This sermon evolved from a discussion on the Central Conference of American Rabbis Facebook page - where several colleagues discussed how to approach preaching about the current crisis in Washington vis-a-vis the weekly parasha. I want to especially thank Rabbis Tom Albert and Bruce Block for their insights.
October 4, 2013 – 1 Cheshvan, 5774
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel - Denver, CO
In this week’s torah portion we read two powerful stories:
· The generation of the flood
· The Tower of Babel.
Both of these stories are well known – and yet – when we look at them closely, we find that they are not as simple as one might think.
The story of the Flood is about a generation that has become so corrupted that God decides that it must be entirely wiped out. Only one man and his family – Noah – are righteous enough to be saved and they all are chosen not only to preserve their own lives, but to ensure that all of creation will be able to survive and continue on after the end of the deluge. Noah builds an ark, the animals board the ark in pairs, the rains come and eventually they land on the top of Mt. Ararat and the world begins anew.
The story of the Tower of Babel tell of how, after the Flood, the people decided to build a tower out of bricks that would extend up to heaven. God, seeing the people build the tower, frustrated their plans by confusing their speech, causing each person to speak a different language. Unable to understand each other, the people abandoned the tower and scattered (Genesis 11:1-9).
As you can imagine, the Rabbis wrote many commentaries and midrashim about the stories of the flood and the tower of Babel.
One of the main commentaries about the story of the flood revolved around the Character of Noah.
In describing Noah, the text says that he was an Ish Tzaddik - Tamim Hay b’dorotav – a righteous man – compared to those of his own generation. Those words: Tamim Haya B’dorotav – literally translated mean that he was straightforward in his own generation
The Talmud teaches that Noah was a righteous man – but he only saw what he wanted to see at the time. He was not a person of vision.
In the Zohar, we find that when Noah emerged from the Ark – he cried out to God: “How could you have done this?”
God answers: “Now you’re crying? Where were you when I told you that I was going to destroy the world? Too little too late!”
All too often, we tend to put on blinders when we see the world around us – we see only what we want to see – and block out the things that bother us. Noah chose not to the think about the consequences of what God was planning to do to the world – he only thought about saving his own life and that of his family. The rabbis contrast him to Abraham who argued with God – who bargained with God when he heard about the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The story of the tower of Babel has a lot to teach us about how we see the world around us as well. According to a classical Midrash, the Tower was of such great height that it took a person a year to climb from the base up to the top. Every brick that was baked on the ground and brought to the top of the Tower was, therefore, considered extremely valuable—it represented a huge investment in energy, time and resources. As the Tower grew taller, according to the midrash, its builders began to see bricks as more precious than people. "If a person fell and died they paid no attention, but if a brick fell they sat and wept, saying, 'Woe upon us! Where will we get another to replace it?'" (Pirke De Rabbi Eliezer 24:7).
I can’t help but apply some of the lessons that we learn from reading this week’s torah portion to the current crisis that is unfolding in front of us in our nation’s capital. And, I want to say from the start, I have a strong opinion about this. I usually try to stay away from topics that some might perceive as political or partisan. Not tonight. I do not believe that this is a political sermon – it is a sermon about morality, sanity and perspective. Tonight I want to speak about what is right and what is wrong and how a small minority of extremists in our Government are trying to force their worldview on our nation, and, in the process are inflicting tremendous harm on its citizens.
Unlike Noah who said nothing, I cannot stand idly by and remain silent when I perceive the flood of political fanaticism hijacking our governmental process. Under the guise of self-righteous indignation, a small group of extremist legislators are attempting to undo a program designed to provide access to health-care to all and level the playing field of insurance coverage. Is it a perfect law? Of course not. Is it the law of the land? Absolutely. 42 attempts to defeat it in congress have not prevailed. The Supreme Court has upheld its legality. And yet, this small group of radicals has decided that, for the sake of their own ideological purity they are willing to bring the Government crashing down – no matter the consequences. Like children throwing a temper tantrum in the supermarket when they don’t get what they want, they refuse to bow to reason and have dug in their heels despite the tremendous damage they are inflicting on hundreds of thousands of individuals and communities who are suffering as a result of their power-grabbing petulance.
Noah was willing to close the doors of the ark to those who were going to suffer. For this, he was rebuked by our tradition. I believe that, imperfect as the current law might be, the vision of affordable health care for all that it champions is a basic human right. To portray it as anything else is criminal.
Noah’s self-absorption, the Midrash teaches, prohibited him from seeing the suffering of humanity as they faced the onset of the flood. So too, these legislators are willing to ignore the impact of their actions on our nation.
In the story of the Tower of Babel, the message is just as clear. The builders of the Tower could only see the value of the bricks they had created. Human life meant less to them than material gain. Our legislators see that they are not only playing with numbers in the midst of their jockeying for power; they must be held accountable. The programs and policies they are trying to undo are designed to help the weakest and most vulnerable populations in our society. There are lives in the balance here.
Our tradition has a lot to say about placing a love of material objects, money and power ahead of human life. We call it idolatry. It was for this reason that the Tower of Babel had to be destroyed. My prayer on this Shabbat is that cooler and saner heads in Washington will soon prevail and that our Government will be able to find a way to work for, rather than against its citizens.