We have entered the Hebrew month of Heshvan. Having emerged from the months of Elul and Tishrei, days filled with preparation for and observance of all of those seemingly innumerable High Holy days, Heshvan seems like a respite from a super-abundance of observance the celebration. So, I asked my rabbi, Rabbi Google, what’s important about Heshvan? Instantaneously, the rabbi located an article entitled “Ten Important Things about Heshvan”. It actually didn’t have a great deal to offer, save for one important moment. According to tradition, the great Flood began and concluded during the month of Heshvan.
I need to point out that when you read the Bible story, you realize that the Flood was not a simple matter of forty days and nights of rain. The biblical account says the whole thing ran about the length of a solar year, giving the notion of the Flood beginning and ending during the same month at least the patina of some logic. And so, according to tradition, then, we are near the beginning of the Hebrew month during which the Flood occurred. Welcome to the 3456th anniversary (or so) of the destruction of the world by water.
It’s no surprise that our Torah portion this week is parashat Noah.
God selects Noah to rescue a very select group of humanity and a sprinkling of the rest of animal-kind by constructing a boat a football field and a half long and half a football field high. The author assumes these dimensions to be sufficient to house this sprinkling of life in order that world history may begin anew.
This is not a pretty story, the destruction of the world by flood. Yet its imagery has inspired a tremendous amount of children’s art. For just one example, the image of Noah’s ark hung above our daughter Talia’s crib in her early years on this earth, and it wasn’t intended as a reminder of what an angry God would do if Talia misbehaved. I once checked the shelves of a well-stocked synagogue library as to how many children’s books on the subject of Noah and the Ark it owned. The number was a surprising twenty-five or so. Being that that was quite a number of years ago, I’d wager that number has grown considerably.
The image of an old man (600 years by the Torah’s account) guiding all of those animals two by two onto the gangplank leading to the interior of the boat–just has too much child-appeal.
But this is the tale of the destruction of all life on planet earth, and we grownups have to look at it, I think, in that context. From the rabbi as darshan, the rabbi as interpreter (me), there’s an abundance of questions and issues the story raises, such as, how we might be engineering our own environmental destruction; the relationship between God and humanity; the nature of a God who’d destroy the whole world seemingly with the blink of a divine eye; the character of Noah; the character of God; the nature of the covenant God makes with Noah and the family when they disembark from the ark; the symbolism of the dove with an olive branch it its mouth; the symbolism of the rainbow at the end of the flood. And there are more.
The story of Noah and the Ark and the Flood is nothing if not enormously thought-provoking.
So don’t you know, it turns out we have a great deal to celebrate in the month of Heshvan. Indeed, the fate of all humanity is determined during this portentous month, making Heshvan a worthy successor to its predecessors.
BTW, next Monday I’m beginning a new, long-term class, classes actually. The first one will be: Women in the Bible. We’ll have a look at several of the women who inhabit the Hebrew Bible. Materials provided, but if you have a favorite translation, by all means, bring it along.