Armando Rojas has been a staff member and a part of our Bet Torah community for over 20 years. Unfortunately, he was deported to Mexico and later refused Asylum in the United States. We are hoping Armando can reunite with his family in due course. He has helped our community in many different ways. Now, it’s our turn to make a mitzvah and support his family.
Shabbat Parashat Noach – 5779
Watching the flood waters of hurricane Michael pick up trucks like matchbox cars and homes like splintered doll houses was horrifying. It was horrifying for the loss and devastation and it was horrifying existentially.
We are terrestrial creatures.
The phrase “feeling grounded” is an acknowledgement that in order for us to feel emotionally oriented we have to feel physically oriented. Think of the comfort of the layout of your home. Knowing where things are. Your neighborhood, knowing the names of the streets, where the park is. Routine and familiarity calm us. We get anxious when we don’t know where we are. It doesn’t happen as often now that we have GPS on our phones, but we all have memories of being in the backwoods or in an unfamiliar town and not just being lost but feeling lost. If you have been out on the ocean without sight of land or looking down from great heights you can catch a shudder of oblivion.
The truth is that we are strangers and visitors to this world. We don’t live here forever. We stay for a while. The familiar lay out of our lives can delude us into forestalling that awareness. Creature comforts from the leather seats of our car that we can adjust precisely to fit our bodies to the ergonomic remote control can convince us that the world was made for us and we are here to stay. But when the ocean comes running down your street and lifts your house from its foundation its hard to keep the knowledge of chaos at bay.
We make a home for ourselves in this world but at best it is a temporary home. And when the winds blow down our favorite tree and tear off the siding, our delusions are uprooted and sheered off too.
Right after the world is created, in the very next Torah portion, we face a flood. The possibility that the whole thing, in a moment, can be reversed. We don’t realize this. We can become very comfortable, very quickly and forget the rare preciousness of our existence. Its not long before the surprise of being called from the beyond to breathe in this world can turn into an entitled sense that this is our world. Always has been, always will be.
“The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on earth and his heart was saddened.”
When you give someone a gift and they come to think they gifted it to themselves gratitude is lost and arrogance takes root.
In Marilynne Robinson’s book “Housekeeping” a girl named Ruthie and her Aunt Sylvie live alone in on the outskirts of the town of Fingerbone. They keep to themselves but what is most disturbing to the devout people of the town is that they wear clothes that are ripped and dirty, their house is in disrepair, the sitting room is filled with items because, as Ruthie notes, ‘who said you had to sit there, it seems like just as good a place to keep stuff.’ And that’s the thing, Sylvie and Ruthie want to live this way.
The townspeople keep bringing over food. They send the sheriff to convince Sylvie to “take better care” of Ruthie. The magic of the book is that you enter thinking like a person from the town, seeing people in such a state and pitying them. Wanting to fix them. But ultimately because you are let into the mind of Ruthie you begin to pity the people of the town who desperately cling to their sense of what is appropriate and socially acceptable.
Robinson at one point writes:
“Imagine that Noah knocked his house apart and used the planks to build an ark, while his neighbors looked on, full of doubt. A house, he must have told them, should be daubed with pitch and built to float cloud high, if need be. A lettuce patch was of no use at all, and a good foundation was worse than useless. A house should have a compass and a keel. The neighbors would have put their hand sin their pockets and chewed their lips and strolled home to houses they now found wanting in ways they could not understand.”
What bothers the people of the town the most is that Sylive and Ruthie remind them that civilization in certain ways is a cultural construct meant to lift us out of nature and forestall the awareness that we are made of the same stuff as the animals Noah took with him on the ark. We are one of them in very significant ways the most alarming being that we are as temporary as they are. One difference is that we know it.
A flood is an existentially challenging event because it sweeps away the artifice of our citizenship in this world.
That’s how I felt when they took Armando away. If he doesn’t belong here that means I don’t belong here. Who does?
When they took Armando who came when he was 18. Lived here for 30 years and raised a family I wondered “why can’t they take me too?” He and I are about the same age. Have lived about the same amount of our adult lives here. What’s to stop the flood from sweeping me or any of us up too?
We would like to convince ourselves that we are ok. That we at least are safe. We are not like the people that are being taken away.
But here’s the thing about a flood- it makes no distinctions. It is blindly and inclusively cruel. It doesn’t stop and think about sparing this house or that neighborhood. It doesn’t pass over the houses of the Israelites.
The things that separates us from nature are not our ergonomic remote controls. Those things are temporary. They are stuff you can put in a sitting room.
What separates us is our ability to make distinctions that floods cannot make. We can see individual human beings, hear their stories, know their souls and know in our hearts what is right and good and just.
Vayavdel ben ha’mayim asher m’tachat ha’rakea- “God separated the waters from the heavens.” God makes distinctions and gifted us the ability to do the same. What makes us human, what distinguishes us from the flood is our ability to make physical and moral distinctions.
Sending people away in a flood of indiscriminate actions does not make use of our unique human ability to make fine distinctions.
What it does do is make us feel more at home, more rooted in a place we feel we belong. A place we now know we belong because of the fact that others do not belong. When we use civilization to make us feel more at home at the expense of others we become the flood we fear.
The flood took Armando and we have been trying to reel him in ever since. Let’s bring Armando home.