For the last several years, we have been living under a cloud, of sorts—no, I’m actually not referring to the pandemic, but rather to living under the cloud of what’s known as “cancel culture.” Cancel culture is the cutting off of people (dead or alive) whose viewpoints challenge our own—viewpoints that are so overwhelmingly challenging and threatening that folks’ reaction is, “I can’t even.” That is, I cannot deal with this at all, I cannot engage in this situation, I can’t even name what the problem is. I can’t even.

In reading and reflecting upon this week’s parsha, Noah, and thinking about some words to share with you, it occurred to me that God bringing the flood and destroying nearly all of creation in the process was similar to today’s cancel culture, albeit on a vastly different scale.

We all know the events of the parsha: God, fed up with wickedness, corruption and violence, decides to wipe out all of the world’s inhabitants aside from Noah’s family and the animals aboard the ark. God’s very first words to Noah in the text are: “The end of all flesh has come before me, because the earth is filled with violence because of them. And here: I’m destroying them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood.”

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כׇּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Period. End of discussion. Well, really, there wasn’t any discussion. And that, I think, is a real problem.

Walking away from a problem doesn’t solve anything. We learn this when we’re little kids, when parents and teachers make us (or ideally, help us to) work things out. But somehow as we grow older, this becomes more difficult. As they say, little kids/little problems, big kids/big problems. Life becomes more challenging. And in the challenging times our society has been facing, lots of people have become either incapable of, or unwilling to, work through situations when we feel challenged; when we disagree; when we hear things that make us uncomfortable; when we feel too exhausted to work things through.

After the flood, we all know how the story unfolds: God makes a covenant with all of humanity, as well as all the animals and living things, not to bring about another flood to destroy the earth. God has decided to remain engaged with the world notwithstanding its challenges, notwithstanding the recalcitrance of humanity. And, as we all know, God sets the rainbow as a sign of this covenant. Looking closely at the text, what God states is that when the rainbow appears, “I’ll remember my covenant,” וְזָכַרְתִּ֣י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֗י, and the text repeats, “And the rainbow will be in the cloud, and I’ll see it, to remember,” וְהָיְתָ֥ה הַקֶּ֖שֶׁת בֶּֽעָנָ֑ן וּרְאִיתִ֗יהָ לִזְכֹּר֙ בְּרִ֣ית עוֹלָ֔ם, this covenant. For 10 verses, God goes on about this covenant, about the rainbow and about how when God sees it, it will remind God about this promise.

Two things stood out to me here: The first thing is that the repetitions in the text can be viewed as a literary device to show that it is not easy to maintain this commitment to remain engaged. It’s like a mantra God is repeating: “I’m going to keep my promise. I can do this. I made a promise. I’m going to keep it.” The second thing that stood out relates to the purpose of the rainbow: the text says that the rainbow serves as a visual reminder not to US, but to GOD, for God to remember the covenant—this covenant which may prove hard to maintain.

Now, here is a fun bit of pedagogy I encountered a couple of weeks ago at JCDS. A certain fourth grader I know and love, who shall remain nameless, was facing a challenge in class. This student was repeatedly speaking out of turn and not giving others the space to share their thoughts. This student, I am told, has a tendency to be chatty. And so the classroom teacher provided him with a visual aid—a picture of a hand that is taped to his desk—to remind the student to raise his hand instead of calling out. A visual reminder to curb his impulse, to pause, to wait for the appropriate moment to engage with his class.

Similarly, in our parsha, the rainbow is not a static reminder of a one-time promise that God made, but rather an ongoing visual reminder to God that a commitment was made not to wipe out all of creation and, I would suggest, to remain engaged with it, even when it may be challenging to do so.

Immediately following the repetitious verses about the covenant and the rainbow, the text has a brief and opaque story about Noah planting a vineyard, getting drunk and being found naked in his tent by his son Ham. There are various interpretations about what happened with Ham in this encounter, which I won’t get into. The text simply states that Ham left the tent and told his two brothers outside. The brothers then go into the tent, walking backward, and cover up Noah with a garment. Noah wakes up from his stupor, comes to understand what transpired, whatever that was, and summarily curses Ham and blesses Shem and Yaphet, his other two sons. What is even going on here?

I’ll offer an interpretation. Ham “sees his father naked”—literally or figuratively or both. Perhaps Ham sees that his father was drunk, and was disappointed or resentful or angry at his father. Either way, he walked out. He said, “I can’t even.” He cancels his father. His brothers go in and clean up whatever mess they found. They engage with the challenge, they cover up Noah’s nakedness, they problem-solve, they stage an intervention. For his actions, Ham is cursed, while Shem and Yaphet are blessed. Perhaps Ham did not learn the lesson of God’s covenant—don’t walk away, don’t disengage, don’t cancel.

The difficulty here is that Noah also does not seem to learn the lesson. Having sobered up, he learns what had transpired, and curses Ham. Period. No engaging in self-reflection. No investigation. No conversation. No discussion.

Yeesh, that’s depressing, isn’t it? Are we all doomed to fail? To block out what we don’t like? To obliterate what we don’t wish to see? To curse and to cancel those who have hurt us or with whom we do not see eye to eye?

To try and reconcile this, I rely on the concept embedded in our culture that we are all made in God’s image. If even God has to repeat the mantra, “I made this covenant to stay engaged in challenging situations, I can do this, I may need a visual reminder, but I can do this,” then perhaps we should remember that, yes, it is hard, and yes, we may need reminders, because it is indeed hard to stay engaged, to have these challenging conversations, to work through difficulties.

In fact, here is another bit of JCDS pedagogy I encountered last week. When my favorite fourth grade student showed a tendency to chat too much in class, his teachers met with him to have what they called a “problem-solving conference.” I don’t know about you, but back when I was in elementary school, we didn’t have any problem-solving conferences. You got sent to the principal’s office and that night your parents got a phone call and then you got sent to your room. You got canceled. We all know this did not help. Fortunately, at JCDS, we do things differently. Teachers engage with students and collaborate on building solutions.

I learned quite a bit last week, both from JCDS and from the parsha:

  1. Visual reminders help.
  2. Have a problem-solving conference.
  3. Staying engaged is hard and is a commitment worth keeping; the world may even depend upon it.

Liz Waksman is a board member and parent to two JCDS students, ’19 and ’26.

The School Sparks blog appears periodically by various writers among the JCDS educational team. Learn more about JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School.

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