By Rabbi Jason Bonder
There is a character in the 2009 Walt Disney film “Up” named Dug. Dug is a dog who wears a special collar, and the collar allows him to communicate with people. Once in a while, in the midst of a sentence, he abruptly yells “squirrel!”
Dug, like so many dogs, is quite easily distractible. This week’s portion, Noach, reminds us that it’s not just the animals. We, too, are distractible.
How many baby blankets, paintings, children’s books and Chanukah menorahs have a Noah’s Ark theme? Who among us doesn’t imagine the animals climbing the ark two by two when we hear Noah’s name? Isn’t it fun to ponder how we’d survive 40 days and 40 nights on that ark? Have you ever gotten into a debate about how large that ark must have been? Perhaps you’ve marveled at how one man, who was over a half of a millennium old, was able to build it?
The next time you find yourself thinking about any of these things, I have one word for you: “Squirrel!”
Somehow the headline that runs through my mind when I think of this portion is usually “Man Builds Ark: Lives in it with Family and Animals.” But if we were to be a bit more intentional about finding the headline, and if we were to consider the job of a headline to report that which is most impactful about the story, the headline should be “God Destroys the World.”
Here is one of the heaviest verses of the portion. “All existence on earth was blotted out — man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left and those with him in the ark.” (Genesis 7:23)
Noah’s friends, foes, acquaintances and all those people who Noah never met but lived in his times, perished in this week’s portion. While the Torah tells us that “all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth” (Genesis 7:12) I can’t believe that there were not at least a few people who were undeserving of such a harsh decree.
Just a few weeks back, we were able to use the tools of t’shuvah t’filah and tzedakah — repentance, prayer and charity (justice) to avert the harsh decree. Not the generation of Noah. Their lives were simply erased.
It is desirable to gloss over these details. Who wants to dwell on such misery? It is almost unbearable to think of all that loss. Just a week after God asked Cain in horror, “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10) God wiped out not one person, but an entire generation of inhabitants of the planet.
We must remember that there is pain and suffering in this portion and not let the fuzzy animals on the ship distract us too much. Remembering to acknowledge the difficulties of this week’s portion is an essential practice for us here in the 21st century. If we can do this while reading Noah, there is a better chance for us that we will not get distracted here in our times.
Thousands of years after the Noah story was first written down, animals are still stealing headlines from the world’s deepest problems. Bears, Bengals, Broncos, Cardinals, Colts, Dolphins, Eagles, Falcons, Jaguars, Lions, Rams, Seahawks and, most appropriately for this portion, Ravens, all grace the headlines of our modern-day newspapers and websites. Each year we read this story during football season, and I am reminded of how easy it is to pay a great deal of attention to these mascots and these teams as, once again, our ocean levels are rising.
I love to watch sports just as much as the next person. So I want to be clear: We don’t have a sports problem. We have a distraction problem. We are the distracted generation. I’ve checked Facebook three times between writing the first word of this column and finishing this sentence. I’ve been alerted multiple times that new emails have arrived in my inbox both from my desktop and on my phone.
With each distraction, someone else’s priority becomes my priority. Someone else’s headline replaces my headline. With each distraction I am more likely to focus less on the priorities that are most important to me and to us as a human race.
It was just a few weeks ago when, during the High Holidays, we had the opportunity identify our priorities. We had the time to set goals and march toward them. I know that between then and now I have been distracted many times from pursuing what is most important. Noah is my reminder that I still have time to wash away the distractions and move forward toward the things I most want in the world.
Rabbi Jason Bonder is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.