By: Rabbinical Student Rene Pfertzel (Leo Baeck College, London), Student Rabbi Finchley Progressive, UK, and Congregation Keren Or, Lyon, France
Hope for the Middle-East?
We are all dismayed and appalled by the bad news coming out of Syria. Assad’s regime has most likely gassed its own people using Sarin gas. Its chemical formula was developed in 1939 by the Ig-Farben laboratories, the same which has developed Zyklon-B of cursed memory. “There is nothing new under the sun”, says Qohelet (1:9).
At the time I am writing these lines, it is not clear whether the West will attack Syria or not. Should the West attack this regime, one knows exactly when things start, but, as it is very often the case in Middle Eastern affairs, one never knows when things might stop. We know from experience that events can get out of control very quickly, and what seemed to be a just war can become a nightmare. Should the West not attack Syria, it would lose all its credibility to fight for its values as a trustworthy party for its allies in the region, including Israel. Maybe Russia’s recent proposal is an honourable way out?
And yet, this very Middle East, let us say from Athens to Basra in Iraq, is the cradle of our civilization, the birthplace of our people and the Sitz im Leben of the Bible and the rabbinic world. Our roots are there, at least with regard to the Western hemisphere civilization. Our inner spiritual geography is filled with its place names. Jerusalem, Caesarea, Babylon sound to us as familiar as the places where we live, scattered around the world. The essential stories, which introduce Sefer Bereshit take place within the Mediterranean and the Gulf.
Such is the famous story of the Great Flood. Parashat Noah recounts God’s wrath against humankind. The end of the previous parasha, Bereishit, tells us that God saw the wickedness of the man, and decided to destroy the world, with the exception of Noah (Genesis 6: 6-8). We are all familiar with the story. God commands Noah to build an ark, to bring in “of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort… they shall be male and female” (Genesis 6:19), alongside with his own family. Noah has been chosen because he was “a righteous man, and perfect (tam) in his generations, and Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). Apparently, he was the last righteous man on the earth’s surface! Then, the heavens’ doors open, the earth is flooded, and all living flesh perishes. They will spend a year in the ark, before going out.
As I said, this story is well known. But, as Jean Bottero pointed out, “on December 3, 1872, the Bible forever lost its immemorial prerogative of being ‘the oldest book known’, a book, unlike others, ‘the Book written, dictated by God Himself’, as Assyriologists had been at work for fifty years, deciphering thousands of tablets written in forgotten languages. On this particular day, before the Society of Biblical Archaeology in London, one of their number, G. Smith, announced his extraordinary discovery: a history that was strikingly close to the biblical narrative of the Flood, even in details, but that preceded it, and had obviously inspired the Bible”, the Epic of Gilgamesh. (Bottero, J., The Birth of God: The Bible and the Historian. The Pennsylvania University Press: University Park, 2000, p. 3-4. Translated by Kees W. Bolle. First French Edition 1986).
This Middle East appeared suddenly as an interconnect network of cultural influences. This opening towards the elusive complexity of this region should deeply humble us, and lead us towards more subtleties when we embrace its issues.
But the Epic of Gilgamesh does not contain some amazing words, which make our text unique. God establishes in the sky a keshet, “bow”, or “rainbow”, as a sign of the new covenant with humankind. This sign has been understood by many cultures as a bridge between the heaven and the earth, a path to circulate between worlds. For the Bible, it is a sign of everlasting covenant between God and the human beings, a divine remembering that God will never attempt to destroy us again (Genesis 9:14-16). And God uttered these extraordinary words:
“While the earth remains, seed time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease” (Genesis 8:22).
God waives any intervention over the Creation. He allows it to become. But He offers us a sign, the rainbow, symbol of peace, a reminder that we are always called to look up and to look ahead.
That hope comes from the Middle East, but it issues also a warning: we have been granted the freedom of doing things right or wrong. We need to decide what to do in accordance with our values. As parashat nitzvavim taught us a few weeks ago, it is not in the heaven. We have a bridge to reach it. Let us grab it.
May God give wisdom to the world leaders so that war is not the only option left.
Ken Yehi Ratzon