“I’m really sorry; I regret having done that. I promise I won’t do it again. I know, however, that I’m apt to forget that promise. I might need a reminder, so I’ll come up with an ot, a sign, and every time I see the ot, I’ll remember not to get that angry again.”
The above is not a direct quote from the Torah, but it does state the essence of Genesis 9:8-17, which is found in this week’s portion, Noach. It’s a paraphrasing of what God says to Noah and his family when they exit the ark after the devastation of the flood.
Many years ago, I was studying the Torah portion Noach with a 13-year-old student who was preparing for her Bat Mitzvah. Her understanding of the text amazed me. She said things like, “Why did God have such a temper tantrum? When my mom and dad get mad, they would never do anything that destructive – no matter how angry they were. We sit down and talk things through. We figure out a better way to solve the problem. How can I understand a God who would do something like that?”
The innocence and wisdom of this young woman and her questions made a lasting impression on my understanding of the Torah and my conception of God. I believe that the stories in the Torah teach us lessons; they provide us with examples of ways to behave and ways not to behave.
Our Torah does not sugar coat the world we live in. Our biblical figures do not provide us with saintly models of perfection to emulate. We see every type of human behavior imaginable in the Torah; we are given a true picture of reality.
We humans are capable of doing good and evil. The Torah holds both extremes up to us as examples and teaches us that we have the ability to choose how we behave. We can be compassionate and loving; we can also be harsh, unfair and lose our tempers. We are encouraged to “Choose life by following God’s laws and commandments” (synopsis of Deuteronomy 30:15-19).
Similarly, the Torah also paints a complex, multifaceted picture of God. God can be compassionate, patient and forgiving. God “will show kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:6). The Torah also shows us a God who is sometimes exasperated, acts harshly and needs to be cajoled into doing the right thing. (Abraham bargains with God to not destroy all the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, Genesis 18:16-33.)
The story of Noah and the flood is an illustrative example of a God to whom we can relate – one who acts impulsively, realizes the error, and then offers teshuvah (repentance) – while knowing that the impulse to make the same mistake remains.
In the previous Torah portion, Bereshit, we learn that each human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). If we are truly created in the image of God, then we, too, understand that we have the ability to sometimes act impulsively, make mistakes, offer teshuvah and keep striving to do the best we can in our lives.
None of us can live a life of perfection. While it is our duty and obligation to try to live the very best lives we can, we all have flaws and we all need reminders not to repeat our mistakes.
I am comforted by the picture of God that this week’s portion presents to us. We are shown a complex and complicated God – at times loving and compassionate, at times not. When I look at the behavior of humanity, when I examine my own behavior, I am reassured knowing that it is divine to be human and human to be divine.
ANDREW KLEIN is the rabbi of Temple Habonim, in Barrington, and secretary-treasurer of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.