What Does and Doesn’t Go Up in Flames: Noach and Og 5778

Rabbi Noa Kushner // Shabbat 1 Cheshvan 5778

I am close friends with Ruben Arquilevich, the director of Camp Newman (a Jewish camp in Santa Rosa). He is someone who teaches with his life, someone whose patience and wisdom radiates out.

In fact, we have this joke about Camp every summer that there is the same story: Some counselor on staff does something small against the rules. Everyone says to fire this person, but Ruben says to wait and let her redeem what she’s done. Every time Ruben is right, and the wayward counselors always become the best ones.

This is just one way he has raised a generation of people over decades of work and community building. It is living Torah up there. It is Nature + being whomever you are + the pursuit of justice + praying every day, learning, the whole thing. Of course, our Kitchen escapes have been there, too. (Not to mention, they had just undergone a 20 million dollar building campaign for new cabins.)

This is why, amongst the shock of so much destruction and loss of precious life, when the Camp was burned, destroyed in the recent fires, many many people were personally effected as if it were their own home -- Because it was their home. It was a communal home with many owners.

So you can imagine, as a result, many people were essentially sitting shiva as the photos came in: Buildings burnt to the ground, unrecognizable, the violent tracks of the fires were everywhere.

And although there were small signs of hope: A lone staircase remained from what used to be the welcome center as if to remind us to try to ascend.

The Jewish star on the mountain somehow made it even though it is made of wood.

One shed with tallitot and prayerbooks miraculously intact (not that I am saying you should regularly pray or wear a tallit, I am just saying.)

Even though there were some signs of hope, there was not much left.

This is why when we spoke to Ruben a few days ago, I was surprised to hear the calm in his voice. He did not sound like someone who had just lost everything. “You know, I finally got up there,” he said. “And you know what? The majority of the trees are still there. Much of the forest remains. I could hear birds, I saw deer. And you know, cabins can be rebuilt in a couple of years but nature? A forest takes 50 years. Not only that, but I felt the spirit of the kids there. Did you know that 600,000 people have reached out from all around the world? So the spirit of the place is intact. Yeah, we might need a temporary place for a summer or two but we’ll be okay. We still have nature, and we have the collective spirit, so we have everything we need.”

It made me think about how, with all the fire can destroy, has destroyed
-- and we grieve for the 42 lost souls and all the devastation --
With all that violence can destroy, there are some things that can never be destroyed.

And the more of us who own a place, a place like Camp, a community like this one, the more that a place is embedded in a mission that outlives its founders or owners, the more the responsibility is shared, not even amongst people but in relationship to the earth around it, in partnership with God / universe / the force, we learn the stronger that place is.
For some things can never be burnt. 
Some things cannot be destroyed.
Which sounds like a funny thing to say to introduce parashat Noach.
Of course, the story of Noah is about the ark and the flood and the famous story of the world being, well, destroyed.

But I think dafka this is the week to talk about what we can do together to help our dreams of Torah, our dreams of justice, our dreams of the world that we care about -- to survive.

Those of you who have learned with me before know that I often begin with the tradition’s understanding that Noach was righteous, yes, but not as righteous as Abraham or Moshe.

Why? Because when God tells Noach that God is going to destroy the world with a giant flood, although Noach does not hide this information, and even quietly tells his neighbors to change their ways (not that the neighbors were winning any awards for righteousness themselves. They were selfish and corrupt, cruel), but still, Noach doesn’t do much to help them, he doesn’t fight for them.

When God says God will destroy the world, Noach doesn’t argue,
He only saves himself and his family.

But there was some midrash I found this week that can help us think about Noach in a new light, and consider the position we find ourselves in our country.

Because we know natural disasters have become so frequent they are now difficult to track, the good of the many has too often taken a backseat to self-interest, and as a result, indirectly or directly (you can decide), indiscriminate violence has become, I shudder to say, commonplace.

So the first teaching is that, according to tradition, there was at least a one hundred year runway to the flood. It did not happen overnight.

In fact, the cedars that made up the ark? Noach (who was said to live to 600 and change) Noach planted those cedars himself.

To Ruben’s point, those trees took decades and decades to grow. And all that time we learn that Noach told anyone who asked what he was doing what would happen. Every step of the way people were given the opportunity to change (Tanhuma, Noach, 5).

And like on Yom Kippur when we learn that the problem is never what we have already done, no matter how bad it is, the problem is when we refuse to believe we can change…

Such is the tragedy of the generation of Noach.They think the end of the world is a joke. They think that what they do or don’t do makes no difference. They don’t understand that the world is their responsibility. Even given so many chances, years and years of chances, they insist (all of them!) on only thinking of themselves, and so ultimately they destroy themselves.

So our first lesson is that, while we might be scarred by the fires or the hurricanes, our first lesson is to see them as signs to pay attention and change.

To understand these natural breaks are personal calls to each of us to enter the realm of collective responsibility, to see the planet, our society as belonging to each of us.

And further, even if we have done embarrassingly little, to know it is never too late to turn, to change.

So, lesson one: Step in the ring.
And there is a second, more complex teaching about Noach that I think can help us now.

Turns out that there is a giant in our tradition, Og. I need to tell you a little about Og. Og shows up over many generations in midrash. He is the epitome of brute force and self-interest. He is a true giant, not especially smart, just really big, you could say huge.

Left over from this early race in the beginning of the world (this is all in Torah, not making it up), Og shows up from time to time in the midrash. So when Abraham has his miracle baby Isaac at age 100, Rabbis say Og goes to the party to see for himself and once there he just says, “That baby is so puny, no miracle, I could squish him with my pinky!” (Genesis Rabbah 52:10)
Og is that kind of guy, everything in relation to himself.

Or when Abraham is in a war later on, the rabbis teach that Og offers to help, but only because he has designs on Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and hopes Abraham will die battle (Genesis Rabbah 42:8, Rabbeinu Bahya 14:13). Not an altruistic bone in his big body.

He is only finally destroyed by his own largess, in an ironic and symbolic moment, many years later: Og plans to crush Israel with a mountain, but God makes a hole in the mountain so that Og is trapped inside of his own brutality. Finally (in my amended version), Israel can attack him, collectively, all together, by hitting his ankles until he falls (Berakhot 54b).

I can think of a tone-deaf giant of self-interest (or, actually, two) that I would like to whack on the ankles until he falls but I digress.

Why am I telling you all this? Because the question of the rabbis is, if no one survives the flood but Noach and his family, and the generation of giants to which Og belonged is ancient history, how does Og make it through the flood and into the world?

Well, there’s a midrash that says, that as the waters are rising, Og approaches Noach and begs Noach to save him and let him come on the ark.

In this moment Og does not appeal to Noach’s righteousness, or even Noach’s compassion, Og appeals to Noach’s self interest, need for self-protection.

Og says, “I’ll be your slave for life.” And in a moment of weakness, or ego, or fear, or maybe it was a power grab, Noach makes a deal with the giant, and Og hangs on to the ark from the outside. Some say he rode on the roof. Some say he hung onto the gutter. But wherever he was, in all the sources, Noach punches a hole in the ark and feeds Og every day through that hole (Pirke de Rebbe Eliezer, 23).

In other words, Noach doesn’t just make one choice once to keep the giant slave, Noach punches a hole in the very ark that saves him and feeds that beast of power and self interest every day.

Maybe, just like tradition says HAMAN exists in every generation, and the Chasidim teach that HAMAN is within each of us, so too, Og exists in every generation: The power + largess  + rampant self-interest.

And as much as I really, really want to say Og is completely embodied in just one certain political figure, maybe one person in the entertainment business,

As much as I want to be able to tell you the one person to blame, okay two,
It is more responsible, and more honest, to say that while there are some clear victims, for the vast majority of us, we also have something of Og in each of us.

Something that just really wants to be powerful, no matter what the cost, no matter what or who is destroyed in the process, and this is what enables the giant Ogs of the world to gain power, to thrive.

Maybe it is time to admit we have invited Og onto the ark, into our hearts and lives and society, and there is a way in which we have continued to punch a hole in that ark in order to feed him every single day.

Maybe the sooner we realize this, we can understand that the only way to defeat the giant is collectively, of course, together!

Maybe we can begin to understand that fires and what happened in Puerto Rico (where they are still without power), and Los Angeles hotel rooms and yes, Las Vegas these are not necessarily distinct and separate crises nor are they inevitable.

For fires of all kinds will burn but there is a spirit that, if we work collectively can never be destroyed. There is a spirit that will help us not only rebuild what was there but can help us imagine what new justice might be born.

To this point, last week I saw a sculpture at the de Young last week by Cornelia Parker (Anti-Mass, 2005). You have to see it, it is a large series of burnt, charred pieces of wood, each held up by an almost invisible thread, so that the pieces are suspended in the air with spaces around them making up a large square cube the size of a building.

This sculpture is constructed from the charred remains of a Southern Baptist church that was burnt in act of racism. After the artist learned of the arson, she received permission to use the timbers of the burned church to make the piece.

So, if you can imagine you are standing there with me, we see a building but it is not a building. We see the lost church, the church that was burnt, and we can’t help but imagine the congregation, we can feel how much was lost, and at the same time understand, we are witnessing the spirit, the ruach ha kodesh, the ruach haelohim -- that no violence, no fire can take away. The art is all about the destruction, yes, but also about the spirit. And I can tell you that spirit is as present there as it is in this room right now.

So now we have a choice, we can walk away, moved by the stories, the art, but not imagining that there is a direct implication for how we live our lives. We can continue to feed the giant of self-protection that is so used to hitching a ride. We can watch as the fires burn churches and camps and the waters rise.

Or we can begin to join the many who are already out there working together,
Because together, we are stronger than any giant. Together we can do our part in sustaining the spirit of a just world that, god willing, will outlast us all.