22 October 2009

Open the Window Which You Make

What's with God forgetting?

I hadn't exactly remembered the first time God forgot--usually associating the Divine re-engagement with the Exodus from Egypt, "...and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob. And God saw the children of Israel, and God took cognizance of them." (Exodus 2.23-25)

But God remembered he forgot earlier, with Noah, after the rains of indignation had covered the earth, wiping out all of early human civilization, except of course for Noah, his families, the fortunate animals, birds and beasts that made it on board the Ark. "And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that were with him in the Ark; and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters assuaged; the fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped and the rain from heaven was restrained." (Genesis 8.1-2)

There is something to this business of remembering what had been forgotten--just in time--before the earth is completely destroyed beyond repair; or before a people is so downtrodden and defeated that they are never to rise again. Why does this Hebrew God take us to the brink of disaster before bringing us back--not only from the edge but toward a new horizon of possibility and redemption?

This is a perennial Jewish question that speaks to our sense of impending doom followed by the rising sun of possibility. We're most productive, it often seems, in the face of disaster. As a people in crisis, we usually rise to the occasion. That sort of thing.

But reading through Noah today, I was struck by how deliberate the language is, how methodical the construction of the words. Their order so fully conscious of Torah's earlier narrative--the Genesis story--and the way in which massive destruction followed by regeneration happen so quickly. Less a puzzle and more a pattern, which makes it easier to understand--especially if one is led to understand that this is in fact a truth about life.

"And the waters returned from off the earth continually," the translator writes for Genesis 8.3, where the Hebrew for "continually" is הלוך ושוב, which Cassuto translates as "forward and back" or, "in steps." Or stages.

I remember one time sitting with my dad, sharing a meal. I was 17 and annoyed with the world. He was 56 and, well, more realistic. "Son," he counseled (about Reagan and the USSR and Afghanistan and Central America and Nuclear Weapons and War for Oil) "Life is two steps forward and one step back. Be patient."

הלוך ושוב

Forward and back.

A few verses later Noah "opened the window of the Ark which he had made," let the raven go forth and then the dove, which first returned and then the flew again, this time returning, at evening, with an olive branch in its mouth. Even then, in this tightly constructed narrative, the olive tree a symbol of hope, regeneration, and peace.

I thought of the window for the first time in a whole new way. As in, "there was a window on the Ark?" What kind? Did it have shutters? A shade? On one hand it may seem obvious to us--of course there was a window. But why? It's not like in all of God's deliberate directions to Noah at the onset of the flood He had required a window. It's not there earlier in the text. We know its measurements. We know its height and width. We know it has a door, and floors. But the windows are not in the directions. It's only after the flood that we learn that Noah "opened the window of the Ark which he had made."

One imagines, in an act of desperation, Noah, hammering away one day or night during the flood, creating a window. Restless, impatient, radically committed to escaping his destiny, by going beyond the plan and bringing a window, light, and therefore new perspective on the pre-planned story of disaster and redemption.

Maybe that's why God remembered. Because Noah expanded the plan, struck out on his own, went above and beyond. For sake of comparison, when does God "remember" in Egypt? When Moses has struck out on his own, far from Egypt, in Midian, with a new wife and new children, living in flight from the Egyptians, as a refugee, because he chose to defend his own people.

Reading these words today, their ancient timeless cadences drew me in. The familiar Hebrew of the creation story being told over and over again felt both known and new. And I looked at my fellow citizens--on the train, on the sidewalks, in the stores, at Shul, and I wondered if their lives felt known and new. I wonder how possible it is, as often as we should, to feel always on the verge of redemption. Always almost gone, to be saved just in time. Or perhaps it's better to go step by step, in stages, הלוך ושוב. Two steps forward, one step back.

I don't fully have an answer. Though I do like making a new window whenever you may need to. Not a bad way of living when you come to think of it. What you see, who comes, and who goes, may bring a set of perspectives you never quite knew existed before.

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