Elect well, hold steady, think generously

When we’re afraid, angry, exhausted, confused, or in pain, we don’t typically make our best decisions. What is true for individuals may also be so for nations. Witness how the Britain that taught ‘keep calm and carry on’ elected to adopt Brexit. As Election 2016 draws mercifully to a close this week, a lesson from the receding waters of Noah’s Flood bubbles up for consideration.

What is true for individuals and nations also appears to be the case for God.  In this week’s portion of Torah, God can no longer abide the human proclivity for corruption and violence. The entire world, save the inhabitants of the Ark, is obliterated.  Interestingly Noah’s first act upon exiting the Ark is to make an offering that evokes a change of heart in God.  “And God smelled the pleasant (nichoach) smell” and covenanted with the cosmos to never again suspend the laws of nature.  What made God change course? Noah’s altruistic act. When Noah manifests a human capacity to surpass selfishness – which at the core of corruption and violence – such generosity stirs God’s restorative compassion. 

Fascinatingly, the Torah’s chosen wording to describe the pleasing sensation evoked by every subsequent offering is rai-ach nichoach, a ‘fragrant pleasantness’ that is named after Noah (the Hebrew letters for Noah’s name are imbedded in the word for ‘pleasant’, nichoach).  One biblical Prophet makes this point unmistakable by depicting God as saying, ““When I have calmed (v’hanichoti) My fury with you, and My rage has departed, then will I be tranquil and angry no more” (Ezekiel 16:42). 

Calming raging waters is never simple or sudden.  But generous outwardly focused energy is always part of the formula toward restoring domestic tranquility. 

Just as November 8 won’t have the last word, neither will November 9th.  Being more generous in our thinking and our assumptions about the inclinations of those who voted differently than we did, making space for them to constructively voice their worries and strategies, can be worth the sacrifice.  The Noahkide laws and God’s post-diluvian promises represented a new beginning that is still in effect. 

It is indeed the case that anger, fear, exhaustion, confusion, and pain do not help us make our most measured decisions, but this does not mean they cannot bring us to our best. Sometimes they make us rise to the occasion and reveal impressive character qualities.

The Torah’s first portion is about human free-will.  It’s second portion, this week, is about Divine free-will.  In the coming months between mid-November’s election and mid-January’s inauguration, may our national free-will be at its best.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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