Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Delete me, Please | Noach 2011

The most touching moment in the story of Noah and the flood comes after all the action is over. Noah and family are let out, God promises never to destroy the world again, lays down moral guidance to prevent the return of violent depravity, and all is supposed to go back to normal.

Except for Noah, that is:
Now Noah began to be a man of the soil;
he planted a vineyard.
He drank from the wine, and he became drunk.
And he sat in his tent, naked.

Genesis 9:20-21
The midrash notes how this moment marks the lowest point in Noah’s life:
Said R. Yehuda ben R. Shalom:
At first – “a righteous, wholehearted man in his generation”,
And now – “a man of the soil”… (Midrash Tanhuma Noah 13)

I can’t help but sympathize with Noah’s situation; he is a broken man after the flood. Whether it is guilt for having not tried to save humanity (for which he is heavily criticized by the Rabbis, contrasted with Abraham who argued with God over destroying Sodom), or the PTSD brokenness of a person who has witnessed a terrifying destructive power – Noah wants to erase his consciousness, and is not interested in human civilization. He reverts back to the earth, to the nakedness of Adam and Eve, but it is simply pathetic rather than Edenic. Drunk and naked in his tent, Noah wants to be deleted.
Noah’s issue seems to be with human existence per se, but his image reminded me of a poem about the desire to delete one’s identity. Admiel Kosman, one of the most interesting contemporary Jewish poets, was raised in an observant Orthodox Israeli family and is now a Talmud professor and head of the Reform Rabbinical college in Germany. He has recently begun writing some of his poems, mostly “new prayers”, in Hebrew letters – but in English, providing a jolting experience for readers. This creates an irony-laden setting for some intense meditations:

A Plea

Delete me please,
delete me absolutely
from da list,

no more Izrael, no more
Jewish blood, no
more history,

just nathing,
quiet, peace,

delete me, just delete,
I beg you, please, 

It’s not clear what causes Kosman to ask to be deleted.
Is it the weight of a collective history, of Jewish chosenness, that him makes cry out in search of some quiet individualism?
Or does the mention of Jewish blood and history evoke the days of persecutions, the lists of Jews – Kosman after the Holocaust, like Noah after the flood, is challenging God to shed our affiliations in order to save us from a destructive fate?
Or maybe, more contentiously, Kosman is reacting to the growing sense that political Israel has turned inward on itself, from persecuted to persecutors, with the idea of Jewish blood becoming a claim to supremacy and an excuse for violence – leading him to ask to be deleted from such an affiliation?
I must admit, I identify with this plea at times. Israeli politics aside, being Jewish often feels like that Yiddish story “Too Much Noise”. I find myself yearning to be anonymous, identity-less, to be “just nathing, quiet, peace”. In my case, it doesn’t last for long – the post-modern identity-less illusion seems an empty trap to me – but the desire to delete one’s identity still resonates.
Let’s admit it: Such a wish is practically original sin in Judaism. Do whatever you want, believe what you will, but don’t ask to be deleted from the list. Argue, rile, disagree – but don’t say “no more history”. After all, the wicked son of the Haggadah is the one who “takes himself out of the group”. Noah is considered a hopeless failure because he slumped into self-oblivion, no longer engaging with history.
Yet the irony of the story of the flood is that long before Noah sought to delete himself, God was the one who wanted to do the deleting. He had his reasons: human civilization had deteriorated into a violent mayhem. But the fact remains – God is the first one to have the desire to delete, to plea for “nothing, quiet, peace”. Noah is simply following suit – destroying internally what God has left behind. For me, that is validation enough: the desire to delete the project which is humanity, or Judaism, is corroborated by the creator himself.
I should now write a stirring call for identity. It would use the words “covenant”, “morality”, “partnership”. Somewhere, a rainbow would fit in. But I believe we’ve all heard those before, and will hear those again. We have plenty of future opportunities to impart the importance of having an identity, of believing in the project which is human civilization and Jewish civilization, for redeeming the noise which is Jewish existence. But there needs to be room made for the plea to be deleted, for the desire to be identity-less. It is a desire I hear loud and clear from my peers, and one I identify in myself. Only once we’ve encountered that desire face to face, can we begin to search for the pot of covenant at the end of the rainbow.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Mishael Zion
Co-Director, Director of Education
The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel

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