October 11, 2007
Picking up the pieces
Parshat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)
"The Sabbath Day: One should not forget it;The dove sent by Noah to see if the floodwaters had abated found its resting spot on dry land on the Sabbath day, according to the great Spanish poet Judah HaLevi.
Its memory is like a savory fragrance.
The dove found respite on it [the Sabbath],
And on it the weary of spirit shall rest."
-- Translated from "Yom Shabbaton," Shabbat Zemirot liturgy, composed by R' Judah HaLevi (d. 1140)
What did Noah do once he disembarked from the Ark? He offered a sacrifice on an altar, which provided a "savory fragrance" to God (Genesis 8:21). The poet is engaging in clever wordplay, because the Hebrew words for respite (mano'ach) and fragrance (nicho'ach) are etymologically related.
As a matter of fact, Noah's very name foreshadows both the respite that the dove -- and all mankind -- finally found, as well as the fragrance of his sacrifice. Noah in Hebrew is derivative of both words. Indeed, the rabbis in the Midrash disagree as to why Noah was so named: Was it because the Ark would come to "rest" (mano'ach) under his tutelage, or was it because he would provide a "savory fragrance" (nicho'ach) with his sacrifice?
What difference does it make why he was named Noah? Why couldn't it have been for both reasons?
The sages are debating what provides greater consolation to the community of man after that community has been destroyed. One consolation is that God's anger doesn't last forever; eventually the flood's rains abate and dry land once again emerges. As long as one is patient, there will always be a time for peace.
However, the other view sees a much greater consolation than a simple abatement of Divine retribution. After all, of what benefit is it to know that God's anger is not permanent if mankind is incapable of rebuilding after all the carnage and destruction? The greater consolation is rather that once all the violent destruction is over, man is capable of picking up the shattered pieces of his life and rebuilding.
This is what was represented by Noah's sacrifice. Not only did Noah find dry land that enabled him to physically disembark from the Ark, that icon of mankind's destruction. He was also able to emotionally distance himself from that trapped existence in the Ark. He found within himself the ability to leave behind the pain and to rebuild -- to rebuild his altar, his community, his entire way of life.
He managed to find a place again in his life where God was welcome. He could have spent the rest of his life in anger, bitter at God for having wrought all the devastation and loss. But he knew that approach was pointless, and that he needed to instead rebuild and restore humanity.
Noah's behavior after the flood represents the ultimate consolation to mankind.
Esther Jungreis is fond of saying that the term "Holocaust survivor" is a misnomer. Jews didn't "survive" the Shoah, they triumphed over it. Whereas so many would have given up after all the death and devastation, Jewish individuals and whole communities picked up the pieces of their lives and rebuilt.
Out of the death camps emerged Jewish schools. Out of the ashes of the crematoria blossomed a Jewish state.
The greatest consolation is the indomitable human drive to build and rebuild, to live at all costs. This is why no nation, no matter how formidable or foreboding to the Jewish people, will ever be able to keep us down. No matter what, we will always rebuild our altars, and offer that savory fragrance, just like Noah.
Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy and director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union West Coast Region.