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The story of a Great Flood can be found in virtually every human culture. However, the biblical record stands alone in its dramatic conclusion: as Noah emerges from the ark, the Almighty sets His rainbow in the heavens as a sign that never again will He visit the waters of devastation upon the earth.
Much has been made of the shape of the rainbow – an inverted bow to direct the arrows of divine wrath away from mankind. But is this a hopeful sign? Does it not imply that we are in fact deserving of destruction? Does it not contain a warning, that only because of God’s promise to Noah are we spared the natural consequences of our own moral corruption?
And what do the colors and beauty of the rainbow signify? Is it not incongruous to invoke something so beautiful as a reminder that a 4000 year-old covenant is all that stands between us and annihilation?
WANTING IT BOTH WAYS AND NO WAYS
In the old Peanuts comic strip, Linus once declared that, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.”
It’s no longer a joke. As human society grows ever more fractured, we see everyone else as either too traditional or too progressive, too dovish or too hawkish, too far left or too far right. Unity remains a dream we no longer believe in as we divide ourselves up into increasingly tribal enclaves.
Paradoxically, it is the strength of conviction that separates people from one another. Too many of us believe that our way is more “beautiful” than anyone else’s way, that only we are the chosen standard-bearers, and that we alone speak Truth while all others are heretics or infidels.
Why do we find it so difficult to celebrate our — dare I use the word — diversity? We give lip service to the value of multiculturalism, recognizing that our differences can make us greater than the sum of our parts. But then we use distinctiveness as a wedge to set ourselves apart from others.
In modern society, diversity often becomes a club to bludgeon into submission all whose sense of traditional values or personal integrity compels them to reject the moral anarchy that defines our times. Intolerance masquerades as forbearance, proclaiming an open-mindedness that is reserved only for those who conform to ideologically acceptable standards of cultural elites.
THE CHALLENGE OF MORAL EQUILIBRIUM
It was the same kind of violent division that brought the devastation of the Flood upon mankind. In that benighted generation, the law of the jungle drove human beings to an unthinkable level of bestial corruption. Had the Almighty not brought the waters of destruction upon the earth, human beings would surely have destroyed themselves.
Back then, it was selfishness and greed that tore society apart. Today, it is ego and ideology.
True, it’s not easy to achieve the delicate balance between acceptance on the one hand and conviction on the other. Tilting too far to one side catapults us toward moral dogmatism; tilting too far to the other sets our moral compass spinning in all directions.
So what is the solution?
The answer lies is seeing the rainbow as both beautiful and terrifying. It is a symbol of diversity and how much we can achieve by celebrating our differences; but simultaneously it is a reminder of how much destruction we can bring upon our world when differences become justification for divisiveness.
To truly love our fellow human beings we cannot retreat into ideological isolation. If we do, we will succeed only in marginalizing others in our own minds. Ultimately, we must take great care to chart a course between the extremes of ideology and accommodation.
So reach out to connect with someone outside your own close, closed, comfortable group. Engage people who think differently, not to debate but to exchange ideas and seek understanding. Remember as well that the most exquisite flowers, the most dramatic seascapes, and the most inspiring mountain peaks are those that reflect all the colors of the rainbow.
As residents of South Carolina begin to emerge from the floodwaters that inundated their state, Jews around the world are reading the story of Noah and the ark this week in their synagogues. Water is both the source of all life and the greatest destructive force on earth. I ponder the paradox in these reflections from after the Pacific Rim tsunami of 2005.
Volcanoes. Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Fires. Tornadoes. Blizzards. Drought.
In a time when reports of terrorism have become all too common, it is sobering to consider the myriad ways nature possesses to inflict death and violence on a scale surpassing the most destructive instruments devised by man. Of all these, however, destruction by water, whether from the sea or from the sky, holds a unique terror in the scope and measure of its devastation.
Aside from the 150,000 lives already reported lost across nearly a dozen countries along the Indian Ocean, dehydration, disease and hunger threaten as many as 5 million more in the wake of the recent tsunami. And rare though tidal waves may be, the more familiar trial-by-water of floods has, with much greater frequency, left similar numbers homeless and in danger of starvation.
It seems ironic that water, the source and foundation of all life upon our planet, can become nature’s most malevolent instrument against the beings whose lives depend upon it.
Devastation by water occupies a prominent place in human history. Virtually every ancient culture records the tradition of a great flood that inundated the world, lending credence to the biblical account of Noah and the ark. Jewish tradition describes this not as a random event, but as a divine response to the corruption of mankind.
The Talmud, however, reports a much more enigmatic account of divine intervention through water. It was in a time of terrible drought that the Jewish people approached the sage Choni HaMagil and beseeched him to pray for rain on their behalf. When Choni’s supplications to the Almighty went unanswered, he drew a circle in the dust and stepped inside of it, vowing not to leave the circle until G-d bestowed rain upon His people.
Immediately, a fine mist settled upon the earth, too little to alleviate the drought but sufficient to free Choni from his vow.
Choni called out to heaven: “I asked not for this, but for a rain to fill all the wells and cisterns.” Immediately, raindrops larger than melons began to fall, wreaking destruction upon homes and fields.
Again Choni called out to heaven: “Neither did I ask for this, but for a rain of blessing.” Immediately a normal rain began to fall, filling the wells and cisterns of the people as Choni had requested. But the rain did not stop, and soon the entire population of the land feared that they would drown in the rising waters.
One last time Choni called out heavenward: “Master of the World, Your people, Israel, whom You brought out from Egypt, can tolerate neither too much blessing nor too much misfortune.” Immediately the waters abated, and the people returned to their fields. From this time onward, people referred to Choni by the name HaMagil — the Circle-maker.
What was the point of G-d’s demonstration to the people of Israel? What did Choni mean that the people could not tolerate too much blessing? And why did Choni find it necessary to remind the Almighty, at this particular moment, that He had brought the Jewish people out from Egypt?
The Exodus from Egypt may be described, in commercial terms, as the largest loan ever extended in the history of man. During the generations of slavery in Egypt, the Jewish people had forgotten their Creator and lapsed into the same idolatries as their Egyptian masters. And although, to their credit, the Jews had guarded themselves against assimilation, this alone was insufficient to earn them the privilege of miraculous redemption. Nevertheless, G-d gave them an incalculable line of credit: Freedom from slavery, freedom from oppression, freedom to chart their own course into the future.
Moreover, He promised them immeasurable blessing and unbounded prosperity, on condition that they would repay their loan — repay it by living according to G-d’s law, repay it by rising above material pursuits and petty self-interest, repay it by using all the blessing that G-d would bestow upon them to aspire to moral, ethical, and spiritual perfection.
In this light, blessing may be understood as a double-edged sword. Wielded in one direction, it cuts down all enemies and obstacles that stand before us. Wielded in another, it obligates us to a standard of righteousness and moral behavior that we may find nearly impossible to meet.
This was the meaning behind the Almighty’s response to Choni the Circle-maker’s plea:
Two roads lie before My people, and it is their choice which to follow. One leads back to Egypt, back to the oppression of materialism and the slavery of self-indulgence, back to spiritual emptiness and the absence of all blessing. The other road leads forward, to spiritual fulfillment and spiritual greatness, if My people will only find within themselves the potential to seek greatness and discard all lesser goals. It is for this that I redeemed them, that they might cast off the chains of physicality and reach for the heavens.
And this too was the meaning behind Choni’s appeal to the Almighty:
Master of the World, You brought your people out from slavery and oppression on condition that they would use their freedom and the blessings to strive for spiritual heights. Your people, however, have demonstrated from their beginnings that, whatever their potential may be, they still suffer from human failings and human shortcomings. They cannot tolerate too little material blessing, lest the struggle to survive overwhelms them and they abandon all higher aspirations. And they cannot tolerate too much blessing, lest they cower before the goal set for them and lose all hope of its attainment.
By all accounts, the world that we live in today enjoys a level of material affluence unattained and unimagined by previous generations. Such basic necessities as rapid transit, instantaneous communication, indoor plumbing, electrical lighting and refrigeration, which we take for granted, provide us with an ease of living simply unavailable to even the wealthiest, most powerful monarchs until the last century. The very existence of an “entertainment industry,” much less the staggering sums of money devoted to it, testifies to our abundance of resources — which is to say, our abundance of material blessing.
Nowhere does Jewish tradition teach the condemnation of wealth or of recreation.
Nowhere does Jewish law mandate the forcible redistribution of wealth from those blessed with good fortune to those less fortunate. But Jewish tradition does warn us of the responsibilities of prosperity. It warns us in the narrative of the flood, in the story of Choni HaMagil, and also in the Hebrew word for charity: tzedakah, derived from the word tzedek, or justice.
It is only just that those who are blessed share a portion of their blessing with their less fortunate neighbors. It is only just that, before overindulging in one’s own good fortune, he ponders why he deserves having received such blessing while his neighbor has not. And it is only just that he ask himself how, even in the absences of tax incentives or legal mandate, he might reach out with his blessing to ease his neighbor’s plight.
If the waters of the earth, the life-giving waters that are the source of our greatest blessing — life itself — have risen up to inflict enormous tragedy, swallowing human life and draining billions of dollars of aid to spare human suffering, we will all be remiss if we do not pause to consider whether we have used our blessings wisely, and what we must do to ensure that we will continue to deserve them.