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Toward Shabbat: Noah

I Worried
By Mary Oliver

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally, I saw that worrying had come to nothing.

And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.*

It would be so much easier if we could give up the worry. It’s rarely that simple. Yet in the incessant questioning that occurs in the mind, we play out all the “what ifs”—illness, a meaningless or unforgivable existence, the natural world losing its patterns of predictability, amongst many other possibilities. In the poem, one feels the inordinate expenditure of energy devoted to worry, and the sense of retreat and insularity that are its natural byproduct.

If only Mary Oliver could give us the secret that bridges the awareness that worry comes to nothing, enabling her to actually give it up.

Unlike the poet, we don’t hear much of Noah’s worry in this week’s parashah. In fact, he doesn’t say one word from the moment he was chosen to build the ark through the entire duration of the flood story. He just obeys God’s command. When the 40 days of rain pass, Noah’s actions illustrate his trepidation. He opens the window of the ark and instead of going out and singing, he sends out a raven to test whether the earth is dry. He then sends out a dove to see if the waters have receded. The dove returns, having no place to rest its feet. Seven days later, Noah sends the dove out again and ultimately it returns with an olive leaf, signaling to him that it is finally safe to leave the ark. He is literally testing the waters, looking for some assurance that the storm has passed and he can emerge from his protective cocoon.

There is the worry that lives in our minds, the constant bombardment of questions embedded with fear and uncertainty. And our worries are, of course, not necessarily unfounded. Over the last 19 months through the pandemic, we’ve been living with worry in ways that most of us have never experienced before. Perhaps we will never be able to fully put the worry to rest, but we must ask ourselves: When will we go out and sing? When will we find some liberation from all the worry?

Noah opens the window. And even though at first he doesn’t get his feet wet, he puts out feelers to test what it might be like out in a world devastated by the flood.

And so too do I pray that as we continue to put the utmost priority on safety, we also ask what windows do we need to open? How might we get our feet wet and test the waters? What is the pathway to sing again?

This past Shabbat, with the Sanctuary safely filled with BJ members and family and friends of the bar mitzvah and the wedding couple, I felt a song that hadn’t arisen in a very long time. Not only the song for Shabbat, but also the song that comes with prayer in community and its power to lift us, quiet the worry, and give voice to the hope that joy will come in the morning.

* Thank you to Rabbi Jen Gubitz for sharing this poem.