During my first year of rabbinical school, and the first year my then-girlfriend, now-wife and I lived together, I was taking steroids for a medical condition. I remember returning home from school around 5:30pm, homework looming before me, perfectionist high-alert alarm blaring, and becoming angry – so, so angry – about dirty dishes, or some such thing. I was standing in the kitchen and talking resentfully, then shouting into the open-concept living room. The anger rose in me, and then suddenly I was behind myself watching rage burst forth from my mouth, destroying whatever was in my path – namely Julia.
The year of steroids – that’s when my wife earned the name “San Julia.”
I remember being unable to stop the anger from shearing into rage, unable to stop the torrent of hurtful words flooding from my mouth. It was like watching someone else, except of course, it was me. It was horrifying, embarrassing, paralyzing. How could this be me! I felt powerless over my anger.
In this week’s parsha, at the beginning of the story of Noah, God watches humans descend into destructive and corruptive behaviors – even the earth itself “becomes corrupt before God” (Bereshit 6:11). God decides to “put an end to all flesh” (6:13). God says about humans and beasts alike: “I regret that I created them” (6:7).
I can only imagine the disappointment, the anger – yes, the God of the Torah is an emotive God: What have my creations done? They are destroying themselves and others! I can’t watch this! Anyone in Al-Anon knows this feeling. Anyone in recovery with friends in active addiction knows this feeling. It’s the feeling of helplessly watching someone you care about hurt themselves and others over and over when you know there’s a better way. Sometimes we know this feeling from within our own addiction: watching yourself pick up – over and over – when you know full well there’s a better way.
Yes, that means God Godself has experienced powerlessness – powerlessness over our human behaviors and choices. And when God confronted God’s own powerlessness, God destroyed everything. God sent the flood, destroying all of humanity and all the beasts, except for one family and two animals of almost every type.
But then something changes afterwards. After the waters recede and the remaining people and beasts emerge from the ark, after Noah makes that first sacrifice to God and God smells that “pleasing odor,” God says: “Never again will I ever destroy every living being, as I have done” (8:21). God makes a promise, a Covenant, not to destroy all life ever again. Why? Because God sees the impact of God’s actions – the destruction and devastation – and regrets those actions. Then God takes responsibility for future actions with this Covenant. In other words, God does t’shuvah.
All of us have been confronted with our powerlessness: our powerlessness over drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex and love; our powerlessness over other people’s actions; and our powerlessness over COVID-19 and this roller-coaster election season. Some of us, when confronted with our powerlessness, verge into destruction – we destroy our own bodies and lives, other people’s bodies and lives. And when the waters recede in our moment of clarity, we see the impact of our destructive actions. Like God, we regret those actions. And like God, we can take responsibility for what we do and make a plan to act differently (and keep it!) the next time we are confronted with powerlessness. This is t’shuvah: truth, regret, and responsibility.
I have worked hard on my anger. I can’t remember the last time my anger turned into that blind rage (and yes, it helps dramatically to no longer be on steroids). I have learned how to nurture my anger and use it constructively – not because I want to be some enlightened rabbi, but because I am obligated to myself, to my wife, to my child, to my community, and to God to act responsibly.
This story of t’shuvah comes at the very beginning of the Torah to teach us that t’shuvah is foundational for human living. It didn’t exist before the flood, and the descent into morally abject behavior had no possibility of recovery. But now, after the flood, t’shuvah is possible. And though human devisings are “evil from their youth,” we can do better (8:21). We can get better. There is hope.
And perhaps even more poignantly, if God can make a mistake and do better, surely I can too. Because none of us is better than God.