The Noah Story as a Model for Mindfulness

Parashat Noach 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת נֹחַ
Torah Portion: Genesis 6:9-11:32

This week I looked at the story of Noah with fresh eyes, and I saw it for the first time as a model for mindfulness. Maybe that is because I’m in a six-week introduction to mindfulness meditation and I’m seeing everything as either a model or a catalyst for mindfulness. Be that as it may, let me share the lesson about mindfulness that I see in this week’s Torah portion.

First, it must be said, Noah is, on one hand, the quintessential children’s bible story. It features a great big boat, lots of animals, and a nice man doing what God tells him to do. But, on the other hand, once you get past the great big boat, the animals and the nice man, you’re left with an R-rated drama depicting the total destruction of humanity and the entire natural world. Throughout the story, Noah remains silent, never arguing with God to ease up on humankind. To cap it all off, shortly after the flood waters dissipate and the land dries, Noah’s son Ham walks into his father’s tent and finds his father naked and asleep, an unfortunate incident for which Ham would forever be cursed.

I’d like us to see Noah as something other than either a cute children’s story, on one end of the narrative spectrum, or on the other end of the spectrum, a profoundly disturbing and tragic attempt by God to create a more perfect world populated with blameless human beings.

In the mindfulness course I am taking, I am learning to practice a variety of mindfulness meditation techniques, all of which seem to have two things in common. All these practices seem to have two things in common: breath and presence. In essence, mindfulness is about quieting the mind and achieving release and relief from life’s stressors. Breathing, so elemental to sustaining our lives, is constant, always with us, and yet we can have some control over it. Our breath is something that we can focus on as we strive to be fully present in any given moment. By taking breaks during our everyday lives to simply breath and be present, we allow ourselves to then re-engage the world with peacefulness and, often, new insight.

The story of Noah takes place in a mythic period of human existence but it takes place in this world, not middle earth or outer space. Noah’s world is our world — a world filled with chaos and pain and darkness but also semblances of order, joy and light. Noah’s world was, for God, beyond repair. God saw no order, no joy, no light and so God decided to start all over again. God saw in Noah and his family the best chance to replant humanity in newly tilled soil.

I think we can all relate to the need to replant ourselves every now and then, to pull ourselves out of the soil and set ourselves down in more hospitable ground. Or, like Noah, to find refuge in an ark until the storm passes over. We all live with stress and tension — in our places of work, in our homes, in our heads. I would argue that we should each find our own ark where we can regroup and face the world with renewed energy and clearer vision.

There are some obvious challenges using the story of Noah as a metaphor for mindfulness, but we can learn from the ways in which the story doesn’t conform to an ideal state of mindfulness. For one, once he emerges from the safety of the ark, the world as he knew it had been obliterated, with the exception of his family and the animals who were on the ark with him, and with the exception, apparently, of vegetation and the very ground upon which he had walked before the flood. So some things were the same, but the conditions for life had been drastically altered. 

When we emerge from a meditative state, we can expect that not much will have changed outside of ourselves. We are not Noah, and for that we should be grateful! Part of being mindful is accepting the world as it is, knowing that we are called to engage in tikkun olam, to do our part to improve it. As much as we’d like to, we can’t just will the world around us out of existence, though I must admit that sounds very tempting. We can, however, strive to be present in it and do what we can to increase the order, joy and light.

Another challenge is that Noah is most certainly not in a quiet, serene setting. He’s not secluded in a dark room with only a scented candle. Nor is he sitting in the lotus position on a hill with a view of Mt. Monadnock on a beautiful day. No. Around Noah is noise and stench and confusion. Who of us would choose to take refuge under such conditions?

For us to be fully present and mindful in the world, we need to learn to breathe deeply even under trying circumstances. Even with the noise, stench and confusion of life, we must remember to breathe. Just three breaths in and three breaths out, consciously inhale and exhale. Quiet the mind while you breathe. Maybe close your eyes if you’re not driving or on a Zoom call with your boss or client. The noise, stench and confusion won’t go away, but you can reorient yourself in a way that makes it all more bearable. In this sense, maybe we are all like Noah. We’re on a busy, bustling ark at the same time that we’re taking refuge from the world around us. 

I am no expert in mindfulness. I have much to learn. In fact, I am interested in the ways others might see the story of a Noah as a metaphor for mindfulness. What lessons can you find in the story to help you live a more peaceful life? How can the story help you be more present in the here and now? I suspect if you join me in reframing the story of Noah as something other than a children’s story or a horror story, you will find your own riches that will bring order, joy and light to your life.

Shabbat Shalom.

Hello? Who’s Calling, Please? Getting God’s Message and Returning the Call

Parashat Vaera / פרשת וארא
Torah Portion: Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

When I was a young boy, I would occasionally answer the phone when my parents were out of the house and I was in the care of my older brothers. I would listen to the caller and promise the person that I’d tell my mom or dad that they called. It will come as no surprise that by the time I could give my mom or dad the message, if I actually remembered to give them the message, I had often long forgotten who it was who had called. Also, no surprise, my parents weren’t happy with me in those moments.

Their solution to the problem was to train me always to answer the phone: “Hello. Who’s calling, please?” While this didn’t guarantee that I would remember to tell my parents who had called, I almost always got a name from the caller that I could then potentially pass along to them at the first opportunity.

Knowing who was calling was no small matter. If it was someone I knew, I would usually remember to tell my parents. If it was someone important that I knew, the certainty was even greater. And if it was someone I’d never heard of before, no matter how important they were, well, forget about it. The name of the caller that I shared with my parents elicited a parallel response from them; the urgency of their return call was a measure of how important the caller was to my parents in that given moment.

This brings us to Moses’s early encounters with God in the Book of Exodus. It was in Chapter 3, that Moses happened upon God’s presence in the burning bush and that God informed Moses that he must gather up the elders of the Israelites, go with them to Pharaoh and demand that Pharaoh free “My people” (Ex. 3:12). Unsure of how the “people” would respond to Moses’s actions on God’s behalf, Moses asks God essentially, “Who’s calling, please?” Or, in more adult parlance, “Who may I tell them is calling?” (3:13). God responds: “’Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.’  Say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh’ sent me to you.'”

Of course, God realizes that the name “Ehyeh” alone wasn’t going to ring a bell with the Israelites. Thus, God clarifies: Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you (3:15).

However, Moses appears to forget God’s instruction. Moses and Aaron went straight to Pharaoh without the elders to demand Israel’s freedom. Incensed at their demand, Pharaoh makes life even more miserable for the Israelite slaves, who, in turn, wish upon Moses a divine punishment. Even then, Moses doesn’t reveal the name of the Caller to his Israelite accusers; instead, he returns to God and complains that things are only getting worse.

This brings us to this week’s reading where God again tells Moses to tell the Israelites “who is calling.” But there’s a difference in God’s message this time around. God no longer tells Moses to introduce God as “Ehyeh.” Maybe God realizes that name didn’t mean enough to Moses to make an impression on him, let alone on the Israelites.

In order to ensure that God’s message is heard by Moses and will move his followers to have faith in Moses God now says to Moses:

I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH. I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. 

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. (6:3-7)

God’s clearer, more familiar self-introduction here is “I am the Lord of your ancestors. In honor of the covenant I made with them, I will free you from bondage.” While this message ought to move the Israelites to follow Moses’s lead, it doesn’t. Despite that Moses gathers the Israelites and repeats supposedly verbatim what God had said, the Israelites in their misery still ignore him. No wonder, then, that God tells Moses and Aaron to go it alone, without the elders of Israel, to face off with Pharaoh.

According to my childhood experience, though, if Moses gave the Israelites the message that God had expected him to relay to the Israelites, the Israelites should have responded accordingly. Just like my parents would have said upon receiving a message, “Thank you for telling me. I’ll call the person back right now,” so, too, the Israelites should have thanked Moses and vowed to follow him.

Why didn’t the Israelites receive God’s message about their imminent salvation in this way? The answer is simple: they were too distracted by their own suffering to hear what Moses was telling them. Their pain interfered with their ability to comprehend that a trusted source of redemption, God, had arranged for Moses to lead them to freedom. This response is entirely consistent with modern neuroscientific research that shows that stress produces physical changes in the brain that impedes one’s ability to process and learn new information. Had the Israelites been more at ease in their situation, unfettered by the shackles of slavery, they would have been able to hear, to receive, the message that Moses was delivering. In the absence of such comfort, however, they could only hear noise and try to block it out.

Blocking out God’s voice was not something Moses would have done. To be sure, one of the reasons why God chose Moses as his messenger was that Moses had the wherewithal to notice God’s presence in the burning bush. Had Moses been hyper-focused on the sheep he was herding or fearful of an immediate threat to his life, he wouldn’t have paid much attention to an ordinary brush fire. Moses was able to be truly present to all of reality and, therefore, was uniquely able to discern God’s presence where others couldn’t. Moses didn’t yet know “who was calling” when he turned toward the bush; yet, because he was in a state of readiness, he paid attention and heard God’s voice for the first time.

How ready are we for these kinds of moments of transcendence? Are we like Moses or like the Israelite slaves? Do we notice God when God is near? Do we take God’s “call” when the phone rings? Do we respond to God’s message when it is right in front of us? Or do we dismiss, even reject, God’s message? Are we so self-involved or fearful or stressed that we shut out the reality of God’s presence? If you’re like me, you’ll identify more with the latter questions than with the former. If you’re like me, you’ll see yourself as more Israelite slave than Moses. This is not good.

Herein lies the challenge of the opening chapters of Exodus: how can we be more like Moses, attuned to God’s presence, ready to enter into relationship with the Divine? How do we take ourselves out of those narrow places, those mitzrayim, those Egypts, that inhibit our thinking and allow us to imagine a world in which all people are free and connected through the web of Godliness? How can we make ourselves ready to answer God’s call when it comes?

I don’t have all the answers, nor do I wish to offer any. Instead, I leave you with the questions and invite you to discover your own way forward. I’ve given you the message and trust you’ll use the phone book of experience to find your own guide. Good luck.