D’var Torah: Arnold Zar-Kessler (Noach)

In the last few weeks, I have seen a new crop of signs that proclaim that “there’s no place for hate in this house” on many front lawns. Indeed, I was heartened to see them distributed over the High Holidays at my wife’s congregation up in Sudbury.

Certainly, the sentiment is in keeping with a recent essay on this week’s Torah portion, Noach, by Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, where he concludes, “The great religious challenge is: Can I see a trace of God in the face of a stranger?”

Sacks builds his case by noting the differences between the narratives of what he calls the “story of the first creation”, of Adam in Genesis 1, and then the “story of the second creation, of Noah” in Genesis 9.  He finds the differences fundamental.

Genesis 1 tells us that we are in the image of God. Genesis 9 tells us that the other person is in the image of God. Genesis 1 speaks about the dominance of homo sapiens over the rest of creation. Genesis 9 speaks about the sanctity of life and the prohibition of murder. The first chapter tells us about the potential power of human beings, while the ninth chapter tells us about the moral limits of that power. We may not use it to deprive another person of life.

After the Flood, and to avoid a world “filled with violence” that led to the Flood in the first place, God asks us to see His image in one who is not in our image. Adam knew that he was in the image of God. Noach and his descendants are commanded to remember that the other person is in the image of God.

Sacks suggests that with one simple move – by creating a “brit,” or covenant with Noach –  God transformed the terms of the equation. After the Flood, He taught Noach and through him all humanity, that we should think, not of ourselves but of the human other as in the image of God. That is the only way to save ourselves from violence and self-destruction

Thus, when we see those lovely lawn signs, with a graphic of a heart encircling an American flag, we see the connection all the way back to the Noachide laws – laws that preceded our Jewish laws – on what it means to be human.

When reflecting on this, I couldn’t help but remember a conversation I had early in the summer, over Kiddush at a synagogue in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I was chatting with a very charming, very bright woman of about my age on the topic that often is a part of such Kiddush conversations – the direction of the Jewish community and how it is changing.

The woman shared that – in distinction from her mother –  she “would have no problem if her daughter married someone who wasn’t Jewish,” She said that she wouldn’t prefer it, but she would find a way to embrace her daughter’s partner.

I nodded, sharing that this was interesting, and perhaps evidence of the changing views of many in the Jewish community. And then – without prompting – this very articulate woman added, “But, if she brought home a Republican, I don’t think I could handle that.” I smiled, but she was not to be deterred, “No, really. I mean it’, she said. I have limits. I really don’t think I could accept that.”

Close to 30 years ago, Bob Dylan sang “We live in a political world”, where “love don’t have any place.” And  if the recent Hamilton biography and musical has taught us anything, it’s that we were living in a political world 250 years go. In all likelihood, we were living in apolitical world 500 years before that, as well. Difference in points of view is part of the fabric of life, and probably has been so since people had points of view.

Nevertheless the teaching of our Torah remains timeless – to be human, we must strive to seek the face of God in every other human we encounter, even people with whom we have deep disagreement. By doing that, we can begin to bring that “story of the second creation” into a world that is flourishing and not moving closer to destruction.

Sacks notes that people fear people not like them. That has been a source of violence for as long as there has been human life on earth. The stranger, the foreigner, the outsider (and I would the person who sees the world differently than we do), is almost always seen as a threat. But what if the opposite is the case? What if the people not like us enlarge rather than endanger our world?

Let us all learn a deeper lesson from the story of the second creation, and thus enlarge our world. Let us strive to be models of a more inclusive idea of inclusion for our families, our communizes, and perhaps even for our nation and the world.

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