I'm looking forward to a whole new Noah experience this year at Torat Yisrael. For years now, our youngest TY kids have come to services with their favorite stuffed animals on the Shabbat during which we read the story of Noah and the ark. We'd create a great procession of bears and puppies and even a unicorn or two as we'd follow the Torah around the sanctuary.
This year, we're trying something new . . . stuffed animals are still invited, but now our live animals are invited, too! Instead of meeting during services, we're going to gather in front of the synagogue with our (leashed) dogs and (caged) gerbils as well as our favorite stuffed animals and we'll sing our favorite Noah songs and perhaps tell a story or two, as well. And have a nosh, of course.
I noticed that when the Christian congregations in our area invite the members of their congregations to bring their animals along, they are offering a "blessing of the animals." Being an animal lover myself, I am all in favor of sharing our Jewish community with our own animals, too.
But the idea of "blessing the animals" wasn't really working for me . . . and then I understood what wasn't working.
In Judaism, our blessings are directed toward God . . . so when we are pausing to appreciate the cats and iguanas and parakeets we love, it's not so much that we are blessing them, or even asking God to bless them . . . rather we are blessing and praising God for having created these wonderful creatures and bringing them in to our lives.
There is a lot to be thankful for when it comes to our animals: unconditional love (well, perhaps not entirely unconditional when it comes to cats . . . ); a glimpse of beauty and grace and even humor in a day packed with "to-do" lists and bills and worries; companionship . . . people with pets are known to be happier, less lonely. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a study somewhere that said that pet owners are healthier, too!
I hope you'll join us with your furry or scaly or plush friend tomorrow. We'll share our admiration for Noah, the world's first champion of animal rescue, sing a little, meet each other's pets and thank God for bringing so much beauty and blessing into our lives.
We Jews tend to be a little territorial about the Torah. After all, on a daily basis we acknowledge that the gift of Torah was an expression of God's love for the people who entered into the covenant of Sinai.
But the Sinai covenant is not the first in the Torah: in this week's parashah/Torah portion, we read of the covenant God forged with Noah: the waters of the flood had receded, Noah and his family and the animals they had saved in the ark had emerged. God paints the sky with a rainbow and declares:
12 God said, This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations; 13 I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. 14 It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, 15 and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh.16 When the bow is in the cloud, then I will look upon it, to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. 17 And God said to Noah, This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth. Genesis 9
This is a covenant between God and "all flesh". . . not just Jews, not just human beings either. God's commitment is to "all flesh that is on the earth."
At this moment, the horizons of the Torah are as broad as the horizons of our world: we are encouraged to drill down to the core of our identity: yes, we Jews are the descendants of Jacob and the Jewish tradition we practice today is rooted in the relationship between Jacob and his progeny and God. We are the descendants of Abraham and through our first patriarch we share common ground with our siblings-in-faith, those who practice Christianity and Islam. And we are all, ultimately, the children of Noah . . . we are all the sentient "flesh of the earth" and are thus, in all our diversity of appearance and practice, created in the image of God.
Rabbi Brad Artson concludes, in an essay on this week's Torah reading in his wonderful book The Bedside Torah:
"A righteous Gentile [anyone who is not Jewish] is a full child of God, to be cherished by all who give God allegiance, regardless of their religious affiliation. What matters according to traditional Judaism, is goodness. That same requirement binds Jews as well. After all, we, too, are "Children of Noah."
Parashat Noah Torah Reading: Genesis 6:9-11:32
Our congregation follows the practice of trienniel Torah reading. This is an ancient practice established first in the land of Israel in which the entire Torah is read over the course of three years instead of one. In the system we follow, each full Torah portion (as cited above) is divided into thirds. Each year we read a designated third . . . one year we read the first third of each parasha, the next year we read the second third, and so on. This year we are reading the last third of each parasha.
I particularly enjoy the last third of this week's parasha, Noah, because there is a passage there whose message I treasure: We read the story of the tower of Babel . . . you may remember this story from your own days of Sunday school: all the people of the earth gather together to build a tower to reach the heavens. God destroys the tower, disperses the people and infuses these dispersed people with different languages.
What do I love about this story? Well, different languages imply different cultures, different thought patterns, different approaches to life. I see in this story God's insistence on and value of diversity. The God of Israel is not interested in all of us thinking alike or seeing the world from the same vantage point. Were we all cookie-cutter replications of each other we would miss the intricate nuances of both God's created world and the infinite capacities of intelligence and creativity of the human soul.
May this be a Shabbat during which we come together as a community to celebrate our God-inspired blessing of diversity.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.