Gods, Monsters and the Big Disappointment

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, October 16, 2009]

How many people here tonight had imaginary friends when they were little? How many of you imagined having magical powers? How many of you do have magical powers? How many of you are disappointed you don't?

This week we're back once again at Parashat Breishit - the first portion of the book of Genesis. But you might know we read Torah on a triennial cycle. So this year we read the end of the portion. Not the glamorous "In the Beginning" and "Let there be Light" opening. None of the first 7 days of Creation - Sun, Moon, Stars, Birds, Crawly Things. We skip right over the honeymoon years, with Adam and Eve romping through the garden, watering the plants, sharing papayas, and tossing around baby names. (Of course Torah skips that too.) We bypass whatever moment of mundane beauty human existence offers, and go right for the big drama. Expulsion from the garden. Cain killing Abel. Humankind multiplying in number and in evil. Prohibited mating of celestial and earthly beings. Discontent, jealousy, anger, murder, deceit, culminating in Chapter 6:

And it happened as humankind began to multiply over the earth and daughters were born to them, that the B'nei Ha-Elohim [sons of God?] saw that the daughters of man were comely, and they took themselves wives howsoever they chose. And the Lord said, "My breath shall not abide in the human forever, for he is but flesh. Let his days be a hundred and twenty years." The Nefilim [giants? fallen ones?] were then on the earth, and afterward as well, the B'nei Ha'Elohim having come to bed with the daughters of man who bore them children: they are the heroes of yore, the men of renown.

And the Lord saw that the evil of the human creature was great upon the earth and that every scheme of his heart's devising was only perpetually evil. And the Lord regretted having made the human on earth and was grieved to the heart. And the Lord said, "I will wipe out the human race I created from the face of the earth, from human to cattle to crawling thing to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I have made them." But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

That is perhaps hardest to read: God's disappointment. "I wish I had never created them," says the all-forgiving, all-knowing God about us. And God shuts off the tap of eternal life, like a bartender cutting off a messy drunk. "Sorry, mister," God seems to say, "but 120 years are enough." And then the heave-ho, courtesy of the Angel of Death - that most accomplished of bouncers.

But does the bartender truly have a right to complain about drunkenness of his customers? Who was serving the drinks? In other words, what exactly is God's right to disappointment? I once heard a comic tell a joke about seeing a fortune teller's shop with a sign on the window saying "Out of Business." The comic locks the audience's gaze and says, "You'd think she would have known!" So what is implied here? God couldn't see any of this coming? God had no control over the content of His creatures' characters? (And I say He here, because this image of God is such a sexist cliche of a disappointed father, pained by how his children turned out while accepting no culpability for it. If it were Greek polytheism, we'd be seeing Chronos complaining to Gaia, "Dear, look what your children have done.") Yes, an aggravating bit of Torah.

So how shall we examine it?

From an Asiyah point of view - that is looking at the text but not into it - it is a smash-up of variant mythological traditions. Male deities having sex with human females is an old trope in the Ancient World, explaining both the existence of heroes and monsters. (To be fair, our own body of midrashic literature also references Adam as having had sex with Lilith, a female demon or deity, and that union giving rise to spirits and goblins and demons.)

Oh, and I love this reference to the heroes of yore. What heroes of yore? If there were heroes of yore in our tradition, between the time of Adam & Eve and the time of Noah, wouldn't Torah have told us? Isn't the Torah, by our own tradition, all the news that's fit to print?

So it seems we are the inheritors of a vast pre-Israelite mythology about which we are told almost nothing. This chapter is one of several references to other cosmologies that we find in Torah. But it's not just a reference to our mythological pre-history. On top of it is an overlay of monotheism that fits horribly, and we all feel it. If our primordial story consisted of conflicts between jealous gods, as we see in the other mythologies of the ancient world, we could accept the idea of humankind getting caught in the crossfire because, frankly, that's a lot of what life feels like!

But this is different. We don't have any quarreling deities. We have a world created by God in a way that, face it, invites the worst possible behavior. Don't eat from the Tree of Knowledge? What kind of cockamamy prohibition is that? It's like in the Simpsons, where Springfield Police Chief Wigham tries to keep his stash of guns out of his son's reach by saying: "Ralphy, don't go into Daddy's Forbidden Closet of Mystery!"

The whole thing is a setup. Cain and Abel too. Accepting one sacrifice and not the other. What, God couldn't foresee the outcome of that? If it were a movie, we, limited beings as we are, would be rolling our eyes at the predictability of that plot line.

But somehow we are asked to believe that God's actions are blameless, and that the ugliness resides exclusively in the free will and actions of the humans who misbehave. Even the B'nei Elohim -- the angels or deities who take human wives -- get off scott-free. Yes, things have gone to pot on Earth, and this chapter tells us that we were at fault for it. God is ready to wash his hands of us, in floodwaters no less.

Bad story. Bad plot. An unfortunate way to understand ancient floods and monstrous fossil records. But it is what it is. And it is ours.

So let's move out of Asiyah, out of this world of textual criticism and move to the world of Yetzirah - the world of emotion and deep impulse. What might this story mean simply as an expression of an emotional truth, since as cosmology and history it's such a terrible mess?

Here's one thought. Think of the first couple chapters of Torah as a collective early childhood memory. Unclear, confused, dreamlike. But full of wonder also.

How many of us have early childhood memories that include imagining supernatural figures? Angels or fairies? Deities talking to us? God talking to us? I imagine I had a stronger sense of dialogue with God at age five than I do now. And scary stuff too? Monsters under the bed. My monsters were, not ironically, in the closet. How many of us imagined that our parents weren't really our parents? That our real parents were gods or heroes or monsters or space aliens?

The world was alive with magic, both wondrous and terrifying. The line between imagination and earthly reality was thin at best. Maybe that was part of our early training for a spiritual life. We might not believe in fairies now, but we continue to feel, on some or many levels, that this can't be all there is.

If the description of deities and giants in this chapter is a kind of echo of our early childhood imaginings, then perhaps the problems introduced by later historic monotheism parallel the problems introduced by our own adulthoods. Disappointment in how it all turned out, when it started with such magic - well, that is a very human, very adult sentiment. While we might on one level think God's disappointment to be grossly unfair, we can, in another way, easily identify with it. We've all been Creators. We've all to some extent created our own lives, our own worlds. In them we've tried to mix the heavenly with the earthly. We've been moved by our dreams and driven by our terrors and have fashioned our existences using the clay that was given us. We've done so without foreseeing all consequences, even the obvious ones. Our life spans are short - and if we all actually lived to 120 that also would seem too short. Regret is the inevitable consequence of creating, of living, of having free will.

So how do we not fall into the despair that we see God experience in this parashah? That's a trick question. I don't think God actually falls into despair. If God had, then God would have destroyed Creation utterly, like some of our midrashim tell us God did with earlier worlds. But God doesn't destroy Creation utterly. Why?

Because He notices Noah, the righteous. Perhaps Noah was the only righteous person of his generation. Or maybe he was just the only one who caught God's eye. But whenever we feel that nearly godlike depth of disappointment, of regret, that is the time for us to look for our own Noahs. Our reason to keep going. The thing to hang on to when we let go of the painful stuff that didn't work out.

חן ~ נח

The Rabbis make much of the fact that Noah's name, spelled nun-chet, when written backwards is the word chen - grace. There is always something of grace in our lives when we look up from our regrets. It is there. And when we feel the urge to jettison all of it, we have to look for our Noah, our chen, that bit of grace, that one piece that does feel right. Because when you save it, you don't save it alone. It brings with it a whole boatload of new possibility. New life waiting to be born and to fill what only yesterday felt like desolation.
So there is an emotional truth in this piece of parashah. We are not just the misunderstood creatures of this world. We are creators too, each one of us. Torah asks us, at least in this dreamlike world of Yetzirah, not to be stuck in the role of humankind, but to identify with God as well. The disappointment born of desire to create in a world whose rules don't oblige everything to turn out as planned. Torah says before you wash it all away, find the righteousness, find the grace, find your Noah. Because there is always something worth saving.