Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Everybody loves the story of Noah. They love the animals, the image of a giraffe sticking its neck outside a boat. And we have come toward the end of the Noah story, to everyone’s favorite part, the moment of reconciliation and forgiveness, the moment of the rainbow. To recap: Noah, that righteous man in his generation, unlike the generation that was filled with violence and wickedness, has built a teévah, an ark, much like what would save a baby Moses, but on a larger scale. He has ridden out the flood with his family and the various animals, the waters have receded, dry land has reemerged, and God promises not to do such violence to humanity again. In fact, the sign of that covenant, the rainbow, is the image of God putting the Divine Weapons away; the rainbow isn’t just pretty; it’s also God’s bow, now turned away from the earth instead of toward it.
It is supposed to be a moment of celebration, but there is something a little funny about it. God promises to never again destroy the earth. We might assume it is because the people are going to be better than they were before, that Noah’s descendants will be free of the violence and wickedness that plagued the world. And certainly, that is how we often read the text; that the generation of the mabul, of the flood, was especially cruel and bloodthirsty and wicked. But all we have to do is look around in our world right now, and make a list of all the ways human beings are suffering in this world because of other human beings: the cultural genocide of the Uighurs in China, the violence and injustice in our own streets, the fact, announced this week, that over five hundred children separated from their parents at the border cannot be reunited with their parents even now, because they cannot be tracked down. We could go on, and the list of cruelty and pain and wickedness breaks the heart. At least, it should. So, are we really any better than the people of the flood? A close reading of our text would indicate that that is beside the point. As Rabbi Shai Held points out in his commentary, The Heart of Torah, it’s not so much that the generations that followed are better; rather, God has seen fit to forgive us and show us mercy anyway. Held writes: “The text wants us to know that human nature has not changed after the flood…what has changed after the flood is not human nature but God’s attitude toward it. The same shortcomings that had called forth doom and denunciation now elicit forbearance and generosity instead.”
What changes is not humanity: we are still wrestling with corruption and cruelty. What changes is the posture toward humanity. As Held continues, “if judgement is the only lens through which God sees the world, it has no future…but God chooses otherwise, and sees the world through the lens of compassion and forbearance instead.”
It is worth reflecting, now over a month since Rosh Hashanah, on this idea of forbearance and compassion rather than judgment. All of us, from time to time, assume a position of judgment over others. Perhaps especially now, with an election upon us, as we cock an eye toward this neighbor’s lawn sign. But frequently, we sit in judgement over others, over their choices, over their failings, over their struggles. We all do it. And in our judgment of others, we may be quick to write those individuals off, to find them and their drama something beneath our contempt; something we want to excise from our lives. But sometimes, we regard those same individuals—and their same shortcomings—with mercy. We are still aware of their failings, of course, but now we see them not as a source of derision, but a source of forgiveness. Nothing has changed, mind you; the individual or group have not made teshuvah, but for whatever reason, rather than looking on in anger, we look on with mercy. Sometimes that is because of our relationship with the person—they are a longtime friend, a dear family member. Sometimes we are less forgiving because the person is someone we do not like, for whatever reason. The same behavior in one person elicits a different response from us than the behavior of another. And to be sure, we wrestle with whether to take up din or hesed, Justice or mercy. But, as Held points out, where there is judgement, there is the possibility of compassion.
Look, I am not saying we forgive irrespective of how we have been hurt, or when there has been no attempt to change. Nor am I so naïve to believe that every action is worthy of forgiveness. What I am saying is that, if God is capable of compassion despite humanity’s failings, perhaps we could aspire to that posture ourselves. That we can strive to be more forgiving of folks for the very same response we condemn them. That would be a reason for a rainbow indeed. Amen.