The Value of Belonging

Noah. We all know the story. Big boat. Big flood. Two by two. 40 days and 40 nights. The dove and the olive branch. The rainbow. Bill Cosby. Rise and Shine. The Clancy Brothers and the Last Unicorn.

It is probably safe to say that this is among the best known stories in the Torah. And yet, there is always more to find in it, more to learn. In the immortal words of the beloved Rabbi ben Bag Bag – Turn it, and turn it again, for everything is in it. The more we look at the text, the more we experience in our lives, the more wisdom we can gain from the story.

Over the years, I have talked about and heard about wonderful sermons about Mrs. Noah. I have spoken and heard of the innocence of the sea creatures, based on the method of destruction of the rest of the world. I have heard scientific treatises on how much rain and water it would have taken to completely flood the entire earth. I have heard speculation about how much food would have been needed for their survival on the waters, even about what they did with all the animal poop created, and how the predatory animals were kept away from the smaller animals that could have served as dinner for them.

In fact, in our 7th grade class this last Sunday, we did the math about how long Noah and his family and the animals were on the Ark. It rained for 40 days. The waters rose for another 150. Then it took 40 more days for things to begin to calm down and for the waters to begin to recede. Then there were 4 more 7 day intervals – first between flights of the birds from the Ark, then from the last such trip until landfall.

That is a total of 258 days. One day short of 37 weeks. Roughly 8 ½ months. In the modern world, with all of our science and technology, even though we know that human gestation is a 40 week process, it usually takes about 3 weeks for anyone to even become aware that they might be pregnant. The time lapse from that awareness to delivery matches the amount of time the Ark was on the water! Hmmmm!

And this is quite likely no accident, no coincidence. After all, given that Noah, his wife, their three sons and their wives were the only human survivors of the Flood, that the animals on board were the sole survivors of their species, with the exception of that which lives in the water, and possibly some of the birds, that could land on the Ark for rest before taking off again, even it they weren’t passengers, the entire human race and most of the animal kingdom trace their ancestry back to those who were on the Ark. Therefore, if the story of the Flood is not, as some suggest, merely another Creation story, then it certainly IS a story of rebirth.

And a rebirth that, like the original Creation story, began from and in the water that covered the earth. A motif consistent across virtually EVERY Ancient Near Eastern people, of life emerging from the water. A rebirth following a gestation period eerily similar to the length of the human cycle. A rebirth still symbolically recreated in the rituals connected to the miqvah – the ritual bath from which Jewish converts emerge reborn as Jews.

I had never tied all of those pieces together in this way until this past week, but when I did, it was a powerful awareness that emerged. But then, as often is the case, events conspired to create an even greater awareness. So let me ask this additional question about our story – how many of us have ever thought about the Flood from the perspective of the animals on the Ark? With the exception of speculation about unicorns, how many of us have ever considered the Flood from the perspective of the animals that did NOT get on the boat?

Let us refer to those who got the memo, who recognized the value of being at the right place at the right time, who stayed involved in the human story through and after the Flood as “members.” And then, let us look at those, who, by definition, would NOT be “members.” The ones who were left behind and drowned. Could there be a more dramatic and obvious example of the values of membership?!

Yet, in truth, it often takes examples almost this stark to help us remember that value of membership. This week, the Bowie and local Jewish communities suffered a tragic loss. The 22 year old son of a three-generation Bowie family died in Florida. He happens to be the first Bar Mitzvah I had the privilege to celebrate with here 10 years ago. His family are no longer members here.

That last piece of information is significant – to me, if to no one else. It creates for me a severe cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, as a Rabbi, as a Jew, I feel acutely My responsibility to this family and this young man – to help them deal with this incredible tragedy, to try to find a way to make his life, and perhaps his death, mean something significant and valuable to his family and others, that he might live on through that legacy.

However, on the other hand, my hands are tied in some significant ways, because the connection and relationship with his family is not as strong and as whole as it could and would have been if they were still participating members of our congregation. In addition, I do, even in moments like this, still have obligations to those who ARE members of this congregational family, who do support our institution and my presence here, by your generosity and continuing involvement. Those obligations require me to limit my availability to those who do not choose to support Temple Solel as continuing members, even in cases like this.

I have reached out to the family. I will officiate at the funeral, on Sunday afternoon, even though doing so requires me to clip a couple of minor corners in commitments to our congregation. And if there are those who have a problem with any of those decisions, I will respect their right to disagree with what I choose to do for myself as a Jew.

However, when the family asked, for reasons of logistics, if they could hold the service in our sanctuary, I felt the need to tell them that this would not happen, no matter how much I understood the logic and value of their request. And, to their credit, they understood and graciously accepted my response. In addition, I did not feel comfortable sending out an e-mail to the congregation to acknowledge this death. I did, however, reach out to several individual members of our congregation who I knew had connections to the family, to make sure they knew and to see how they are fairing.

And I did not make my Rabbinical services available to them to organize and lead shiva services. I DID make sure that the funeral home with whom they are working was aware of this fact, so THEY could provide prayerbooks for the family to use. If I attend the shiva house, it will be as an individual Jew. But we also will read Ben’s name tonight and for the next several weeks, in memory.

These were not, are not, easy decisions for me to make. I do not like having to triage myself, do not like to make the calculations needed in a case like this. I would much prefer to simply help the family and our community in every way I can.

The problem is that, in this case, as happens far too often in modern Jewish life, I am forced to balance between the competing pulls of obligation to individual Jews and obligations to My congregation, usually caused when the individual Jews have made the free choice NOT to maintain membership in the congregation. In the complex world in which we live today, some of the reasons for discontinuing a membership actually are understandable. Many have a logic, but not necessarily one that works for those of us who do not make it.

I share this with you tonight in part because I can connect this message to our Torah text for this Shabbat. I share it to increase understanding of the challenges we face every day in the modern Jewish world.

But most of all, I share it in the hope that a piece of Ben’s legacy might be that through this better awareness, through the stark example of how his family’s current non-membership status has and will impact my ability to respond and help them mourn his tragic passing, he, and they, might serve as a lesson to someone in our congregation, perhaps even someone in this room tonight. Perhaps, through knowing in greater detail than usually shared exactly what decisions I, and we, have made, and why, we might cause someone who might now or in the future be on the fence about continuing their membership to think twice, and maintain their connection to our congregational family.

Because the truth is that the greatest value of being part of the congregational family is NOT in attending High Holy Day services; not in being able to send our children to religious school; not even in other opportunities which, honestly, are usually open to anyone. No, the real value of membership is MEMBERSHIP – of being part of a larger communal family that adds meaning to our lives and our experience, that allows us to better have our needs met, that allows others not to have to calculate how much of their authentic response to us in good times and bad they can afford to give to us when we need it most.

Imagine what it would have been like to be the THIRD shafan, the offspring of the 2 chosen to ride the Ark, waking up in the morning as the water rose above your nose as you slept on the forest floor, looking up to see the doors of the Ark closed, the ramp gone, your parents looking down at you with concern in their eyes, helpless to do anything to save you from what was about to occur. Imagine, and then make a promise to yourself never to act in a way that puts you in that same position. Because, in talking with Ben’s family, one of the things his death is already teaching them is the importance of staying connected with those who matter. And I would love to save all of us from needing the death of a 22 year old relative to teach us that important truth. KYR