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The Teivah/Ark of Truth: How Our Voices Can Shape and Save the World©

Last week, I said that the most difficult thing about writing a sermon is the beginning - it seems like the Torah portion solved that problem for us this week.

At the beginning of our parashah, we read the following:

וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ לִפְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ חָמָס׃

The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with (Hamas) lawlessness.

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הָאָרֶץ וְהִנֵּה נִשְׁחָתָה כִּי־הִשְׁחִית כׇּל־בָּשָׂר אֶת־דַּרְכּוֹ עַל־הָאָרֶץ׃ {ס}

When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth,

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים לְנֹחַ קֵץ כׇּל־בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי כִּי־מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס מִפְּנֵיהֶם וְהִנְנִי מַשְׁחִיתָם אֶת־הָאָרֶץ׃

God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with (Hamas) lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.

This week, it seemed like the world was filled with Hamas. In high schools and college campuses in our country, students chanted Hamas’s tagline: Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea. We saw protestors supporting the Palestinian cause, but also many more than I’ve ever seen supporting Hamas in particular. They twisted their minds trying to justify the rape and slaughter of men, women and children; entire families wiped out at once as if they were animals.

Perhaps I could excuse the students before, after all, our tradition teaches us to give the benefit of the doubt, l’chaf zechut, l’Kol Adam, to every person. Palestine will be free from the river to the sea? It was a vague term I told myself, it’s just a catchphrase. But if we learned a lesson from these events, it is this: if someone says they are going to kill you - believe them.

Interestingly enough Hamas’s charter, a genocidal ideology, has been available in English since 1988, and the revised version since 2017. Juxtapose this with Hitler’s seminal work, Mein Kampf, which was only translated in 1939 after World War II had already begun.

Words have meaning - Palestine will be free from the river to the sea means that Jews will be eliminated from the land. The only place they will be allowed is being buried six feet in the ground, or burned so their ashes can be used as fertilizer.

Hamas has filled the land with evil, and now, it is spreading to the world.

This week, you may have been awakened by the news that Israel bombed a hospital in Gaza killing hundreds of innocent Palestinians, but by the end of the day, the headline evolved to: Hundreds killed in bombing of a hospital in Gaza - Israelis and Palestinians Blame Each Other. The headline changed because the facts changed. At first, journalists took Hamas’s word that the hospital was attacked deliberately by the IDF, but the IDF was quick to note, and prove, that they did not bomb the hospital, on the contrary, it was due to misfired rockets from Islamic Jihad, another terrorist group in Gaza. You can read more about it from the New York Times mea culpa.

But this ‘correction’ came too late for a synagogue in Tunisia that was attacked, and it came too late for the millions who ‘shared’ this faulty information with the world. Even though the evidence shows that Islamic Jihad killed those innocent Palestinians, we are still being blamed, sometimes explicitly, but most of the time in coded language.

The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with (Hamas) lawlessness.

The question is, what is Hamas here - what was humanity doing that was so terrible that God chose to put an end to all life?

Hamas is defined as violence or lawlessness. Some commentators say that violence was oppression, rape, but I found one commentary perplexing: theft. I know stealing is bad, but is it really the worst sin the world, worthy of destroying all life on earth?!?

The Midrash explains the stealing in the following way: “If a countryman brought a basket of vegetables to market, they would edge up to it, one after the other, and abstract a bit, each in itself of petty value.”

In other words, everyone stole just a little from each other, but no one thought that the other person was also stealing from them. But that answer wasn’t enough for me, so I had to dig a bit deeper, and I read another midrash.

In this Midrash, God says, “אֶמְחֶה אֶת־הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָאתִי - I will blot out man” The Midrash compares God to a sovereign whose followers could not speak, but still saluted the king. The king thought to himself: how much more would they do if they could speak? So he replaced them with people who could say words. The problem is, they used their words to take control of the King’s palace. In other words, they used their words to destroy the world, and this is why God had to destroy all life.

In Judaism, we have another type of stealing called Gneivat Da’at, which literally means ‘stealing someone’s mind’, but what it really means is willfully misleading someone. This stealing is not done with our hands but with our voices. I thought about this idea of stealing, just a little from each other. I think about how many people post lies about Israel, knowing they are lies, and justifying it to themselves saying: ‘I know I’m lying, but it’s for a greater cause, so it's ok.’ But what happens when all of us lie? No one trusts each other, and the world breaks down into chaos.

And this is yet another front of the war that Israel, and we, are fighting. I was on a Zoom this week with the Minister of the Diaspora who was in the Knesset in between sessions, on his cell phone with us. He gave us a short briefing on the dire situation in Israel, and someone asked: what can we do to help?

What I thought was fascinating was, he didn’t ask for money, he didn’t ask us to get on a plane to join the IDF, rather, he said, we need you to speak up for us - to be vocal online, to speak out against lies, to verbally stand up for us and defend us to your non-Jewish friends, and to write letters to editors of news publications to support us.

He asked for our words because words can destroy, but they can also create and save.

The Ba’al Shem Tov and his followers explained that the Teivah was not simply an ark, rather, it was words or letters as the word Teivah also means letters.

Now, if we read the text with that translation, word instead of ark, we read:

Shalom Orzach, an Israeli Jewish educator who taught us during Covid, sent me a personal message about using our words as an ark.

He wrote, “At a time when we are being flooded by false and heinous narratives, unapologetically tell our story! Create the Teivah, Make for yourself words! The words that will educate, enlighten and inspire. Words that will give voice to the stories of those brutally murdered, and every one of those taken hostage. Sound the alarm over the incoming falsehoods spewed by respected news agencies, and “elite” academic institutions."

Interestingly enough, Noah, who built the ark, does not speak until after the flood. Our sages said it took Noah 120 years to build the ark, a full lifetime, and yet, he didn’t say a word to anyone else. Noah saved himself, his family, and the animals to create new life, but he didn’t save anyone else.

Perhaps this is why Noah is compared to Abraham. In the Talmud, the Sages argue about who was a greater Tzadik, the greater righteous person. One side said that had Noah lived during another time, a time when people were morally better, he would have been even more righteous. It is likely based on a theory that we are products of the societies we live in - and some evil is just too much to overcome. But there is another side. If he lived in another generation, he would have just been normal. Normal means to keep to oneself, to make sure that you are moral, but the rest of the world can do whatever they want.

But, as we see later on in the book of Genesis, the true test is not just saving yourself, but others. Abraham refuses to give up on the evil people of Sodom and Gomorrah until the very end. So too must we never give up on the rest of the world.

The Talmud teaches us that the difference between truth and lies is not so easy to ascertain. The Rabbis look at the letters of Sheker - Sin Kuf Reish, and Emet - Aleph Mem Tav, and their places in the alphabet. The words of Sheker are found close to each other in the alphabet, but Emet spans the entire alphabet, from beginning, to the middle, to the end.

It teaches us that lies are readily available, but truth is harder to find. Nevertheless, truth stands eternal, while lies will always fall under their own weight.

It is really easy to go into our own arks, to put our Jewish stars away, to take our kippot off, but I think the Jewish way is to build an ark with our words, to stand up for Truth with a capital T, not to make excuses for terrorists, but to hold them accountable. We must raise our voices, we must be heard, we must prevent the world from being destroyed by the lies of the evildoers.

Lies are more readily available than ever, but so is truth. Lies may spread, but so can truth, and we must have faith that truth will stand after the lies fall under their own weight.

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