Feel adrift? Fight to reconnect with Judaism

As any member of the clergy can attest, one of the greatest blessings of serving the community is the opportunity to be with families day after day, year after year, at key moments in their lives. Jewish tradition suggests that the joys of b’nei mitzvah, weddings, baby namings, b’rit milah and more offer us a sample of olam haba (the world to come). And even funerals, as difficult as they can be for all of us, often contain a certain sacred beauty as we experience the wisdom of people’s diverse lives. The repetition of facilitating these rituals not only teaches us about people, but also offers us a unique perspective on Jewish text and tradition. When you experience lifecycle moments over and over again, you begin to notice patterns in our tradition.
Often at key moments in life, Jewish tradition counsels us to respond in seemingly contradictory ways to how we naturally feel. At weddings, a time of immense joy, we break the glass to recall Jerusalem’s destruction; at funerals when perhaps we’re most upset at God we’re directed to praise: (Baruch Dayan HaEmet) Blessed is God, the true judge! This habit of contradiction nudges us toward gratitude when we could easily overindulge, or pulls us back toward our Creator and to life when we might slip into darkness. Jewish texts and rituals help us regain a sense of balance through life’s unpredictable ups and downs
Parashat Noah, one of the earliest texts of the Torah, what scholars call our primeval history, foreshadows this guidance. As we sadly can relate, major natural disasters change our lives and change us. The flood changed Noah and his relationship with God. After the flood we read in Genesis: “Noah removed the cover of the ark and saw that the face of the earth had dried.” (8:13) Noah looks out and sees that the flood is over, but he’s stunned by God’s destruction and doesn’t move. Only God’s call to Noah brings him back to action. “God spoke to Noah, saying: ‘Go out from the ark . . .’” (8:15–16)
Midrash Rabbah teaches that in this verse God says “go out,” meaning “Bring my soul out of captivity” (Psalm 142:8) — this means Noah, who was imprisoned in the ark for 12 months…. “Because You delivered me” (ibid.) — that You delivered me [says Noah] and said to me: Go out from the ark. (Genesis Rabbah 34:1). According to the rabbis, Noah became accustomed to life in prison [life in the ark] and he needed a nudge back to reality, and also that Noah became complacent because God was delivering him because of his grace — so God reminded Noah of his own responsibility for himself. In other words, Noah shouldn’t expect God to free him from the ark; he must get up and go himself.
Given that Noah witnessed God’s massive power — to bring floods, to destroy the earth, to select just one family to save among millions of people — it could be easy for Noah to throw up his hands and expect an all-powerful God to take him to his next step. But Torah says different. It’s up to Noah to begin rebuilding, to again become a partner with God in furthering creation. Noah affirms this relationship with God as well, as we read: “Then Noah built an altar to God, and took from among all the clean animals and from among all the pure birds, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.” (8:20)
Parashat Noah serves as a reminder for us to strive to rekindle our relationship with God and leverage that relationship to find a sense of balance in a world of extremes. At the times when it’s most likely for us to drift away from Jewish meaning, that’s when we should do our best to reconnect. Especially in the weeks ahead as we act to rebuild neighborhoods, we can look to each other, our neighbors and God for this exact guidance and perspective.
Rabbi Daniel Utley has served Temple Emanu-El since 2016 where he aspires to help millennials, teens, and interfaith families find joy, meaning, and connection through Jewish life. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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