Don’t Give Up
“I just want to run away from the world,” Jenna* told me as we Zoomed together one evening. By then I had already been in six other Zoom meetings about everything from budgets to Torah learning, and I too was feeling the fatigue, but when this young congregant texted me and asked to chat, how could I say no?
I told her it would have to wait until after I put my kids to bed and she said that was okay, so after bedtime I set up another Zoom call. She came on the screen, choosing as her background a photo of a coffee shop. I asked her about it, and she replied, ”well if we are going to have a cup of coffee, I at least wanted some sense of normal.” I’ve known Jenna since she was young, officiated at her Bat Mitzvah and saw her off to college. Now she’s at her first job and feeling all the pressure of being a young adult, of trying to show herself and the world that she can make it on her own, all the while feeling robbed by the pandemic.
“It’s not that I don’t want to work hard or take responsibility,” she continued, “I was excited to land a job, get a place of my own. Now, I can’t go out and feel safe, I’m being furloughed, and soon I won’t have enough money to pay rent and I’m going to move back home. I give up.”
I think we can all relate to Jenna’s story. The pandemic and social distancing have left many of them emotionally distant as well. There’s so much that has been lost, not the least of which is the now 219,000 plus souls who have succumbed to this disease in America alone.There is no need to compare pain; for the elderly, the swirl of the world has meant not seeing grandchildren. For Jenna, it means losing her first chance at adulthood. For those who don’t have homes to run to or couches to sleep on, the circumstances are even more dire. Everyone expects homelessness to rise as evictions kick in across the country.
In the face of all this loss it’s easy to run away and say, “I give up,” especially when it feels like the world has given up on you.
In this week’s Torah portion, Noach, there’s a whole lot of ‘giving up.’Just ten generations after creation, God looks out upon the world and says, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the world is filled with lawlessness. I am about to destroy them and the earth.” (Genesis 6:13) God is shocked by the fragility of morality in human visage. When given the opportunity for kindness and love, many times we turn to avarice and greed. The Rabbis tried to understand the depth of Divine disappointment. Some believed it was our lewdness and idolatry, (Genesis Rabba 26:5) while others felt robbery was the primary cause. (Talmud Sanhedrin 108a) Whatever at the cause, God’s moral indignation with humanity careened into global destruction.
God gave up on us.
The only consolation was to choose one person, Noah, and his family to run away from the world. Noah built the ark and made sure to seal off from vagaries of life ‘out there’ by covering it with sticky pitch and tar, both inside and out. (Genesis. 6:14) Knowing that God was giving up on the world, Noah made no protest, as Abraham did, to fight for humanity. Noah received the blueprints for shelter and built it just large enough for his needs, and shut out the world. Such is the pattern of spiritual psychology. If we see despair, then we will despair. If we see that this moment in history calls for every person to run away from the world, to give up on each other and ourselves, then many of us do.
Noah gave up on the world, because his God gave up on the world. And that’s how many of us feel.
But if we only have spiritual energy from the beginning of the Torah’s fable then we do not understand its most important message. As the ark rested on drying land, God spoke again to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you, your wife and your family” (Genesis 8:16) It was the first time God spoke since the decision to destroy. The Torah says a few verses earlier that God had remembered God’s covenant with Noah. (Genesis 8:1). God’s mind changed. God saw what giving up looks like and regretted the decree to destroy. God, through the covenant of the rainbow, vowed never to give up on the world again. (Genesis 8:21)
The enduring message of the Flood story is that in times of great sorrow, God will not give up on us. The command to leave the ark is more powerful than the command to enter. The same is with us today. In a time of incredible uncertainty, giving up means letting the torrent of chaos win. Instead of building our own personal arks and shutting out the world, we should lean into it. And we should counsel ourselves not to run away from the world of pain, but towards a world of justice. Fight like Abraham for the cause of humanity instead of cowering behind pitch and plinth pretending we cannot hear or do not see.
When Noah emerged from the ark, the Rabbis of old envisioned him singing Psalm 142, “Free my soul from prison!” Noah’s refuge from the world had indeed imprisoned him. Rabbi Judah Bar Ilai said, “If I’d been there, I would have busted down the doors of the ark to get myself out.” (Midrash Tanchuma Buber 14:2) As we look upon the world, let us take the rabbi’s teaching to heart.