With Rabbi Jeff BERGER
IN A few months I hope to hold a session at Limmud on ‘Wonderful Painted Scenes from the Bible’.
Among my favourites is ‘Noah’s Sacrifice’ by the Austrian neo-classical landscape painter Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1839). In the backdrop, Koch portrays Noah’s Ark, half covered in dark clouds, resting precariously on one of the imposing mountain tops. To the right, skies have cleared and a huge rainbow spans the horizon. The centre is peaceful and Eden-like with a narrow winding river, a few small shrubs and trees, the animals frolicking, mostly still in pairs. In the foreground, Noah and his family are dressed in simple flowing robes. The men on the left and the women together on the right participate in a sacrificial ritual.
One son sits astride the motionless lamb, a bowl of its blood passed to his wife. The two other young wives plead upwardly while Noah’s frail and contrite wife, Na’ama, looks despairingly earthward. A white-haired Noah stands erect hands extended toward Heaven, while the altar smoke rises in a thick plume toward the rainbow. The scene is described in Bereishith 8:20-21 “and Noah built an altar to Adonai, and he took from all the pure animals and offered them up. And Adonai smelled the pleasing smell of the sacrifice, and said ‘I will not further curse the land because of humanity’…”
It is a magnificent depiction, with a hint of the macabre – in the left foreground one sees the partial remains of a human skeleton, reminding us of those unworthy of being saved. No doubt, survival after a cataclysmic natural event is a story which continues to fascinate us more than 4,000 years after its occurrence. Sadly and inexplicably, what little we know of the life of Noah continues with the demeaning incident of his drunkenness (ibid 9:20).
The surviving patriarch of all mankind who had risen to such lofty heights, in the end becomes a symbol for squandered potential. We too have just come through our own period of internal upheaval during the recent month of Jewish Holidays.
Like Noah, we have survived. And like Noah, we too are now challenged to ask where our true devotions lie – sacrifice or indulgence? Have we really improved over the past month? And in what ways will we go forward in 5774?
• Rabbi Jeff Berger serves the Rambam Sephardi Synagogue in Elstree/Borehamwood and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org