Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Noah and Anxiety: or what happens when we focus on the wrong thing

This past week's sermon!

So I’m at the JCC working on my elliptical and the person to the left of me, a longtime acquaintance, starts gesturing at the TVs. “Ah, I hate it! I hate coming in and seeing these things. It puts me in a bad mood all day.”
She was not angry at TVs themselves, mind you. The electrical rectangles hadn’t done anything to offend her personally. It was, rather, the content on those screens. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC. And what were they showing? We’re all going to die of Ebola. That is, assuming ISIS doesn’t get us first. Or perhaps the various citizens and civil servants of Ferguson? Or the Russian army? Each screen with its own brand and style of hyperventilation, each filling the air with nothing but anxiety and, frankly, nonsense. But there it is, staring us in the face, trying to rile us up to be equally anxious consumers of more anxiety. So we steep in it, increasingly convinced that the world is falling apart, that things are worse than they used to be, that everything is failing around us. So even if we don’t become anxious ourselves, we become cynical, convinced that no good can come of it, that any solution proposed is meaningless, hype, defective in some way, or detrimental; that in fact doing some good is worse than doing nothing.
We are convinced that the sky is falling, or at least there are those working very hard to convince us that the sky is falling. At the same time, we’re being told that there’s nothing to do, nor nothing we can do, about the injustice, inequality or environmental issues that we are facing. Our voices are too small, our actions are empty, our capacity limited. As Leonard Cohen growls, “everybody knows the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost.”
Well if that’s really the state of the world, I don’t believe it. I think that’s the product news media wants to sell us—crises increase ratings, after all. This isn’t to say the world is sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, either; of course we have our challenges, and those challenges are real. But I, for one, am tired of being told the problems are too big, the solutions too grandiose. And I am tired of manufactured crises that obfuscate real challenges in our world.
In the Torah portion for this week, in parashat Noach, humanity faced a real crisis: “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with violence.  When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth,  God said to Noah, "I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” Again, we focus on the wrong thing—we are distracted by the Mabul, the flood that will come; we don’t look at the cause of that flood. The problem wasn’t the weather; the problem was the violence—Hamas, by the way, is the word used—in the land.
So it is with us: A few sick people in Dallas from a weak virus masks the thousands dead in Africa, and the lack of support we provide to deal with even more virulent illnesses—more people will die of the flu in America this year than Ebola. ISIS does not currently threaten our border, but it does reveal the stresses in our alliances, and soft thinking by our top diplomats about the Middle East, and reveal how we so often see the other with suspicion. I don’t know what happened in Ferguson; I do know that we have a problem with the way we treat black men, among many, many others who are both actively and passively disempowered in our society. We have challenges, friends, but the real challenge too frequently isn’t the one we’re focused on. We look on helplessly at the problems we can’t fix, taking our eyes off the ones we can and ought and must.
When God commands Noah to build the ark, he is given a strange commandment: to build a “tzohar”, which could mean roof, but also mean ‘skylight’. Who puts a skylight in an ark when the rains are about to come? Someone who needs to know the sun will come out again, and needs to see that sun rise. Someone who needs to see that it isn’t dark out there, that the good guys haven’t lost, that the war is not over, that the challenge remains, but we can step up to that challenge. Gloom may surround us; it may blare at us over the airwaves. But let us make skylights in our lives to let the sun in, for it will return again.

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