Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week from Rabbi Deena Cowans, the Associate Rabbi at Mishkan Chicago. She was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in May 2020, where she received a Certificate in Pastoral Care and Counseling and interned as a rabbi, educator, and chaplain in multiple settings. Prior to enrolling at JTS, Deena received a Master’s in Public Administration from Columbia University and a BA from Duke University. She was on staff at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin for seven years, working as a madricha, Rosh Agam, Rosh Eidah and Program Director. She still misses watching the sunset over the lake. She currently lives in Chicago with her fiance, Zack, and their dog, Ash.
What we do matters, forever: Reflections on Parashat Noach
by Rabbi Deena Cowans
So many of the mythic, fantastical stories we know in the Torah happen in this week’s parashah. It’s an action-packed few chapters, to rival any of the great myths of ancient cultures. As a reminder, here are just some of the highlights:
Noah hears from God who says Noah needs to build a giant floating box because God is about to drown out all life, because they’re all evil. Noah builds a giant waterproof box and gathers one male and one female of all the animals and sticks them in the box, where somehow they don’t eat each other. It rains, and rains, and then the ark floats around for a while and lands on the top of a mountain. Noah sends some birds to see if it’s safe to come out of the ark and at first it isn’t, but then it is. Noah, fresh off a cataclysmic trauma and 190 days in a box with just his family and animals, leaves the ark. God is ready to hit reset, and tells Noah to fill the Earth back up with humans. Noah seems to not be ready to hit reset, so he plants a vineyard and drinks all the wine. Eventually his descendants try to build a tower to heaven, but God messes that up and sends them off to the four corners of the earth speaking different languages, as if that could really divide them. We learn about the ten generations from Noah to Abraham, who starts on his journey, to be continued…
So first, if you have been struggling with being cooped up with just your family or a couple roommates the last couple of months, imagine adding two of every animal on Earth to your quarantine pod. The smell, the noise, the literal inability to even step outside for a moment… makes you sympathize with his need to build a giant vineyard and drink everything it produces, huh?
All this fantastical, “once upon a time” type of material makes me feel like this parashah is not about me, personally. Maybe it’s about me in the distant, “Know the origin stories of all of humankind” kind of way, but it doesn’t teach me anything directly about how I live… right?
Rashi begs to differ. The first verse of our parashah reads, “אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק” – “These are the descendants of Noah, Noah was a righteous man…” (Genesis 6:9). It is a weird sentence construction; after “These are the descendants of Noah,” we would have expected for the sentence to continue with Noah’s actual descendants, who we learn later are Shem, Ham and Yafet. Rashi explains the Torah’s choice here is because the real descendants of the righteous are their good deeds.
This one goes right to the heart. We may never live through a cataclysmic flood, and our stories might not make it into a text people will continue to study for thousands of years. But the very first line of this parashah reminds us that, more than anything, the goodness we put out into the world, and the kind of people we are, create our most important legacy.
I’m sure we can all think of someone for whom this is true in our own lives. I think of my Aunt Charlotte, who was really my Bubbe’s aunt. She never had children of her own, and even so I grew up hearing more stories about Aunt Charlotte than any of my Bubbe’s other relatives – stories of how Aunt Charlotte would sit on the floor and let my Bubbe play with her hair, ask her about her life, play with her, and so on. Needless to say, I heard some of these stories as a child, with my Bubbe sitting on the floor while letting me play with her hair. As a counselor, I can’t count the number of times I sat on the floor of the tzrif (cabin) and let a chanichah (camper) play with my hair, or tell me about their day. I never met Aunt Charlotte, but she shaped the way I am as an educator and rabbi by showing a little girl – my Bubbe – kindness and respect. And my Bubbe went on to be one of the kindest, most respectful human beings I’ve ever met, something I strive towards all the time.
The way we live in the world, even the little ways we demonstrate kindness to others and deep respect to them no matter who they are, will ripple out long after us, maybe more than any physical thing we could do or leave behind.