Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Florida now understands the Noah story

The Time of Noah. Photo courtesy of Joe More

(Editor’s note: Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin texted us this column from Hollywood, Fla., where he and his congregants, like the majority in the state, don’t have power.)

(RNS) — Ever since Irma announced that she was going to pay Florida a visit, I’ve been experiencing what it must have been like to be on the ark — minus the animals, of course. And minus the theology that would suggest that this is all divine punishment for the sins of Floridians — whatever those might be.

This is a wretched way to live. The most wretched thing has been that sense of not knowing, the great tsunami of ignorance — over where, exactly, the storm would hit; over what the effects would be; when the electricity will return, along with all things electric that we take for granted. Like air conditioning and internet.

This stings us, we middle- and upper-middle-class people. Because we like being in control.

So, I’ve been hanging with the cantor during the storm. It’s been like an extended Shabbat — and totally halachic, come to think of it — complete with no electricity and no driving.

We’ve done our share of singing together. We got around to talking about High Holy Day services, which are coming sooner than anyone would care to imagine.

I’m thinking about the liturgy, especially the prayer about judgment, Unetaneh Tokef: “Who by water … ?”

We control freaks live in the cloud of chaos, similar to that primordial chaos that preceded creation. That’s what the Unetaneh Tokef speaks about. We are not in control of many things. Who knows what’s going to happen?

The only things that we can control are the ways that we respond to the world: through inward turning (teshuvah — repentance); through upward turning (tefilah — prayer), and outward turning (tzedakah — giving of oneself).

I don’t know much about how those first two elements have been working. But, as for the third: There’s the story of the man who got the last generator at a store, and a woman got to it seconds after he did. She started to cry. She needed the generator because of her daughter’s medical needs.

And what did the guy do?

He let her take the generator.

We like to say that miracles are those things that contradict the laws of natural science — like waters parting (um, Moses, about my neighborhood. You still got that staff?)

But sometimes miracles occur that contradict the laws of social science.

The generator guy could have said: Tough luck, lady. Every man and woman for him or herself.

Because that’s, in fact, the way the world works. People act that way. People also decide to take advantage of crises and raise the price of gas, water and food. It’s called capitalism, but it’s a particularly carcinogenic form of capitalism.

Those who did this should be ashamed. Those who stared down the temptation should be proud.

So, I ventured forth this morning. There are downed trees everywhere, many of which have taken out electrical wires. It’s a mass of devastation.

I drove to my neighborhood, which abuts the intracoastal waterway. I could only get so far; our street is now an official branch of that waterway. A woman whom I did not know took me in her SUV to see how my house was doing.

“Now, we’re friends,” she said. “Stop in some time, have a beer, and meet my husband.”

Noah had no one to hang out with after the flood. That’s because he was the only righteous man in his generation. He and his immediate family were the only survivors.

It must have been lonely. No wonder he turned to drink. Survivors’ guilt.

I’m praying that people on Florida’s Gulf Coast will be as lucky — that they will see the wellsprings of decency that exist in the world.

“Who by water? … ”

Yeah, it’s going to be hard to sing that on the Days of Awe.

But, if the liturgy touches that sore piece within us, then it’s real.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.


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  • As one who values the capitalist model as superior to other economic philosophies, I could not help but nod in agreement with the Rabbi’s description of “carcinogenic capitalism.” The proper precepts of capitalism should preclude such practices, but people being what they are, the dynamic tension between price gouging and the much more generous act by the fellow who surrendered the generator to the woman whose daughter was at medical risk will continue as an uneven seesaw apt to make us all queasy.

  • Great commentary on modern life that the absence of electricity, cars and the Internet make for an halachic Shabbat type of experience. The categories of labor prohibited in ancient times included things like lighting a fire and gathering sticks. But we rarely do those things today, at least in the manner thought of in antiquity (completing a current and starting an internal combustion engine were ruled by modern rabbis to come within the prohibition on fire). So we don’t miss them when we can’t do them. I hope you get electricity and vehicular travel back soon, at least in time for the High Holidays.

  • Please no more Noah stories!! It is all myth invented by some Jewish scribes who loved spinning tales to included myths such as Abraham and Moses.

  • Glad to know you’re still safe and mentally sound. Things can be replaced and regularly are. This will be a REAL Rosh Hashanah for all of us, I think, except for those with heads in a barrel.

  • I’ve only read this on three occasions and shared it at least once. It continues to resonate. Shanah Tovah.