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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Noah and Considering Your Sources

Noah is tasked with a heartbreaking assignment. He knows very well that everything and everyone around him will be destroyed and will meet a terrifying end. Yet, he must work and build to save not only himself and his loved ones, but all creatures. He must finish this task before the same Creator who gave life to all of them, and has now been filled with regret, destroys them. I, for one, have read about and seen enough destruction over the past week and a half so I will choose to put this part of the story aside this year.

The rains come. Water overwhelms the land. The only survivors amongst God’s creations are tucked away safely in an ark made of gopher wood and covered in pitch. Forty days and forty nights the rain falls. I can only imagine the overwhelming quiet that fell upon the ark and its inhabitants when, suddenly, the rains ceased and the skies cleared. Noah and his family, alongside all the animals, could once again see the horizon, yet there was no destination in sight. For 150 days they drifted aimlessly. They waited, unsure what the future would hold. Could salvation soon be at hand? Or, worse, could it be that their fate was particularly cruel - to be saved in the interim, only to be eventually destroyed alongside all the others?

The terrifying journey finally came to an end. The ark found dry land. Yet, this did not mean that the story was over. After having been tossed around on the seas for all that time, Noah and his family were understandably skeptical about what awaited them outside. Noah decided that the best route was to send a scout into the world. This aspect of the story is likely well known to you: two birds, one brings disappointment and one brings promise. And while much has been told about this interaction between Noah and his flying scouts, the Torah spends relatively little space and time on it, only six verses.

Luckily, the rabbis of our tradition invested a great deal of time on this subject. I want to bring your attention to one particular rabbi who provided incredible wisdom about Noah and the birds he entrusts that is wonderfully relevant to the challenging times in which we find ourselves. Hayim ibn Atar, or as he is better known as the Or HaChayim, lived and worked in the middle of the 18th century. He began his life and career in Morocco, spent meaningful time in Italy, then lived out the rest of his days in the Land of Israel.

The OrHaChayim wrote in his Torah commentary that this entire saga between Noah and the raven must be understood through the lens of an interaction that occurred between the raven and Noah even before the raven was dispatched for his mission. In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) Reish Lakish relays that the raven had absolutely no intention of leaving the ark. He stands and makes a serious claim: that the only reason he is being singled out for this mission is because Noah hates him - that God himself hates him. He is convinced he is being sent out to certain death by the Creator and by Noah so they can get rid of him. The raven eventually does leave the ark, but does nothing but circle overhead, bitter, angry, full of thoughts of vengeance and revenge on Noah. Only then is Noah forced to send out the dove to fulfill the mission that the raven was meant to do. Once Noah understood how deeply the raven distrusted him, resented him, perhaps even hated him - even if the raven did return with news, regardless of their content, could Noah really trust him? In other words the Or HaChayim is telling us: consider the source of your information.

This message is extremely fitting when considered in the context of this past week. On Tuesday evening, as I was watching the Israeli news, they began discussing a report of an explosion at a hospital in the Gaza strip. They also shared that Hamas claimed that it was an Israeli airstrike that struck the hospital and that hundreds of casualties had been caused. Here is the first way in which we should consider our sources. Why should anything that Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the European Union, United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Paraguay, be taken as factual? This is the same Hamas that only ten days earlier had deployed its forces to carry out the murder, torture, rape, brutalization and kidnap of more than one thousand Israelis and others, the vast majority civilians. This is the same Hamas that has claimed the lives of hundreds, thousands of innocent lives, Israelis and others, in terror attacks and missile strikes since its inception in the late 1980’s. Friends, consider the grievances, the motivations, and, yes, the hatreds of the source from which the information is coming. If it serves their needs, then the information deserves to at least be scrutinized before being believed.

As I heard the Israeli news report, I will admit that I was already skeptical of Hamas’ claim. While it was not impossible, war is imprecise, brutal and unpredictable, I wanted to wait for other sources to verify before rushing to judgment. What happened next floored me. Not ten minutes had passed before my New York Times push notification came through with the update that over 500 Gazans had been killed in an Israeli strike and this is the kicker, all based on the claims of Hamas. Here is the second way in which we must consider our source: why in the world did media sources of record, NY Times, BBC, and so many others, rush to publish this sensational and - as we now know - undoubtedly false claim? What does it say about a media outlet or a trusted source of information when they display such shockingly low journalistic standards? It belies, in the best case, an incredibly amateurish approach to the work. More insidiously, and what I fear to be the case, it demonstrates the world view in which these outlets frame their storytelling in the Middle East: Israel is the perpetual aggressor and it is presumed to be at fault and to blame for all everything that happens, even heinous acts like these.

I am not a journalist. I do not claim to have great insight in what it takes to be a good journalist, to do a difficult job well, especially in places that for your average reader might as well be in Narnia rather than on this planet. But what I do know is this: when you predetermine who is to blame in a story, whether you are a raven sent out to do a job you do not want, or a beat reporter trying to explain all that has happened in Israel in Gaza in the past two week, you prove yourself to be unworthy of trust and unfit for the crucial role you have been tasked to fill. Thankfully for Noah, he had a dove that he could rely on to bring him the truth of what was happening in the world around him. Many of us find ourselves this week without the luxury of an alternative, with our trust broken by institutions on which we used to rely.

There is one more lesson that the Or HaChayim extrapolates from the story of the raven. According to the Talmud, there is some measure of justice in the raven’s claims against Noah. After all, as an impure animal, there were only two pairs of ravens on the ark whereas there were seven of other types of birds from which Noah could have chosen. The raven is asking, ‘if god hates me, why are you adding on to my suffering?’ The Or HaChayim writes that, in this way, the raven is much like the Jewish people. He writes, “normally, those who have been persecuted can expect to encounter mercy and pity. The people who persecute Jews in exile heap more suffering on those already in unfortunate circumstances.” Of course the Or HaChayim only knew of Jews in exile, he did not live to see our return to the Land of Israel. Yet his lesson remains so relevant. Even after the murder and abuse of countless of our Jewish sisters and brothers, in a week where we hoped for perhaps a bit of mercy, a modicum of benefit of the doubt - there was so little to be found.

I wish you all an escape from the headlines, from sources who come with misintent. May you know to discern between the ravens and the doves in your life, and may you be blessed to have so many people in your life who want to bring you olive branches and good tidings.

Shabbat Shalom - may you have a very peaceful Sabbath.

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