit land in Corpus Christi.
The communal response to these massive human events has been extraordinary: fundraising drives, clothing drives, food drives, semi-trucks filled with supplies driving down, Israeli medics flying in from overseas. News cycle after news cycle dominated by stories of what is going on, how people are suffering, and how others are battling the situation to help everyone survive.
Just like Noah–except that instead of a single first responder, there are now tens or maybe even hundreds of thousands.
The third element I want to add to this mix are a couple of the major themes that we take away from the recent Jewish holidays. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we imagine G-d opening a great Book of Life and beg Him to inscribe our names in it for the coming year. This imagery, along with many of the prayers and poems that we recite as a community, reminds us about the fragility of our own lives. We open ourselves up to G-d, to our loved ones, and ideally to ourselves to resolve how we can improve in the year ahead. Essentially, how we can be our own first responder to make our lives and our community better.
Then, on Succot, we build temporary housing for ourselves. We leave our comfortable homes to eat and live and, if you’re a daring young person, even sleep in the succah. The succah is symbolic of a great many things, but perhaps this year more than most, it’s relevant to draw the connection between it and crisis centers — a place for people to go to find not only spiritual refuge, but physical safety and security as well. Perhaps this week, as we return to our dining room tables, we can be reminded in a tangible way of all those people who can’t simply move back inside because the holiday is over.
So, where am I going with all of this?
I want to ask you for a moment to consider what it was like for Noah in those final 350 years of his life.
Once Noah woke up from his binge, the Biblical narrative of his life might have been over but he and his family were all alone with nothing left except for what they carried with them on the ark. The spotlight was off, but a tremendous amount of real labor was just beginning. An entire society needed to be rebuilt from scratch, and there was no FEMA to help.
Consider what it is like today to be living in Houston or the Florida Keys or Puerto Rico.
The immediate responders have all left. Years of hard work lie ahead for each of these communities. Puerto Rico will be without the most basic of modern amenities for months to come, and it may take decades to completely reestablish the island. But our attention is already turning to the next big thing, because the situation in California demands and deserves that attention. And after the wildfires are tamed, there will be something else. That’s just the way it is. So those real people who are struggling still to rebuild their lives on the southeast coast will be left to rebuild generally by themselves, outside of the public eye.
Consider now that most people who have the misfortune to be living through adversity today were never a part of any of these well publicized disasters. They are people who lost their job, got sick, were injured, are caring for a loved one, or experienced some other mundane tragedy – because lives are just that fragile.
They never had a first responder to provide immediate assistance or television cameras to highlight their plight and urge the community to support them. Instead, they have to struggle to find their own path, to sometimes fight to find someone to listen to them, to help them, to receive the services they so desperately need and deserve.
What lessons can we carry with us into the new year as we reshelve our High Holiday prayer books, pack up our succahs, and return to a five-day work week?
I hope we can remember to be more like Noah. To be completely present for our communities when crisis strikes, to take personal responsibility and build that ark. But just as importantly, we must continue to be present and support those in need–not only the victims of public emergencies, but also the people around us who are struggling–long after the cameras turn away. Because that is when the real work begins.