You Shall Pursue

October 8, 2013

D’var Torah: Parshat Noach

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 10:02 pm

Delivered at my student pulpit on Saturday, October 5

I have always felt a bit sorry for Noah. He is a good man, a righteous man, but a man like any other. He has worked hard all his life, raised up his children, and now he is in the twilight years, the years when most people sit back, relax, and enjoy a contented old age with a loving spouse and adorable grandchildren.

And then God comes to him and the experience changes everything. God gives Noah the challenge of a lifetime; he must save humanity. How does an old man respond to such a burden? This particular old man builds a raft, fills it with animals and children and in-laws, and sets out to honor God’s commands and save a remnant of humanity.

The God of the Bible favors those whom God loves by pulling them out of the usual path of their lives and plunking them down into extraordinary circumstances. From Noah, tasked with repopulating the Earth; to Abraham, who is commanded to leave his ancestral homeland for places unknown, cast out one son (Ishmael) and sacrifice the other (Isaac); to Moses, commanded to lead an extremely stubborn people through the desert for forty years, relationship, or covenant, with our God often reads more like an extreme test of faith than like a reward.

Why does God in the Bible show love by placing what appear to be impossible expectations on human beings? Perhaps it is to show all of us that a truly blessed life is difficult and meaningful rather than easily pleasurable. All of us experience our lives as a series of obligations that we must fulfill. The challenge is whether we view these obligations as a challenge to be overcome so that we can kick back and relax, or as an opportunity to better our own lives and the lives of those whom we love.

I’m sure that everyone in this room well understands what it means to be burdened. In our work lives, in our family lives, there is never enough time or energy, and the demands on us are unending.

I am reminded of the movie Date Night, in which Tina Fey portrays a harried and sleep-deprived working mother. In one scene, her children, whom she clearly loves deeply, burst into her room at six on a weekend, depriving her of her one day to sleep in. “Oh” she mumbles as she gets up to play with them, “You have so many NEEDS.” I don’t think I have ever heard caring for children as succinctly described as in that one sentence.

And yet, how many of us would abandon those burdens? How many would abandon our obligations to spouses, parents, children, dear friends? It is these very demands on our time and our energy (and often those whom we love demand much) that make our lives worth living.

We are all indebted to one another, and it is through filling those debts that we build a life of meaning, purpose, and joy.

One of my many rabbis, Rabbi Ira Stone, writes in his book A Responsible Life:

 Love, once evoked, creates in us the desire to care- and this desire cannot in good conscience be abandoned. The feeling of love thus becomes transformed into a responsibility, a command to which we must respond… This love which we have for another has singled us out; we are aware that no one else can stand in for us, no one else can take responsibility off of us… Revelation is the acknowledgment of this election.

When Noah responded to God call’s, the weight of humanity’s future rested on his shoulders. What could he do but take on that burden?

Of course, for most of us, our decisions to honor our obligations, or not, are not quite so weighty. But as many of us know who have seen the all consuming joy of a child when we take them on a vacation or even take them on a surprise outing, honoring our burdens with joy and love can deeply effect the world.

This love that we feel for others is not some vague, happy, hippy feel-good-ness. It comes out of an urgent need to DO something, to heed the call and do what we must to make things better for those who need us right now.

And so I ask, what are we doing to live up to our obligations? How are we living out our covenants with the people around us? How are we making their lives better? And are we attending to these tasks with a sense of joyless duty, or a sense of true pleasure?

God gives us covenant so that we may be connected, happy, and at peace. May we, like Noah, know the gratitude and sense of divine awe that comes of a Divine contract fulfilled, with God and with those whom we love.

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