Community Blog This Side of the Rainbow

By Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld

On the day of my wedding, 22 years ago this past August, my mother – who does not distribute such compliments freely or lightly – said to my husband Shimi, “You are the best possible son-in-law I could imagine.” A few minutes later, Shimi – feeling both honored and relieved – shared the compliment with a friend. “My mother-in-law just told me that I’m her ideal son-in-law!”

My mother, who was standing nearby, overheard the exchange and immediately clarified.  “Actually, I didn’t say you were my ideal son-in-law. I said you were the best I could imagine.”

Precision has always been important to my mother and this was a subtle but crucial distinction. The world we live in is far from ideal and we ourselves – all of us, not just my husband – are inescapably limited and flawed. This is a given. I inherited from my mother a deep suspicion of anything – or anyone – that appears too polished or perfect. I was taught to trust the messy over the messianic – not only to trust but to love the messiness of this troubled and troubling world we inhabit.

But, nonetheless, I am also well acquainted with the allure of the ideal, with the fantasy of perfection, with the longing to leave behind – once and for all – some of the weaknesses I have wrestled with all my life, or the wreckage of disappointments and betrayals that one has inevitably accumulated by the age of 54 – or at least I have.

The immature fantasy of starting over with a completely clean slate is, in some sense, a fantasy that God reckons with at the beginning of the Book of Genesis. A midrash tells us that God created and destroyed many worlds before bringing this one into being. God is imagined here as a creator-destroyer, endlessly seeking a perfect world that will please Him. If we think about God in this midrash as an artist striving to create a work of perfection, the image is fraught but relatively benign. Even if we acknowledge that such a process can take a serious toll on the artist, the collateral damage is tolerable: a discarded canvas, a misshapen piece of pottery, paper strewn on the cutting room floor. If, on the other hand, we think about God in this midrash as a parent projecting His own desire for perfection onto His children, we are confronted with a much more haunting image. The debris is no longer canvas, pottery, or paper – but lives damaged, distorted, or utterly destroyed by the force of profound and unrelenting parental disappointment.

The midrash is haunting both theologically and psychologically. We recoil from the image of a God who seeks perfection at any cost. And, whether relating to the midrash as parents or as children, we recognize the dangerous potential it points to in the relationship when we hold each other to impossible, inhuman standards. As the Israeli author David Grossman writes:  “It is not easy for us to see our parents from a broad angle.  It may be uncomfortable for us to accept that our parents are ‘entitled’ to their own internal chaos . . . and that they too had mothers and fathers, and that those parents, in their day, did things that left wounds and scars and aberrations. But perhaps the most difficult thing is to expose ourselves to the darkness we often sense in our children, particularly when they are young and tender. It is difficult to admit to ourselves that even in those delicate, innocent souls there may be a dark chasm, whence threatening desires and urges and foreignness may erupt.  As a parent, I can attest that even the thought of this is intolerable, perhaps chiefly because of the guilt it arouses.”

The midrash that has God creating and destroying a series of worlds before this one provides a powerful backdrop to the biblical story of Noah and the flood. At the beginning of the story, we find ourselves in that very dangerous place where God’s depressive gaze meets the world – His creation corrupted – and God is overpowered, so to speak, by the impulse to destroy in order to begin again. “The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. Rak rah kol hayom.  And the Lord regretted having made man on earth and God’s heart was saddened.”

Then suddenly, there is a small opening, a chance that not all is lost. “But Noah found favor with the Lord.” Noach matzah chen b’einei hashem. Now God’s gaze lands on Noah, and there is an unexpected feeling of tenderness for this one human being – unexpected and not fully explained – that interrupts the cycle of creation and destruction previously described in the midrash. The world will be ravaged by the flood, but it will not be utterly destroyed, apparently because there is something in this man, Noah, that pleases God.

There have been times when I have read this part of the story and been touched by the sudden awakening of divine tenderness toward Noah. But now I find myself resisting seeing this as a redemptive moment. Not only because God’s affection seems almost whimsical or capricious, but also because it doesn’t fundamentally alter the destructive dynamic that has been created by God’s utopian fantasy. For a moment, Noah finds favor in God’s eyes. But what if he hadn’t?  And what will happen when he doesn’t?

What attracted my attention and moved me this year is precisely the moment a bit later in the story when God chooses to enter into a new relationship with humanity – not because we find favor in God’s eyes, but instead because God has come to see and accept us in all our frailty and imperfection.

It comes just a few chapters later, when the waters of the flood have subsided, and God finally tells Noah to come forth out of the ark. Noah comes out and the first thing he does it build an altar to the Lord and offer a sacrifice. We are told that God smells the pleasing odor of the sacrifice. And this is the moment when God’s promise comes – the promise never to destroy the earth again.

We might think that this is just a recapitulation of that earlier awakening of divine affection for Noah, perhaps even more disturbing now because it is not the person but simply the odor of the sacrifice that pleases God. But that’s not what a close reading of the text suggests.

On the contrary, a significant – and to me deeply comforting – shift has taken place in God’s relationship to Noah, and by extension, to the rest of humanity. Listen to the precise language of God’s promise. “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth.” Rah mi’ne’urav.

I realize that not everyone might find it reassuring that this is God’s view of humanity. It’s not exactly uplifting – and, in fact, the language here is remarkably similar to the language that God used when vowing to destroy the world in the first place. “Every plan devised by man’s mind is nothing but evil all the time.”

But while the appraisal of humanity remains rather unflattering — to say the least — it is no longer cause for the divine disappointment and disillusion that destroys worlds. Rather, it has become the basis for a new and loving relationship between God and humanity. Perhaps the recognition that man is “rah me’ne’urav” – evil from his youth – hints at some acknowledgement of God’s own responsibility for creating such flawed human beings. Whatever the case, God has accepted and consciously decided to live with human imperfection. This is the truly redemptive turning point in the story of Noah.

In his extraordinary book on The Personhood of God, the renowned Bible scholar Dr. Yochanan Muffs suggests that before the flood, God was like a father who expected too much from the limited potential of a very normal child. He compares God to a utopian idealist – and points out that “such idealists are usually in for very great falls when their unrealistic hopes are dashed against the rocks of cruel reality.”

God’s reaction to the reality of human corruption at the time of Noah was that of what Muffs calls the “shocked utopian” – it was the confrontation between impossible divine ideal and all-too-flawed human reality that led God to decide to destroy His once precious creation. The profound transition in the divine-human relationship that takes place during the flood is God’s decision to adjust His utopian standard to the imperfect reality of man’s nature. “Better an imperfect human being than no human being at all,” writes Muffs, “even if it meant compromising the purity and the absoluteness of God’s ideals.”

Out of this redefined relationship between God and humanity, the first covenant is born.  “I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living thing that is with you.” God sets the rainbow in the heavens as a sign, saying, “When the bow is in the clouds I will see it and remember this everlasting covenant.” Strikingly, the reminder seems to be more for God’s benefit than for ours. It is as if God knows that God’s self must be reminded to control the divine power to destroy – in the face of the inevitable disappointments that lie ahead.

It doesn’t take long for the disappointment to come.  One verse later, we encounter Noah beginning his new life outside of the ark. “Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.  He drank of the wine and became drunk and he uncovered himself within his tent.”

There it is.

That first ugly splotch on the pristine, new slate of the world after the flood.

Presumably traumatized by what he has just been through,

Noah drinks himself into a stupor

and lies down humiliated and exposed.

But, remarkably,

there is no eruption of divine anger or despair.

Instead, God is quiet.

We are left only with

the echo of the covenantal promise in our ears

and the image of the rainbow

hovering in the skies

over Noah’s tent.

 

The fantasy of the clean slate ends

And the covenant begins.

 

Writing of the covenantal relationship that God has chosen with humankind, Yochanan Muffs says:

“Any meeting of personalities requires great bravery. One who attempts to communicate with another endangers his own life, for to do this he must reveal what is in his heart. Such an act is potentially dangerous because one does not know ahead of time if he will find a receptive ear. There is always the possibility that the ear of the listener will be impervious.  Any real communication, then, is a dangerous leap. But if one never screws up the courage to jump, he will wither away in silent isolation . . . The dialectical tension in the loving relationship – the painful need to express feeling and the anxiety that the expression might not be properly received – is the inner dialectic of the human personality, as well as of the Divine, and is impossible to avoid.  Humankind can only overcome this tension by imitating God, by undertaking an act of bravery, a leap of faith, as God has done – by reaching out to the other, to communicate, to love.

It is in the story of Noah

Coming on the heels of the story of creation

That God teaches us

what it means

to begin again without a perfectly clean slate

but instead with compassion for ourselves and each other.

As we enter into Yom Kippur,

May this story remind us

what it means

to stay

to forgive

to communicate bravely and lovingly

to choose life in the only world we’ve got

to plant our gardens

on this side of the rainbow.

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