Rosh HaShanah – B’Nai Noach: We Are the Children of Noach
Do you think Rosh Hashanah is a Jewish holiday?i Yes, we are sitting here in the sanctuary. Tomorrow we’ll skip work, and miss school, separating ourselves from the non-Jewish world. But unlike other holidays we celebrate as a Jewish community such as Passover, Purim and Hanukkah which talk about our particular history as a Jewish people, Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world. And more specifically, today is the day that God finished creating the world. Today, Adam, the first person was created. Rosh Hashanah encapsulates a tension that exists in our tradition between universalism and particularism. In this way, Rosh Hashanah is not a Jewish holiday; rather, Rosh Hashanah is our Jewish way to celebrate humanity.
Our particular Jewish stories about the birth of humanity focus on the idea that we are all siblings and that no one is superior to the other. According to a Midrash, God decided to create the world from two people, Adam and Eve. God did this so that everybody would know that we have common ancestors, and nobody would feel superior to another. If the point wasn’t clear enough, ten generations after Adam and Eve, after violence and corruption take over the world and God feels the need to start over, once again, God creates the entire world from just two people, Noah and Naamah.
Our tradition’s emphasis that we are all from the same source and no one should feel superior to the other seems so simple. But humanity struggles with this concept. It hard not to be carried away by a wave of hopelessness when looking at the way our human family treats one another.
We, as an American Jewish community, felt this struggle over the past year like never before. Seventeen members of our Jewish family were murdered in Pittsburgh and Poway, simply because they were Jewish. We are by no means the only community targeted by supremacists. Just last month, 22 people were killed in El Paso, Texas by a young man authorities suspect of harboring a violent hatred for immigrants and Latinos. And these are only the most extreme examples of the manifestation of hate in our country. Thousands of hate crimes happen annually in the United States, in which people are targeted for the way they look, the religion they practice, the people they love and the languages they speak.
Another Midrash imagines God minting human beings from the same mold: “A human being mints many coins from the same mold, and they are all identical. But the holy one, blessed be God, strikes us all from the mold of the first human and each one of us is unique.”ii In this version of creation, our human tendency to favor the identical is described, but it is our differences that are Divine.
Our people have been the target of hate and supremacy for thousands of years of our history. While the displays of supremacy against our people remain the same, we see positive change in the communal response to these acts of hate. Bari Weiss, columnist and editor at the New York Times, had a personal connection to Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg. It is her childhood synagogue where she became a bat mitzvah. In her new book, How to Fight Antisemitism, Weiss highlights what she calls the “Pittsburgh Principle” as a seed of hope in our fight against antisemitism.
In many ways the massacre that occurred in Pittsburgh was different than other attacks on our people. Our neighbors, citizens on the street were not cheering it on. The response to Pittsburgh was, by the vast majority of our neighbors, solidarity. Weiss shares “the fact that the Pittsburgh Gazette printed the Kaddish on the front page of the paper that is just an unbelievable anomaly in Jewish history.” For Weiss this is an incredible bright spot and “one we should be talking about and elevating so other people can emulate it.” Neighbors over the world are standing with us in solidarity against antisemitism.
This past May, in response to a rise of antisemitic incidents in Germany, the German tabloid, Bild printed a cut-out of a kippah on the front page that said, “cut this out and wear in solidarity with the Jews.” “Wear it, so that your friends and neighbors can see it. Explain to your children what the kippah is,” wrote editor-in-chief Julian Reichelt. “Post a photograph with the kippah on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Go out onto the streets with it.”
These responses are important. It is not a call from our neighbors to conform in order for acceptance. It is an honoring of our right to particular customs like kaddish and kippot. At the same time that our neighbors are recognizing our particularities, they are also connecting to us on a universal level. Our neighbors in Pittsburgh and Germany and Snohomish County have showed with their actions and statements of solidarity that: “an attack on the Jewish community was an attack on them, too.”
Antisemitism is one of many forms of supremacy. For Ibram X. Kendi, one of the leading antiracist voices in America, the struggle to see every human being as a sibling is core to fighting racism. This summer, Kendi published a book, an approachable piece, that has been getting a lot of attention, called How to Be an Antiracist. Kendi embraces an idea similar to our concept of teshuvah, repentance: individuals have the ability to change and transform their behavior. An important takeaway from How to Be an Antiracist is a focus on behavior as opposed to labeling. In order to believe we can fight racism, bigotry, and hate (including antisemitism) we must believe that individuals have the ability to change. Kendi teaches that it is counterproductive to view “racist is a fixed category.” He shared in a recent interview “[if] it’s a tattoo, [if] it’s a label. Of course they’re going to say, ‘I’m not a racist, I’m not a bad person.’ But racist is describing what you’re saying in the moment.”
In Jewish tradition, we usually think of B’Nai Noach, the children of Noah, in reference to people who are not Jewish. It was Noah who God chose, with Naamah and their family, to repopulate the world after the flood. We too are connected to Noah. He is our grandfather, albeit a thousand generations removed.
Noah is a controversial figure in our Jewish tradition. The Torah describes Noah in three ways: Noah “walked with God,“ was “blameless in his generation” and “was righteous.” But our Sages ask ‘why wasn’t Noah more like Abraham?’ When God was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argued with God. In contrast, Noah dutifully followed God’s instruction and did not express concern for those around him who God would destroy. The Zohar, our preeminent mystical teaching, believes that Noah did not question God because he was out to save himself and family. The contradictions of the character Noah resonate with me. On the one hand, we all have the ability to be righteous and walk with God, on the on hand, we all have a tendency towards self-interest.
In the story of Noah, after the flood, God establishes a covenant with him and sets the rainbow as a sign of this covenant and says: “When I bring clouds over the earth, and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”iii Contemporary Rabbi and scholar Noah Arnow teaches “a rainbow is the refraction of light through water drops, breaking up the white light so that we can see the various colors in its visible spectrum. A rainbow allows us to see something that we cannot usually see. And we see a rainbow at the liminal moment when the rain has ended but the air is still damp with moisture, when we can sense both the rain and the sun, both danger and opportunity.”
Rabbi Arnow emphasizes that the rainbow is meant to remind us that the world we live in is not black and white, but many shades of color, of nuance. Similarly, Ibram X. Kendi teaches that people are neither racist nor not racist. Rather, we are all B’Nai Noach. We are all a nuanced combination of righteous and self-interested.
Just as our local leadership and interfaith neighbors stood with us this past fall, in order to truly embrace our tradition’s value that no one is superior to the other, we as a Jewish community must stand in solidarity with our neighbors against all forms of bigotry and supremacy. We too must struggle to see every human being as a sibling. We too must struggle with our own bias. We too must feel that an attack on our marginalized neighbors, is like an attack on our own Jewish community.
How do we balance our particular needs as a community with the desire to see ourselves as a part of a universal family? How can we be both a welcoming community and a secure community? How can we work to address our own communal needs and concern ourselves with supporting all who are vulnerable in our greater community? These are the essential questions we are invited to wrestle with on this Rosh Hashanah, this particular Jewish holiday that celebrates our shared humanity.
i Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum, “Melekh al Ko Ha’aretz.” In All the World: Universalism, Particularism and the High Holy Days. Ed. Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, 2014.
ii Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a
iii Genesis 9:14-15