Or, how to build a rainbow.
Earlier this week, I sat with a woman who had some questions about Judaism. She found me online — I assume, the result of a google search. She probably typed in ‘Jewish’ or ‘rabbi’ and ‘near me.’ I’m sure I’m not the only person who popped up as a potential match, but somehow, she found herself on the couch in my office. And she had a question.
“I’m a devout Catholic,” she explained. “And I have a great respect for the Jewish people. The chosen people. But there is something that I just don’t understand.”
She described the miracles of her Bible. Jesus walking on water, healing lepers, his resurrection. “Why,” she wanted to know, “Why do you believe in the sea parting, and the miracles of your Torah — but you don’t believe that Jesus is the son of God?”
Essentially, she wanted to know: where do you draw the line between your miracles and mine?
How do we come to believe what we do — and how is it possible that two people of faith, two people who both ‘believe’ in a shared Divine concept — come to understand it so differently.
She was respectful, but we did not reach consensus by the end of our conversation.
“We’ll meet again someday, in heaven,” she assured me.
“Well, Jews don’t believe in heaven,” I said,
“but call me here on earth anytime.”
“I still think I’ll see you there,” she said.
“Maybe.” I said. “We’ll see.”
And this, my friends, is just a regular Tuesday in the life of a rabbi.
And it was just a regular day when God called to Noah.
עֲשֵׂה לְךָ תֵּבַת “build yourself an ark”, God commanded. “And I will build a covenant with you. And of all that lives, of all flesh,” שְׁנַיִם מִכֹּל תָּבִיא אֶל־הַתֵּבָה לְהַחֲיֹת אִתָּךְ — “You shall take two of each into the ark to keep alive with you.”
Two by two, the animals made their way into the ark. From monkeys to mosquitos, lions and lambs, they all settled in for forty days and forty nights.
Noah and his animals have captured popular imagination. It is perhaps the most well known Torah story, and it is represented in both ancient and contemporary midrashim, or stories about stories in the Torah. Rabbis and writers and storytellers turn to Noah and his ark to answer important questions about how we best live our lives today.
One of my favorites, “Please Don’t Eat That Sheep!” Rabbi Edward Feinstein explores the unique truth about humanity.
“As soon as the voyage began, Noah’s son came running to his father.
“Father, come quick!” he said. ‘The lion is about to eat the sheep! Come quick!’
So Noah hurried to the lions place in the ark, and sure enough, there was the lion ready to have the sheep for lunch.
“Wait!” screamed Noah. “You can’t do that!”
“What do you mean I can’t do that?” asked the lion.
“It’s lunchtime, I’m hungry, and I eat sheep for lunch almost every day!”
“But not today,” Noah explained, trying to reason with the lion. “Today I’m asking you, please, don’t eat that sheep! You see, I have only two of them. And if you eat them both, there will be no more sheep on earth ever again.”
“But it’s my nature to kill and eat. I’m a carnivore. That’s who I am. And I love sheep!” responded the lion.
“Yes, I know,” answered Noah. “But for now, while we share this ark, you must put that part of yourself away. While we share this ark, you must protect the life of every other living thing; you cannot kill your fellow passengers.”
“Then what shall I eat?” asked the astonished lion.
“How about straw?” Noah proposed.
“Straw? Yuck!” The lion was truly appalled.
“Just until this is all over and we’ve left the ark. Eat straw,” Noah instructed the lion. In return, I will tell the world of your generosity, and all the world will recognize in you the quality of strength, a quality they regard highly. You’ll be revered as the king of beasts!”
“Very well,” agreed the lion, feeling very regal. “I’ll have straw for lunch.”
Just then another one of Noah’s sons came running.
“Father, come quick!” he panted. “It’s the elephants! They’re playing tag! They’re going to capsize the ark!”
And so it was with each animal, each acting according to its own nature. The monkeys were stealing, the pigs made a mess, and the roosters were waking everyone up at the crack of dawn. Noah had to reason with each and every one to control their impulses until the rain finally died down. And…
Noah was successful with every creature until he came to the most difficult and most complicated one of all, the human being. People, it seemed, exhibited all the worst behaviors of all the other animals: killing, playing, stealing, messing, annoying, irritating, and destroying. But although people might act like the other animals, Noah discovered, they possessed one quality that made them special. Noah could persuade every animal to give up one element of its nature, but no animal could ever be more than an animal.
People, however, can be more than animals, more than their nature — people can be more than people. They can reach up and become loving, kind, and good, like God.
People, as we see on the ark, are more than just our nature. We are also the ways that we grow.
I was invited recently by another area rabbi to join a gathering of the ‘Multi-Faith Neighbors Network.’ I’d never heard of the organization, but was curious to find out more and strengthen our community connections. When I walked into the room yesterday, I noticed — first of all — that all of the Muslim and Christian leaders got there early. The Jews on the other hand, were all clearly running on Jewish Standard time. Secondly, I realized that it had been awhile since I had last been in a room that was as populated by Muslims and Christians as it was by Jews.
The leaders of the program explained the vision of Multi-Faith work. It’s different from Inter-faith, they explained. The goal of Multi-faith work is not to focus on the ways that we are the same. Rather, to connect communities and faith leaders through authentic relationship, honest respect of our theological differences, a shared interest in the common good, and by affirming each other’s worth even with respect to our differences. In other words: less focus on universal religious practice and more focus on getting to really know one another as people, and as people of faith.
I found myself seated with three Imams and two Evangelical pastors.
The assignment: Share what you want everyone at the table to know about your faith. What felt more important than our answers, was the way we leaned forward to hear one another through our masks, the way we all laughed about how our parents wished we had become doctors, not clergy, and that, at the end, we exchanged our business cards.
“Let’s continue the conversation,” we agreed. I hope that we will.
Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch explains the rainbow at the end of this week’s parasha: “The colors are symbolic of different types of living beings―the ‘red’ ones seemingly closer to the light, the darker ones more distant. Yet God unites them all together in one common bond of peace, all fragments of one life, all refracted rays of the one spirit of God…”
Do we each believe that we are the ones closest to the light? Probably. And that’s good — we should be confident in our beliefs and proud of our faith. We should feel deeply that our path is the right one — for us. And, that the other pathways can bend towards light, too. That other pathways are the right ones, for others.
Leaving the Multi-faith meeting yesterday, it was like finding the rainbow after exiting our own little ark. There we had been, Jews, Christians, Muslims — all with our own needs and stories and ways of being in the world. All with the rituals and traditions that are in our nature, the beliefs that draw us closer to people who live the way that we do.
But for a period of time, we also shared this space.
For a period of time, we sat together at this table.
Just like the elephant needs to stomp and the rooster needs to crow, we weren’t asking one another to be any different than the people that we are.
We are simply acknowledging that this world of ours is for sharing.
Will we all meet again someday?
Hopefully, maybe for lunch or maybe for more stories. More laughter. I hope for even more honesty.
But in the meantime, each one of us — with Parashat Noah in our minds, gets to move through the world knowing that it is possible to stay on the ark for a while with someone whose beliefs are theologically different from ours, and also equally created in God’s image. We aren’t asking each other to change, we are asking each other to listen.
In our work, in our clubs and on our committees — in our families and even here in our congregational community — we meet people whose questions are different than ours. Whose truth is different than ours. “Why don’t you believe what I do?” we wonder. “Why can’t you see the truth that I see?”Whether the difference is who we are when it comes to religion, or preferred activities, or parenting styles or politics…
It is at once the hardest, and simplest thing.
To be a lion who occasionally eats straw.
To be a rooster who sometimes stifles a crow.
To be a Catholic who asks the rabbi, “tell me why your Bible tells a different story,” and hear — not fight — the answer.
This is how we see the rainbow. By leaning close. By listening. By putting aside our personal truth to see how we all strive towards Godliness. That this, too, is a part of our human nature.
Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin
Parashat Noach, 10.8.2021
Congregation Beth Israel, Scottsdale