Rabbi Yair Robinson
Congregation Beth Emeth
Parashat Noach 10/28/11
They said in seminary there’d be weeks like these.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, but at this time of year, I find myself doing more minutiae and less ‘rabbi-ing’ than I’d like. There always seem to be more programs, projects, courses, rehearsals, phone messages and visitations at this time of year, each more important than the last, and getting through them takes some measure of discipline.
Yesterday was looking like one of those days when I got to my second appointment of the day, already running a few minutes late.
I was meeting with a young woman, a mom and member of the congregation whose kids attend our religious school. We’d talked a few times and I knew her from Sundays and carpool, and knew her kids, but all in passing.
She sat down and looked at her hands in a way that indicated she had something important to say and wasn’t sure how to say it. When she’d asked for an appointment she said it concerned ‘family stuff, but nothing bad’; nevertheless, I had steeled myself.
She started by asking if I knew she wasn’t Jewish. I didn’t; in fact, I make a habit of assuming everyone in shul is Jewish unless I’m told otherwise, and anyway she had seemed awfully knowledgeable. She began talking about her upbringing in the Philadelphia region, growing up nominally Catholic but feeling disaffected from that religion, but then going to a Friend’s School for high school, where all her friends and many of her teachers were Jewish. She talked about dating Jewish boys, going to friends’ houses for Passover, and even being invited to travel to Israel, where she had her most profound spiritual experience standing before the Kotel. In due time she went to college (where she, by chance, joined a Jewish sorority), married a Jewish man, and began a Jewish family, two kids who love religious school and this place. While raising her family, she’d read books by Anita Diamant—first the Red Tent , and then Choosing a Jewish Life. She talked about the ethos she read in that book, and how it touched her very person: that we strive to do right and good in this world for the sake of this world, rather than to enter some reward at the end, and with the hope we would be remembered for blessing.
She looked and told me how she felt that now she was ready to convert to Judaism.
Needless to say, that half-hour appointment became an hour, and the rest of the morning’s projects got pushed off to the side.
Despite my happy jaunts into Kabbalah and neo-Chasidism, I’m not prone to flights of fancy. I tend to view the world fairly empirically, with one exception. I am increasingly convinced that some things happen for a reason, and when one is born with a Jewish Neshoma, that neshoma, that quality of soul will out, and will drink in the Jewish experience as a parched man drinks water. At the high holidays I talked about the idea of coming and searching, and talked about how so often we feel disappointed with our search. But sometimes, sometimes we find what we didn’t even know we were looking for and fall upon it like a lifeline.
To hear someone’s spiritual journey, and to be given the opportunity to play some small role in that journey, to bring some water to the parched lips, is a special gift. But even greater is the gift for the person who for even one brief moment sees the journey herself, and is able to see everything click into place. For that person, her heritage is secure.
Thus it is in our Torah portion. It begins: Eilah Toldot Noach, Noach ish tzaddik, which is usually translated as “this is the story or generations of Noah”, but RASHI and the Kabbalists remind us those words could also be understood to mean “these are the chronicles—the life experiences, the stories—that lead to comfort, the comfort of the righteous”. That this isn’t the story of a person; rather, it’s a metaphor for the journey we all take toward righteousness and comfort—the comfort we bring to others and the comfort we ourselves find at last. The Zohar comments that noach, comfort, means ‘returning to the source’; and isn’t that the journey of all of us who strive for righteousness, to return to that source of Holiness, of Oneness, of Unity, that is Torah, that is Humanity, that is God? Seen in this light, Noach isn’t just a story about some dude with a boat, but is a metaphor for all our stories, our own efforts to reach the Source.
Art Green reminds us that the journey does not come about from moaning over our human inadequacies, nor from burdening ourselves with overwhelming guilt. Instead, it comes from a place of inner rest and peace. The path to self-transcendence begins with self-acceptance. I was given a gift this week: to witness that act take place, and be given an opportunity to participate. But it was also an opportunity for me to reflect on my own path, my own journey toward the Source. May you be so inspired as I was, and find yourselves as we move past the holidays moving toward the Source, moving toward Peace. Amen.