Friday, October 23, 2009

Parashat Noah 2009

“Blast from the Past” was a movie about a family that entered a home-made bomb shelter in the 1950’s or 1960’s and never came out. As far as they knew, the world was destroyed and leaving the shelter would lead to radiation exposure and death. For this family, the “command” to leave the bomb-shelter would only come at the moment dictated by the amount of time it would take for the radiation to dissipate. Fast forward several decades: the time for a safe and healthy exit from the bomb shelter arrives and the parents send their son, now an adult, out to see what he can find.

Of course, there never was a nuclear attack or meltdown, there was no radioactivity, and while the world of the 1950’s was long gone, it was replaced by progress and not “the bomb.” The son emerges into a new and exciting world with great trepidation. Honestly, I do not remember whether the movie was very good or particularly funny, but I do remember that the re-entry into the wold was filled with potentially hysterical and treacherous possibilities. I also remember that when I watched the film, I realized that I was watching modern cinematic midrash on parashat Noah.

Noah enters the biblical-era equivalent of the 1950’s bomb shelter. Radiation caused by humanity is not the vehicle by which destruction arrives; rather, flood waters sent by God but caused by humanity’s violence and corruption rain destruction on the earth. While the characters in the movie do not stock up on pairs of animals, they do have to put aside large quantities of supplies in order to live through the radioactive years and then to work to re-populate the earth. Similar to the arrival of the date in the movie when radiation no longer posed a threat to life and allowed for the family to leave the bomb shelter, the day arrived for Noah when the floodwaters receded, when it was safe to come out onto dry land.

Interestingly enough, once Noah knew that the waters receded, that the land was dry and that it was safe to emerge, he did not leave. He stayed in the ark. He waited. It is easy to imagine how frightened Noah must have been. The world as he knew it was destroyed. It no longer existed. Not only that but once he did go out of the safety of his floating home, nothing short of the obligation to rebuild, re-populate, and re-imagine the entire world rested on Noah’s shoulders. So, Noah remained in the confines of his Ark, with his family, and the animals. He stayed in cramped quarters that I have to imagine were not so pleasant, but were safe and familiar and... easy. While in the Ark, Noah could maintain his regular routine, make very small changes to ease life, and avoid facing up to the new reality he would encounter outside the Ark.

In fact, Noah only left the ark when he was commanded by God:

“צא מין התבה”

“GET OUT OF THE ARK.” God’s voice demands Noah to wake up, to get out, to see the New World not with fear and trepidation but with possibility, excitement and creativity.

“GET OUT! ALL OF YOU, GO OUT OF YOUR SAFE PLACE!” God’s demand is not just of Noah but of everyone and everything with him in the Ark.

“GO AND FILL UP THIS NEW WORLD!” God gives permission to Noah, commands of him, to create a new reality, a New World

Like the family in the movie, our world was not destroyed nor was everything washed away by a flood of Biblical proportions. But, we do face a new reality in the Jewish world. Whether we like it or not, our world is different today than it was before the onset of the financial meltdown. And those organizations, ideas, programs, etc that survived the initial meltdown may not be those that ultimately survive. I believe that the Jewish World faces one of the most exciting and daunting opportunities in decades. But to succeed, we must be willing to leave the Ark of comfort in the past. We must ask difficult, critical questions about ourselves and our institutions, about our ideologies and our programmatic approaches, about our values and our agendas, about our prior objectives and those of our future. Moreover, we have to be willing to accept different answers than those of the past.

In this new reality, exceptionally strong, historically successful organizations will survive and thrive. They will remain fiercely devoted to a set of core values and vision and at they same time they continually stress innovation, creativity, and adaptation - the same approaches , I might note, that insured that Judaism and the Jewish People would survive thousands of years of ongoing displacement and persecution. They will not rest with the status quo. They will exit the ark, see the changed landscape and plant new vineyards of ideas and programs that will flourish in the newly fertilized soil.

What would have happened to Noah and his family and all those on the ark if they never left? What if they never heard the call from God? What if they simply ignored it? Starvation and dehydration, misery, disease, death, and the end of the experiment that God started with Creation would have been their fate. For those in the Jewish world unwilling to leave the ark, the consequences will be similarly dire: they will lead to individual and organizational extinction. Those parts of the Jewish world that tinker around the edges, that refuse to openly and fully re-imagine and re-invent themselves, those that become stultified, or those that abandon their core values for the fadish or trendy, will limp along until they disappear.

As for me, I am an optimist. The new landscape we see is exciting and refreshing, invigorating and redemptive. I am fortunate to be part of an institution that sees this bright future and is investing in it. Ours is an incubator for the future of the Jewish People, for our ongoing relationship and dialogue with Torah and with God, and for new approaches to learning and living based on values that have been central to Ramah since its outset.

This Shabbat, we all have a chance to exit the ark. Will we? And when we do, what will we allow ourselves to see and imagine? Will we be moved to create the next new world of Jewish opportunity? Noah did and we live as beneficiaries of his efforts. We owe it to the next generation to do the same.

Shabbat Shalom.

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