03 Nov 2016

Haftara for Noah 5777: Suffering Through

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“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss,
and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
— Elizabeth Kubler Ross

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” –  Winston Churchill

Synopsis – Yishaya 54:1-10 (Sephardim)[1]

Our haftara is chosen because Yishaya calls to those in distress and sorrow, and informs them that the difficulties are but stops along the way to fruitful and peaceful days ahead. They are likened to the flood…’As I swore with the waters of Noah nevermore would flood the earth, So I swear that I will not rebuke you’ (54:9).

Hope from suffering is the theme of the prophecy in which the nation is promised that they shall not be shamed nor disgraced (54:4). They should ‘forget the reproach of their youth’…(ibid.) and they are promised that ‘The Holy One of Israel will redeem you’. (ibid.:5). The suffering and difficulties that the nation endured was but an aspect of their journey that will lead them into peace and strength.

‘The Lord has called you back…for a moment I hid my face from you…But my loyalty shall never move from you, nor my covenant of peace be shaken’….


Suffering has forever been a part of the human experience. We are vulnerable beings and we feel pain. We love, we care and we invest ourselves into the world. We build lives and relationships, establish comforts and strive for achievements. When these elements of life are hurt or damaged we suffer.

The core of our suffering, however, is tied more to the quality of the experience than the nature of the objective condition. The feeling of loss, confusion, grief and lack of apparent purpose in our hardships, is the source of our greatest distress.

The existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl survived five concentration camps during the Holocaust and subsequently wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in which he detailed the conditions of that pain and hardship, and the different ways in which people responded to it.

His thesis in the book is that suffering is mitigated the moment we find meaning in it. We learn how to suffer when we discover a reason why. Frankl quotes Nieitzsche who said, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how’.

But there is something more to suffering that the quotes at the top suggest, which I believe is its deepest and most important aspect.

If we heed the advice of Churchill ‘when we are going through hell and keep going’, there is something precious at the other end. Those who come through access something that is not attainable to us in any other way. We emerge holier, deeper, wiser and with greater compassion, sensitivity, and understanding. Our souls have powered us through the sorrow, and in doing so their great beauty and strength is unlocked, changing us forever.

If we manage to see our sufferings as difficult seasons in our lives rather than paralysing burdens, we become open to levels of love and care that we otherwise could not achieve.

‘For a small bit of time I withdrew from you, but with great compassion I will collect you. In slight anger, for a moment, I hid my face from you; But with kindness everlasting I will take you back in love’.

Our Haftara focuses on this aspect of the flood. Not the death it wrought, but the suffering of Noah — the season of his distress. Yishaya calls the waters of the flood the ‘Waters of Noah’. Noah is the one who suffers in the story, he is the one who loses an entire world, and must ‘suffer’ the difficult passage into, and rebuilding of, a new one. He manages to brave the waters rather than drown in them because of his hope[2] for the future and his commitment to the earth[3]. The ark was a sanctuary that honoured the sanctity of life in all of its facets.

To travel through life is to struggle with suffering. Those who emerge may do so with scars and sores, but they are adornments and we are all the more beautiful for them. When people have lived long on this earth they have undoubtedly known suffering and they are to be revered.
Ribbi Yohanan would stand before elderly gentiles. He would say: ‘How many hardships must they have endured’.  (Kiddushin, 33a)
Having hope that there is passage beyond the fire, that God will bring us through and that the soul is refined in its crucible, is to know the magnificence of the human spirit.
For the mountains may move and the hills shudder, but My support shall never move from you, nor My covenant of peace be shaken.… (54:10)
Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck
[1] Ashkenazim read until 55:5.

[2]‘He called his name: Noah! saying Zeh yenahamenu/This one will comfort us from the pains of our hands….’ (Gen., 29:5)

[3] ‘Noah, man of the earth’ (9:20)
He knew how to work the earth which is a great wisdom! (Ibn Ezra, ibid.)


Parasha Perspectives

II       Noach 

11a              Noach and his generation   (6:9-12)
11b              Story of the flood   (6:13-8:14)
11c               Restart of life on earth   (8:15-9:7)
11d              The Covenant with Noach   (9:8-17)
12                Noach gets drunk   (9:18-29)
13a              Generations of Noach   (10:1-14)
13b              Generations ctd..2nd half of Chum   (10:15-20)
13c               Generations of Shem   (10:21-32)
14                Tower of Bavel   (11:1-9)
15a              Shem’s line: Arpachshud   (11:10-11)
15b              Shelach   (11:12-13)
15c               Ever   (11:14-15)
15d              Peleg   (11:16-17)
15e              Reu   (11:18-19)
15f               Serug   (11:20-21)
15g              Nachor   (11:22-23)
15h              Terach   (11:24-25)
15i               Terach’s family and their journey   (11:26-32)

                    Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS