Noach 5773: Ark & Tower

on Friday, 19 October 2012. Posted in Sermons

What an extraordinary week this has been here at Temple Emanu-El! Just after the long fall holiday season finally ended and you might think that it was safe to go back in the ocean, that things should settle down a bit, we instead had an incredible array of fascinating programs here at Temple. It began a week ago last night when we hosted the Corporation Commission Forum for the League of Women Voters that I moderated, and which focused on solar energy, and continued last Sunday when Dr. Wendy Weise Cohon gave a fantastic presentation on "The Genesis of Gender in the Garden of Eden" to our WRJ. I admit to some bias on this, but even so it was a fabulous exploration of image and identity and Breisheet. That same afternoon we also hosted the first Interfaith Solar Day here with Congressman Ron Barber. On Tuesday we began our fascinating "The Architecture of Sacred Spaces" course for the Adult Education Academy, followed on Wednesday by the first of two outstanding programs on Constitutional Controversies in the 2012 election, this one on SB-1070 and Federal/State issues over immigration with Dean Toni Massaro of the Law School and former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Stanley Feldman on Federal Judicial Appointments and other Constitutional issues; and last night we began our "The God Connect" course on Jewish and Islamic Mysticism with Professor Scott Lucas from the Islamic Department at the U of A and myself, a class that will also include Professors Ann Betteridge and Wendy Cohon.

Frankly, there is something every single day at Temple Emanu-El, sometimes twice a day, that you just don't want to miss...

And tonight we had the privilege of honoring our resident renovation and construction hero, Steve Tofel. It is very appropriate that we have honored a builder this particular week. The Torah portion of Noach, after all highlights one of the greatest construction heroes of all time: Noah, an amateur carpenter who created the huge structure that saved the human race from complete destruction. Considering the tools he had to work with, and the challenging time frame his supervisor, God, gave the contractor for delivery, the ark must be considered an extraordinary accomplishment. From the time the RFP was released until the first drops of rain hit the skylight in the ark, Noah did exactly what he was ordered to do. And this great construction project not only was completed on time and within budget—talk about a fixed deadline!—but it succeeded in doing something that had never before been done. This was a project that really floated, as it were, riding out the storm in every way possible.

I have often seen this story as a kind of metaphor for a synagogue. We, too, are a kind of ark of refuge from the tides and tribulations of the events of the world, a place where we can come to pray and study and find inspiration and holiness. But like the ark, we too must open the window and see just what is going on outside, let the air and light in and judge whether it is the right time and climate to break free from the ark and export ourselves and our ideas out onto the land.

Within the ark, whose story we'll explore at our Rabbi's Tish through midrash and poetry tomorrow, it can be kind of like the inside of a Temple: lots of different types and even species in a confined space requiring special attention from the captain. But a Temple is also supposed to be a safe, protected, nurturing place, in which relationships and ideas and dreams can grow. And when we do finally make land, we bring out into the world all the great lessons that we have germinated in this ship, the Torah of the ark, if you will. We celebrate the covenant, the berit between God and ourselves, and share that with the world. A fine portion on construction.

But the truth is that in addition to this very famous story of Noah's ark and its aftermath there is another building story in our Torah portion. The parshah of Noach begins with the ark, but it ends with the tale of the construction of the Tower of Babel. This is a much shorter story, with a very different conclusion. The tower of Babel says just as much about building as the Ark story does, but in a very different way, with a different meaning.

The Babel story tells us that the people of the world were all of one kind, and of one speech. They communicated easily with one another, and decided that they would construct a city with a tower that reached the heavens to make themselves famous; and then they would never be scattered over the face of the earth. But God defeats their project, and does so by making communication impossible, by babbling their speech so that they cannot understand one another. And the net result of their efforts is that they are now scattered over the earth, exactly what they were striving to prevent.

So the purpose of the great Tower of Babel construction at the end of our portion is to build a tower that reaches the heavens and which will establish the fame of humanity—it is an effort to serve and nurture the needy egos of the people of that ancient era. It is in direct contrast to the purpose of the construction of the ark at the beginning of our portion, which was to build a sanctuary to save both humans and animals from destruction. God encourages, in fact orders the ark; God blocks the permits, if you will, causes the end and even the destruction of the Tower. The Ark is good because it rescues living souls from destruction; the Tower of Babel is bad, because its sole purpose is to slake the lusty egotistical needs of the vainglorious people.

You can find many historical and archeological parallels and contrasts for both of these very ancient tales. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the great Sumerian mariner, precedes the Biblical story of Noah; the great ziggurat towers of Ur and Haran and of course Babylon, the Babel of our portion, precede the Bible, too. Our ancestors knew of these texts and their interpretations. But the contrast, between the long Noah narrative and the short Babel episode, is still stark and powerful.

In truth, in any project we engage in we must evaluate whether we are doing it for God or for ourselves, whether we are actually seeking to navigate the dangerous waters and bring real rescue and nurture, or whether we are constructing a monument to our temporal egos. Building can and should be very good. But in order to be so it must reflect the best of our ideals, our own Torah, if you will. It must be much more ark than Tower.

The outside world's chaos will always be there, as will its grandeur, its innovation, and its confusion. We will not subdue the world outside by power, nor can we construct towers to surmount it. But we can create, in our own homes, in our own synagogue, in our own lives, an ark of refuge and nurture and sanctity. May we choose to do so to the truly best of our abilities, on this Shabbat of Noah, and always. Ken Yehi Ratson

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