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Against the Flood – Parshat Noah 5767 — 28 October 2006

Parshat Noah 5767 — 28 October 2006

Against the Flood

A Message from Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen — Parshat Noah 5767 — 28 October 2006

See also: How Many Jewish Leaders Does it Take to Screw-In a Lightbulb?
See also: Conservation & Renewable Energy: Kol Nidre Message 5767 — 2006
See also: Environmental Responsibility at Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

I heard a report that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was beheaded in Iraq. Or maybe it was that he would be headed for Iraq. It could go either way, given the level of violence. We know that Secretary Rumsfeld has been laden with appeals for help. There is a lot of Babel. It is a punishing situation.

“And Elokim said to Noah: “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with hamas because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.”

Genesis 6:13

For the earth is filled with hamas….

We recognize the Arabic Acronym HAMAS (for Haraqat al-Muqawima al-Islamiya) as the name of that Palestinian social-service agency which provides vocational training for suicide bombers. It is only coincidence — if you believe in coincidence — that it sounds like, and indeed is spelled the same way as, the Hebrew word hamas.

(It is also only coincidence that the word bush in Hebrew means “shame”; that kerry is an unpleasant symptom of leprosy; and that russia means “wicked one.” But it is not a coincidence that barack means “blessed — barukh,” because it is a Swahili name, which shares Semitic roots with Hebrew.)

We should know that this Biblical Hebrew word hamas is translated as violence or lawlessness, or most specifically ruthless violence.

The Talmud Yerushalmi (BM 4:2 cited in Torah Temima) says, “What is hamas? When a person would go out carrying a bowl filled with beans, and people would intentionally take less than a peruta’s worth one at a time — an amount that can’t be reclaimed in court.”

It is the cumulative effect of the smallest of acts committed against the smallest of targets. It is this whittling away of civil behavior, this gradual and piecemeal encroachment on the rule of law, that is identified as the cause of the decline that leads to the destruction. No one person can be held to blame.

Whether we talk about Global Heating, the climate of violence in the Middle East, or the infringement on the rule of law in this country, the descent toward destruction happens bit by bit.

There is no one motor vehicle — even the Hummer 3 Eddie Bauer Edition with Optional Missile Launcher — that is causing Global Heating, no one inefficient building, no one person causing it. It is only the cumulative effect of 300 million Americans like us — 5% of the earth’s population — that causes this to happen. Every time we buy an “old-fashioned” incandescent light bulb instead of a fluorescent or LED bulb, every time we buy that bigger car without worrying about mileage, every time we turn the heat up a couple more degrees, we are committing a small act that leads directly to the mabul, the environmental catastrophe. Every time we drive when we could walk or bike or take the bus, every time we drive alone when we could carpool, we are whittling away at the earth’s equilibrium.

There is no one suicide bombing, no one act of vandalism, no one act of incitement that creates a climate of violence in the Middle East. It is the cumulative effect of separate acts.

And there is no one deed by the Administration, no one act of Congress or individual Court decision that undoes our system. It is the cumulative effect of the so-called anti-Terrorism laws passed by Congress, the contempt for due process and the Constitution by the Administration, and the reactionary activist courts that undoes centuries of civil rights and human rights progress in the Western world.

It is a travesty that our Government captures and detains perfectly innocent people without any recourse to the courts, and a disgrace that Congress does nothing but acquiesce. We now know that the majority of people held by our government in Guantanamo are being held for no good reason. Perfectly innocent people were arrested by mistake, or “informed” upon by people seeking bounty or settling family feuds. Some have been held for over three years with little recourse to judicial oversight. We are selling our birthright of civil rights for the lentil stew of “security.” People in this country are panicked and it is wrong.

And so it is in our personal lives. Usually we do not have the case of a perfectly decent fellow suddenly becoming an axe murderer. More often, we descend into depravity one small step by small step. We become lax in our personal piety, withhold our contributions to community, find excuses for bad behavior.

The threat of the Catastrophe — whether it is environmental, constitutional, or personal — the threat that leads to the kind of destruction described in Noah — is not the bomb or the coup or the rampage. There was no Flood in the Biblical story. No flood fell from the sky; only many drops of rain. “A hard rain’s gonna fall.” That is the danger of which we are warned in parashat Noah.

The form matches the meaning: The individual drops combine to create a flood. So too with the violence described in the parasha: The literary form matches the meaning. In Genesis 9:6 we read: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” It is almost a palindrome; it reads the same backwards as forward. Like violence directed at one side, it tends to flow back to its source.

I must leave you with a message of optimism and of hope. For we know that just as destruction can come one drop at a time, one step at a time down the wrong path, so can teshuva — return to the right path — come one step at a time, so can following halakha (literally, the “path” set out by our law and lore) come one step at a time, so can our teshu`a salvation come one step at a time. Many planks combine to build an ark; many votes combine to change our society’s direction; many solar panels combine to make our electric grid clean. There is no one class or speech or renovation that is going to make our synagogue culture more attuned to conservation and alternative energy as Jewish values; it is the combined effect of many efforts that will make the campaign successful. This presentation is part of that effort, which is supported by a Legacy Heritage Innovation Project grant. Our course correction and salvation, our tiqun olam, comes one step at a time. That teshuva, that teshu`a was described by the Prophet Isaiah:

…I will appoint Shalom — Peace as your government
Tsedaqa – Communal Support as your rule;
The cry, Hamas! Violence!
Shall no more be heard in your land,
Nor shall Wrack and Ruin!
Within your borders
And you shall name your walls Salvation!
And your gates Praise.
Isaiah 60:17-18:

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